Unreliable Narration

April 29, 2014

Bear with me as I venture momentarily into unfamiliar territory here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke, baronmunchausenthat of literary theory.

The unreliable narrator is a device used by authors to undercut the legitimacy of the usual authoritative voice of the teller of the tale. Is what we’re being told actually true? If not, why not? It adds a degree of mystery, leaving readers or an audience uncertain about the veracity of the story they’re being given.

Reading through yesterday’s city staff briefing note, 2007 — 2014 Budget Reductions and Other Budget Balancing Strategies, it struck me that for the past 4 years or so we’ve been following along with a story told to us by an unreliable narrator, many unreliable narrators, in fact. The conclusions drawn by the city manager and CFO draw a starkly different picture of the fiscal stewardship of this city than the one that’s been painted for us over the past 4 years. Everything we’ve been told to believe since 2010? Not so much. It’s a little more nuanced than all that.

Let’s go back to the outside workers’ strike in 2009 because I think that’s where much of this story started. throwingmoneyaroundAt its conclusion, the general consensus was that the then mayor, David Miller, had caved in to his union brethren. Handed over the keys to the city vault, out of control spending, disrespecting the taxpayers, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie.

Our fiscal foundation was crumbling, Rob Ford would then claim, having taken control of the narrative during his successful mayoral run. We needed to tighten our collective belts. What this city had was a spending problem not a revenue problem.

Now, we know why he spun the tale this way without any regard to facts or the truth. It was politically advantageous for him to do so. But I also think he actually believed it. If we’ve learned nothing else from the past 4 years it should be that Rob Ford doesn’t understand how government works. He inherently hates government. He sees it as nothing but a burden, an imposition on our lives. fairytale1Somehow his math works out to less of government=more for us.

According to William Riggan (summarised by Wikipedia for me), Rob Ford had a bit of all 5 of the unreliable narrator traits to him. The Picaro, or the braggart. The Madman, pretty self-explanatory. The Clown, see The Madmen. The Naif, a limited or immature point of view or perspective. The Liar, see The Clown.

Why so many of us took him seriously enough to elect him mayor is equally as apparent. Who doesn’t love a good fairy tale? Yes, the city faced problems and challenges, we were told, but none of them were our fault. Fixing them would be easy and we wouldn’t feel a thing. A happy ending all round!

Here’s what we know now, four years on.

Yes, the Miller administration taxed us at a higher rate than the Ford administration.  areyousure1It dinged us with other revenue streams like the Land Transfer and Vehicle Registration taxes. It collected more from us in user fees including bigger hikes in transit fares.

But the thing is, in terms of an overall budget, spending has increased under Rob Ford. During his time in office, city council has curbed the rate spending increased but not the total amount. The same can be said about property taxes. They may not have gone up at the same percent as they did under David Miller but we still, on average, are paying higher property taxes now than we were in 2010.

Part of the reason for that is that the Ford administration cut and froze other sources of revenues like the VRT. fordnationIf you’re not cutting spending but are reducing revenue, how do you make up the difference? Cut services you’re providing. Have you taken a bus or subway over the last 4 years? You know what I’m talking about.

City council in Rob Ford’s first term as mayor has spent more than it did in the previous term and delivered less. That’s how it patched budgetary holes. That is his legacy.

The real kicker – no, wait. First, the penultimate kicker. According to this briefing note, David Miller, he who caved into the unions back in 2009, saved more money for the city in his 2nd term as mayor through collective bargaining agreements than Rob Ford has during his time in office. I know, right? How is that even possible? Weren’t we told Miller opened the vault and just started tossing around money? fingerscrossedIsn’t taming the union demands an important cornerstone of Rob Ford’s re-election campaign? Now we’re hearing that Miller the Profligate saved the city more money from union deals than Rob Ford?

Which takes us back to the real kicker.

In terms of closing the operating budget gap, from the opening pressure to the final balance, the Miller administration found more “savings” in its last term than the Ford administration did, to the tune of some $432 million over four years. Now, here’s where this gets even trickier and murkier. Using a budget’s opening pressure as the benchmark isn’t exactly what you might call, reliable. Much of it is based on educated calculations and estimates. Both David Miller and Rob Ford used looming opening pressures as political scare tacticsemptypromise (although it is interesting to note the difference in motives. Miller threatened services in order to get revenue increases to pay for those services while Ford threatened higher tax increases in order to cut services to maintain lower taxes.)

Out of all this shaky narrative, however, a couple salient facts need to be noted.

The David Miller administration wasn’t the fiscal laggard popular political fiction made it out to be. It instituted a long term economic strategy that included a broader base of revenue and increased involvement by other levels government. A strategy that helped Rob Ford initially deliver his campaign guarantee of low taxes and no service cuts.

