We Want To Rule. Just Don’t Ask Us To Govern.

January 31, 2011

Last week the notion got floated that if the province really, really insisted, the Ford administration was more than willing to hand it control of the TTC. That it got publicly slapped down in fairly quick order by folks from the McGuinty government should come as little surprise. Queen’s Park still refuses to re-upload its obligation of paying 50% of the annual operating costs that it booted in 1995, so the idea that they would willingly pick up the tab for the entire operation seems, well, more than a little fanciful.

I am hardly a transit expert. Scratch that. I am a transit ignoramus. That may be a bit strong. I don’t know nearly enough about public transit as I should. There. That’s better. So I wouldn’t dare offer an opinion as to whether it would be better or worse if the TTC was under the auspices of our provincial government. There might be some sense in it if it provided a certain seamlessness to an entire GTA regional transit system. On the other hand, it would distance management even further from the day-to-day operation in an organization already maligned as being out of touch with its customers. In addition, the province in its oversight of Metrolinx hasn’t been heaped with praise for its responsiveness to the public.

No matter. The province doesn’t appear willing to saddle itself with a millstone like the TTC leaving it in the hands of the city now under a leadership allergic to actual governance. It talks up mightily the concept of customer service but wants the scope of the services it provides limited. Policing. Potholes. Streetlights. Anything more than that and it’s probably gravy.

It’s a divestment of authority under the banner of fiscal discipline that is the mark of small-minded municipal politicians unconcerned with much else outside of keeping taxes low and the streets safe and clean. As if we’re living in Mayberry or Pleasantville. They seek as little responsibility as possible as more responsibility only comes with more decisions and increased complexity. Complexity, ultimately, costs.

Problem is, 21st-century cities especially big ones like Toronto are complex organisms, long since outgrown the facile perspectives on municipal governance now on offer by our current mayor. Yes, we (like every other municipality in this province) are saddled with an incredibly dated structural burden that goes back to Confederation when we were an agrarian country and cities were looked down on as nothing more than ‘creatures of the provinces’, subject to provincial whim, abuse and neglect. But the world has changed, whether or not senior levels of government accept that fact, and cities that stand pat, unwilling to adapt to their growing importance on a global scale, are in danger of turning themselves into backwaters.

Backwaters deem public transit unimportant enough to try and unload. Backwaters question environmental measures like re-forestation and water efficiency. Backwaters relegate culture, nutritional programs and even libraries as outside the sphere of “core services” that they should provide. Backwaters sound like this: “Graffiti is vandalism, pure and simple.

The blind forces of urbanization flowing along the lines of least resistance show no aptitude for creating an urban and industrial pattern that will be stable, self-sustaining, and self renewing.

So wrote Lewis Mumford some 55 years ago. Unfortunately, those ‘blind forces of urbanization’ are now hard at work here in Toronto, refusing to look up from their abacus and see that the well-being of the city depends on much more than the bottom line. ‘Affordability’ is not always about money and ‘hard decisions’ don’t always mean cuts to services that make a city more competitive, attractive and liveable.

Hard decisions aren’t those that are made that conform to your ideology. Hard decisions are made by those who take their leadership role seriously and see themselves as more than merely bookkeepers. Hard decisions accept responsibility. They don’t shirk it. And so far, Mayor Ford and his team seem determined to show they want less responsibility for the welfare of all the citizens of this city, and that hardly bodes well for either our posterity or prosperity.

cheaply submitted by Cityslikr


Harmonic Convergence

January 28, 2011

This irony cannot pass quietly without us taking an opportunity to kick it around for a moment. At least, I hope it’s ironic. I’ve never been able to get a good grasp on the word and whenever I attempt to use it, I think I might be coming across a little Alanis Morisette-y. (Not to mention repetitive. Almost a year to the day. We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke are nothing if not annually consistent.)

Last night our mayor participated in a fundraising dinner with 3 of his opponents from last year’s election to bring attention to the horrors wrought by campaign debt. The Harmony Dinner it was dubbed, and for anywhere from $250-$2500 a pop, you could pitch in and help put George Smitherman, Sarah Thompson, Rocco Rossi and the mayor back into the black. Or at least, less out of the red. Joe Pantalone, bless his red, white and green heart, inharmoniously held his own fundraiser earlier in hopes of burying a $30,000 debt because he still cannot bring himself to be in the same room as former premier Mike Harris who served as the Harmony Dinner’s co-host and who, the ex-councillor feels, inflicted untold damage on the is city. Talk about carrying a grudge. Although, remember when we almost had that subway running along Eglinton?

