Just days before making the surprise announcement last year, Ontario’s newly elected Ford government flipped-flopped on whether or not to cancel elections for regional government chiefs.
According to The Globe and Mail records, Premier Doug Ford’s administration reversed course on the votes several times in a week in July 2018, leaving bureaucrats scrambling.
The government ultimately decided to scrap regional chair elections in Peel, York, Niagara, and Muskoka, where candidates had already started campaigning.
Emails and other records obtained under the province’s freedom-of-information law provide insight into Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservative government’s early decision-making.
Julie O’Driscoll, a spokesperson for Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, said in a statement that the Ford government “quickly took action” on regional chair elections after the previous Liberal government made changes “without consultation.”
The canceling of the votes, which was not part of the PC Party’s election program, was generally interpreted as an attempt to block Patrick Brown’s bid for re-election. Mr. Brown was a contender for the Peel chair despite being deposed as leader of the PC Party earlier this year after being accused of sexual misconduct, which he denies. He then ran for mayor of Brampton, which he won.
In over 800 pages of data from Municipal Affairs and Housing bureaucrats, the first mention of canceling regional chair elections came in an “urgent” email at 6:22 p.m. on Sunday, July 22.
Assistant deputy minister of the local government and planning policy division Kate Manson-Smith charged colleagues with preparing documents for deputy minister Laurie LeBlanc’s early-morning briefing the next day. Ms. Manson-Smith added, “The request is presented as might rethink as part of a review of the regional administration.”
Ms. LeBlanc emailed the group shortly after 11 p.m., saying, “Just spoke to the minister. The focus is on the 2016 regions that have altered.” The majority of her communication has been censored.
The Liberal administration modified the Municipal Act in 2016 to mandate that all regional council heads be chosen directly. Regional municipalities could decide to elect or appoint their regional chairs before that.
The stream of frantic emails resumed the next day, Monday, July 23, as bureaucrats drafted a briefing note and assessed whether candidates may seek reimbursement for their contributions from the province.
Ms. LeBlanc wrote an email at 4:01 p.m. stating that the plan had been canceled. “It was decided not to proceed. It’s not ruled out as a post-election problem, but it’s not on the table for 2018.” “PO is in knowing what due diligence or safeguards are in place to ensure that candidates’ costs are legitimate and following the rules,” she added. (The Premier’s Office is abbreviated as PO.)
That decision, however, was quickly reversed. The records are silent on the government’s decision to call off the elections. Under Freedom of Information Act exemptions for advice to government and solicitor-client privilege, portions of the records have been suppressed.
The following morning, Tuesday, July 24, officials were frantically preparing materials. Richard Stromberg provided a draught briefing letter, the ministry’s manager of problems and media relations, underlining “the sensitive and rushed nature of this material.”
“Ontario is returning decision-making power to local communities,” said one of the major statements. We support local judgments about how regional council leaders are chosen and seek to undo the 2016 legislation that was forced on towns. Local governments within a regional municipality should decide what is best for them.”
On the afternoon of July 26, then-cabinet secretary Steve Orsini requested a summary of “all the past studies, council motions, municipal comments, media stories, etc.” concerning the mandatory election of regional chairmen and the size of the Toronto city council.
The following morning, Friday, July 27, the government said it would introduce legislation to cancel regional chair elections in Peel, York, Niagara, and Muskoka and reduce the size of the Toronto city council. (Earlier this month, Ontario’s top court determined that Mr. Ford did not break the law by reducing the number of Toronto city councilors during an election campaign.)
Most candidates who were suddenly thrown out could not submit paperwork to run in other, unaffected races because the press release came just hours before the 2 p.m. registration deadline for regional chair candidates.
The emails contain inquiries from municipal officials that day, including two that inquired what would happen to regional chair candidates who wanted to compete in another race but didn’t have time to finish their paperwork before the deadline.
“Answer is they have until 2 p.m.,” Assistant Deputy Minister Marcia Wallace replied to a colleague at 1:21 p.m. “I’m out of options.”