The Rob Ford administration wasn’t the sound fiscal steward it’s claimed to be. While rejecting one time funding sources like the previous year’s surplus and maintaining revenue streams at the rate of inflation, it relied heavily on a regular reduction of services to balance the operating budget. stoppullingmylegIt’s sustainable only as long as residents are willing to put up with getting less and less from City Hall.

It’s that fact that’s made so much of the political story in Toronto so unreliable. Unreliably told by those seeking office on a platform that would be unpalatable to most voters, and believed by those not willing to accept the basic truth of the matter. If you want a great city, David Miller once said, you have to pay for it.

truthfully submitted by Cityslikr


(Mis)Governed

April 22, 2014

I’ve been mulling over our state of governance these days. Spurred on by the news of Councillor Adam Vaughan’s planned departure for federal politics, ponderingI kept wondering why anybody would make that particular jump. Sure, there’s the clout and prestige. In theory, the real levers of power are operated from Ottawa.

In theory.

Reading through John Lorinc’s piece today about Vaughan and the role the federal government plays in the running of cities, I have my doubts about the efficacy of delivering effective municipal policies from the federal level. You can offer up money, maybe even ideas. But hands-on tools to contribute directly? That’s a little more complicated.

According to a document that’s nearly 150 years old and a handful of court rulings during that time span, municipalities are nothing more than “creatures of the province” and “exist only if provincial legislation so provides…” dustydocumentCities fall in that place of dark matter between federal and provincial jurisdiction. To propose any sort of strategy, say housing or transit, for municipalities, Ottawa could be seen to be stepping on provincial toes. Why risk antagonism if you can just ignore these issues instead. We’d really love to help but our hands are constitutionally tied.

There have been attempts, for sure. The Liberal government’s New Deal For Cities Municipalities Communities (or whatever it wound up being called) under Paul Martin delivered increased funding that remains in place but little in terms of clarity. Nearly a decade on, cities remain without any sort of national housing or transit strategy. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), cities face more than a $200 billion infrastructure deficit.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how a change in government in Ottawa is going to reverse that. powerlessAt least, not in the short term.

I was boring family and friends over the long weekend, talking about this particular challenge of governance. Citing a certain Paisley Rae who had paraphrased Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi for me, talking about the importance of the various levels of government in our lives. (If I get this wrong, it’s all on me). Imagine if just out of the blue our federal government disappeared. Poof! Suddenly gone. How long would it take you to notice a real impact on your life? A month? Do the similar thought experiment with the provincial government. Poof! Gone. You’d notice in about a week? Now your elected representatives at City Hall. Vanished into thin air. Almost as soon as you step out the door, their absence would be evident.

Of course, it wouldn’t be that simple. It would depend entirely on where you lived and other circumstances. There’s much more overlap than that.

Still.

I think the role of our municipal level of government is highly under-valued and egregiously under-funded. oldendays1They are expected to do things that they have no jurisdictional command of or the fiscal tools to deal with. As the above article points out, the FCM claims that Canadian cities receive only 8% of the country’s tax revenues but are responsible for 60% of the infrastructure.

I’ve long contended that this political mismatch between the responsibilities demanded and the lack of capacity to deal with them has resulted in an increased presence of buffoonery at the local level of representation. Of course, we can elect somebody like Rob Ford because, in the end, it doesn’t matter. There’s no real power invested in that office. When we do dare to elect somebody with ambitious ideas for our cities, David Miller for example, they are destined to disappoint us because, in the end, they lack the real power to fully enact their plans.

What is clearly needed at this point of time is a complete constitutional overhaul. This isn’t 1867. Much, much has changed including where the majority of people live in this country. kickupafussCities. The hierarchy of revenue and power needs to be shuffled and rearranged.

Of course, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. So politicians like Adam Vaughan with ambition and big ideas gravitate to where positive change is possible even if it hasn’t been much in evidence, well, during our lifetime. All we can do is cross our fingers, wish him well in his endeavours and look for new politicians to represent us at City Hall who aren’t content with the severe limitations that will be placed on them, and who have their own plans to shake up the status quo that serves fewer and fewer of us.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


Time To Rave Not Rage

March 3, 2014

Point 10. At last.

happycity(Points 1-5 here. Points 6, 7, 8 & 9, here, here, here & here.)

“…a city is really just the sum of what people think about it. The city is a subjective thing.”

– Ricardo Montezuma, National University of Colombia

[Please note: I will be freely quoting from and riffing on -- more than usual -- Charles Montgomery’s Happy City. Most of these ideas aren’t my own. But that’s OK because, well, a city is a ‘shared project’.]

When all is said and done, after the political posturing and ideological framing is set, the issues neatly packaged and properly charted out, what we really should be looking for in our municipal candidates is their promise to make the city dance. Dance and sing or at least hum a jaunty tune.

