(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


Suburban? Moi?

October 11, 2013

Just in case you think city council’s Scarborough subway decision put an end to the conversation once and for all, justbeguntofightlet me disabuse you of that flightful bit of fancy. While the LRT plan to replace the aging SRT may’ve had the plug pulled on it, we’ve now moved to which subway are we going to build. That battle’s just begun and, as reported in Spacing yesterday, doesn’t look like it’ll be resolved any time soon.

*sigh*

A more theoretical and interesting discussion cropped up following the subway decision in, of all places, Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly’s Twitter timeline. No, no. That’s no typo. And let me be clear, it was not a conversation intentionally instigated by the long time Scarborough councillor but one, like much of the city business that swirls around his presence at City Hall, grandboulevardhe just occasionally and unwittingly runs smack into.

You see, the deputy mayor like most of the Scarborough subway supporters have embraced the technology almost exclusively for its world classiness. They take every opportunity to point out all the glitzy international destinations that have subways running underneath their grand boulevards. New York. London. Paris. Madrid. Ipso facto, if Toronto truly wants to consider itself world class, it needs to start playing subway catch up.

The fact that many of these same cities are also building LRTs as a part of their transit network is usually greeted by silence when it’s pointed out to the likes of Deputy Mayor Kelly and other subway-philes.

But yesterday, he chimed in with a new counter-argument. whome1“Madrid builds subways in the city,” the deputy mayor tweeted. “Scarborough is IN the city. Madrid builds LRT’s in the suburbs. Our suburbs are in the GTA.”

Wow.

That is either the dumbest assertion I have heard in a while or a stroke of pure ingenuity in rationalization.

Given the source, I’ll assume the former but, probably not coincidentally, it’s a line of reasoning I encountered a few days earlier. Another subway advocate told me he was all for LRTs but “… in the ‘burbs (like Markham, Durham and Oakville)”. Apparently, with the expansion of growth out into the wider GTA, almost exclusively built on a suburban model, the former suburban municipalities that are now part of the legacy city of Toronto should no longer be viewed as suburbs and therefore, need to be treated accordingly.

With subways. Like they have in every other city worth mentioning.

It reminds me of the punch line to a joke never told in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. “I’m not Saul. I’m Paul. And this guy’s the Jew.”

Scarborough’s not a suburb. Markham’s a suburb. They should be the ones getting an LRT.suburbandream

You can’t just simply ignore intensive post-war design and development based almost exclusively on private automobile use and single family detached housing by pointing out that newer cities around you are more car dependent and single family house-y. That doesn’t make a place any less that because other places are more so. Inner suburb. Outer suburb. Note the similar word in both those descriptors.

It’s as if grafting a transit mode associated with a densely populated urban core will magically transform the suburban landscape of Scarborough into Manhattan. That’s like me envying a bird and wanting wings sewn to my back so I can fly. It doesn’t work like that. I’m simply not built for flight.

I know this is not your grandpa’s Scarborough. Much has changed over the course of the last four decades. attemptedflightThe demographics. More intensification. A bigger population.

But just a head’s up. Subways aren’t going to make you any less suburban. No one’s going to suddenly mistake you for Madrid. Or downtown Toronto even.

Besides, as long as this kind of stuff keeps happening, any claim that Scarborough has moved from its suburban roots is kind of suspect. In reaction to an application to build 50 townhouses on a vacant lot in his Scarborough East ward, Councillor Ron Moeser said, “I’ve got a single-family community that wants to stay that way.” For the record, Councillor Moeser voted in favour of the Scarborough subway.

This is not to say Scarborough (or Etobicoke or North York) can’t change. That the city’s suburbs shouldn’t endeavour to build healthier communities and neighbourhoods by decreasing their reliance on private vehicles. lookinthemirror1It’s just that there are better approaches that reflect the current reality on the ground than mindlessly demanding a type of transportation designed for an entirely different built form.

