How Local Government Works

Municipal governments in Ontario spend billions each year to provide the public services that meet these  important needs of Ontario residents. Municipal governments raise most of the money for financing these services from the property taxes paid by residents and businesses in the local area. Additional funding comes from "user fees" or "non-tax revenue" from parking fines, for example, and some funding still comes from the provincial government.

Municipal Act
The Municipal Act is a consolidated statute governing the extent of powers and duties, internal organization and structure of municipalities in Ontario.  A full text of the Act may be found on the Government of Ontario's e-Laws web site.

The current Municipal Act, which took effect on January 1, 2003, represents the first comprehensive overhaul of Ontario’s municipal legislation in 150 years and is the cornerstone of a new, stronger provincial-municipal relationship. Effective January 1, 2007, the Municipal Act, 2001 (the Act) was significantly amended by the Municipal Statute Law Amendment Act, 2006 (Bill 130).

Municipal Council
Municipalities are governed by municipal councils. The job of municipal councils is to make decisions about municipal financing and services.  

In Ontario, the head of a local (lower or single tier) municipal council is either called the mayor or the reeve. The members of council may be called councillors or aldermen.  

Responsibilities of Municipal Council
A Municipal Councillor's Guide has been prepared for information purposes only by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Please note the guide is not available at this time.

How are Municipal Councillors Elected?
The way councillors are elected differs from municipality to municipality. Municipal councillors may be elected at large or by ward.

In a municipality where the councillors are elected at large, all councillors represent the entire municipality. In an election, the voters choose among all candidates who are running in the election. If municipal council has 8 councillor positions, for example, the 8 candidates with the highest number of votes win the election and become the new councillors.  

Other municipalities are divided into wards. Depending on the municipality, each ward may have one, two or more representatives on council. Voters in each ward can choose only among the candidates who are running for election in that ward. For example, if a municipality has 8 council members and 4 wards, 2 councillors will be elected from each ward. Each voter chooses 2 candidates from among the candidates running in that ward. In each ward, the two candidates with the highest number of votes will serve on municipal council.  The members of council may be called councillors or aldermen.  

How is the Head of Council Elected?
The head of council is always elected at large by all of the voters in the municipality. In Ontario, the head of a local (lower or single tier) municipal council is either called the mayor or the reeve.

What about County Council?
The head of a county council is called a warden. The county council is composed of designated elected members from the lower tier municipalities. The county council itself selects the warden from among its members.

What about Regional Councils?
The head of a regional council is called a Regional Chair. The chair is chosen by a vote of the members of regional council or directly elected.

Other members of regional council are selected in various ways. Some are elected directly by the voters to sit on regional council. Some are elected to sit on both the regional council and the local municipal council. In some municipalities, members of local municipal councils are appointed by their councils to serve at the regional level. The head of council of a local municipality is a member of the regional council.

Municipalities in Ontario
The current number of municipalities in Ontario is 444. How are these municipalities structured? It can vary.

Local Municipalities
Depending on its size and its history, a local municipality may be called a city, a town, or a township or a village. They are also referred to as "lower tier" municipalities when there is another level of municipal government like a county or region involved in providing services to residents. There are a number of separated towns and cities in Ontario although and they are geographically part of a county, they do not form part of county. Examples of separated municipalities: City of Kingston; City of London; City of St. Thomas; City of Windsor; City of Stratford;  Town of St. Marys.

Where there is only one level of municipal government in an area, it is called a single tier municipality. Examples of single tier municipalities: City of Chatham-Kent, City of Greater Sudbury, City of Hamilton, City of Ottawa and the City of Toronto.

Counties, Regions and Districts
Sometimes it is legislated or more efficient to provide certain services over an area that includes more than one local municipality. For this reason, counties (mainly in rural areas) or regions may be involved in providing services to residents and businesses.