For his part, George Smitherman doesn’t owe any money but apparently participated in the event to help Sarah Thompson who wound up $80,000 in the hole before she ended her campaign and threw her weight behind Smitherman, helping the longtime frontrunner finish in an unspectacular second place. Personally, I would’ve let her dangle. Rocco Rossi, first in and first out of the “big” names in last year’s race, came to the dinner hoping to erase the last half of the $60,000 he was on the hook for.

The mayor… the mayor… and here’s where the irony kicks in. (We think.) Our mayor, the boastful tightwad, the budget buster, the Gravy Train stopping, little guy looking out for-ing, riding the rail of populist outrage at City Hall profligacy, yes that mayor, spent $1.7 million to get himself elected while raising almost, and I’d stretch it out a little with the playful TV catchphrase `wait for it, wait for it’ but everybody already knows where I’m going with this, almost one million dollars. 900 K to be exact which left him the biggest panhandler at last night’s event.

Mayor Rob Ford has $800,000 in campaign debt. How is that not ironic? And if it is (and I really do think it is), add another irony layer to it because, like most political donations, people giving money get partial tax rebates. So this mayor, preparing to gut the city back to its skeletal remains, first wants City Hall to help pay off the debt he accumulated campaigning for the job that would put him in the position to do the gutting.

The fuck is that?!

And why hasn’t there been a much larger public excoriation of him?

I have nothing against public financing of election campaigns. In fact, I’d be all for full public funding if there was some way to portion out money equitably and sensibly. But something about Mayor Ford wanting a piece of it just doesn’t sit well with me. And the fact that he dug a significantly bigger hole, we’re not just talking degrees but by orders of magnitude, makes me believe that we’ve elected a mayor who thinks austerity is for other people.

So those 10 years of office budgets the mayor never used while he was a councillor and saved the city, let’s call it half a million dollars? The mayor now wants some of that back. To pay his own personal campaign debt. Let’s remember that, shall we, when we’re standing out in the cold, waiting for a bus that no longer runs on Sundays.

ironically (I think) submitted by Cityslikr


Can’t Touch This

January 27, 2011

So, imagine you just finished a game of coed slo-pitch. You and the team’s centre fielder are the last ones at the bar and are into that ill-advised 4th pitcher of Canadian. He hit 4 home runs in the game although, two would’ve gone down as ‘errors’ in any official scorecard, and a 3rd one probably should’ve been caught as well. No question, though, he hit one of them really hard, really far.

“I don’t think it’s out of the question,” he offers bibulously, “given the right pitch, at the right moment, I could take Doc Halladay yard.”

You might call that a little deluded, right?

And yet we allow the mayor and his equally self-aggrandizing councillor brother to promote the idea that they — inheritors of a label printing business from their father that employs, what? 300, 400 people? (You’d think I’d remember since the mayor took every opportunity to tell us on the campaign trail) — are equipped and have the business acumen to bring the corporation of the city of Toronto to heel. An organization with annual budgets over $10 billion and that employs 34,000 full and part-time employees. Sure, why not, boys? And after that, why don’t you mosey on over and sort out GM or Ford? Business is business, right? Government is business. Easy-peasy.

“I can assure you every department down here has fat,” Councillor Ford said at the budget committee meeting on Tuesday, touting the 2 months of experience he’s accumulated at City Hall already. “There isn’t one single department that does not have fat down here and they would not survive in the private sector, I guarantee you … In my guesstimate, there’s probably 10 per cent waste and fat …People have been down here too long, they don’t know what’s going on in the real world. The real world is making things run efficiently.”

There’s a lot more where that comes from, and sifting through it would be worth another post but I use this as an example of how cavalierly and nonchalantly the councillor, the mayor, his budget chief and every one of the other right thinkers on the budget committee just toss about numbers as if there are no implications or repercussions to them. Just like that, Councillor Ford  ‘guesstimates’ there’s ‘probably’ 10 % waste and fat that can be disposed of and no one would be the wiser. So simple, it’s a wonder no one’s ever thought of that before.