Scarborough is now a part of the city of Toronto, a big chunk too, nearly a suburban quarter of it, occupying its eastern boundary. Insisting on more subway stops isn’t going to alter that. Demanding better transit sooner will go a whole lot further in making the entire city more connected, more inclusive and, yes, maybe even a little less suburban.

non-judgementally submitted by Cityslikr


Only Sure Thing Is There’s Never A Sure Thing

September 27, 2013

The sounds of much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth could be heard this week in reaction to John Lorinc’s Spacing piece, noooooooSubway Nation rises again. “There’s little doubt,” Mr. Lorinc writes, “that this long-awaited federal contribution marks a check mate move for Mayor Rob Ford. Barring a criminal charge relating to Project Traveller, he will walk away with next year’s race…”

Hmmm.

I’m hoping Mr. Lorinc states that as some sort of heads-up warning shot, a little chin music to stiffen the resolve of those grown complacent, thinking the mayor’s political future will destruct under his own volition. Focus, people! This bad dream isn’t over yet.

He’s too astute an observer of the political scene here in Toronto to honestly believe that statement. That this particular moment in time, more than 13 months before the actual election, will prove to be the defining moment in securing the mayor his re-election. This transit situation has been too fluid to imagine a sudden hardening in place. chinmusicAnd Mayor Ford, well, he hasn’t shown himself to be the best in protecting leads.

Here’s a politician who took an electoral mandate in 2010 and trampled his way to surprise success for the first year of his term before squandering it with a potent mixture of hubris, over-reach and chest-beating triumphalism. Since that time, he’s established that he can take a punch like George Chuvalo, Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down. He has a solid base that hasn’t abandoned him yet. But that’s about the extent of it. Now suddenly, he’s snatched the ring from Frodo and has an undefended line straight to Mordor?

I think already this week since the fed’s announcement of funding for the Scarborough subway and Lorinc’s Spacing article, some loose threads have shown along the hemline of Mayor Ford’s cloak of invincibility.

The $660 million in federal funding seemed to secure the certainty of the city’s Scarborough subway proposal to replace the LRT. It also immediately exposed city council’s need to come up with nearly a billion dollars of its own to put some skin in the game as many of the subway’s supporters like to say. georgchuvalo(For a crazy good analysis of the full costs of the Scarborough subway, David Hains’ post in the Torontoist is a must read. Click now. Go, read it. I’ll still be here when you get back.)

Back in July when council precipitated this whole transit fiasco, Mayor Ford would only agree to a .25% property tax increase to be dedicated to the Scarborough subway which, everybody else knew even in the best case scenario of funding from other levels of government, was woefully inadequate. It seems the mayor is holding tightly to that number despite the obvious shortfall.

So when city council meets next month to debate the issue, the mayor is either going to have to champion the subway but go on record as being not willing to pay for it or he is going to have to get behind a higher property tax increase. That one’s going to be tough because, while Mr. Lorinc suggests that subways were “the centre piece plank in his 2010 platform”, I don’t remember it quite that way.

Rob Ford’s centre piece plank in his 2010 campaign platform for mayor was about money. robfordsuperheroTransit was a hastily drawn up throw in when the campaign team realized his candidacy was actually being taken seriously. He was the numbers guy, stopping the gravy train, representing the little guy tired of being nickel and dimed to death with tax increases and money grab fees.

Now he’s going to hold the subway trophy above his head in 2014 and tell Ford Nation, oh yeah, about those additional property tax increases?

I get the concern that logic and reason don’t always apply to the supporters of Mayor Ford. Cognitive dissonance and magical thinking tend to be a way of life. But, come on, every house of cards eventually collapses.

On top of which, recent polls suggest that the subway preference in Scarborough isn’t nearly as maniacal as its most ardent supporters insist it is. shellgame1Already soft, what happens when the true costs, ridership numbers, coverage become a campaign issue? When voters are being inundated with what they’re getting versus what they’re giving up?

This goes right to the matter of the mayor’s slam dunk re-election. Much of that supposition rests on the belief with both the mayor’s supporters and biggest detractors that somehow 2014 will play out just like 2010. That the 47% of votes he collected in 2010 are somehow an unmoveable bloc. That the power of incumbency will only play a positive role. That Mayor Ford will face no serious opposition in a candidate a plurality of Torontonian can rally around.