A county or regional government is a federation of the local municipalities within its boundaries. District is another name that is sometimes used in Ontario. Only the District Municipality of Muskoka provides services on a regional-scale. Areas may use the term district but these are territorial boundaries that do not serve any municipal government purpose. Counties, regions and the District of Muskoka are referred to as "upper tier" municipalities.

Northern Ontario
The unique characteristics of Northern Ontario have given rise to distinctive ways of providing services at the local government level as well.

In Northern Ontario, there are cities and towns. Northern Ontario municipalities are all single tier municipalities There are also administrative ways of providing services to huge areas of land that have very few people in what are called "unincorporated" areas of Northern Ontario. District Social Service Administration Boards are a good example through which certain social services are delivered to Northern residents. Area Service Boards are another new approach that is possible. They can provide a means to deliver a range of municipal services across a broad geographic area.

Municipal Amalgamations
The provincial government encourages municipal governments to amalgamate with a view that municipal government provides services in the most cost-effective and efficient way possible. Some local governments joined together voluntarily to achieve sustainable services and municipal infrastructure. In other cases, the province had facilitated amalgamations of municipalities through restructuring commissions and special advisors.

In the mid-1990's, expansion of urban areas, changes in responsibilities of local government and provincial government initiatives had led to a massive wave of municipal mergers. The most important changes saw some counties and regional municipalities merge with their constituent local municipalities. As a result, the number of municipalities was reduced by more than 40 per cent between 1996 and 2004, from 815 to 445. In January of 2009, that number went to 444.

Amalgamations happened in Northern Ontario as well. There are no counties in the north. The typical amalgamation in the north involved the amalgamation of one or two municipalities and annexation of unincorporated territory.  A provincial governance review of four regions had resulted in the creation of 5 single tier municipalities: the Cities of Ottawa, Greater Sudbury, and Hamilton; and the Towns of Haldimand and Norfolk.

For more information on restructuring, click to Municipal Restructuring, Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

Other Municipal Groups
Municipalities have always looked for opportunities to implement more integrated systems of services inside municipal boundaries and between municipal neighbours. It just makes sense to work cooperatively and take advantage of administration and program efficiencies that make services work better for people at the local level.

Consolidation of municipal service management has resulted in the creation of 47 Consolidated Municipal Service Managers (CMSMs) across the whole province. In Northern Ontario, they are called District Social Services Administration Boards (DSSABs). In Southern Ontario, the CMSM area is frequently aligned along the upper tier boundary ( region or county) and does include a separated town or city if one exists within its geographic boundary. The service manager can be either the upper tier or the separated municipality.

Under municipal leadership, CMSMs are implementing a more integrated system of social and community health services for delivery of:

  • Ontario Works (welfare)
  • Child Care
  • Social Housing
  • Some CMSMs are also taking on responsibility for other services such as land ambulance services and public health.

Restructuring/Amalgamation Resources

Local histories of Ontario municipalities 1977-1987, a bibliography

Municipal Amalgamation in Ontario - Published on May 26, 2015. Lydia Miljan, Professor of Political Science, University of Windsor and Zachary Spicer, SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellow, Laurier Institute. Frasier Institute

Municipal restructuring - Find out how and why municipalities change their geographical boundaries. (Government of Ontario)

Municipal Restructuring - Includes list and maps of restructured municipalities. Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (AMCTO)

Municipal Restructuring since 1996 by County and Region - The Changing Shape of Ontario. Also includes Includes Ontario's boundaries 1774-1912 | Early Districts and Counties | Districts of Northern Ontario | Post-World War II Regional Municipal Governments | Maps of Southern Ontario circa 1951 by County | Maps of Southern Ontario circa 1951 by Geographical Location (Ontario Ministry of Public and Business Service Delivery)

What is Municipal Amalgamation? The Agenda | TVO Today

How Municipal Government Works in Ontario Ontario Municipal Elections Ontario Municipalities
How Local Government Works in Ontario Ontario Municipal Elections Ontario Municipalities