Innisfil shouldn't put its democracy up for sale by committing to the housing target the province has set for the municipality.
That was the message from Coun. Alex Waters, who spoke alongside most of his council colleagues in opposition to a strong-mayor system being potentially introduced in Innisfil.
Council spent nearly an hour during its Sept. 27, learning about the provincial housing target brought down for the town, the Building Faster Fund (BFF) that could help with infrastructure costs and the strong-mayor powers, already introduced in Toronto, Ottawa and 27 other municipalities in the province, including the City of Barrie.
To have access to the BFF, councillors were told, Mayor Lynn Dollin has to respond in writing to a letter from the province committing the town to add 6,300 new homes in the municipality by 2031. If she does that by Oct. 15, then by Halloween the Town of Innisfil could be one of 21 new municipalities to be governed under a strong-mayor system.
Even if the rules change on Oct. 31, don’t expect Dollin to put on a dictator costume. For her, a “strong” mayor is “one that builds consensus, that listens to the community, and not one that wields powers.”
“It goes against ... the way council has worked the 29 years I’ve been on council,” Dollin told her colleauges. “I have no intention of vetoing anything. If we are given those powers, I just want you to know where I stand on that."
The deputy mayor and ward councillors agreed with her, but for the most part weren’t worried about the present. It's what comes next that had them fearful.
“I appreciate that you still somehow want to involve council if we do this, so we have a say, but you’re our mayor now and we have to think about our mayor in the future,” said Coun. Fred Drodge. “We have to look at the bigger picture: you might not be the mayor next term.
"I appreciate what you’re saying, but it doesn’t affect my judgment," he added.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford first introduced strong-mayor powers — only to Toronto and Ottawa at the time — after the June 2022 election.
In June 2023, the provincial government gave the powers to nearly 30 other municipalities with projected populations of at least 100,000 by 2031.
The latest expansion involves municipalities with a population expected to reach at least 50,000 by 2031, including the Town of Innisfil.
The new powers include the ability to set budgets, veto bylaws and pass bylaws with just one-third of their council’s support — only if these bylaws deal with provincial priorities, such as getting more housing built.
Mayors will also have the power to appoint – and dismiss – senior civil servants.
The entire idea didn’t sit well with Waters.
“Last time I checked, Ontario was a democracy and we were all elected under that. Each one of us has one vote to determine the future of Innisfil and we all have our say in terms of what goes on,” Waters said. “I don’t think democracy should be for sale. For $1.7 million a year, we’re going to give up democracy. That is a little drop in the bucket … in terms of the cost of infrastructure.”
Waters added he felt like a puppet of the provincial government and with this move can see the strings.
Dollin pledged to delegate what she could delegate if Innisfil is given strong-mayor powers, which includes While she can’t delegate the creation of the budget, she said she has no intention of unilaterally creating the town’s budget and would look for a way for consensus before moving forward.
But she did seem to believe committing to the province’s target would be a good move for the municipality, as it would open up additional funding to help with housing infrastructure, arguing Innisfil was in the best shape of its immediate neighbours – Bradford West Gwillimbury and New Tecumseth – of meeting its target.
She also wanted to avoid a situation where the town would end up in the province’s bad books, similar to the Town of Newmarket, which declined to agree to a provincially mandated housing target, and now not only does not have access to the BFF, but is also facing a costly audit of its books.
“If we say 'no,' we know we’re getting zero,” Dollin said. “If we say 'yes,' and we don’t get to our pledge, we still get nothing.
"But if we don’t shoot, we’re not going to score.”
The province introduced the BFF over the summer, earmarking the majority of the $1.2 billion for those 50 municipalities with housing targets to reach by 2031. In order for a municipality to qualify for its portion of the money, it would hit 80 per cent of its annual housing target.
With 6,300 homes required between now and 2031, that means 788 new homes need to be built each year for the town to receive about $1.68 million annually. That’s about one-third more than the 435 new homes on average created in Innisfil in each of the last five years.
'Target is ambitious'
Staff, however, are saying there’s a chance.
“That target is ambitious, but is achievable under the right conditions,” said Oliver Jerschow, the town's chief administrative officer. “We are a fast-growing community and if you think about the developments that are currently in the pipeline in Innisfil, we might well expect to see quite a number of homes built.”
The CAO pointed to the Orbit development as one example of how the town could be poised to reach its target, as applications for 1,700 units have already been received, alongside other large-scale developments throughout the community and continued building at Friday Harbour Resort near the end of Big Bay Point Road.
Jerschow led councillors through a presentation prior to taking questions, alongside Lee Parkin, manager of legal and clerks services, and John Mascarin, a municipal and land-use planning lawyer from Aird & Berlis LLP.
But Jerschow stressed they wouldn’t have all the answers because new questions keep developing daily. As well, the province seems to keep changing its mind as it works through its own planning, leaving municipalities guessing more often than not.
Not the least of which, Jerschow said, was the definition of a “home” the province is using to determine if the target is met.
Without sturdier footing, Deputy Mayor Kenneth Fowler said he couldn’t support the initiative at all.
The province "won’t give us solid answers we can base our decisions off of,” he said. “We’re told ‘if you play ball …’ But is it football? Is it basketball? Is it foosball? What kind of ball are we playing? ‘I don’t know’ is all the answer we’re getting and that to me makes it feel like we’re making a decision on shifting sands.”
Mascarin told councillors their concerns were what he has been hearing throughout the province from the other municipalities he’s been advising on these changes.
His professional opinion, however, was to play ball with the province.
“The ground is shifting under you … and I think it’s a real mistake to say, ‘we don’t like what the province is doing to us,’” Mascarin said. “My own view and my recommendation to you is that it would be foolish to walk away from it. It’s going to be given to or it just won’t be given to you.”
He also told councillors even though she doesn’t have strong mayor powers yet, the decision is Dollin’s to make.
“The mayor is actually given strong mayor powers before she has them because she is the one that has to make the decision on whether to sign the housing target letter that the province is seeking,” he said. “She’s listening to you – I think everyone’s listening to you.”
Dollin told her colleagues she wasn’t sending the letter back to the province until absolutely necessary and encouraged councillors to speak to their peers in other municipalities going through the same process.
The mayor said she’d be doing the same at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) Meeting on Sept. 28 and would report back on any additional information she receives.
While some discussion was had to vote on a motion to make their displeasure on the strong-mayor powers official, council merely voted to receive the presentation as information.
— With files from Village Media