Another Photo Finish in Ward 26?

January 16, 2014

Just a quick clarification before I jump right into the next instalment of 15 Wards to Watch (Previous entries here and here.)reminder

This in no way should be interpreted as a list of worst councillors or bums that need to be tossed out. As I wrote at the beginning, if it were, the likes of councillors Frances Nunziata (Ward 11 York South-Weston) or Mark Grimes (Ward 6 Etobicoke-Lakeshore) would feature front and centre. While I’ve certainly weighted the calculations to reflect my opinion of the work councillors do at City Hall, it’s not what this about.

I’m looking at 15 wards that could be seriously contested in the upcoming municipal election based on a combination of councillor competency, the strength of their incumbency and the degree of their plurality in 2010. Obviously, high marks in category one is my way of subjectively skewing the results but as with the above mentioned councillors, primerincumbency and the ease of victory last time out also contribute.

Think of this as a primer, if you will. An All Fired Up in the Big Smoke guide to prospective candidates pondering a run for city council. The information contained within should be considered 85% reliable, 19 times out of 20.

*  *  *

Councillor John Parker (Ward 26 Don Valley West) seems like a nice guy. Well spoken, thoughtful and with a dry sense of humour. His biggest contribution to this term at city council has been in his role as Deputy Speaker. In what could only be best described as a perpetual and ongoing clusterfuck, Councillor Parker always brings a sense of calm, civility and decorum to the proceedings when he assumes the Speaker’s chair.soothing

It also should not be overlooked that he quietly helped derail Mayor Ford’s plan to bury the Eglinton crosstown for the entire length of the route including, somehow, as it crossed the Don Valley. “We’re buying LRTs and asking it to do what a subway does,” Councillor Parker said back in December 2011. “It’ll be the goofiest LRT line known to man.” Parker helped TTC chair Karen Stintz take control of the board from the mayor and oust Ford loyalists who’d turfed then TTC CEO (and LRT supporter) Gary Webster.

He then stood opposed to the TTC chair’s move to build a Scarborough subway her way and was very vocal on the council floor, speaking out against the ultimately successful bid to abandon the planned and paid for LRT replacement of the Scarborough RT with a subway. So he’s got transit working for him. texaschainsawmassacreAs long as you don’t consider cycling and walking an integral part of a transit network.

There’s the rub. Councillor Parker is still what you might call a fiscal conservative with an OK sensibility of city building but not outstanding. Money first. Ideas next.

And we cannot forget that he was a member of the Mike Harris government back in the 90s when subways were filled in, costs downloaded to the city and enforced amalgamation. Much of this burden we’re still living with currently. So it’s annoyingly ironic that here he is, a decade and a half later, contributing (or not) to cleaning up a mess he as an MPP helped create. Such a mess that Councillor Parker, during a 2012 budget debate, had the gumption to suggest was severe enough to force him to float visions of Detroit and Greece if we didn’t clean up our act.

John Parker is much smarter than that.johnparker

As mixed as I’d call his time at city council as, the real factor in making Ward 26 one to watch is his tenuous hold on it. He was first elected in 2006 with just over 20% of the popular vote. In 2010 in another tight race, this time a 3-way one, Parker increase his share popular vote share to over 31% but only 600 votes separated him from the 3rd place finisher.

Slight shifts in either of these elections would’ve kept him from winning. Is he as vulnerable this time out? While I’d think his profile has been elevated (always a plus for an incumbent) especially in his role as Deputy Speaker if nothing else, does it move in a favourable direction for him?

He’s certainly become increasingly vocal in his opposition to Mayor Ford to the point that during the ice storm cleanup cost debate, the mayor’s brother-councillor-campaign manager told Councillor Parker that he was pathetic and a joke. photofinishSo Parker might not want to count on any Ford Nation bump to help him out in a close race. That ship seems to have already sailed.

Will it matter?

I’ve said that regardless of what happens at the mayoral level, the mayor isn’t going to have long enough coat tails to settle many council races especially ones that aren’t in Etobicoke or Scarborough. So Ward 26 is Councillor John Parker’s to lose. Depending on who lines up against him and if there’s another vote split like occurred in both of Parker’s previous victories, I’m pretty comfortable in calling this one a nail biter.

helpfully submitted by Cityslikr


Has Anybody Seen Your Councillor, Ward 36?

