Our Place Initiative

February 27, 2015

Let me start this with as close an approximation to just-the-facts-ma’am as I can.

Our Place Initiative is a local, grassroots campaign built on the idea of developing and encouraging civic engagement in Etobicoke. ourplaceinitiative“We believe that it is important that decisions are made in the public interest and reflect the needs of the Etobicoke community,” from the group’s mission statement. “Choices that impact our health, our jobs, and our livelihood should be made with community input. But in order for it to happen, a community needs to be engaged on the issues and provided with the opportunity to learn more about them, if they choose.”

Begun in mid-2013, the group became active in 2014 and last night held its first public meeting. There was a surprisingly strong turnout, surprising because this is Etobicoke. (Oops, a little editorial spin snuck out there – more on that later.) Some 40 people filled a committee room at the Etobicoke Civic Centre on a, frankly, numbingly cold Thursday evening, suggesting that OPI just might be tapping into a potent if up until now latent local desire to get engaged.

If there’s a more appropriate symbol of what local engagement can achieve, it was the guest presenter at the meeting, Sabina Ali. sabinaaliChair of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, Ms. Ali’s been active locally pretty much from the moment she moved to Toronto in 2008. The list of quality of life improvements TPWC has worked as a force toward, sometimes in spite of the resistance shown by the city, is nothing short of amazing. She earned a Jane Jacobs Award for her work, work that shows no signs of ebbing. “I work with passion and really love doing that,” Ali told the group near the end of her talk.

A passionate engagement for community building.

The word ‘community’ came up a lot last night. After breaking the crowd up into some 5 working groups to brainstorm ideas on how to improve Etobicoke, something of a general thematic consensus emerged around that word. Community centres, community events, building a sense of community. One participant wanted not to have to always go downtown for entertainment, restaurants, culture, a sense of nightlife. No matter where people are in the city, it’s not just someplace they live or work. communityThey want to be part of it, part of a community.

There were certainly specific thoughts about how to improve Etobicoke from the group. Transit – surprise, surprise – figured prominently in the conversation. What was a surprise (that previous ‘surprise, surprise’ was sarcastic, in case that wasn’t clear), was that, here we were in the middle of the quintessential suburb and there was almost no talk of traffic or congestion. People wanted better public transit.

Residents also wanted more say about the kind of development that was happening in Etobicoke, especially in the southern portion from Bloor Street down to the lake. While I probably heard only one voice speak out against development as a thing, most were concerned that the condo boom was simply being imposed on them. That’s no way to build any sense of community.

If it hadn’t been clear to me before last night, it became obvious that when we talk about Etobicoke, it isn’t just one place, a solid hegemonic mass of sameness. getinvolvedCrudely, you could carve it up into 3 parts. There’s the traditional single-family home residential section where we were in central Etobicoke at the civic centre. Then there’s the booming development third in the south, a place with increasingly as much affinity to the downtown core as it has with the rest of Etobicoke. Then there’s the northern portion, industrial and largely working-class, as diverse an area as any in the city, that has largely been left to fend for itself, little or no official community building tools at its disposal.

Like I said, that’s a really, really rough outline. The lines of demarcation are hardly that stark. Still, there is no one size fix fits all for Etobicoke. Ideas, solutions, opportunities are as plentiful as the people who live there. Which is why residents should be more involved in the issues affecting their families and neighbourhoods. They need to be engaged.

Bringing me to the editorial aspect of this. The views and opinions expressed from here on in no way reflect those of Our Place Initiative. Just observations made by an outsider.robfordebay

Etobicoke suffers from a representation deficit. There is little evidence of wide-scale civic engagement because their local politicians haven’t really sought to engender such a thing. This is Ford country remember. The councillor (and former mayor) wants to hear from his residents only if they have a complaint to make or problem to be solved. It’s kind of a one-way relationship. While he claims this approach is just him looking out for the little guy in reality it has more to do with providing proof that government doesn’t really work.

Etobicoke is also the former fiefdom of Doug Holyday, the anti-tax/small government mentor of the Fords. There wasn’t a dollar of City Hall spending he didn’t suspect unnecessary. It’s not that engagement has to cost money but proactive involvement with residents and communities means staff time and, maybe, the odd pot of coffee. That smacked a little too much of waste.

