I wanted this one to be positive, to sing with the upraised voice of a vibrant, participatory democracy. Citizens, not taxpayers or stakeholders or customers, taking time out of their schedules, out of their lives to engage with their elected local representatives. Volunteer members from the city’s various communities, be it cycling, pedestrian, tenant advocacy, aboriginal support, those whose hobby it is to restore the Don River… yes, while you and I spend our free time on the Twitter or however else it is you spend your free time (but doesn’t everybody spend all their free time on the Twitter?)… there are dedicated groups of people who go and pitch in to help bring the Don River and its immediate surroundings back to life. All coming together to have their say in how business is being conducted at City Hall.
At issue yesterday (among other items) was a staff report from the City Manager brought before the mayor’s Executive Committee recommending the dissolution, decommissioning or reconsidering of 21 of the city’s 23 citizen advisory and working committees. “Advisory bodies are generally composed of a combination of Council members and members of the public. Working committees are composed solely of Council members to assist Council and its standing committees to accomplish specific tasks.” Now, this move is not out of the ordinary, as such committees are designated for the term of each council and these were from the previous term.
But the breadth of the suggested cuts and the lack of any replacement bodies gave the appearance that this administration isn’t all that concerned with citizen engagement. An administration dedicated, at least while the mayor was out on the campaign trail last year, to more transparency, more accountability, more respect for us, the taxpayers, Joe and Josephina Q. Public. Why the need to reduce the presence of citizen advisory committees? The report itself notes that there is no financial impact of this decision. So eliminating these committees wasn’t due to fiscal restraint although Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday has pointed out that there would be savings. “… [Citizen advisory committees] do cost something because we’re involving a lot of staff time that might be better off doing something else.” You see, it’s all about making the government ‘leaner’ according to the Deputy Mayor and apparently ‘leaner’ means less citizen involvement.
And nothing that happened at the committee meeting yesterday did much to dispel that notion. The room was packed for the meeting’s 9:30 start. Some 80 mailed submissions had been sent in from the public and there were over 40 deputants scheduled to speak. The first wrinkle came when the committee decided to deal with some other business first – the issue of the advisory councils was due up 3rd but Budget Chief Mike Del Grande asked for and got the votes to move an item with Section 37 benefits and development charges up. “We dealt with a couple of items we were told were going to be quick,” said Deputy Mayor Holyday, “and they weren’t.” He admitted that the move had been a mistake.
Now, I’m willing to give the Executive Committee the benefit of the doubt on this and not think they deliberately pushed back the item to take the wind out of the speakers’ sails. To make people wait and wait for their turn to be heard, perhaps a few of them with other things to do, other commitments, would be forced to leave before they had the opportunity to have their say. I’ll take the Deputy Mayor on word that that was not their intention. But it sure looked that way.
The quick items weren’t and the actual one that was scheduled to go before the advisory committee item, the Street Food Pilot Project, certainly didn’t wrap up swiftly which, frankly should’ve been expected. The fiasco that was the A La Cart program absolutely needs to be examined in depth to find out exactly what happened, how and if to compensate those who got caught up in excessive red tape and a not entirely well thought out process. This items shouldn’tve got short shrift and it didn’t.
By the time the committee took a break for lunch at 12:30, those still waiting to give their deputations on the advisory council item were told not to rush back, they probably wouldn’t be getting around to it until 3 p.m. 5 and a half hours after the meeting had started. Needless to say, there was some eye-rolling and grumbling in the crowd about intentions on the part of the committee to dampen their voices.
Those who did return after lunch or at 3, noticeably fewer than had left, discovered that estimate too was grossly off. There was more A La Cart discussions and then a timed item which had to dealt with before the committee could get the advisory council item. Which timed item, you ask? You’re going to love the double irony of this.
Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) – Response to Auditor General’s Report titled “Toronto Community Housing Corporation – Controls over Employee Expenses are Ineffective”.
That’s right. Now the Executive Committee had to hear from the Auditor General about the TCHC not 6 weeks, 2 months ago before the board was turfed, management dispatched and Case Otis installed as the supreme being. The urgency was all after the fact, long past when questionable decisions had been made.
The double irony? So urgent was this matter that the meeting had to be temporarily halted because there was no quorum. Yes, more than half of the Executive Committee were so desperate to hear what the Auditor General had to say about the TCHC spending scandal that they left the room. So speakers still present were further delayed as someone had to go off and drag an Executive Committee member back to the room to re-start the meeting.
