What new powers do cities need?

Joining CUI host Mary Rowe for our session “Cities in the time of COVID-19: What new powers do cities need” are Doug Earl of Charter City Toronto; Marianne Meed Ward, Mayor of Burlington; Richard Albert, Professor, University of Texas; and Julianna Charchun, Chief of Staff of the Mayor, City of Edmonton.

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. The Covid-19 Factor: Highlighting the Limitations of City Authorities and Powers

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the difficulties facing municipalities in meeting the needs of residents given the powers and authorities at their disposal. Mayor Marianne Meed Ward and Richard Albert give examples from Burlington, Ontario, and Austin, Texas, where local attempts to introduce mask bylaws and social distancing orders have been superseded by orders from provincial and state governments. In Burlington, because it wasn’t within the municipality’s power to impose a mask bylaw, the local government had to re-imagine and re-interpret legislation and attach a mandatory mask requirement to business licencing. Says Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward, “The arrangement that municipalities have within the federation isn’t working. It hasn’t worked for a very long time. And we can’t wait any longer. Now that we have this pandemic, we have seen how devastating it can be [for municipalities not to be recognized as an equal order of government].”

2. Charter Cites: A Pathway to Municipal Autonomy

Doug Earl argues that the challenges facing municipalities long precede the COVID-19 pandemic. “The truth is that cities have no powers. It’s not a question that cities have some powers and they need more powers. It’s that they don’t have any powers under our Constitution when it comes to municipal affairs.” He cites examples from Ontario, where the provincial government has cut the size of Toronto’s city council, changed and cancelled LRT routes in Mississauga and Hamilton, made changes to land use planning, and cut provincial contributions to municipalities. In response, a city charter would write down what powers, responsibilities, authorities, resources and protections a city has. He suggests a pathway to achieving it is through a single province constitutional amendment (Section Forty-Three amendment).

3. Re-Think the Allocation of Powers: Provincial Constitutions

Richard Albert proposes an alternative that would not require a constitutional amendment: provincial constitutions. The Canadian Constitution authorizes Provinces to create, codify, and formalise their own constitutions. In this process, he suggests, a Province could devolve new powers to municipalities in one-size-fits-all or targeted ways. This is possible “without having to get the approval of the Parliament of Canada through Section Forty-Three [and] without having to risk run the risk of being held hostage in those negotiations. Let the premier do it in consultation with the mayors.”

4. The Edmonton City Charter File: From Negotiation to Dissolution   

According to Julianna Charchun, the last ten years of intergovernmental negotiations about a city charter in Edmonton has seen the involvement of three provincial governments, multiple Premiers, and three memorandums of understanding. Most recently, ten months of intensive negotiations led to a fiscal framework tying new infrastructure dollars to the provincial economy (acknowledging the critical role that cities play in provincial and federal economies), a negotiated list of policy tools and powers for cities, and a negotiated pot of money for the Edmonton Region. However, following the provincial election, “[In the] first budget, city charters disappeared. The fiscal framework was gone. And the new framework for all municipalities is not anywhere close to what we negotiated. There was no engagement or conversation, or even, frankly, a heads up that that was going to happen. So that’s where we stand after about a decade of work.”

5. Cities are leading the charge

Says Charchun, regardless of the powers and authorities at their disposal, cities are going ahead and leading the charge on the biggest challenges facing our cities. For example, in Edmonton, local government has made it a priority to tackle homelessness. “It’s not our jurisdiction and it’s not what property taxes were meant to do. But we feel so compelled. It has been unanimously endorsed by city council time and time again…It doesn’t matter that the provincial government is responsible and that the federal government has the money, people expect us to do something about it and we expect ourselves to do something about it.” She emphasizes the importance of aligning around priorities across orders of government going forward.