When Unprincipled Meets Foolhardy Populism

March 31, 2011

With a provincial election looming this fall and the pitter-patter of little PC feet slapping all around him, Premier Dalton McGuinty has become compliant, let’s call it, in the face of demands from those claiming to have some political influence. Influence that, if unleashed, could spell a world of pain on the Liberal government come October. Premier McGuinty is nothing if not responsive to the winds of electoral change especially if they look like ill winds.

Now, you might not recognize this new acquiescence in the premier because it may look a lot like the old acquiescence. There is rarely a cross breeze he does not bend in the face of whether or not it’s sex education in schools, green energy or, now, a massive restructuring of a transit plan at the behest of Toronto mayor, Rob Ford. Looking over Liberal seats in Toronto and the GTA, the premier chucked both common sense and the democratic system over board to de-escalate the possibility of having to face the wrath of Ford Nation come election time.

I wouldn’t call it a capitulation. McGuinty didn’t fork over any new money. In fact, in the long run, this could turn out to be pure, Machiavellian genius on his part. Let the belligerent mayor claim this as his plan which services far fewer people and is contingent on a highly dubious claim of tapping private money to extend the Sheppard subway line. When things don’t fall into place in a couple years for Mayor Ford, and public transit has not noticeably improved especially for those in the northeastern and western sections of the city, and construction along Eglinton snarls up traffic during his watch, well, if McGuinty is still premier, he may get to sit and watch the implosion.

As satisfactory as that scenario might be, it is just the latest example of pure politics trumping sensible transit strategy here in Toronto, setting back an already increasingly backward system years if not decades. Transit City was in place to deliver solid, affordable public transit to areas of the city that had none. Perfect? No. Point to one that is. But it was much more extensive and inclusive than the Mayor’s current plan. Even the mystical one that is based purely on his magical thinking of the private sector riding to his rescue to build us subways.

“People want subways,” the mayor said.

Yeah. I want subways too, Mayor Ford. I love subways. I will go out of my way to take a subway wherever I am. With no particular place to go, I pushed into a Tokyo subway car at rush hour on a Friday. Just to see what it was like. While I can’t be entirely sure if it was on purpose or not, I was groped on a subway in Caracas. I have spent an inordinate amount of time traveling around Paris by subway just because.

But I also love streetcars, trams, LRTs. Sitting on the tram and watching Prague go by is… yeah, I’m going to say sublime. Taking the El from downtown Chicago out to Oak Park to do the Frank Lloyd Wright tour is a fantastic way to see parts of the city you never would usually. Or how about when the subway from Manhattan goes above ground on its way out to Coney Island, passing by neighbourhoods you only hear about in the movies? Forgettaboutit!

What I really want is a transit system that utilizes the most sensible technology for the money and numbers of riders available. That reaches the widest number of people and neighbourhoods possible while removing the most cars off the road. A transit system that works.

Mayor Ford’s plan does none of these things. It is driven purely by his dislike of streetcars and the perception that they get in the way of cars, his car. Think it a coincidence that the mayor arrived up at his meeting with the premier this morning for their transit announcement in his own private vehicle?

Premier McGuinty didn’t have to rebuff the mayor outright in his request to reallocate Tranist City funds and risk facing the bad mood of an enraged Ford Nation in October. He could’ve said, OK, Mayor Ford. You were elected with a mandate, some of which consisted of putting an end to streetcar construction. But since we’re not really talking about streetcars, and since we put up the $8 billion for the Transit City design that was in place, and since you’re asking to use a quarter of that, two billion dollars to substantially alter that design, we think it behooves you to take it to city council for a vote. If you can garner 23 yeas, then we can confidently give the go-ahead on your plan, secure in the knowledge that the city is behind you and it’s all not just bluster and chest-beating on your part.

The premier could’ve done that and shown some courage and a vision for public transit in this city. Instead, he put his own political career ahead of the best interests of Toronto. Let’s not forget that come fall and show him there are repercussions to giving the finger to the anti-Ford Nation as well.

irately submitted by Cityslikr

Silly Socialist Social Engineering

March 30, 2011

Somebody really ought to ask Councillor Doug Ford, and his brother the mayor, and their official court stenographer, Sue-Ann Levy, to define the term ‘socialism’. I’m beginning to think none of them actually know what it means. It’s just a catch-all phrase they toss around to denigrate those they don’t agree with politically; those who believe in the positive influence government can have on the greater good.

The latest instance occurred at yesterday’s Government Management Committee meeting where councillors debated and then voted down a city staff recommendation to have exclusively healthy options — 2% milk, soy milk, fruit juices, no bottled water – in all city operated vending machines by 2014. “Down here we have a mentality that the government knows best,” Councillor Doug Ford said, arguing against dictating to people what they should be drinking. “We’re big brother, we tell you what to do.”

“This is socialism at its best, it really is,” Councillor Ford continued. Best. Worst. Whatever. Let’s just assume the councillor was speaking derogatorily.

