Toronto council cuts ‘undeniably’ within Ford government’s authority, Court of Appeal rules

Ontario’s Court of Appeal has decided Thursday Premier Doug Ford’s government had the “legitimate authority” to make mid-election council cuts, quashing Toronto’s latest court battle.

Back in June, the province and the city of Toronto, as well as several candidates who hoped to run in last fall’s election, faced off for a third time in court over Ford’s surprise move to slash the number of council seats — causing what city officials called “unprecedented disruption.”

In the 3-2 decision obtained by CBC Toronto on Thursday, the court of appeal judges said none of the city’s arguments could “succeed,” noting it was framed as an issue about protecting freedom of expression in an election when, in reality, the complaint was about the timing of the province’s decision. 

Changing the composition of a city council is “undeniably within the legitimate authority of the legislature,” the decision reads, since it’s a “creature of provincial legislation.”

Chris Moise, a current Toronto school board trustee and former downtown council candidate who also previously challenged the province’s legislation in court, said he was disappointed but “not surprised” by the decision.

“I hope the city continues the fight and takes it to the Supreme Court of Canada,” he said on Thursday.

A central question in the city’s latest appeal was whether the province’s surprise changes interfered with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms when it came to the rights both of Toronto voters and hundreds of candidates vying for a spot at city hall.

“We were given a megaphone, and then they smashed it,” city lawyer Glenn Chu said in court in June. 

Even though there was time for candidates to get their message out after the legislation was implemented, Chu stressed there was only one election — and confusion was already created, with voters spending as much time talking about Bill 5 as the electoral issues.

Meanwhile the province’s legal team said both candidates and voters had free speech through the entire election process, both before and after Bill 5.

“What is wrong with a nine-week election?” the province’s lawyer Robin Basu questioned in his closing statement.

Two dissenting judges on the Court of Appeal, overruled by the other three, suggested there were serious issues with the election process following the Ford government changes — calling them “extensive, profound, and seemingly without precedent in Canadian history.”

“By extinguishing almost half of the city’s existing wards midway through an active election, Ontario blew up the efforts, aspirations and campaign materials of hundreds of aspiring candidates, and the reciprocal engagement of many informed voters,” the judges wrote.

Province chopped wards from planned 47 to 25

Last July, Ford first announced his decision to chop the number of wards from a planned 47-ward system to 25 seats aligned with provincial ridings. Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, came into force partway through Toronto’s election campaign.

The premier defended the move as necessary to fix a “bloated and inefficient” council.

Others deemed it an attack on local democracy, and one which led to significant confusion for voters and candidates.

While a lower court ruled in favour of the city, with Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba saying the province “clearly crossed the line,” a panel of judges stayed that ruling in September — which led to Toronto holding a hastily-prepared 25-ward election the following month.

In Thursday’s decision, the court of appeal judges who sided with the province do note the Ford government’s changes were “substantial.”

“[There] is no question that it disrupted campaigning and the candidates’ expectations,” it reads.

But Bill 5, the decision notes, was still constitutional.