While I’m uncomfortable making any sort of prediction about an elections that’s still more than a year away, I will confidently suggest 2010 will be nothing like 2014.

Take former Scarborough councillor David Soknacki’s open musings about running for mayor. dejavuA pro-LRT, right of centre suburban candidate with past experience but no office to have to give up to run full tilt right to the end. How rock solid is Mayor Ford’s support to withstand an attack from not one of the usual suspects who is constantly calling into question the mayor’s fiscal credibility?

More than that, let’s atomize next year’s race down to the council level. What happens when Scarborough councillors running for re-election outside of the immediate area where a subway might be beneficial get assailed by opponents pointing out that their constituents are getting none of the pluses while paying their share of the costs? The Norm Kellys. The Mike Del Grandes. The Michelle Berardinettis. Paul Ainslies and Gary Crawfords.

Beyond Scarborough, what do incumbents in York, North York and Etobicoke tell their voters about asking them to pay additional property taxes for a subway that in no way will help them. In fact, it’ll probably set their transit needs back decades. hediditAnswer me that, Councillor Vincent Crisanti in Rexdale. Councillors Giorgio Mammoliti, Frances Nunziata and Anthony Perruzza in York. Councillors Mark Grimes and Peter Milczyn in Mimico. Budget Chief Frank Di Giorgio. Budget. Chief.

Campaigned on just the right way, the Scarborough subway could fracture this whole suburban as one myth that everyone seems to have accepted as fact based on just the past election.

From a transit perspective, the Scarborough subway is nothing but bad news. But I also fail to see how it’s all good news for Mayor Ford’s re-election chances. The electoral landscape may’ve changed, it’s just far too early to tell to whose advantage.

wobbly submitted by Cityslikr


Corrosive Politics

July 29, 2013

John Lorinc drops another great article today about transit planning and election races. As has often been the case recently, gamesmanshipself-interest and narrow political calculation run roughshod over reasoned debate at every governance level involved. There ain’t no good guys in this story except the ones with almost zero chance of winning provincial office this coming Thursday.

Now, I know you’re going to get all up in my face when I quote the following passage from the story but I beg you to bear with me.

The broader point to make here is that Rob Ford’s corrosive influence on all the parties and the state of debate is writ large in this by-election. He’s given too many political people from all three partisan clans permission to be astonishingly dishonest and unprincipled with both the voters and themselves.

No, no. I am not pointing the finger of blame squarely at the mayor on this issue. gasolineonfireHe’s been remarkably consistent with views on public transit in this city. Horribly misinformed and willfully ignorant, but remarkably consistent.

The truly incredible aspect of this is that almost every other politicians of every political stripe allowed him to define the terms of debate, and continue to do so long after it seems simply politically expedient to do so.

The provincial Liberals could’ve stopped this latest debacle in its tracks back in 2010 after the newly elected mayor of Toronto declared Transit City dead. They could’ve stepped up and politely said, nope, sorry. The deal’s been signed and the books are closed on this.

Instead, lagging in the polls and intimidated by the notion of Ford Nation decimating them throughout ridings in Toronto, they shrugged. Whatevs. It’s our money to do whatever you want with.

And even after the Ford Nation wave failed to materialize and the mayor’s hold on whatever1city council has grown increasingly tenuous, his views on a Scarborough subway continue to hold sway. In the provincial by-election campaign. With sitting Scarborough Liberal MPPs. At City Hall.

I’d ask why that is but it’s pretty obvious. Pick a word. Pandering. Calculating. Craven. And put shameless as an adjective in front of them (or use its adverbial variation as needed).

It’s bad enough, the adverse affects this is having on actually trying to get transit — the right kind of transit – built in this city and region. Even more worrisome is how Mayor Ford’s ‘corrosive influence’ has been adopted. Rather than re-examine how he and his team, using catchy slogans, dubious claims and numbers, won the day back in 2010, toxicatmosphere1many of his opponents have embraced those practices for their own purposes and not figured out ways in which to successfully combat them. In the end, it’s nothing more than an endorsement of cynical sloganeering and destructive obfuscation.