We want a city that vibrates with life and activity. A place made up from communities built on optimism and aspiration not fear, anger and division. A city where people want to live not one where they have to live.rave

Now, this isn’t some airy-fairy, arty-farty, New Age-y, dream-weaving utopian wish. It is the end result of down and dirty, nitty gritty, hands-on toil and nose-to-the-grindstone hustle. It’s about relentless but positive civic-mindedness.

It incorporates all the previous points we’ve written on this. In fact, a city can’t dance without serious consideration of each and every one of them. A frank and honest discussion about taxation. Improved public transit, public spaces, public realm. A dependable business and work environment that provides opportunity for every resident. A keen eye on social justice. Increased civic engagement.

Let’s umbrella it all in under the idea of civic audacity.

igotnothingCharles Montgomery referred to the former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa’s urban vision and city-building as a ‘grand experiment’ requiring ‘even grander rhetoric’.

Toronto has been severely lacking in either of those impulses lately. For 4 years now, all we’ve heard is about stripped down governance and need-to-have services and programs. You know what the gravy train is? The nice-to-haves that make a city dance and instill an inclusive sense of civic pride and belonging regardless of where your address happens to be.

Sadly, an argument could be made that kind of thinking and city-building vision was soundly rejected by Toronto voters in 2010. Pocket book issues won the day. We were busy looking after our nickels and dimes.

But I’d argue this.

There was no strong standard bearer for the Miller administration’s pro-Happy City brand of city-building. Joe Pantalone failed to enunciate exactly what they had been trying to do for the past 7 years. The others chose the easy and well-worn path of appealing to our worst instincts as city residents. Me, me, me. Mine, mine, mine.

More importantly, I believe the biggest mistake David Miller made during his time in office was to try and go it alone. communityTo try and infuse a new civic sense in the city solely through City Hall not city streets. Inspire change with leadership but not necessarily wider public engagement. So when he stepped aside, there weren’t enough people to champion what his administration had accomplished.

The only way meaningful and long term change happens is with more hands on deck, with more people participating and pitching in, with wider and deeper civic engagement. We don’t need one heroic mayor to build us a new transit system or get our potholes fixed. Vote for me. Call me. And then, sit back and let me sort everything out.

You don’t make a city dance just by providing excellent customer service. You do it by encouraging and demanding persistent resident participation and civic engagement. rollupyoursleeves1Candidates seeking city council offices should first be asking voters what they want on their streets, in their neighbourhoods, their communities, their city. And then, offer up ways to make everyone an actual agent of the changes they want to see.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” Charles Montgomery quotes Jane Jacobs from her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

This election needs to be about more than simply building a voters’ and donors list, a team of volunteers or a winning margin. It has to be about building a civic movement full of people who, again to quote Charles Montgomery one final time today, are “… emboldened by the notion that anyone who cared enough could change the way the city worked.”elainebenesdance

Such a movement doesn’t get started on the scrawny legs of what can’t be done or what isn’t possible. It’s encouraged by bold ideas and a strong sense of inclusiveness. If we’re living in a city together, we really should be working on it together.

You dance alone, you’re Elaine Benes. But if enough of us get up on our feet and start hopping up and down — we’re not talking ballroom dancing here — we’ll eventually have a rave on our hands. I think it’s time Toronto starts to rave.

ecstatically submitted by Cityslikr


Deconstruct The Construct

September 30, 2013

I sometimes picture the mayor sitting at his office desk (as infrequently as that might be) with a 2010 electoral map open in front of him, 2010electoralmapnodding in satisfaction at the image of downtown pink(o), pinned up inescapably against the unforgiving waves of Lake Ontario, encircled on all three other sides by Ford Nation blue.

These are my people, he figures. My electoral bread and butter. Keep them happy or, at least, angry at the right people, and keep my job.

Fortress Ford Nation. A single bloc of like-minded folks dedicated to one thing and one politician. Their voice being heard at City Hall.

That’s what Mayor Ford has to believe. It isn’t like he’s made any alternative plans to stay in office past next year. A more consensus-seeking politician might look for ways to grow the base, extend a reach into new territory. Not Mayor Ford. fordnationEverything’s about maintaining the base in lock step.

He sees a single monolith of suburban voters because he has to. Given his limited political gifts, it’s the only way the mayor can press forward in the hopes of securing a second term. As wholly manufactured as the downtown-suburban dynamic is, you have to tip your hat to the Ford camp for knowing how to create it in their image and exploit it to their advantage. It may not be in any way good city building. No matter. It makes for one hell of a potent political force.

Embracing that scenario while standing in opposition to the mayor makes far less sense. There’s absolutely no reason anyone else has to follow that particular playbook. trapplayDoing so only helps make the notion of Ford Nation more of a reality than just simply the calculated wishful thinking of one political team.