The 3 incumbent Etobicoke councillors returned to office last October wouldn’t jump to the top of the list of community engagers. Aside from Rob Ford in Ward 2, Mark Grimes in Ward 6 spends time appearing in promotional videos for developers in his ward. Vince Crisanti in Ward 1, he… well, he…I don’t know what he does, actually.

Councillor Vincent Crisanti

Councillor Vincent Crisanti

While I’ll withhold judgement on the 3 new councillors, I’m not holding my breath in anticipation of a new type of representative at City Hall.

Stephen Holyday is the son of aforementioned Doug Holyday and he hasn’t shown any signs of having fallen far from the tree. In fact, last night’s meeting was in his ward and there was no sign of him or his staff. Ward 4’s John Campbell and Ward 5’s Justin DiCiano put in woeful performances last week at the Budget Committee although I will cut Councillor Campbell some slack as an assistant from his office did attend last night’s meeting and participated very enthusiastically.

With such a paucity of leadership (again, in my opinion), it’s going to take a concerted effort from the grassroots up to create an environment of engagement. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen. You can’t wish it into existence.

Based on last night’s meeting, Our Place Initiative has ably accepted the challenge of leading the charge. You don’t have to live in Etobicoke to be excited by that prospect. You should, however, follow along and take notes. It looks to be the start of something truly… ahem, ahem…engaging.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


Wheeling And Dealing

February 25, 2015

Evidently, it didn’t pass the smell test.smelltest

Last Friday, Mayor John Tory raised more than a few eyebrows (and some hackles) when he announced two corporations were donating the $200,000 the city needed to keep some outdoor skating rinks open for a few more weeks. “Ummm, what?” I believe my response was upon hearing the city’s private contractor for waste collection, Green4Life, was one of those corporations. (Overcome with the case of the dizzys, I was, when news broke later that the Rogers co-owned MLSE was the other donor.)

I wrote about my concerns with this too, too cozy arrangement a couple days ago, wondering if it passed some ethical/conflict smell test. Yesterday we got the answer.

Green4Life announced that ‘After consulting with City staff about the rules around sponsorships’, they decided to ‘voluntarily withdraw’ their offer ‘so as not to affect current procurement processes.’ embarrassedIn other words, they’d really love to help keep the rinks open but they’ve got that corporate maw to feed.

Is it me or shouldn’t ‘consulting with City staff about the rules around sponsorships’ have sort of been the mayor’s job before rushing to go public with the details? Smell this. Does it smell funny to you? Maybe I shouldn’t go out wearing it in public, you think?

As Councillor Gord Perks pointed out in the wake of this, the city actually has a process in place to be followed for sponsorship deals. “Section 6.2,” the councillor tweeted. “To fit with Code of Conduct ONLY authorized City staff can solicit or negotiate a sponsorship agreement. Council members can’t.” Council members can’t. If Mayor Tory spearheaded these deals to keep the rinks open, did he contravene Code of Conduct rules in doing so? “Section 6.3 ,” the councillor continued. “Unsolicited offers are to be referred to the relevant City Staff.” More: “Section 6.9 All sponsorship agreements must be documented. If over $50K, legal services should be included in reviewing the agreement.” Still more: “6.11 In most circumstances, Council must approve the agreement.”lessons

Did the mayor’s office follow any of these rules in securing the sponsorship deals to keep the skating rinks open?

“Everyone gets a case of the hiccups”, Mayor Tory said in response to Green4Life’s about face. What are you going to do? A rookie mistake.

Maybe. Maybe. It’s just hard to fathom no one around the mayor red flagged this thing. Someone sensing there might be, at best, some bad optics with it and, at worst, actual breaking of the Code of Conduct rules. Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, perhaps, who’s been around the block a time or two, more than 20 years of elected municipal service under his belt. His response? Great idea, boss! Let’s go skating!

You’d think that right at the top of Mayor Tory’s Not To Do list would be avoiding the appearance of any conflicts of interest, keeping talk of impropriety or backroom shenanigans to a minimum. What with the goings-on at City Hall during the last 4 years and the previous administration. Keep everyone’s noses clean, at least for the first little while.

You’d think.

No matter. Water under the bridge. And there’s always more fish in the sea especially for the man with a full-to-bursting rolodex.johntoryonice

Plan B (generously speaking) came at another skating rink with the mayor revealing that Tim Horton’s (Timmies, to their friends) would step into the donor void left by Green4Life, chipping in $100,000 to help keep the rinks open. Problem solved. Done, and done. The private sector gallantly to the rescue again. Everything above board, clean as a whistle and legit now.

