Rethinking Toronto’s Governance

September 15, 2010

There’s a curious cross-current of municipal political… thinking, let’s call it, at work during our present election campaign. One, which is why I hesitated to use the word ‘thinking’, is the actual campaign. Not so much a struggle of ideas as it is a monkey like flinging of feces to see what sticks to both walls and opponents. The other, conducted off-site and largely away from the glare of the hepped-up media spotlight, occurs under the auspices of academics, former politicos and private citizens involved in the generic field of city building. The pointy-heads and fat cats, to use the vernacular of Rob Ford and Rocco Rossi.

Such an event was yesterday’s Rethinking Toronto’s Governance sponsored by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Held just prior to the Jane Jacobs Prize presentations, it consisted of a talk by former Toronto Chief Planner, Paul Bedford, on ideas for changing the structure of the city’s electoral map. Ward numbers and boundaries, community council size and numbers, were all put out on the table for examination by Mr. Bedford. This was followed by responses to the proposals from Councillor Kyle Rae and Richard Joy of the Toronto Board of Trade.

I’ll spare you the details but highly encourage everyone to check out the IMFG website over the next couple days when they post the webcast of the session.

In a nutshell, however, I’ll sum up Mr. Bedford’s presentation like this: a dozen years into it and Toronto remains amalgamated on paper only; there’s still precious little real citizen participation and the tools for addressing these issues are within the city’s control both with the City of Toronto act as well as legislative powers it already possessed. The last point is of particular interest to us here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke as we have constantly railed about the intrusion of the province in Toronto’s business. Maybe too much at the expense of letting our municipal politicians off the hook, although we did find this an interesting read this morning.

Mr. Rae’s response to this was very revealing. The outgoing councillor for Ward 27, he’s been at it for 19 years now and has become the focus of the campaign as a symbol for all that is wrong with City Hall and its wasteful spending ways, what with his $12 000 retirement bash. While very enthusiastic about many of the ideas being tossed around the room, he expressed some serious reservations about implementing them. Some of it came across as self-serving and little more than a justification for inaction on the part of council. He seemed beaten down by the process after nearly two decades of contending with it and his stance may be the best argument for the idea of term limits. Governing is a war between competing interests and no one should be at war for too long.

However, Mr. Rae delivered a couple key points. City council is still a ward-centric, parochial body that often undercuts city wide planning and vision for the sake of local sensibilities. Not only are the councillors guilty of this, in Rae’s view, but many citizens hold on tightly to their pre-amalgamated view of the ‘old’ Toronto. They are resistant to and suspicious of change regardless of the merits and possible contribution to city-wide progress.

This is coupled with a municipal bureaucracy also allergic to change or innovation according to Mr. Rae. Nothing new to that complaint from an elected official, and one that is being trumpeted out on the campaign trail. But here’s the thing. Like it or not, the bureaucracy is an integral part of any successful public entity. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. A necessary evil, if that’s the particular angle you want to take. The thing is, belittling the bureaucracy, taking it to task or threatening it with dire consequences if it doesn’t bend to your almighty will seems petulant, patronizing and, most importantly, counterproductive.

A bureaucracy consists of people. Like most people, it reacts best to positive reinforcement, to be considered part of the process and integral to the building of a better organization, a better city. It needs direction and a reason to carry out change not to resist it. That can only come from bringing it a forward looking vision, an affirmative and invigorating mission statement for you more business oriented types.

None of this have we seen from the pool of candidates we are being told will spit forth our next mayor. So it’s tough to imagine how we will build a stronger, more unified city in the future with any of those we are threatening to elect to lead us. It just seems, regardless of what is being touted on the campaign trail, we will have more of the same ol’, same ol’.

thoughtfully submitted by Cityslikr