Government certainly doesn’t know best but, according to the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy, the beverage industry certainly does. Why listen to a staff report (which was just “a pile of crap” according to Committee Chair Paul Ainslie) when those who stand to lose most by any change in the current status quo can tell you all you need to know? “Consumers are going to purchase what they want to purchase and if they can’t get it on site they’re just going to walk across the street,” John Challinor, director of corporate affairs for Nestle Waters Canada, said. “We don’t need to be following this sort of Nanny state approach.”

Mr. Challinor went on to tell Ms. Levy that they ‘…do regular opinion surveys and have found the majority of Torontonians do not want bottled water removed from their civic facilities.’ If the people selling bottled water tell us a majority of Torontonians demand bottled water in their civic facilities, who are we to question them? Piles of crap are what governments produce not the private, for-profit sector.

I imagine if the tobacco industry conducted a survey among teenagers asking if they wanted cigarettes back being in sold vending machines, you’d find a majority somewhere saying, hells yeah! How about booze too? All sold in vending machines that don’t ask anybody what year they were born before dispensing their product.

“If they want to have cigarettes in the machines, so be it,” [Councillor] Ford said. “They might even put a shot of rye in there too. Unbelievable.”

Hoo-ray! Let’s hear it for the good guys fighting for the right of Joe Average to consume whatever product they desire wherever they want. Down with social engineering and all those do-goodie, ‘calorie-counting’, ‘eco-obsessed wingnuts’. Attempted behavioral modification by the government is nothing more than socialism and is doomed to failure.

Just take that pesky 5¢ fee the city forces merchants to charge customers for plastic shopping bags for instance. A government money grab, nothing more. Oh, and a business killer. Except the money doesn’t go to the government but to the retailers. So.. just over-reaching, nanny state government with their fingers in consumers pockets for no reason whatsoever.

“The Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, which represents the big supermarket chains, said the fee has been a success at cutting plastic bag use by 71 per cent in its members’ stores.”

Five cents might not be a lot of money, but it seems to be enough to make people change their habits,” said Metro [supermarket chain] spokeswoman Marie-Claude Bacon. “People were ready for that.” How ready? According to the company, 1 month after the fee was introduced, demand for plastic bags dropped by 50% and 18 months later, it was down to 80%.

That’s 80% fewer petroleum based products in circulation. 80% fewer bags going into landfills. Environmentally friendly and economically sensible. Like Jim Harris argued in the pages of the National Post a little while back.

Just a little nudge is all people need sometimes. I’m not paying 5¢ for a plastic bag. I’ll bring my own bag. So it begins. No Coke in the vending machine?! Maybe I’ll try a cranberry juice instead. How can that be bad for anyone, for society?

If that’s what Councillor Ford wants to call ‘socialism’, let’s give it to him. Because his world view, his non-socialism is one filled with obese underage smokers and drinkers, and floating islands of unnecessary plastic garbage, where the customer is always right. It’s a cheap imitation laissez-faire attitude that hurls meaningless political labels as insults and that would shock and appall even the staunchest of traditional conservatives whose tattered banner radical right wingers like the Ford Bros. et al have hijacked for their own anti-social purposes.

socialistically submitted by Cityslikr

The Double Life Of Mayor Rob Ford

March 29, 2011

I had a sleepless night last, I must confess. At the centre of my disquiet was a brewing disagreement in my head with our (virtual) friend over at Ford For Toronto, Matt Elliott. I don’t think we’ve ever disagreed on anything and it wasn’t lying easily upon my sleepy head.

Yesterday Elliott linked to a Spacing article written by John Lorinc examining Mayor Ford’s campaign expenses that were submitted last week, stating: I’m no fan of the mayor, but I still don’t see much newsworthy re: Ford, Election Expenses & Deco Labels. But as I read through Mr. Lorinc’s piece, I kept thinking, not newsworthy? How not newsworthy?

Is it because it’s all old news, the mayor’s complicated relationship with his family business, Deco Labels and Tags, and his role as former city councillor and now mayor? A business he’s still actively involved with, apparently? A complicated relationship that for years plagued many of his council colleagues as Ford made his name crusading against office expenses which he rarely-to-never used, and instead paid for such things out of his pocket. This put whatever expenses then Councillor Ford’s actually made out of public view. Say what you want about the bunny suits and taxi fares that made such a big splash in the press, not to mention provided heavy cannon fodder for Rob Ford’s mayoral campaign against waste and corruption at City Hall, but at least those things became public knowledge. How Councillor Ford funded his office endured no such transparency.

That is not to say he was doing anything illegal or unethical. Council set the Auditor-General and Integrity Commissioner upon Ford back in 2007 to investigate his lack of office expense claims. Their report found Ford (and Councillor Doug Holyday) were not adhering to council policy in terms of reporting expenses but suggested no punishment. So there it remained, with Ford able to continue his battle against wasteful councillor spending right into the mayor’s office while keeping his own financial dealings in the murky waters of non-compliance.