Except that…

“If Tim Horton’s is the new outdoor rink sponsor,” Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler tweeted, “they’re active lobbyists (as recent as Feb. 10).” Jude MacDonald pointed out further information from the Tim Horton’s lobbyist registrar page, showing that some of the subject matter the company signed up to lobby on was “City Policies relating to Economic Growth, Regulatory Issues; Blue Box Program; Drive-Through policy.”

So, we have this restaurant chain of the ‘quick service’ variety, talking to city officials about city policy concerning issues directly affecting them. ‘Blue Box Program’? Where do I throw away this coffee cup anyway? Garbage? Recycling? The lid in one, the cup in the other? What? ‘Drive-Through policy’?! quagmireAll those nasty emissions from idling cars waiting in the drive-through line. Fine. But now they’re donating $100,000 to keep some city run skating rinks open?

I’m not alone in finding this deal more than a little unsettling, am I?

I tried to state my leeriness about it in a few 140 character outbursts yesterday. Let’s see if I can string the thoughts together here.

If a company wants to do business with or is already doing business with the city, or wants to have some say, influence even, in how the city conducts its business, it strikes me that company shouldn’t be in the business of donating money to help the city go about its business. How is that not somehow greasing something that ought not to be greased? There may be some out there who believe fully in the goodness of the corporate heart. keepyourdistanceI’m just a person who thinks corporations don’t really have hearts, only bottom lines.

Maybe we should work to keep things like the operation of skating rinks in house and stop being dependant on the continued goodwill of upstanding corporate citizens to help effectively run this city. Decrease the overlap of the public and private sectors. Wouldn’t it be a whole lot less ethically messy that way?

helpfully submitted by Cityslikr


The Toryfication of Fordism

February 23, 2015

corporateloveI guess if you’re born and bred in the lap of corporate exegesis, your family, almost the very definition of Bay Street lawyerliness and a career spent near the helm of a private sector titan, it would be impossible for you to imagine any downside to a philanthropic hand-out to help out the city in a time of need. You want to keep some skating rinks open for the rest of the winter? Show me the money.

It’s just what good corporate citizens do. Strings attached? Come on. Stop being so cynical. Quid pro quo? I don’t even know what that means. Buyer beware?

So when it became known again this year that some city run skating rinks would be closing for the season yesterday (skating rinks, closing on February 23rd, February 23rd), noveltychequeMayor John Tory quickly flipped through his batphone rolodex and found two willing corporations happy to do their part. Green 4 Life and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment both cut the mayor a cheque for $100,000, thereby keeping the doors to an additional 12 rinks open until spring officially arrives in town. 3 cheers for the good guys! Hip-hip-hooray, etc., etc.

The mayor didn’t seem to so much as pause to consider the, I don’t know, optics, let alone implications of such a financial arrangement. Both companies have fairly substantial dealings with the city. murkyGreen 4 Life is the private contractor that collects nearly half of Toronto’s trash and recycling. It’s not exactly been a smooth relationship, and with the possibility of opening up the rest of the city to private bidding in the near future, the company may well factor into that as well. MLSE just secured a $10 million loan from the city to renovate BMO stadium, home to the TFC soccer team, owned by, you guessed it, MSLE which itself is substantially owned by telecom behemoth, Rogers, a company the mayor was recently some sort of director mucky-muck of and remains as part of the Rogers family trust. In fact, Mayor Tory had to step outside council chambers during December’s meeting due to a vote on an MLSE owned restaurant.

So you start to get a sense of the murkiness of all this. But wait. There’s more.

Over at Spacing today, John Lorinc writes of a one-on-one meeting between the mayor and the CEO smelltest(and Tory campaign donor) and head of government relations of Bell Inc. just this past January to discuss the ‘unhelpful boilerplate’ of the city’s lobbyist registry. Bell, another telecom giant, is also a co-owner of MLSE, owner of TFC, blah, blah, blah, see two paragraphs above. According to Lorinc, no one has said whether these rink donations were run by any of the city’s oversight and accountability officers to see if they, at the very least, passed some sort of smell test. It’s all been very much, these are friends of Mayor Tory, and any friend of the mayor’s is a friend of the city.