There’s just one hitch to this whole New Sheriff In Town schtick that the mayor and his posse are playing at. It’s not going to be all that and a bag of chips. As pointed out by Matt Elliott over at Ford For Toronto (and if you haven’t checked the site out yet, bookmark it now or follow along on the Twitter at @FordForToronto He is so much more informed than we are and doesn’t demand that you take up your entire lunch to read his posts) this past Monday, the city’s fairly handcuffed financially.

It goes something like this: Toronto’s biggest source of revenue, nearly 40%, comes from property taxes (which the mayor happily broke a campaign promise and froze this year). About 77% of that money goes to pay for largely inelastic items that can’t easily be sliced and diced because they are provincially mandated programs or are services that, either, “involve arbitrated labour contracts” as Ford For Toronto puts it and/or the mayor wouldn’t touch in a million years like the Police Services, at least not 10% worth.

Which means when the Fordites realize that privatization isn’t going to bring them anywhere near the amount of savings they, with their infinite private sector wisdom planned for, they are going to be faced with either raising taxes (the horror! The Horror!) or bringing the axe down on things like libraries, children’s services, long term care homes and services, city planning. They might be just fine with that but I’m guesstimating here it’ll start cutting into their popularity as all those folks who didn’t really vote for service cuts because the mayor assured them – no, guaranteed them — he wouldn’t cut services, will snap to attention when their bus stops running or their library branch starts closing on Sundays or they’re forced to put their little tot into unlicensed child care. There’s just not that much money, er, fat left over for them to cut away at.

It’s not like at Deco Labels and Tags when ‘customers call you up and ask for a 10 per cent reduction or they’ll go somewhere else’ and you have to lay off just 2 or 3 people and make do without year-end bonuses. Hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, will be affected by your customer demanding a 10% reduction at City Hall. That’s why the government isn’t just like a business, no matter how much you think it is and how much your supporters want to believe that’s true.

And, lest we forget, the Fords aren’t the first businessmen-turned-politicians who have brought their private sector savvy to City Hall. Remember His Honour Mel Lastman? The self-made millionaire appliance salesman possessed much more municipal governance experience than the Fords and he ultimately proved to be way in over his head, discovering (to our detriment not his) that a city of this size and complexity is nothing like running your own business.

It’s unfortunate we insist on re-learning that lesson over and over again.

submitted by Cityslikr


Dr. Jekyll And Mr. James

January 26, 2011

Or a tale of two Roysons.

Over the course of 12 days, the Toronto Star columnist wrote two pieces so diametrically dissimilar (with another one of surprisingly readable quality between them) that it’s almost as if there is at least two of him. If that’s the case, would the reasonable Royson James keep writing while the insufferable one… well frankly, I don’t care what he does as long as he stops contributing to the paper.

It was the best of James and the worst of James.

On January 12th, James’s column, TTC choking on its own success came across as, if not sympathetic, let’s call it understanding of the role ‘underused’ bus routes play in ‘city-building’. He was all over Councillor Maria Augimeri’s assertion that “the city is not a business…Rather, transit service is social service.” It’s not always about money when it comes to running a city. Is that what you’re suggesting, Mr. James?

Less than two weeks later, Royson had clearly spent some time in the lab, knocked back a concoction or two, and was singing a different tune. “How many of those 48 bus routes really need to go because ridership levels are woefully low and will always be unsustainable?” Wait, what? Remember when you talked about public transit as a ‘social service’, Mr. James? Now, it’s all ‘woefully low’, eternally ‘unsustainable’ ‘ridership levels’? We’re not asking for brilliance from you, sir, and even mere adequacy may be out of the question but how about just a little consistency?

That wasn’t even the worst of it. In a piece that could’ve come straight from the mayor’s media team, James paints all those who are standing in opposition to the proposed budget as ‘lefties’ merely bleeding ‘over “minor” cuts.’ Minor cuts? Like those 48 unsustainable bus routes with woefully low ridership levels that will merely affect only about 250,000 people (just under 10% of the city’s population) according to the TTC GM, Gary Webster? Where’s the dividing line between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ in terms of cuts, Royson? If not affecting 10% of Torontonians, what’s the number? 15% A quarter?

