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4. Municipal government

A municipality is defined in section 1 of the Municipal Act, 2001 as a “geographic area whose inhabitants are incorporated.” There are 444 municipalities in Ontario, all of which play an important role in providing and delivering valuable programs and services to meet the needs of their residents.

In addition to municipalities, there are a number of local and special-purpose bodies, such as school boards, health units, library boards and conservation authorities, with responsibility for public services at the community or regional level.

In northern Ontario, most of the population lives in municipalities, but most of the land mass is “unorganized territory,” that is, areas of the province without municipal organization. Local services boards and local roads boards have been created to deliver basic community services to the residents in some of the areas without municipal organization.

Your day-to-day activities as a council member will often involve working with local boards and commissions, other municipalities, other levels of government and various municipal associations. All of these bodies play a part in the functioning of local government. For example, some councils or groups of councils regularly have joint meetings with councils of neighbouring Indigenous communities to partner on issues of mutual interest and benefit.

This section will provide you with a general description of municipal government structures and services. It will also describe the links between municipalities and other players associated with the local sector. For more detailed information, you may wish to consult other materials located on the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing website.

Section 2 of the Act provides that municipalities are created by the Province of Ontario to be responsible and accountable governments with respect to matters within their jurisdiction, and each municipality is given powers and duties under this Act and many other Acts for the purpose of providing good government with respect to those matters.

Municipal roles and responsibilities

The Act is a framework document for municipal government, and provides a foundation for municipal powers, structures, and governance.

Authority for important municipal activities can also be found in many other acts, including the Planning Act, the Building Code Act, 1992, the Housing Services Act, 2011 the Police Services Act, the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997, the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, the Municipal Elections Act, 1996, and the Ontario Works Act, 1997, which are all administered by the provincial government.

It is important to note that some municipal services are mandatory (they must be provided) while others are optional (council can decide whether or not to provide them).

The types of services delivered by a municipality may also depend on whether the municipality is part of a two-tier system. In a two-tier system of municipal government, there are lower-tier municipalities (local) and an upper-tier municipality (a county or region). In this type of system, some services are delivered by the upper-tier municipality. Upper-tier municipalities often co-ordinate service delivery between municipalities in their area or provide area-wide services.

It is important to look at the governing legislation to determine whether a service is to be provided by the upper-tier or lower-tier municipality or both. In many cases, services are assigned by legislation to upper or lower-tier municipalities either exclusively or non-exclusively. Waste management is a good example. Certain upper-tier municipalities are exclusively responsible for waste management matters, except for waste collection. In some cases, responsibility can be shared by both levels of local government. Both upper-tier and lower-tier municipalities, for example, can provide parks and other recreational facilities.

Certain responsibilities set out in the Act may be transferred from one tier to the other with triple majority approval. This is when an item has the approval of both a majority of members on the upper-tier council, and a majority of the lower-tier municipal councils representing a majority of all the electors in the upper-tier municipality. As a citizen and a taxpayer, you have some idea of municipal functions. However, as a councillor, you may wish to deepen your knowledge of municipal functions and become familiar with the programs and services that your municipality does or does not provide. If your municipality is part of a two-tier structure, you may wish to know the responsibilities of the upper-tier and lower-tier municipalities in your area.

Service managers

Some municipalities act as service managers (SMs). Generally, these are the municipalities that are designated as service delivery agents for Ontario Works (social assistance), childcare, and social housing. Municipalities that are service managers may also have special responsibilities for land ambulance and other matters. Consolidation of such services helps them to be planned and administered regionally, even in areas not served by two-tier systems.

In addition, in northern Ontario, there are currently ten District Social Services Administration Boards (DSSABs) that are designated as  service managers providing certain services.

Many municipalities designated as service managers are upper-tier municipalities; however, some are single-tier municipalities. A service manager’s service area may or may not be within the service manager’s municipal boundaries. Instead, it may follow current or historical upper-tier boundaries and may include separated municipalities within the boundaries.

It is important for all councillors to know and understand the role and interests of the service manager.

