There are provisions in the Municipal Act, 2001 under which a municipality – by local initiative and subject to certain rules – can alter the composition of its council. This includes changes to the size of council, members’ titles and certain methods of election or selection of members. The provisions apply, with some differences, to all single-tier, lower-tier, and upper-tier municipalities. An upper-tier by-law making changes to its council composition must receive certain support, sometimes known as triple majority support, to come into force.

Triple majority support consists of:

  • a majority of all votes on upper-tier council
  • a majority of all the lower-tier councils have passed resolutions consenting to the by-law
  • the total number of electors in the lower-tier municipalities that have passed resolutions consenting to the by-law form a majority of the electors in the upper-tier municipality

Regular reviews of regional council composition

A key principle of fair representation is ensuring that local representation at the regional level keeps up with changing demographics over time. To ensure council that composition continues to reflect local and demographic needs, the Act requires all regional municipalities to review their regional council composition. This requirement starts after the 2018 municipal election, and must be done within two years after every second regular municipal election.

Regional municipalities can either change or affirm their regional council composition. However, if the regional municipality does not receive triple majority support for either decision during this time period, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing has the authority to make a regulation to change that regional municipality’s council composition.

Regional municipalities that have passed a by-law between the 2014 and 2018 regular municipal elections to change the number of members of council that represent at least one of its lower-tier municipalities would be required to undertake their first review after the 2026 regular municipal election rather than after the 2018 election.

Ward boundaries

Municipalities, with the exception of the City of Toronto, can choose whether council members are elected at large, by wards or by any combination of the two.

If your municipality chooses to divide itself into wards, it is up to the council to determine how the wards will be divided, including:

  • the number of wards the municipality may be divided into
  • ward boundaries
  • the number of council members representing each ward

Municipalities wanting to create, dissolve or change ward boundaries are required to comply with certain processes and requirements, including:

  • passing a by-law that sets out the new ward boundaries or at-large structure
  • providing notice of the passing of the by-law to the public within 15 days
  • specifying the last date for the public to file a notice of appeal of the by-law

For changes to ward boundaries to be in effect for the next regular municipal election, by-laws must be passed before January 1 in the year of a regular election.  

These processes and requirements are set out in section 222 of the Municipal Act, 2001.

Electors in a municipality may also initiate ward boundary changes by presenting a petition to their council asking the council to pass a by-law dividing or re-dividing the municipality into wards or dissolving existing ward boundaries. The process for presenting a petition to council is set out in section 223 of the Municipal Act, 2001.

The Ontario Land Tribunal can hear appeals with respect to ward boundary changes (see section 222 and section 223 of the Municipal Act, 2001 or contact your municipal clerk for more details).

How to fill vacancies on council

If a municipal council seat becomes vacant, council must declare the council seat vacant at its next meeting. However, if the vacancy is due to the death of a member, the declaration may be made at either of its next two meetings. A copy of the declaration must be forwarded immediately to an upper-tier council if the declaration is made by a lower-tier and vice versa. Within 60 days of declaring the council seat vacant, council must decide whether to fill the vacancy through a by-election or by appointment for the remainder of the council term.

If an office becomes vacant after March 31 in a regular election year, the seat may only be filled by appointment. A vacancy must be filled unless it occurs within 90 days before voting day of a regular election. If the vacancy occurs within 90 days before a regular election, the municipality is not required to fill the vacancy.

When deciding whether to fill a vacancy through by-election or through appointment, council may wish to consider circumstances such as whether the vacancy is for the head of council or whether the individual holding the office will sit on both the lower-tier and upper-tier councils.

If council decides to appoint a person to a vacant council seat, the appointee must consent to the appointment and must be eligible to hold office. Council decides what process it will use to choose the person it appoints.

If council decides to hold a by-election instead of appointing a person to fill a vacancy, council must pass a by-law to have a by-election. The Municipal Elections Act, 1996, sets out the processes for a municipal by-election. The municipal clerk is responsible for conducting the by-election and fixing nomination day. Voting day is 45 days after nomination day.

Note: in the event of a dual vacancy where a lower-tier council member also sits as a member on the upper-tier council, the lower-tier municipality (not the upper-tier) is required to fill the vacancy (see section 263(2) of the Act).  

In strong mayor municipalities, there are different rules for filling a vacant head of council seat. Read the strong mayor powers and duties section of this guide for more information.

Temporary replacements for members of upper-tier council

The Act addresses particular situations involving vacancies or absences of persons who are members of the councils of a lower-tier and its upper-tier municipality.

In the event that a person who is a member of both the lower-tier and its upper-tier council is unable to act as a member of those councils for a period exceeding one month, section 267(1) of the Municipal Act, 2001 states that the local council may appoint one of its members to act as an alternate member of the upper-tier council. This alternate member would be in place until the original member is able to resume acting as a member of those councils.

Section 267(2) states that if the offices of a person who is a member of both the lower-tier and its upper-tier council become vacant, and the vacancies will not be filled for a period exceeding one month, the lower-tier municipality may appoint one of its members as an alternate member of the upper-tier until the vacancies are filled permanently.

In addition, Section 268(1) allows the council of the lower-tier municipality to appoint one of its members as an alternate member of the upper-tier council in the event that a person who is a member of both the lower-tier and its upper-tier council is unable to attend a meeting of the upper-tier council for any reason. This is subject to certain limitations. For example, lower-tier municipalities may generally only appoint one alternate member per council term. This provision seeks to help ensure that the interests of lower tier councils are properly represented on upper-tier levels of government.

Pregnancy and parental leave

The Act gives council members the opportunity to take pregnancy and parental leave. Council member seats do not become vacant due to absences for a period of 20 consecutive weeks or less related to the member’s pregnancy or the birth or the adoption of the member’s child. Councils can decide to extend this period and provide for a longer leave for councillors. Municipalities are required to establish local policies regarding pregnancy and parental leave.

Helpful considerations: section 6

Familiarize yourself with relevant sections of the Municipal Act, 2001 to improve your understanding about filling vacancies as well as appointing temporary replacements on upper-tier council. When reviewing either council composition or ward boundaries, there are several ideas that councils may wish to consider:

  • the principle of representation by population, for example, representation of each lower-tier municipality on regional council should be relative to their percentage of the overall regional population
  • geographic criteria, such as adequate representation for rural municipalities, which would otherwise be disadvantaged by a pure representation by population formula
  • social criteria, such as regard for communities of interest or identity (for example, communities based around language or shared culture and history)
  • projected population growth, voters’ lists and federal census population data
  • If you have questions, you may wish to speak with your municipal clerk