Just before the stroke of 5, nearly 7 and a half hours after the meeting began, the first speaker to item EX 5.3 Council Advisory Bodies and Working Committees sat down in front of the Executive Committee.
Now, I am a cold-hearted bastard by nature. Very few things bring a tear to my eye or hope to my heart. There’s kittens and then there’s… yeah, kittens. That’s about it except when I witness plain, ordinary folk nervously take a seat in front of a group of politicians and civil servants just to let them know what they think. To get involved. To engage in the political process. It is a glorious thing to behold.
Yes, there were some smooth operators, lawyers and consultants among them, who were clearly comfortable in the spotlight. Those who had done this kind of thing before. But consider this. No one was there yesterday defending their piece of the pie. These were all people giving over their time and effort in hopes of persuading the Executive Committee to keep citizen advisory committees going on a volunteer basis. They weren’t asking for money. They were offering the city their help. For free.
People taking time off work to speak. People not at home to cook dinner for their family. People, in the words of one deputant, “… not against change” but who just “want to be a part of that change.”
I could go on at length but I’ll spare you my maudlin blubbering. The reception most of the speakers received was perfunctory at best. The members of the Executive Committee asked few questions, most of their attention turned to making sure enough of them were present to maintain a quorum. I don’t believe Councillors Mammoliti (probably off figuring ways to defund Pride) or Shiner were ever in the room during deputations. Councillor Kelly left early and Councillor Thompson, when he was present, spent most of it away from his chair talking to members of the press and the mayor’s staff. Citizen democracy wasn’t foremost in their minds.
Unsurprisingly, the City Manager’s report was passed and it will now be up to council to decide the fate of the advisory committees. It was a big fuck you to engaged citizens from the Ford administration. If you still believe that the mayor is listening to the little guy, you are clinically delusional.
Not all was doom and gloom, however. Just before the vote was held to adopt the staff report, after all the deputants had spoken, Councillor Jaye Robinson used her 5 minutes to speak to express concern about the details of the report. It was ‘light’, I believe she called it, meaning not fully thought out or explored. She then offered up a motion requesting a further review and exploration before proceeding with a decision. (Not being a journalist I’m scrambling to get a copy of the councillor’s motion. Will update as soon as I do.) This was significant for a couple reasons.
One, Councillor Robinson has not yet proven to be the most independent minded of councillors. A rookie on council, the perception so far has been that she operates under the mayor’s thumb, whipped into siding with him on important votes. That she offered up this motion running contrary to the mayor’s wishes at Executive Committee is a hopeful sign that she’s rankling under the weight.
And her motion last night was clearly flying in the face of what the mayor wanted. Once she put it forth, there was a behind the scenes scramble by the mayor’s staff, mainly Mark Towhey, the mayor’s Director of Policy and Strategic Planning. We watched as he coached Councillor Cesar Palacio (worth the price of admission itself) through an amendment to Robinson’s motion. But it didn’t appear to sit well, so the mayor called a quick recess where he huddled with the city clerk and some of this team. They came back, pulled Councillor Palacio’s amendment before going to a straight vote on Councillor Robinson’s motion.
It was defeated and the staff report was then passed as is but here’s the second significant point. The vote on Councillor Robinson’s motion was very close. Again, my non-journalist roots are showing through and I don’t have the exact numbers (will update when I get them) but I believe the vote went 6-4 against the motion. At the Executive Committee. The mayor’s handpicked team that, to date, has basically served as a rubber stamp for whatever it is he wants to do. Special commendation needs to go out not only to Councillor Robinson but also Councillors Denzil Minnan-Wong and Peter Milczyn (two of my least favourite councillors) who both stood firm in the face of the mayor’s icy stare in voting for Robinson’s motion.If there is this kind of split showing at the Executive Committee level, then the fissures under pressure for the mayor’s wider coalition at council must be immense. A close watch should be held on this item as it goes to council next month. If the mayor doesn’t have his way, it may be an indication that he simply can’t bully his agenda through and might be forced to start resorting to such tactics as negotiation and compromise, neither of which is his strong suit.
So maybe out of the ashes of yesterday’s Executive Committee soiling of civic engagement will come a new found democratic spirit at City Hall. Or at least, the autocratic tendency that Mayor Ford has displayed since coming to office will be just that much more difficult to wield effectively. If so, active citizen engagement will have played a large role in bringing that about.
– hope springs eternally submitted by Cityslikr