January 10, 2014

On those very few occasions we are called upon to think about Councillor Gary Crawford (Ward 36 Scarborough Southwest), something like this immediately comes to mind.

blackout

No. That’s not quite right. Too much personality. It’s more like this.

whitebox

Tabula rasa. A blank slate. An empty space.

Three years into this councillor’s first term and I really have no idea what drives him, what compels him to serve at City Hall. He plays drums for a band that performs at Ford Fest BBQs. He painted a portrait of Mayor Ford that was commissioned by the mayor’s mom. These things we do know.mayorfordportrait1

Aside from that, pretty much bupkis. He’s like Councillor Mark Grimes (Ward 6 Etobicoke-Lakeshore) minus the bow tie and good ol’ boy charm.

I exaggerate slightly.

Councillor Crawford has stood up and generally spoken in favour of the arts and arts funding. He’s been the point man for the mayor on the self-congratulatory distribution of the increase in per capita arts spending from the court delayed billboard tax the previous administration initiated. He… uh… ummm… Did I mention the councillor plays drums in a band that performs at Ford Fest? He is also a painter, did I point that out already?

After that, well, it’s all…

whitebox

As a member of perhaps the two highest profile standing committees, Executive and Budget, you’d think we might’ve heard more from Councillor Crawford from time to time. But I swear to god. You can attend those meetings and never know the councillor’s in the room. He is. He sits there a lot. Doing what? I don’t know. Maybe just waiting to vote. Maybe dreaming of being Ringo Starr.

The councillor’s pretty close to mute during city council meetings as well. ringoWhen he does stand to speak or ask questions of staff, it’s very rarely memorable. The last thing I remember hearing from him was his support for a Scarborough subway. Pretty much par for the course for councillors from Scarborough.

So left to judge Councillor Crawford’s political views almost exclusively by the votes he casts at council (like I said, there’s not much else to go on), he veers pretty much hard right. He’s voted along with Mayor Ford over 80% of the time during the course of the entire term. Even during this terrible, terrible year for the mayor who’s wound up on the wrong side of many issues, Councillor Crawford has been right there with him over 3/4s of the time.

Compare that with fellow Scarborough councillors Michelle Berardinetti (Ward 35 Scarborough Southwest) and Paul Ainslie (Ward 43 Scarborough East), former strong allies, both of whom have created a gaping chasm of distance between themselves and the mayor now.

You can draw a couple conclusions from that.

One, Council Crawford puts loyalty to the mayor above all else. You don’t just turn your back on a guy because he’s going through a rough patch. notwithhimThere’s got to be a carrot and a stick. Vote to take away his powers and you paint a picture of him.

Second, Councillor Gary Crawford is an ideological far right conservative. Not as far right as the mayor or the mayor’s brother but still comfortably in that camp.

The question is, does that reflect the general feeling in his ward? His predecessor in Ward 36, Brian Ashton fell out with then mayor David Miller over the implementation of the Vehicle Registration and Land Transfer taxes and eventually resigned from the Executive Committee because of his opposition. But to think of Brian Ashton as a hardcore conservative, an ideological soul mate of the likes of Rob Ford is something of a stretch.

At this juncture in his tenure as first term councillor, that’s pretty much all Gary Crawford has. Being a strong ally of Mayor Rob Ford. What else is there? I’m all ears if anyone can think of anything else.

That’s a pretty thin and fraying string to hoist up his re-election bid with. Since Crawford barely squeaked into office in 2010, winning an open ward with just over 25% of the popular vote, you’d think he would’ve pieced together a stronger rope to swing on than that. I don’t know. defiantonesMaybe he busks on street corners in Ward 36, playing the drums and generating name recognition that way. Does those caricature drawings of passers-by in between sets. He certainly hasn’t established himself in any meaningful fashion in his role as councillor at City Hall.

You’d think residents would want their elected representative to contribute a little more to the life of the city than that.

curiously submitted by Cityslikr


Zazzing Our Way To A World Class City

April 19, 2013

Let me set aside Councillor Mark Grimes’ Las Vegas trip including a ‘back of house’ tour of MGM’s Bellagio hotel last summer as nothing more than unfortunate. As the casino debate was just beginning to ramp up, oceans11the chair of the Exhibition Place board – yes, that Exhibition Place where MGM would unveil ambitious plans to build their casino a few months later – decides to travel to the belly of the beast and subsequently raise all sorts of eyebrows just before a casino decision is to be made at city council. Bad optics, for sure. Terrible, very bad fucking optics.