Not only does that short-circuit efforts to build transit in this city but it also poisons the entire political atmosphere, turning off public engagement instead of encouraging it.

drippingly submitted by Cityslikr


Try And Try Again

July 16, 2013

It may come as something of a surprise to many of you but this week’s city council meeting – surprisedthe last one of the summer – is not a hastily convened, special transit session, called specifically on the eternal question of a Scarborough subway. No. It is a regularly scheduled meeting, in place to deal with the entirety of the city’s business. An agenda that, according to Councillor Janet Davis, is the biggest she’s seen in her 10 years at City Hall.

But you’ll be forgiven if you thought otherwise. The talk’s been almost exclusively about the brewing Scarborough LRT-versus-subway brouhaha leading up to today’s start of council meeting. It’s as if there’s nothing else really going on.

I’m not going to contribute to this transit talk overload. My views are well documented. You’re probably as sick and tired reading about them as I am writing about them.

If you’re a glutton for punishment on this issue, however, and you really want to get down to the nub of this never-ending debate, sotiredI highly suggest reading John Lorinc’s take on it yesterday and Steve Munro’s over the weekend. I’d happily link to any persuasive pro-subway articles but the problem seems to be THERE AREN’T ANY! To see the sorry state of the subway proponents’ case, take a leisurely scroll through the Twitter timelines of councillors Michelle Berardinetti and James Pasternak.

I will say a couple things on the topic though.

Any councillor ultimately voting in favour of re-opening the Master Agreement between the city and Metrolinx in the hopes of building a subway extension rather than an LRT at the current eastern terminus of the Bloor-Danforth line loses any claim to being fiscally prudent or conservative. There is no viable economic argument to make the switch. None. moneybagsIt is nothing less than tossing out an already funded plan (by another level of government, no less) and replacing it with a much riskier, numbers still on a cocktail napkin pipe dream. In no way do any possible benefits outweigh the very considerable costs to the city and city’s taxpayers, both current and future.

Secondly, absolute credit has to go to Mayor Rob Ford for keeping the dream of MOAR SCARBOROUGH SUBWAYS alive through his dogged, single-minded determination (Forditude? Did someone already coined that word? If not, dibs. See? I am getting punchy.) to pander to a bloc of voters he absolutely needs if he has any hope of being re-elected next year. Failing spectacularly earlier this term to get a Sheppard subway extension up and going, he’s hopped aboard the Bloor-Danforth version, looking for sellable talking points to take to the voters taxpayers and his devoted radio listeners. He promised you subways, Scarborough, and he’s delivering you subways. screamingYears late and for billions more but the mayor’s never really been about the fine print.

That’s doing him some disservice. The fact that he’s got a seeming majority of council ready to take this senseless leap, along with a handful of Scarborough Liberal MPPs and two successive Liberal governments at Queen’s Park, is a testimony to the power of his retail politicking. Any sort of subway extension for Scarborough is nothing more than politics for him. So much so that he’s abandoned his core political principle, revenue tools are just taxes and he’s against taxes, for it. In order to build his Scarborough subway, Mayor Rob Ford has had to go on record saying that taxes used to build a subway should be seen as an investment. An investment. Not some onerous reach around into the taxpayers’ pocket.

Yeah, that Rob Ford.

Such naked, hypocritical pandering, rather than being toxic as you might think, seems to be infectious. Everybody’s in on it now, willing to bend over backwards to feed the apparent sense of entitlement felt by Scarborough commuters, generated by the mayor’s constant divisive drum beating. imwithstupid1Once more, transit planning has become a game of chicken, intended only to assist political aspirations at both the provincial and municipal levels of government.

All the key players have descended to the mayor’s level, catering to his ill-thought out and ill-advised transit views instead of challenging them on their merit and feasibility. Despite losing control of the transit file over a year ago now, he’s still dictating the terms of the conversation. Regardless of what happens this week, Mayor Ford’s already won.

tiredly submitted by Cityslikr


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