Ontario appeals court grants provincial government stay of lower-court ruling
The Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled in favour of staying a superior court judge’s decision that found the Progressive Conservative government’s plan to slash Toronto city council in half to be unconstitutional.
A day after the motion to stay was argued, three appeals court judges unanimously voted in favour of the provincial government Wednesday morning, allowing the province to move ahead with their Better Local Government Act and impose a 25-ward model on Toronto.
“Given the urgency of this matter, an immediate decision on this stay motion is required to ensure that the Toronto municipal elections, set for Oct. 22, 2018, proceed in as orderly a manner as possible,” the appeals court decision states.
The superior court decision, made by Judge Edward Belobaba on Sept. 10, ruled that the provincial legislation to cut the size of Toronto council during an election campaign violated voters’ and candidates’ Charter rights. His ruling also stated that decreasing ward numbers to 25 would violate effective representation and therefore the right to freedom of expression. In the end, Belobaba said Toronto should move ahead with the 47-ward model.
Lawyers on behalf of Attorney General Caroline Mulroney filed their motion to stay Belobaba’s decision and applied to appeal his ruling last Wednesday, the same day Premier Doug Ford called an emergency sitting at Queen’s Park. The PCs also tabled revised legislation that invoked the notwithstanding clause in order to push through their plan to cut Toronto council. PC House Leader Todd Smith confirmed the new legislation will not be pursued further because their motion to stay has been granted.
The government lawyers argued in the appeals court on Tuesday, saying the Charter states nothing about effective representation at the municipal level and that Bill 5 didn’t interfere with voters’ and candidates’ rights to freedom of expression.
“The candidates were and are still free to say what they want to say to the voters,” the appeals court judges state. “The inconvenience candidates will experience because of the change from 47 to 25 wards does not prevent or impede them from saying what they want to say about the issues arising in the election.”
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, who got a standing ovation from his fellow PC MPPs during question period at the legislature, said all MPPs should “stop the political games.”
“Let’s move forward with an effective, efficient city council,” he said.
Mayor John Tory didn’t agree that today’s ruling is beneficial to the city.
“This process the province has engaged in is wrong. Wrong in principle, wrong when it comes to how we should decide the matter of our council’s composition and wrong as a precedent,” said Tory, who originally voted against the 47-ward model when it was brought before council two years ago.
“When this election began on May 1, we had certainty. We had 47 wards and clear dates laid out for when candidates could register and when people could vote,” he said. “That was all turned upside down in July.”
Tory said the city’s lawyers will continue to fight.
Ulli Watkiss, Toronto city hall’s clerk, said in an emergency council meeting on Sept. 13 that she has a “huge concern” about whether or not the city can move ahead with either ward model for the October election.
Watkiss said last week the city was continuing with 47 wards after Belobaba’s instruction to do so and because the appeals court decision on the motion to stay did not come in yet.
Today, the clerk’s office confirmed the city will be instating the 25-ward model
The PCs government’s appeal is still pending.