But I’m going to take the councillor at his word when he tells us that the real reason he went to Las Vegas had nothing to do with casinos. The trip was a fact-finding mission that, according to David Rider of the Toronto Star, Councillor Grimes took in order “…to learn about a covered pedestrian mall with dazzling light show he wanted to emulate at Exhibition Place as a link to neighbouring Ontario Place.”

“The purpose of the trip was the Fremont Street Experience,” the councillor said. fremontstreetMr. Rider describes the Fremont Street Experience as “a five-block entertainment district with light and sound show, zip-lines and more that has helped revitalize the older part of downtown Las Vegas.”

This aspect of the councillor’s Vegas junket is what truly chills me to the bone.

It’s city building by zazz.

What exactly is ‘zazz’, you ask? (Just like Lisa Simpsons did.) I’ll tell you what zazz is. (Just like Lindsey Neagle told Lisa Simpson.) “Zing! Zork! Kapowza! Call it what you want, in any language it spells mazuma in the bank!”

In terms of city planning and development, zazz is putting empty spectacle ahead of personal connections to space or place. Zazz is fast food to slow cooking. Zazz reeks of desperation rather than inspiration.

Now look. I’ve got nothing against Las Vegas. I haven’t been in close to twenty years which is indicative of my level of interest in it, I guess. There are few other places in the world where you’re offered the opportunity of witnessing a white tiger bite a German magician in the head.

When it comes to urban planning ideas though? I’m sorry I have to follow this to its obvious conclusion but tell me you wouldn’t do the exact same. freemontstreetWhat goes on in Vegas, needs to stay in Vegas.

Take a look at this aerial view of the CNE grounds and Ontario Place from the Torontoist earlier this year. Fort York over to the east. The southern reaches of Parkdale in the northwest. Ponder all the possibilities that could be.

Now, is your first response to developing Exhibition Place all light shows and tribute bands? Gowan’s Strange Animals (and Other Oddities). A Foot in Cold Lakefront Water. Fast GO Train: Songs of April Wine.

This isn’t vision so much as revision. There’s this really cool place I like to go to. Why don’t we try to create something just like it closer to home? We’re not attempting to adopt an idea. We’re trying to ape a marketing concept.

It’s building commercial public space in lieu of simply public space.fearandloathing

Toronto’s a big place. There’s plenty of room for both types of commons. Yonge-Dundas Square fits into the surrounding retail environment. Because we have the CNE for three weeks every year doesn’t necessarily mean we should turn the area into a non-stop party zone.

Wait. I have another one. Alanis Morissette: Isn’t It Ironic… See, it’s actually Alanis Morissette performing in a tribute band to Alanis Morissette, Isn’t It Ironic. Hey! She didn’t know the meaning of the word either.

As Michael Cruikshank of York Heritage Properties pointed out at a casino information session last month, the city’s left itself vulnerable to these kinds of machinations and spiels due to its lingering lack of bigger plans for the Exhibition Place site. The zazz appeal of a Fremont Street Experience is easy to see. Glitz. Glamour. waynenewtonWorld Class Destination that looks great in a tourism brochure. Retailing of the public sphere, and it won’t cost us a dime.

If Councillor Grimes really wants to make the best decision about the fate of Exhibition Place, maybe he should also take the time to travel to cities that weren’t seduced by dollar signs and simulations of big city life. It might not be as exciting or offer up ‘back of house’ tours of grand spectacles but it could provide alternatives to the prevailing notion in certain quarters of City Hall right now that the folks are only looking for Vegas-style entertainment when they head out on the town. Sometimes people want a little more than bread-and-circuses.

 – Newtonianly submitted by Cityslikr


Where It All Starts

April 14, 2013

Etobicoke York Community Council.

You know, if we could ever convince enough people that involvement in matters of city planning, revenue generation or affordable housing was as important to them as their neighbour’s fence and available parking, fenceheightswe would have a very actively engaged citizenry.

