TORONTO – Doug Ford’s efforts to slash the size of Toronto’s council ahead of an election was ruled unconstitutional on Monday, dealing a major blow to the Ontario premier and putting the fate of the city’s fall vote in limbo.
In a scathing decision, Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba said Ford and his Progressive Conservatives interfered with the right to freedom of expression for both candidates and voters when the province enacted the Better Local Government Act last month.
“There is no evidence that any other options or approaches were considered or that any consultation ever took place,” Belobaba wrote. “It appears that Bill 5 was hurriedly enacted to take effect in the middle of the city’s election without much thought at all, more out of pique than principle.”
Bill 5 cut the size of Toronto’s city council from 47 seats to 25, aligning them with federal ridings, despite the fact that the campaign for the Oct. 22 election was already underway.
City lawyers contended that reducing the number of councillors in the middle of an election was “discriminatory and arbitrary,” and violated the charter – arguments Belobaba accepted.
The judge acknowledged the importance of exercising judicial restraint when it comes to the decisions of governments but said that in this case, it was appropriate for the court to act.
“It is only when a democratically elected government has clearly crossed the line that the ‘judicial umpire’ should intervene,” he said. “The province has clearly crossed the line.”
Ford, who abruptly announced the council-cutting plan in late July, had argued the move would improve decision-making on the council, where he served one term. He also said it would save $25 million.
The premier was set to respond to the ruling at noon, but the judge has noted that he was certain the losing party would appeal.
Toronto Mayor John Tory, meanwhile, welcomed the decision.
“Democracy does not belong to a few of us, it belongs to all of us,” he said. “No law should ever fail to take that into account and all of us as lawmakers, regardless of where we’re carrying out those responsibilities, should always remember that.”
A number of Toronto city councillors also applauded the judgement.
“This ruling on Bill 5 establishes a strong role for the judiciary during times when autocratic governments feel they can just ram through unjust laws,” Coun. Joe Mihevic, who is running for re-election, wrote on Twitter. “Governments must follow good democratic processes.”
Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam tweeted that an appeal for the province would be a “steep uphill climb.”
“Respect the taxpayer and abort the costly appeal,” she wrote. “Bill 5 is dead. Let it stay dead.”
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the decision confirms that not even Ford is “above the law.”
“Ford’s efforts to put ideology above evidence and his personal agenda before democracy have real world consequences,” he said in a statement. “Thankfully, the courts have put a check on the premier’s undemocratic actions for the second time now.”
The deadline for candidates to register in the municipal election is Sept. 14.
Bill 5 also cancelled planned elections for the head of council position in the regional municipalities of Muskoka, Peel, York and Niagara, turning them into appointed roles. Belobaba said his ruling does not impact that aspect of the bill.News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2016