From a crass logistical angle, the numbers simply don’t add up. There are more potential voters in Scarborough, York, North York and Etobicoke than there are in the two less Ford friendly former municipalities of East York and the old city of Toronto. That’s just the demographics. Conceding that chunk of voters makes the idea of defeating Mayor Ford in 2014 an uphill battle from the outset.

Worse than that is the sheer condescending attitude behind accepting such a definition of Ford Nation. Oh, anyone who voted the guy is nothing but a knucklehead. Those still supporting him 3 years later after everything they’ve witnessed? Contemptible and not worth engaging. De-amalgamate now!

It’s easy to wrap yourself in that kind of security blanket of petulance. fordnation1Spend any time in the comments section of a newspaper or on social media, you will encounter the most extremes of the Ford-loving stereotypes. Pugnacious. Full of resentment. Ill-informed. Rubes bought off with free hamburgers and beer singing about their cost cutting cowboy.

Yes, Mayor Ford will have a surprising amount of support right until the bitter end. He speaks to a certain percentage of the population. It is hardly a nation, though.

If not exactly an anomaly, the 2010 election caught a particular wave that we should see as very possibly a one-off. Piss poor quality of candidates at the mayoral level. Voters edgy and angry with an economic still in turmoil, the lingering stench of a garbage strike in the air. Kick da bums out!

But there’s no reason to assume that’s now par for the course.

Never mind that 4 years earlier, David Miller had won every ward in the city save a couple in North York. He was a popular incumbent (much more popular than the current mayor is at a similar point in his first term). The opposition was weak. The voters in the city content.

In 2003, a then obscure Councillor Miller won the mayor’s office with the help of wards in Scarborough, York and Etobicoke. This while facing a vote split on the left with Barbara Hall and a high profile right of centre candidate. changetherulesThere was no Miller Nation you could point to. It was a city wide victory.

Putting together such a winning coalition is possible again. The quickest way to make sure it isn’t is to accept Team Ford’s conceit that it, and only it, represents the best interests of the city’s suburban voters, and that suburban voters en masse agree with that assessment. It’s disrespectful, disdainful, short-sighted, small-minded and, ultimately, the kind of thinking that deserves a healthy beat down next October.

parsingly submitted by Cityslikr


The Recumbent Incumbent

September 3, 2013

Gawd! These infernal pre-campaign polls. Story generators produced by those without caller ID on their phones, onthephonewilling to engage with anyone who dials their number. Idle speculation meant to fill in the gap between actual stories.

The only folks these polls are intended to help out are those mulling over a mayoral run. An informal testing of the waters. Polls establish front runners, differentiating them from those without a hope in hell of becoming the city’s next mayor. Hey. Possible candidate X was seen having lunch with John Laschinger at Spadina Garden. How would they do in next year’s election matched up against candidate Y?

The funny thing is, if the history of amalgamated Toronto is anything to go by, such polls conducted so many, many months before the actual election are pretty much meaningless aside from confirming the name (or names) of the candidates to beat. In 2003, John Tory and Barbara Hall. wiltsIn 2010, George Smitherman. All lost the subsequent elections to candidates few had on their radar when the campaign actually commenced.

So beware everyone currently placing their bets and hopes on the likes of John Tory (again), Olivia Chow, Karen Stintz. Our recent electoral history has not treated early front runners well.

I think the one certainty we can take from the likes of Forum Research’s most recent poll for next year’s municipal election in Toronto is that the incumbent, unlike his predecessors, is going to find himself in the midst of a bruising battle to keep his job. In 2000, Mel Lastman was as good as acclaimed for a second term, facing no politically established opponent in the campaign. In 2006, Councillor Jane Pitfield stood as little more than a sacrificial lamb in her attempt to deny David Miller another go-around at the job.

It ain’t going to be so easy for Rob Ford. The one caveat is that both Lastman and Miller went into re-election mode after only two years (of a 3 year term)donnybrook in office, perhaps seeming a little more fresh-faced than our current mayor who’s had an additional year of public scrutiny in office before his re-election campaign begins. Perhaps this will be the new norm with 4 year council terms now. A one term mayor facing an uphill battle in a bid for re-election.

For many incumbents that might seem a little daunting but may be this is nothing but good news for Mayor Ford. He loves playing the underdog, the outsider. The little engine that nobody said could and nobody better think of writing off as an impossible long shot again. Every indication suggests that 2014 is the mayor’s election to win. Just like 2010.

deweydefeatstruman

If you didn’t know any better, you’d almost think that’s the exact spot he’s positioned himself to be in at this juncture. Failing miserably toward a second term

cassandraly submitted by Cityslikr


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