It is amazing (and I use the word in all its non-pejorative meaning) the dedication residents display to matters that directly affect them. People want to be heard. They will put in great effort and care, and set aside personal fear of public speaking to step forward and have their say. It’s not always eloquent. Some of it is definitely self-serving. But it’s usually passionate and heartfelt.

Messy, messy, beautiful democracy at work.

Based on a geographic area of the city, the Etobicoke York Community Council’s responsibilities include making recommendations and decisions on local planning and development, as well as neighbourhood matters including traffic plans and parking regulations. Community Councils reports to City Council but they also have final decision-making power on certain items, such as fence by-law exemptions and appointments to local boards and Business Improvement Areas. 

Etobicoke York is one of four community councils, the others being North York, Scarborough and Toronto East York. micromanage1And while I wondered if fence exemptions were specific to Etobicoke York, apparently that’s not the case. (Click here and type in ‘Fence Exemptions’.) We are a city united in fence exemptions, amalgamated in hedgerow heights.

I won’t lie. There were times early on in the meeting when I wondered if, given the current council structure, councillors should really be adjudicating over many of the picayune matters that crop up at community councils. Bigger fish to fry and all that. Surely there must be a more productive way to sort out what seemed to be personal grievances.

But then, an item sprung up, after the fence exemptions had been dealt with, that made me reconsider my condescending thoughts.

On the face of it, another seemingly routine matter. Traffic light placement. Essentially, the city was replacing a pedestrian controlled crosswalk with traffic lights but the discussion evolved into whether simply moving the crosswalk 300 metres east would make more sense. This then precipitated a much bigger conversation about traffic flow and pedestrian patterns. Some of the nuts and bolts of urban planning.

Here was a local resident, getting actual face time with elected officials to express his views on how traffic should move in his neighbourhood. trafficplanThe politicians were able to see how rules, regulations and by-laws might be affecting residents, and to ensure some flexibility in the enforcement stemming from those rules, regulations and by-laws. City staff aren’t supposed to interpret or adaptively implement rules. At community council, councillors can. A face is put to a decision.

Of course, not all the business that comes up at community council meetings is of the micro-local kind. The three more suburban community councils are noted for their brevity in comparison to the Toronto East York Community Council which traditionally spends additional time on wider ranging issues like tall building development and bigger commercial matters (not to mention it is the most populous of the community councils). It’s not unusual for a councillor sitting on, say, the North York Community Council to wrap up business there and get downtown to City Hall to take in the remainder of the Toronto East York Community Council.

But on Tuesday, the downtown came westside as I’m sure nobody’s ever said before. civicengagementNot only did members of the EYCC fight to get their meeting done by lunch, most of them came back for a rare evening session where the 7 year planning process for the Mimico 20/20 development was having another public airing. Some 150 members of the public came out to hear and give 3+ hours of deputations about what was shaping up to be a major reformation of the Ward 6 lakefront neighbourhood.

This was the whole ball of wax. The Official Plan. A Secondary Plan. Revitalization. Intensification. Mobility. Affordability. The big daddy of fence extensions, you might say. The local councillor, Mark Grimes, seems genuine in his desire to try to give a more liveable shape to the wall of high rise condos moving west from the core along the water. But questions remain — big, city altering questions – how best to do that.

Remarkably, in the face of such substantive change, the general tone of the deputations was one of willing accommodation. civicengagement1Yes, there was a contingent of NIMBYism. Those who cherished the view of the lake from their front porch or who wanted to maintain the feel of a small town in the midst of the big city. One deputant brought forth a proposal to build everything on stilts to enable everyone easy access to the lake. But they were in the minority.

Most spoke eloquently, ardently and knowledgeably about the proposal. It wasn’t perfect to anyone in the room for sure. Yet, as an outsider, it seemed like progress toward an acceptable solution was happening. Members of the community council voted to defer a decision for a couple months in order to try and hammer out further solutions. There were no angry outbursts as the audience filed out of the room nearly 4 hours after the meeting started.

The democratic process in action. Community council as the burning gears of civic participation. Voting is just the beginning. Engagement puts meat on the bones. Maybe it all starts with fence exemptions.

fencebuilding

fence-buildingly submitted by Cityslikr


On A Need To Know Basis

January 14, 2013

I don’t think it much hyperbole to suggest that budgeting is the most important aspect of governance, especially so at the municipal level. alookatthebudgetIt pretty much determines a city’s quality of life. The number of police and firefighters on the street. The state of good repair for important pieces of infrastructure. How many people will die on the streets in any given year.