Worse still, not only does James label all the mayor’s opponents lefties but, to his eyes, they are only motivated by politics. Don’t believe him? “Council Shelley Carroll admits the strategy is to force the new administration to face up to every proposed cut, however small.” Then he goes on to read between the lines of what he’s quoted Councillor Carroll of admitting. “The unspoken message is: “We’ll fight you to the death on what you see as small cuts; so imagine the uproar next year when the real big cuts arrive.”” Neat trick, James employs there, putting in quotes something he imagines Carroll thinking so that it actually looks like the councillor said that out loud.

Even worser than all that (as if it could get much worse but it does), James shrugs off the effects of the proposed service cuts (bus routes excluded) as not ‘calamitous’ since ‘the truth on these services is so elusive.’ I says what?! The vacuity of that claim is as monumental as its callousness. Adding dismissive insult to that injury, James claims “… the city voted for a mayor who promised cuts, so many citizens are hunkering down, expecting a guillotine and thanking their stars that the damage isn’t worse.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Imma stop right there, Royson. You watched as many of the mayoral debates as I did, probably more. You must’ve heard our mayor, upon being pilloried by his opponents for having a hidden agenda of service cuts to meet all the tax cutting, Gravy Train stopping pledges he was making, guarantee there’d be no cuts. Guaranteed, Mr. James.

So no, ‘the city’ did not vote ‘for a mayor who promised cuts’. In fact, he promised just the opposite which makes him a lying sack of shit and you’re now covering for him, picking up the narrative of No Cuts, Guaranteed now becoming No Major Cuts, and anyone who opposes them as ‘lefties merely bleeding over minor cuts’. This just days after writing a moderately thoughtful piece about politicians (not just the lefties) playing, well, politics with the different service needs in different parts of the city. (h/t to @goldsbie for drawing attention to all three articles)

Is it just simply an example of Royson James attempting to be some sort of objective reporter? Never taking one side without responding in kind from the other regardless of an issue’s merit? Or has he just grown tired of the city beat, unable to muster the enthusiasm anymore to mount a sustained argument? He gets up in the morning and flips a coin to see who he’s going to heap derision on in his next column. Nothing more than a whole lot of tit for tat and he said, she said, contributing only unhelpful clutter to the ongoing civic dialogue.

Paraphrasing Stephen Colbert from the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, maybe you should take some time, Royson, finish that novel you’ve always wanted to write. The one about that intrepid newspaper columnist, covering City Hall for the country’s largest newspaper, keeping politicians honest, speaking truth to power and standing up for the little guy.

You know, fiction.

— plagiarizingly submitted by Cityslikr


The Bad New Just Keeps On Coming

January 25, 2011

So the bad news just keeps flowing in for Toronto. Last week, the British Council’s OPENCities project ranked Toronto the third most “Open” city in the world. Yikes! What did we do now?

Apparently, measuring an “Open” city consists of looking at factors including diversity policies, quality of life and education to determine “… the capacity of cities…to attract and benefit from international populations…” Of the cities participating, only London and New York fared worse than Toronto. Having elected Team Ford, at least we’ll be trying to rectify such shortcomings.

“Openness is a real advantage for cities if they are pursuing plans to be internationally connected and play international roles. Whilst some of the factors influencing openness are beyond the direct control of cities, many of these factors are well within the control or immediate influence of city governments: the city’s identity and character; its education, housing and cultural offer; the kind of local democracy it practices and the forms of participation it encourages.”

M’eh.

Then RealNet Canada pops up to tell us that new homes sales in the GTA last year increased 8% over 2009 and that the condominium market jumped by 30% during that time. “Interestingly,” George M. Carras, RealNet Canada’s President says, “the Downtown West submarket accounted for almost one quarter of the GTA’s total new condominium sales.” Oh no! Only a quarter?! Repeal that Land Transfer Tax. Stat!

Worse yet, 905 outpaced 416 in total sales, 55% to 45% last year although the RealNet report claims new home development in the City of Toronto continues on an upward trend, “…almost double what it was ten years ago,” says Mr. Carras. Clearly, this is a city that has been mismanaged and misruled for too long. Our politicians know it. Our media knows it. All right thinking citizens know it. Now, even outsiders and the “experts” like the British Council and RealNet Canada with their studies and data know it too.

The secret is out. Toronto’s a terrible place to live, work and play. Pass it on.

alarmistly submitted by Cityslikr