Lorinc writes:

It’s also possible that Tory, who has spent his entire adult/professional life functioning in that rarefied world where corporate, social and philanthropic circles intersect, is simply doing what comes naturally, so to speak – making big money asks of prominent donors and networks of well-connected executives.

“Doing what comes naturally”. Rather than figure out a way to deal with the city’s structural fiscal deficit that leads annually to these sort of funding shortfalls, Mayor Tory makes a couple phone calls to those dwelling in the “corporate, social and philanthropic circles” he’s been running in all his life. Leadership means knowing how to make that big corporate ask and having the connections to be able to do it.

Why bother asking hardworking taxpayers to pay to run their city properly wgladhandinghen the private sector will chip in around the edges?

I think we’ve already reached that point in John Tory’s mayoralty when we get to start asking, What would be the reaction if Rob Ford did this? If, while serving as mayor, Rob Ford cuddled up to a major private provider of a city’s service and asked for some money to help keep rinks open? What if Rob Ford tapped a company he had more than a passing interest in, and that also had a financial relationship with the city, for a little spending cash to help the city out?

What if Rob Ford tried to pull off an unorthodox financial manoeuvre, like the current mayor is attempting to do, in order to balance the operating budget and avoid a serious discussion about revenue tools? A move even the city’s CFO admitted last week was going to cost more in the long run than if we simply adjusted the property tax rate to cover the $86 million budget hole now.

My guess is there’d be a little more vocal pushback. It’s not so much that Mayor Tory is operating with a bit of a honeymoon halo, given the benefit of doubt and a little more time on the job. twofacesHe convinced us throughout the campaign that he was a sound businessman with a sound understanding of numbers. Prudent, he’d be. Fiscally mindful and wise.

Except that, what we’ve seen so far is little more than an attempted institutionalisation of the Ford low tax, more efficiencies, anti-government mantra. The city has a spending not a revenue problem with a nicer haircut. An uncomfortable cozying up to the private sector and special interests who make money from the city and give money to the elected officials who help facilitate that transaction.

It’s simply Rob Ford with better pedigree and a more extensive rolodex. You can try and mask it with a nice cologne but the stink doesn’t really go away.

disapprovingly submitted by Cityslikr


How High Sir?

February 19, 2015

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 17 million times.

You want to fix City Hall? Start electing better city councillors. upthehillEasier said than done, for sure, given the disheartening results of last year’s municipal campaign. Thirty-seven of thirty-eight incumbents returned to office including one still under the cloud of a police investigation. Another, Frank Di Giorgio in Ward 12 York South Weston.

The councillor was on Metro Morning today along with another former budget chief, Shelley Carroll, to talk about the city’s need for more revenue, new revenue tools. “Do you think we need new taxes, Frank Di Giorgio?” asked the show’s host, Matt Galloway. Here’s how the councillor responded:

Not at this point. I think certainly, I think the one thing that’s important in the immediate future is that we have to support the mayor…

Say what?

That’s what’s important in the immediate future? City council needs to support the mayor? [Begins flipping frantically through the city’s Code of Conduct for Members of Council. Must support the mayor…Must support the mayor….] fealtyNope. Not seeing that stipulation.

Councillor Di Giorgio has been a local representative for almost 30 years now, at City Hall in amalgamated Toronto since 2000. This is the sum of all his civic wisdom. “I think one thing that’s important in the immediate future is that we have to support the mayor.”

If the councillor actually believes that — and he’s not alone in that way of thinking, sadly, in talking to a candidate during last year’s election who was running against another deadweight incumbent, I was told that a few years earlier in discussing with the councillor why he had voted a certain way, he was told that, You gotta support the boss — why bother with city council races in the first place? Just elect a mayor, be done with it. No messy debates to deal with, rubber stamp city council meetings, items all passed with a waxed red royal seal.

Parsing Councillor Di Giorgio’s go along to get along logic a little further, consider his 2014 re-election. At Marshall’s Musings, Sean Marshall has done fantastic work breaking down the numbers October’s election. waxsealA look at the results in Ward 12 shows that less than one in five voters there voted for John Tory. The councillor fared little better, garnering under 30% of the popular vote where just over 1300 ballots separated him from the 4th place challenger.

So, less than one in three voters gave Councillor Di Giorgio a mandate to unwaveringly support a mayor who fewer than one in five Ward 12 voters backed? It’s how first-past-the-post elections work, I get it, but it’s almost as if the councillor thinks we have some sort of presidential system at City Hall, though. The Big Guy wins. You fall in line behind the Big Guy.

