Where the City Gets its Powers

The Canadian constitution sets the responsibilities of the federal and provincial governments. It does not recognize municipalities as a separate order of government, meaning cities like Toronto do not get their powers directly from the constitution. Instead, the province of Ontario is responsible for deciding the rules that govern the City of Toronto.

There are many provincial regulations, statues and Acts which define this relationship. The most significant is the City of Toronto Act, 2006 which establishes the City and its governance – meaning, how decisions are made and what powers the City has to do things like pass by-laws and manage its finances.

There are other Acts that define the powers of all municipalities in Ontario, including Toronto. These include:

Decision-Making learning guide brochure

The City of Toronto’s governance model relies on a balance between:

Local democracy – a diverse, active, engaged public identifies issues, gives input and feedback, partners with the City on local matters, and plays an important role in shaping the city. The public is encouraged to get involved, speak to or submit comments to a Committee of City Council, attend meetings, and vote in municipal elections.

Public Service – City staff provide objective, professional advice to Council, and implement Council’s decisions according to City policy and standards and principles of effective public service.

The Mayor and Council – the legislative body for the City, Council has a duty to find consensus while balancing city-wide and local considerations. The Mayor fulfills a city-wide mandate, leading Council in strategic and fiscal planning and representing the City to other governments. The Mayor and Councillors each have one vote at Council – no one can overrule the other members.

Toronto City Council is the main governing and legislative body of the City of Toronto. It is made up of the Mayor and 44 Councillors who make decisions on behalf of the people who live in their ward. Issues are identified by the public, through research, as follow-up to existing programs, services or policies or as part of the everyday work of running a city and achieving Council’s priorities.

When Council is deciding on a program, a new proposal, or an emerging issue, they usually review reports from City and agency staff which are requested at Council meetings. Reports are written by staff with expertise in the subject, for example city planning, civil engineering, or public health. The reports can present different options for how the City can proceed, discuss any past decisions on the same matter, and make recommendations to help Councillors make their decisions.

In addition to reading these reports from staff, when Councillors are deciding how to vote on an issue before City Council there are many things they might take into consideration, such as:

  • Impact on the local community, their Ward, or Toronto as a whole
  • Short-term and long-term implications
  • Costs or savings associated with the decision
  • Any input from the public, other Councillors, or representatives from a community or professional organization
  • What other cities have done about similar issues
  • The Mayor and Council’s priorities
  • The chances of success
  • If the decision will become a new standard for the future

At the beginning of a City Council meeting, the members review the agenda. If a Councillor wants to discuss an item on the agenda, then that item is “held”, meaning it will be discussed by Council and Councillors can ask questions about it. After the review of the agenda, City Council adopts a motion to adopt the recommendations in all the agenda items which are not held for debate.

City Council agendas are mostly made up of recommendations from Council’s Committees, new business submitted directly to Council by City Officials (e.g. agenda items that were not submitted in time to be added to the original agenda), and Member Motions – new items suggested for discussion by an individual Councillor.

When items are debated each Councillor is given an opportunity to ask questions of staff with expertise on that item, and is allowed five minutes to speak on that item. Councillors can also propose their ideas or suggestions on an item Council is discussing by making a motion.

If a motion will affect the meeting’s procedures then it must be adopted by a majority of members present.

Once the debate on an item is complete, Councillors vote on the item and any related motions. An item can be:

Adopted – Council has adopted the recommendations before it without any changes, called amendments.

Amended – Council made some changes to the recommendations before adopting them.

Deferred – Council has postponed consideration of the item to a future meeting.

Referred – Council has referred the item to a committee or staff for further study or action, instead of Council discussing it.

Received – Council has received the recommendations for information only and will take no further action.

All adopted items are confirmed by by-law, and City staff are responsible for implementing the by-laws. To learn more about Council’s procedures and the rules that govern their debates, see the Council Procedures By-Law.

All Council meetings, including the debates, questions of staff, and voting, are open to the public. Only in special cases, such as when Council needs to consider confidential information as permitted by law, does City Council temporarily meet in closed session.