The budgets here in Toronto are complex and complicated, no question. It just sort of comes with the territory when the annual operating budget comes in and around $10 billion and the capital at roughly $1.5 billion. That’s a lot of moolah that needs to be found and services that need to be funded adequately.

So it’s curious to me when councillors fail to reach out to their constituents in any meaningful way during the lead up to the council budget debate and vote. Hey, everyone. Here’s what’s happening. Here’s how I’m going to vote. Any questions? Concerns? Opinions as to what you think is and isn’t important?

Running down the list compiled earlier this month by Social Planning Toronto shows that less than half of our councillors organized any sort of budget forum for their constituents although that may’ve changed in the last few days. (We are happy to be corrected and updated to any omissions we make.) publicconsultationsAm I over-reacting to think there’s something wrong and neglectful about that?

By my estimation, some twenty of the councillors I’d expect to vote along the fiscal lines of Mayor Ford (yes, I’m including Councillor Karen Stintz in that group) had no public consultation on the budget process. There were six councillors on the other side of the political fence who didn’t although I’ll give Councillor Joe Mihevc a pass on his ‘maybe’ as he doesn’t seem averse to public consultations. And I’ve thrown Councillor Raymond Cho into the latter category despite having no idea where he’s going to come down on budget votes since seeking the provincial Progressive Conservative nomination in the next election.

Now, I could rush to the ideological conclusion that right wing politicians, once in office, don’t care to fraternize with the hoi polloi. Don’t bug me in between elections, folks. We’ll talk again in 2014.

But I won’t. Let’s just chalk that discrepancy up to the nature of being in power versus not. This is Mayor Ford and his supporters’ budget. They don’t need to consult the public’s opinions or fully inform them because a ‘mandate’ is why. shhhI’m sure the roles were reversed back in the day David Miller was in power.

But what I will note is the urban-suburban, geographic divide.

In Scarborough, only Councillor Chin Lee held a budget town hall. Councillor Gary Crawford was planning on attending one while also offering to meet up with groups at City Hall. Up in North York, 4 councillors either held formal sessions or met in for smaller budget get-togethers. In York, Ward 13 councillor Sarah Doucette was alone in holding a public meeting. None of the elected representatives in Etobicoke deigned to put together a budget town hall for their constituents.

In fact, in Ward 6, Councillor Mark Grimes declined to attend last week’s community organized budget session. Why? Your guess is as good as mine if you read through a statement he issued.

patronizing“Every year the capital and operating Budget seems to be the most contentious issue we deal with at City Hall,” he said.

“It’s difficult to comment on any one item without looking at its context as part of the whole. I’ve been gathering feedback from around the ward, meeting with city staff and I’m looking forward to the (budget) meeting. There is going to have to be a give and take from all sides of the debate, but I think at the end of the day we’ll find ourselves with a budget everyone can be proud of.”

It seems Councillor Grimes believes the budget’s too ‘contentious’ to be discussed in a public forum outside of a city council meeting. Leave the ‘give and take’ up to the councillors, folks. That’s what they’re elected to do. You can’t possibly expect a councillor to give any sort of budgetary context in just two or three hours, am I right? Next thing you know, people’ll be standing up on chairs and the like.

Meanwhile downtown, in the former cities of Toronto and East York, only the above mentioned Councillor Joe Mihevc and Councillor Paula Fletcher didn’t hold public budget sessions (again, all this is subject to updates and corrections). Setting aside the left-right politics for the moment, it shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice the wildly divergent degrees of engagement based on location. letmefinishThe broad strokes suggest politicians in the core engage with their constituents. Those in the suburbs don’t.

Which leads me to ask one very pertinent question.

When we talk of political alienation as a part of the rise of what we once referred to as Ford Nation – suburbanites being left out of the conversation, neglected, ignored – should we really be pointing the finger at out-of-touch, downtown elitists? Overwhelmingly it seems councillors from the suburbs failed to consult their own constituents on such an integral matter as the budget. Perhaps political disengagement begins much closer to home.

inquiringly submitted by Cityslikr


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