As a councillor, you may wish to keep a list identifying the service manager and other organizations providing services to the public or to the municipality for your area.

Municipal restructuring

This section will provide you with a general overview of the municipal restructuring process.

The principal forms of municipal restructuring are annexations and amalgamations. In an annexation, municipal boundaries are changed by, for example, transferring jurisdiction for land from one municipality to another. Amalgamations are mergers of neighbouring municipalities.

In northern Ontario, unincorporated territory can be annexed to an adjacent municipality.

The Act (sections 171 to 173) sets out a process for locally developed proposals for municipal restructuring, including both annexations and amalgamations. A locally developed restructuring proposal is implemented by an order of the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, at the Minister’s discretion (for more detail on the powers of the Minister in implementing a restructuring proposal, see Ontario Regulation 204/03.

The Minister or municipalities in northern Ontario may also request that the Ontario Land Tribunal consider various types of municipal restructuring proposals involving unincorporated territory.

Any future proposed development on lands proposed to be annexed would have to comply with the requirements of the Planning Act and any other applicable legislative or regulatory requirements.

Municipal restructuring proposals must describe the components of the proposed restructuring, such as the new boundaries, the effective date, council composition and any transitional provisions. Before voting on a restructuring proposal, the councils of the affected municipalities must give notice and hold at least one public meeting. It is not unusual for all affected municipalities to hold a joint public meeting. Public notice for the meetings is determined by each municipality according to its procedure by-laws.

Municipalities are expected to consult with Indigenous communities to determine if the proposed changes might adversely affect Aboriginal or treaty rights (such as hunting or fishing) or Indigenous interests, and if so, how they will be addressed. Changes related to municipal restructuring of interest to Indigenous communities may include the potential for future land development and related servicing decisions.

Municipalities must have the required council support before submitting a restructuring proposal to the Minister. In areas with a two-tier municipal government, support by the upper-tier is required and a majority of the councils representing a majority of electors in all the local municipalities. The council of any separated municipality included in the proposal must also give its consent (see Ontario Regulation 216/96).

In areas without an upper-tier government, the required level of support is a double majority. This means a majority of the local municipalities and the local bodies in unorganized territories affected by the proposal, representing a majority of the electors. For more information, please see Ontario Regulation 216/96.

Municipalities that have been created or restructured through special legislation (for example, Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Greater Sudbury, Haldimand County, Norfolk County or regional municipalities) may use the Municipal Act, 2001 process described above for minor restructuring proposals only (such as small boundary adjustments).

Contacting the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing early in the development stage of the restructuring proposal is recommended to help ensure that the process is complete and that it complies with legislation and regulations. Whenever possible, municipal staff should provide ministry staff with a draft of the municipal restructuring proposal and a legal description of any lands proposed to be annexed before the proposal is given final approval by the municipal councils.

Committees, local boards and other special purpose bodies

As a councillor, you likely know that there are many kinds of local bodies – public bodies involved in the provision of services at or linked to the local government level. They are known by various names: municipal service boards, school boards, police services boards, boards of health, hospital boards, transit commissions, library boards, and conservation authorities, children’s aid societies, planning boards and committee of adjustment/land division committees, for example.

Many local bodies are referred to in legislation administered by different provincial ministries. These ministries may have factual or background information about provincial aspects of or interests in these bodies.

For example, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing administers the Municipal Act, 2001 and the Planning Act. The Municipal Act, 2001 addresses municipal service boards and municipal services corporations. The Planning Act provides for the establishment of planning boards and land division committees.

The Ministry of Education is responsible for the Education Act, which, among other matters, sets out duties and responsibilities of school boards. The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has certain responsibilities with respect to the Police Services Act, which addresses police services boards for municipalities. The Health Protection and Promotion Act, which addresses boards of health, and the Public Hospitals Act, which addresses boards of hospitals, are administered by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Public library boards are addressed under the Public Libraries Act, administered by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. The Conservation Authorities Act, administered by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, addresses conservation authorities.

There is considerable variation in the different local bodies. Not all public bodies involved in the provision of services at, or linked to the local government level, are local boards.