Councillor Di Giorgio’s views on such ring-kissing fealty to the mayor also extends to city staff. As Jude MacDonald reminded me, back during the last administration when the councillor was still TTC commissioner and voted to fire then-CEO Gary Webster, he had his reasons. “Excellence in bureaucracy means the ability to perform tasks that are consistent with leaders of a corporation, the leaders of a city,” he declared. “It’s the ability to put forward positions that are consistent with positions adopted by the mayor.”

Your councillor for Ward 12 York South Weston, folks.  Frank Di Giorgio.

So, city councillors are elected to merely to serve at the pleasure of the mayor. Such passiveness from Di Giorgio extends to the city’s dealings with the province evidently. jumphighhowDuring the Metro Morning discussion, he said exploring the idea of more revenue tools will simply let the province off the hook for paying their share of stuff like social housing. They’ve already stopped paying, Councillor Carroll pointed out. That’s why the city’s scrambling to plug the hole in its operating budget. That’s why we need to a discussion about new revenues. It’s all on us now.

The councillor was having none of it. No need to rush. We already have revenue tools in the arsenal, like the Land Transfer Tax which is bringing in substantial amounts of money to the city coffers. Maybe we could milk some more from that cash cow. If not, the City of Toronto Act is coming up for renewal in a few years, 2018 or so. Let’s revisit this discussion then. In the meantime, don’t ‘undermine the mayor’s initiatives’ because that would be ‘dangerous’. Loose lips sink ships, I guess.

Councillors like Frank Di Giorgio are throwbacks to an era when municipalities were little more than wards of the province, where we were given the property tax to play with, to largely pay for local initiatives, roads, sewers, maybe a portion of public transit. A time when the province contributed substantially more to the overall operations of this city than it sees fit to now. As Councillor Carroll (as well as the city manager, Joe Pennachetti) pointed out, Toronto is a big boy now, closing in on 3 million people. asleeponthejobIt’s time we put on our big boy pants and realize we’ve been pushed out of the nest.

Provincial contributions to the well-being of this city will be grudging and probably when it is only politically advantageous for them to do so. We can act like two year-olds and hold our breath until we turn blue in the face in hopes of changing their attitude but, well, umm, I wouldn’t…hold my breath. But that’s what Mayor Tory has in mind, and loyal foot soldiers like Councillor Di Giorgio see it as his job to follow the mayor’s marching orders.

After all, that’s what he’s been doing for three decades now. That’s what he was elected to do.

at your servicely submitted by Cityslikr


Already Tired Of Tory’s Timid Toryness

February 18, 2015

Two articles written last week underlined the fundamental problem facing this city right now. Simply put, we have a crisis of leadership. neroIt manifests itself in all that isn’t working, people freezing to death in the streets, crumbling infrastructure, substandard public transit. These failures, though, can all be traced back to a consistent failure at the top.

After the spectacular implosion of the radical Rob Ford experiment of misgovernance, Toronto desperately looked around for an upgrade in competence in the mayor’s office. John Tory, we were told, was just the ticket. Competent – no, prudent! – yet bold. He was a successful businessman, top gun at a huge corporation, shortform for possessing a supreme fitness to lead the city from the crack-dazed darkness of the last 4 years.

Career politicians got us into this mess. Only stood to reason that a giant from the private sector was needed to clean it up. Because, that’s how the world works.

Post-election, a flurry of activity signified that business was being tended to, being taken care of. Cars were towed. likeachickenwithitsheadcutoffBus service increased. Mayor Tory got to work early, got down to busy-ness. Hey. Did you hear? The mayor’s having another press conference.

That’s how you run a city, yo.

Correction:

That’s how you look like you run a city.

In comparison to his predecessor, John Tory just had to show up without soup stains on his tie and having not obviously wet himself to immediately earn the mantle of competency. The bar was that low. Policy ideas were secondary to appearances.

Even beauty pageants, however, consist of more than just the swimsuit competition. Stuff needs getting done. Decisions have to be made, some significant. Like say, budgeting.

robforddrunk

As David Hains wrote in the Torontoist Saturday:

There are no good choices in the budget, and it is time to wake up to why that is the case and what that means. There is a much bigger discussion to have here: Toronto needs to talk about the fact that there is a structural deficit, and that it is also willing to acknowledge that things cost money, particularly the cost of making responsible decisions. If we fail that, we will see Toronto go from budget crisis to budget crisis, pulling out its hair until it wonders how it became bald.

