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City governance, general

29-May-2010 by Belinda Cole [199]

• Two models of civic governance of parks and public spaces

Who governs parks and public spaces, and under what authority?

Unlike the federal and provincial governments, municipal governments are given their powers by the province or territory in which they are situated. The powers of the federal and provincial governments were first set out in The Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly called the British North America Act, 1867, known to some as the BNA Act), which is now known as the the Constitution Act, 1982

The provincial and territorial legislatures have the power to pass laws or "Acts" which create and give certain powers to municipal governments. These Municipal Acts, as they are often called, set out the range of powers a city government possesses, who within the city (e.g. elected councillors as opposed to civil servants) can exercise those powers, and under what conditions. The underlying assumptions about the way in which decisions are made about our parks and public spaces differ fundamentally in different cities across Canada.

In the Yukon, for example, public participation is a cornerstone of the philosophy of civic government in the Municipal Act [link to The Municipal Act also establishes a practical mechanism by which citizens can participate in civic decision-making. Any member of the public who is eligible to vote can propose to adopt, remove,or change a city by-law if s/he can get enough public support for it. If s/he gathers enough signatures from people who support the proposal, the issue is made the subject of a public referendum. If the citizens vote in favour of the proposed by-law, it becomes law.

In Toronto, the law assumes that, once elected, the city councillors will determine what is in the public interest and will respond to the needs of the City. The legislation does not mention how the public interest or needs are to be determined, nor is there any reference to residents' role in expressing or defining these. Rather than direct participation by citizens in city government, the law sets up the offices of 4 "Accountability Officers", which include an Ombud to whom members of the public can appeal in the face of complaints about the city bureaucracy, an "integrity commissioner" whose job is to apply a code of ethics to the conduct of Councillors and members of City boards, a Lobbyist Registrar and the Auditor General for the City. For more detail, see Civic decision-making - comparison.

For a lay summary of the law that defines the role and mandate of these 4 officers see City accountability officers - roles.