A local board, like a municipality, carries a special legal status in the sense that particular rules, and responsibilities, may apply. Different kinds of local boards can have different rules apply to them. Each case needs to be looked at individually.

Local boards are often subject to the same or similar rules as municipal councils. For example, some kinds of local boards are required to adopt and maintain policies with respect to the sale and other disposition of land, hiring of employees and procurement of goods and services. For more information, please see section 270 of the Municipal Act, 2001. Other contexts where there may be rules respecting certain local boards include:

  • open meetings
  • fees and charges
  • audit requirements
  • remuneration of employees
  • governance of, dissolution of and changes to local boards

As a member of council, you may also find yourself to be a member of a local body, with the associated legal or practical responsibilities for that position. You may wish to familiarize yourself with those responsibilities.

Municipal service boards

Municipal service boards are local bodies that may be established by an individual municipality, or by two or more municipalities. They may, for example, manage and deliver basic services. A municipal service board must have at least two members. Generally, former public utility commissions, parking authorities and boards of park management are municipal service boards.

The municipality or municipalities can decide, among other things:

  • the name, composition, quorum and budgetary process
  • eligibility of persons to be board members
  • manner of selecting members
  • term of office
  • number of votes of board members
  • rules, procedures and policies the board must follow
  • relationship to the municipality, including financial and reporting relationship

Municipalities may wish to consider whether it would be useful to delegate some of their powers to municipal service boards.

Municipal committees

Some municipalities have a governance structure that includes standing committees of council. These committees may have many functions and may focus on a particular area of ongoing municipal matters, such as finance and budgeting. Other committees may be set up for a set period of time to deliberate on short-term matters. Often committees provide advice and guidance to council as they consider local matters, such as heritage, environmental, or agricultural issues; others make decisions on local matters.

A municipality may choose to establish one or more community councils. A community council is responsible for exercising certain powers and duties delegated to it by the municipality. They also perform functions assigned by the municipality about matters relating to the municipality (which may include an advisory role, such as making recommendations to council about the budget).

A municipality is responsible for determining the composition of a community council, which may include a council committee or a body with at least two members who are either members of council or individuals appointed by council, or a combination of both. The establishment of community councils that include individuals from the local community appointed by council may help to foster greater public participation in local decision-making.

Generally, municipal committees whose membership is made up of at least 50 per cent of municipal council or local board members must conduct their meetings in accordance with the open meetings provisions in the legislation – including any record-keeping requirements.

The relevant municipal or local board procedure by-law would also apply to these types of committees. Such by-laws describe, among other things, how committee meetings are called, where they will take place, how public notice of the meeting will be given, and other rules on how the meetings will be run.

Municipalities can consider requiring other types of municipal committees to follow procedural rules.

Generally, municipal freedom of information legislation applies to records of municipal committees in the way that it applies to most municipal records.

Council-board relations

Bodies with links to a municipality may have varying degrees of independence from municipal council. Some may be beyond effective control of council for practical or legal reasons. Bodies such as hospital boards, boards of health, and district social service administration boards, for example, generally operate independently of council.

You may wish to become familiar with the responsibilities of local boards and other special purpose bodies linked to your municipality and to be aware of their relationship to council.

Council-committee relations

Some municipalities have standing committees of council, or other committees that focus on particular areas. Generally, municipalities decide on the make-up of committees and members often include members of council, municipal staff and citizens.

One frequent role of municipal committees is to provide advice and guidance to council on matters related to the committee’s mandate. Municipal committees and local boards, and other local bodies, provide an opportunity for council to take advantage of areas of expertise. Committees, local boards and other local bodies may provide opportunities for volunteers to bring views and ideas from a range of perspectives.

Municipal associations

The Act endorses the principle of ongoing consultation between the Province and municipalities on matters of mutual interest. Subsection 3(1) of the Act requires the Province to consult with municipalities in accordance with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Province and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). The current MOU provides for consultation between the provincial government and AMO when the government is proposing a change in legislation and regulations that will, in the provincial government’s opinion, have a significant financial impact on the current municipal budget year or budget planning cycle. The MOU also requires consultation with AMO on the negotiation of certain agreements between the Government of Canada and Ontario that have a direct municipal impact.