Like every other previous mayor of the city, John Tory has numbers to deal with, big numbers. He has to decide what to fund, what to build, what to repair, what programs and services to maintain, expand or cut. Like every other previous mayor of the city, John Tory will be constrained by the fact there’s only so much money to go around, that on the annual operating side of things, he has to balance the books. shellgameLike every other previous mayor of the city, John Tory must make some tough choices.

Turns out, Mayor Tory isn’t like every other previous mayor of the city. He’s going to spare himself the trouble of making tough choices. He’s going to pretend like there’s another way of going about business at City Hall. His choices “represent…a methodical, responsible approach to budgeting.” Carve out some cash from capital expenditures to plug the hole on the operating side. Hike user fees to help pay for some of the increases in services. Keep property taxes ‘at or below the rate of inflation’. Nix talk of any new revenues. Demand 2% in efficiencies from city departments.

Done and done.

Responsible. Methodical. Prudent. Competent.

Except, it is none of those things. In a word, as Mr. Hains suggests in his article, ‘wrong’.

Mayor Tory is ducking a systemic fiscal problem in the hopes of some magical appearance of money from the other two levels of government sometime down the road. sweepundertherugMoney both Queen’s Park and Ottawa should be handing over in the areas of transit and affordable housing at the very least but money they’ve shown little inclination in handing over for years, decades now. Money the mayor should definitely be pushing for but money he should definitely not be counting on.

It’s like planning your life around the expectation of a relative dying and leaving you some money sometime down the road.

Not what you’d classically consider responsible, methodical, prudent or competent.

And then there’s the mayor’s bold transit plan, SmartTrack.

As John Lorinc pointed out in his Spacing article last week, we’re not even close to knowing what the price tag of that thing’s going to be or what portion the city’s going to have to come up with. Tory’s campaign-driven funding scheme, TIF, is another complete mystery, untested as it is on such a scale. Never mind how much the proposed eastern section of it while overlap with the Scarborough subway extension that he has tried to keep clear of. questionsquestionsquestions(Let’s not re-open that debate no matter how dumb and financially onerous it may turn out to be.)

Whatever its merits may be, aside from threatening to blow the city through its debt ceiling limit and, with that, future construction and repairs of, well, pretty much everything else, SmartTrack also looks as if it could further delay much needed transit building in Toronto. What if, in a year’s time when staff reports come back and questions arise about the viability of both SmartTrack and the Scarborough subway, “a kind of supercollider for Toronto’s latest transit ambitions,” Lorinc writes? Imagine that pitched battle at city council.

Subways, subways, subways versus SmartTrack, SmartTrack, SmartTrack!

And the shovels remain firmly unplanted in the ground.

After 4 years of paralytic, farcical uncertainty on the transit file, Mayor Tory has simply upped the ante instead of bringing clarity or even a semblance of sanity to it. magicbeansIn campaigning for the job, he refused to risk any loss of support by coming out against the Scarborough subway while offering up another fanciful transit plan that may well ensure the subway turns out to be nothing more than a costly white elephant. That’s political calculation not leadership.

It isn’t responsible, methodical, competent or prudent either.

In barely under three months, John Tory has fully revealed himself to be nothing more than just another small-time, parochial politician who is using this fiscal crisis (yes, it is a crisis) to diminish the city’s ability to deal with it rather than strengthen its hand. Why? Either he’s a committed small government ideologue or he possesses a steadfast aversion to making hard choices. Probably a healthy dose of both.

Whatever the reason, we need to stop expecting him to be anything other than an obstacle going forward, another failed experiment in the mayor’s office.

hands wipingly submitted by Cityslikr


Sick of Transit Inglorious Bumbling

February 10, 2015

If someone had said to me back in October 2013 after our city council had just narrowly voted to scuttle the planned Scarborough LRT extension of the Bloor-Danforth line in favour a subway that we’d be back debating it in early 2015 even with a new administration in place, my response probably would have been, Fer sure, dude. illbebackNot just because Toronto has a history of protracted, feisty, divisive transit debates. But because this Scarborough subway decision was idiotic, politically cynical, and hostage to the loudest, most ill-informed voice in the room.

So yeah. Let’s keep rehashing this fucker. Keep banging the pans until maybe we get this right. Maybe get it right.

