Next time you get all hot under the collar at what you perceive to be shenanigans, childish antics or just a general sense of out-of-control behaviour by our municipal politicians, you really need to take a deep breath and a long look at André Côté’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance report, The Fault Lines at City Hall: Reflection on Toronto’s Local Government. Given the constraints and competing interests at work, it’s really remarkable anything gets done at all. And despite what you might be hearing around Toronto these days, quite a bit gets done, starting with ten billion dollars or so worth of operating and capital budgets just approved last week.
Could things run more smoothly? Of course they could. That’s true at both Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill as well. Probably every place of government the world over.
Two points in Mr. Côté’s report jumped out at me as legitimate causes of both the institutional as well as current struggles politicians face at City Hall. One is entirely external and, as it stands now, almost entirely out of our local politicians’ hands. The second is very specific to our present situation.
“Another factor that clouds political accountability at City Hall is the degree of provincial control over municipal affairs. The Province sets election dates and service standards, limits the use of taxes, requires approval for certain asset sales, and uses conditional funding arrangements to force compliance in important policy areas. The result is that the City’s field of action is constrained. The reliance on fiscal transfers also breaches a basic principle of public finance: accountability is blurred when the level of government making the spending decisions is different from the one that raises the revenues.” [page 5]
Everything municipal governments do in this province can be undone or undermined by their provincial overlords. We are their ‘creatures’, according to a 19th-century document written when this was an agrarian country and not properly challenged in nearly 150 years. Ultimate accountability lies almost exclusively in the hands of politicians not necessarily elected to mind municipal level issues. In most cases, we should refer to them as absentee landlords.
Take Toronto, for example. (Please, the rest of the province chimes in.)
Against our collective will, we six municipalities, were messily forced into one by an antagonistic Queen’s Park government. ‘Efficientized’ to use Lucas Costello’s term; a lean, mean level of government meant to shed its fat and reap a certain windfall of streamlined bounty. Never mind that none of that happened because it was never intended to in the first place. It was all part of a downloading scheme almost entirely for the purpose of lightening the fiscal load on the provincial coffers.
Toronto was never given the appropriate powers commensurate with the much larger entity it had become. In fact, it was stripped of a level of governing that oversaw some of the more contentious, citywide services like policing and transit. Gone was Metro council, leaving only one politician at City Hall representing the interests of the city as a whole. The mayor.
Now figures as disparate as academic Richard Florida and councillor-brother Doug Ford have publicly mused about countering this problem by instituting a stronger mayoral system like they have in the U.S. Frankly, I find that notion to be a fucking nightmare scenario. All well and good if you like the policies and directions of a Mayors Bloomberg or Miller or Ford but what if you don’t?
Let me run a hypothetical by you that we can all be appalled at.
A Mayor Giorgio Mammoliti in a strong mayor system?
One might argue if we had such a thing, we’d be more careful with who we elect mayor. And if we aren’t?
My suggestion is rather than seek to beef up our municipal governance by bestowing more power upon one person, we look to increase it for the 2.6 million residents who live here. How? Well, that’s another post entirely and probably by someone with much stronger public policy credentials than I possess. (Paging John McGrath. Call me!)
This does take us the second important point brought up by Andre Côté in his report.
“Reformers should also bear in mind that, under the existing system, Mayors Rob Ford and David Miller have had notable successes in advancing their policy agendas. Both academic literature and recent history suggest that a combination of public profile, political acuity, and a willingness to use the softer skills of persuasion and consensus-building can result in successful and effective leadership at City Hall, even without a strong mayor system.” [page 7]
Pre-amalgamation, mayors in their respective cities had fewer councillor cats to herd and the issues were largely more specifically localized. (Many that weren’t were dealt with at the Metro level.) So they didn’t need more powers to push their agenda or items forward.
Such is not the case in post-amalgamation Toronto. Yet both Mel Lastman and David Miller managed for most of their terms in office to get `er done. Rob Ford too in his first year or so as mayor. Then he didn’t. Ultimately, he has no one else to blame but himself for that.
That’s not quite right.
We the voters are to blame as well because a plurality of us voted for a candidate who possessed few of the traits necessary to be an effective mayor in Toronto. ‘Political acuity’? As a campaigner perhaps but certainly not as mayor. ‘…a willingness to use the softer skills of persuasion and consensus-building…’. Never ever during his time at City Hall did Rob Ford display that particular trait. In fact, he revelled in being the exact opposite, the outsider, the lone wolf.
We elected him mayor despite all that and somehow seemed surprised how badly it’s all worked out.
A perfect mayor (if such a thing existed) will in no way paper over all the problematic governance realities this city faces. It would be foolhardy to think otherwise. But we shoot ourselves in the foot, and vote against our best interests when we throw our support behind a candidate based on a platform of sticking it to others at City Hall. Such an us-versus-them approach is destined to failure, not only for the candidate in question but the entire city as everything becomes a grind not a collaborative effort.
The city doesn’t have the power it needs but it has to stop squandering the power it does have. That starts with electing a mayor who is able to see past their own narrow focus and reach out to interests that are not their own.
– co-operatively submitted by Cityslikr