AMO is a non-profit organization that represents almost all municipalities in the province. AMO provides a variety of services – including the gathering and circulation of information, policy development and inter-governmental relations. AMO meets regularly with the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and other provincial ministers to discuss issues of interest to municipalities. For more information on this association, see the AMO website.

There are several specialized municipal associations that are part of the AMO organization. These include the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA), the Ontario Small Urban Municipalities (OSUM), and regional municipal groups such as the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) and the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA). Many other organizations are associate or affiliate supporters of AMO:

There are many other professional municipal organizations with specific subject matter specialties, such as, the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (AMCTO), the Municipal Finance Officers’ Association of Ontario (MFOA), Ontario Municipal Tax and Revenue Association (OMTRA) and the Ontario Municipal Engineers Association (MEA).

There are other municipal groups whose membership includes a mix of political and professional staff related to specific municipal service areas, such as the Ontario Good Roads Association (OGRA), the Ontario Library Association (OLA), the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association (ONPHA), and the Association of Local Public Health Agencies.

The City of Toronto, along with a few other municipalities, are not members of AMO. Subsection 1(3) of the City of Toronto Act, 2006 states that … it is in the best interests of the Province and the City to engage in ongoing consultations with each other about matters of mutual interest and to do so in accordance with an agreement between the Province and the City. The Toronto-Ontario Cooperation and Consultation Agreement formalizes co-operative practices and commits the two governments to consult with each other on certain matters of mutual interest.

Other municipal political associations – such as Large Urban Mayors Caucus of Ontario (LUMCO); Mayors and Regional Chairs of Ontario (MARCO), which represents the larger single-tier and upper-tier (or regional municipalities) of Ontario; and the Association of Francophone Municipalities of Ontario (AFMO) – also meet regularly with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Contacts between the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and municipal associations are generally co-ordinated through Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing’s Intergovernmental Relations and Partnerships Branch.

In addition to the above associations, there are also regional associations that work closely with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, including:

  • The Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus (EOWC), which represents 11 counties and two (2) rural, single-tier municipalities (Prince Edward County and City of Kawartha Lakes). Led by the 13 member heads of council, and supported by their Chief Administrative Officers, the EOWC undertakes research and advocates on behalf of the rural municipalities in eastern Ontario.
  • The Eastern Ontario Mayors’ Caucus (EOMC) represents 11 single-tier municipalities in the region. The EOMC advocates on behalf of the region’s more urban municipalities. The EOMC is led by a Chair elected from among its member Mayors and is supported by its Chief Administrative Officers.
  • The Western Ontario Wardens Caucus (WOWC) represents 15 upper and single-tier municipalities in southwestern Ontario. The WOWC members work collectively to influence municipal, provincial and federal legislative, regulatory and program initiatives through advocacy, research, analysis and education. The Ministry’s regional office in London is an ex-officio member of the WOWC and serves as the primary contact for the Ministry with WOWC.

Lists of municipal and related associations, together with contact information, can be found in the Municipal Directory published by AMCTO.

Helpful considerations: section 4

  • As a councillor, you may wish to deepen your knowledge of municipal functions and become familiar with the programs and services that your municipality does or does not provide.
  • If your municipality is part of a two-tier structure, familiarize yourself with the responsibilities of the upper-tier and lower-tier municipalities in your area.
  • You may wish to consider local circumstances when creating municipal committees and boards.
  • As a councillor, you may wish to deepen your knowledge of Indigenous communities and peoples in and near your municipality, and consider how their interests may be represented in the various bodies that make recommendations to council.
  • You may wish to familiarize yourself with the scope and nature of the work done by local boards, and other local bodies in your municipality. If you are appointed as a member of a local body, familiarize yourself with the responsibilities of the position.
  • Rely on municipal staff to provide guidance and expertise on possible governance structures for program and service delivery.
Updated: May 16, 2022
Published: November 19, 2018