I want the subway defenders up on their feet again, massaging ridership numbers. I want to hear their outraged indignation at the price tag of the sunk costs for cancelling the LRT, numbers we all knew going in. I want city staff to tally up those numbers, line by agonisingly detailed line, publicly, so we can all hear what we’re paying for not to have.

I want to hear again how world class cities make monumentally bone-headed infrastructure decisions purely to placate a handful of self-interested politicians who are willing to sacrifice the good of the wider city for nothing more than parochial pandering. notpossibleWorse yet, misguided pandering it would seem.

And let’s hear from our new mayor who, during last year’s campaign, blithely shrugged off Scarborough subway-vrs-LRT questions with an unconcerned We’ll Not Reopen That Debate Again. Uh huh. That debate, she be reopened again, Mr. Mayor.

Since it is, what will the mayor say when it’s pointed out (and it will be pointed out) that his own signature transit plan, SmartTrack, puts further stress on the already dubious viability of a Scarborough subway extension, the southeastern section of it possibly eating into ridership?

Or maybe he’ll address the lost money in sunk costs, some $75-85 million, coming out of this year’s budget, roughly the same amount he needs to balance that budget. That really worth not reopening this debate, I wonder? Just going along to get along is what passes for fiscal prudence these days, I guess.

It’s never too late tnotlisteningo rewrite a mistake, especially this early in the process. As far as I know, the signed Master Agreement between the city and Metrolinx remains in place. We already know what’s going to happen if it gets opened up. Subways for everybody! This madness could be stopped.

Do I expect it too?

Not really. There’s too much vested interest in place, beyond just at City Hall to see at least the subway extension happen. It’s hard to imagine a mass Paul on the road to Damascus moment with this.

Still, stranger things have happened on the floor of council when things heat up. The October 2013 vote was a close one, some of the prime subway supporters have moved on or seen their status diminished. onemoretimeThere may be a big enough opening on hand for one or two of the fence-sitters to change their minds without losing face. Maybe a few of the council newcomers might want to make their mark by not joining in on the stupidity, not falling into line and shouldering the burden of cleaning up the mess they weren’t responsible for creating.

It may be the height of insanity to demand another transit do-over with the expectation of a different outcome. Magical subway thinking has taken a strong hold on common sense in this debate. But given the costs at stake in pursuing this ridiculous blunder, it’s worth a try.

smooth sailingly submitted by Cityslikr

 


Book Club V

January 30, 2015

For John Barber & Jamie Bradburn

Unless it’s Miss Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads block-rockingly telling me, I’m not one to embrace the history repeats itself trope. It gives too much agency over to this beyond our control notion of fate, of the march of time blindly spinning its wheels, oblivious to any sense of direction from us. revengeofthemethodistbicyclecompanyWe’re absolved of responsibility. Hey. Authoritarianism is on the rise again. Oh well. It’s just history repeatin’!

I’d argue that any sense of déjà vu we may experience in terms of current affairs is the result of our obstinate inability to learn from the past, from the mistakes we made, grievances we hold, just all `round stupid-head pettiness we cannot, will not let go of. We make history. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, yeah, history does seem like it might be repeating itself.

So you wanna talk endless Scarborough subway debates? Let me tell you about the late-19th-century struggle to run streetcars on Sundays in Toronto. We do have a way here of turning public transit decisions into pitched, prolonged battles.

The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company by Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles tells the story of the almost decade long back-and-forth it took to bring streetcar service into operation on the Lord’s Day. There are very few good guys in the book. Corruption runs rampant. Vested business interests infect almost every level of public life. Religious fervor masks class divisions. Toronto the Good? Maybe not. Toronto the good yarn?

Huh? Huh?

Horse-drawn trolley/streetcars started up along Toronto streets in 1861. A 30 year franchise to run the service was granted to a private consortium, Toronto Street Railway Company. horsedrawntrolleyAs will surprise very few people these days, the relationship between the company and the local government wasn’t always smooth. There were constant disputes over who was obligated to do what (maintain the street tracks, for one) and who was owed what as a slice of the farebox. Your basic P3 dynamics.

Sunday streetcar service was one item rarely put on the table for discussion. It was a no-go from the outset. A deal breaker.

The grip of religion on the city as portrayed in the book was a revelation to me. The City of Churches, Toronto was sometimes dubbed. I vaguely remember the Sunday shopping brouhaha, back when I first moved to the city in the mid-80s. Sunday blue laws were deep and long abiding.

Religion also delineated much of the class structure of the city at the time. Protestantism was where the power lie, with well over 75% of the population swinging in that direction. torontorailwaycompanyticket1As Armstrong and Nelles point out in the book’s postscript, the fight over Sunday streetcar service was really about maintaining control of the city levers of power as much as it was keeping the Sabbath holy.

The fight too served to shine a light on just how corrupt politics in the city was at the time. How corrupt? Giorgio Mammoliti, by a few fold. Almost anyone and everyone, involved in this story, had a price and could be bought. Even among the proclaimed faithful money changed hands to sway decisions and elections. Christian values remained in the church, to be unsullied by everyday affairs. Unto Caesar and all that.

How corrupt are we talking?

In the 3rd and final vote on the Sunday streetcar issue (the one finally won by the pro side), there were allegations some men – pluggers, they were called, professional voters – cast as many as 25 ballots. Newspapers were paid to run favourable coverage. torontowards1890You might even call them advertorials. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of $11,000 was paid by the Toronto Street Railway Company to the various city newspapers to win that last vote.

Corruption hung so heavily around the workings of local politicians that, in 1891 when the company’s streetcar franchise lease was ending, any notion of making public transit a publicly run system was largely dismissed out of hand. Let the politicians make their fortunes from it? Leave that to private enterprise.

The devious doings surrounding the awarding of the new streetcar franchise told in all the gory detail in The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company led to the McDougall Investigation and the beginnings of a reform movement in the structure of Toronto’s governance. But not before another class struggle between those wanting fewer, ‘right thinking’ men appointed to an executive style board of control whose decisions could only be overturned by a 2/3s majority of city council and those looking to further expand democracy beyond the current restrictive bounds. horsedrawntrolley1An agreement was reached with a board of control appointed by council from amongst their elected ranks. The hope was to take the big decisions, especially those ones involving big infrastructure projects, out of the clutches of pure ward based horse-trading.

Sound familiar?

There was also the hope that civic reform might result in more fresh blood being elected to council. Again, modern readers will recognize such a thing is easier said than done. The first mayor and 3 man board of control established after the change were all very familiar faces on the scene.

Other feelings of things never changing crop up throughout the book. Penny-pinching Presbyterians certainly rings familiar right now during yet another budget debate over how to do things without spending any money. Although, back then, residents were rightly concerned about being fleeced by their politicians. Today we’re just more miserly minded, I think.

Privilege and private interests imposing itself on the public will also remain constant over the past 125 years or so. Then it was about the streetcars. Today, look to the island airport expansion clash. torontorailwaycompanyticketWealth and control hovering around the city business is timeless, I guess.

Late Victorian Toronto also comes across in the book as unrecognizable to those of us living here now. Never mind the coming of electricity or the receding of religious rule. The city was abuzz with political engagement. Elections were held annually with short campaigns run over the Christmas holidays. Rallies were well-attended. One during the 3rd plebiscite on Sunday streetcar service had 5400 people show up. On election nights, crowds gathered outside newspaper offices to wait for the results.

Yes, only a small segment of the population officially “counted”. It was during this time that the right to vote was extended beyond merely property owning men to, well, men. Still, politics didn’t come across as a chore like it sometimes feels today. It seemed to be woven into the fabric of daily, civic life.

Or seen another way, maybe this was just an early display of Torontonians rallying around something they didn’t want. electrictrolleyNo to Sunday streetcars! No to Spadina Expressway! No to a bridge to the island airport! No to good governance (2010 edition). Toronto, a town, a city in spite of itself.

The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company is a quick, interesting read through a tumultuous time in the city’s history, as the pressures of industrialization and urbanization come down to bear on this otherwise sleepy, God-fearing borough. It does suffer from some repetition of election campaigns that didn’t really change all that much. And while it’s quaint to read about an era where satire and pointed political commentary came in the form of poetry, dreadfully bad poetry, there may be too many examples of it in the book.

It does leave one lingering question though. Has Toronto grown beyond the expectations English writer Rupert Brooke had of it when he travelled here a decade and a half after streetcars began running on Sundays? “It [Toronto] is all right,” the first chapter of the book opens with.  “The only depressing thing is that it will always be what it is, only larger…” Prophetic? It all depends on what day you ask.

historically submitted by Cityslikr


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 291 other followers