At the heart of the issue is Mayor Ford’s use of his family business while acting as a public servant. We know Deco does work  for the city and has been before Ford was first elected to council back in 2000. The amount seems insignificant and distanced enough from the mayor and his now councillor brother, Doug, to be only mildly unsettling. There is the whole sole sourcing contract in one aspect of the deal that seems more than reasonable and only rankles because the mayor has often railed about sole sourcing regardless that it sometimes is the best alternative.

More disturbing, however, is the mayor’s use of his company to supply his office with materials and services that he doesn’t claim as official expenses. Even if he does actually pay out from his own pocket, he’s paying a company that he co-owns and operates with his family. Doesn’t this represent an unfair advantage for the mayor over his council colleagues who don’t have access to a family firm? Does he get a family discount? If so, wouldn’t that constitute some sort of gift or donation from the private sector? These are questions we aren’t able to fully answer because the mayor as a councillor didn’t claim expenses from the city, so didn’t have to publicly declare where and how he spent his money. Not exactly the transparency he pledged to deliver if elected.

The quagmire further widened and deepened when Mayor Ford went public with his expenses for his successful mayoral run last year, disturbing on a number of levels. Firstly, the mayor blew $400,000 past the $1.3 million spending cap with seemingly no penalty for doing so. Why bother having a limit if candidates can simply ignore it by just assuming the overages? That doesn’t really level the financial playing field.

Secondly, the mayor got elected on a platform of vowing to bring sound fiscal management to City Hall but went into debt doing so. To the tune of anywhere between $640,000-$800,000 before post-election fundraising cleared out most of it. Isn’t that a little unnerving? Or do we just chalk it up to making a personal sacrifice for the common good? Like another fiscal conservative, Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, who is now asking council to pay his legal fees for a case he brought against the city back in 2008 in order to stop it… wait for it, wait for it… paying the legal fees of two other councillors. Initially, Holyday said he was footing the bill but when the city pushed back and strung the case out with an appeal process, well, it all became a little too rich for the deputy mayor’s tastes. Rest assured, good people of Toronto, we’re still saving money in the long run as Councillor Holyday will have finally put this nonsense of paying councillors’ legal fees to bed, once and for all. After, of course, we pay his legal fees.

Even if legitimate, the optics of this are horrible. Just like Kyle Rae’s $12,000 retirement party. Completely legitimate and above board but arguably the image the mayor and all the fiscal conservatives rode into power on.

And then there’s the $150,000 in costs to Rob Ford’s mayoral campaign charged by again… wait for it… wait for it… Deco Labels and Tags. That’s in the neighbourhood of 10% of the campaign costs going to Rob Ford’s company. Legitimate and above board but stinking to high heaven.

Think about it for a moment. Rob Ford pays $150,000 to his own company for election related expenses. Expenses that are then (hopefully) covered by donations from the public. Donations that are then subsidized up to 75% by the city. So indirectly, 75% or so of the $150,000 Deco Labels and Tags made from the Ford campaign is paid by taxpayers. Is that what passes for respect in the Ford era?

The mayor cannot continue to hold the moral high ground on fiscal matters of this city, to scream Gravy Train every time he spots what he deems to be wasteful spending, while he actively participates in the family business that does business with this city, that profits from its business with the city. Regardless of the amount involved or the arms length distance he might have from the deal as mayor. It reeks of hypocrisy and a conflict of interest. The mayor is either a public servant or a private business man. If those two worlds overlap as they do with the city of Toronto and Deco Labels and Tags, he has to decide which one he’s going to be.

It’s time to shit or get off the pot, Mr. Mayor.

decidedly submitted by Cityslikr

Why Are You Asking Me?

March 28, 2011

Three days into our federal election campaign and we’re all still breathlessly awaiting word from the Oracle of Etobicoke. As mayor of the country’s biggest city, just what issues does he want to see addressed by the politicians out on the hustings? How can Ottawa best contribute to the well-being of the nation’s cities? A national transit strategy? A national housing strategy? A more even split of tax revenues like the gas tax?

What? What? What? Oh, great silent One. Use this time when your leverage is strongest to put forth an urban vision. And no, a quick email missive repeating one of your campaign chants will not suffice.

The sad joke of our mayor’s failure to lead (hell, make an appearance even) as the federal election begins to take shape is that he had 7 months or so during last year’s municipal race to put forth some sort of vision for the city and failed miserably to do so. It was all about what shouldn’t be happening as opposed to what should be. Negative rather than positive. City diminishing not city building. So expectations for him to suddenly emerge with a concrete, Wish List of items that federal politicians need to check off to gain his approval shouldn’t be any higher than practically nil.

Besides, what kind of asks can Mayor Ford make of either senior level of government? Toronto doesn’t have a revenue problem, remember? It has a spending problem and while the mayor and his team are grudgingly realizing that the situation just may not be as straightforward as all that, how do you reframe such an important plank in your popularity? It’s like trying to reconfigure your very political DNA.

On top of which, this is an administration that’s proving unable to make requests or to seek any sort of consensus with anyone it sees as not being completely simpatico with its way of thinking. It demands, instead. Makes threats. Give us this or else. Or else what? The wrath of Ford Nation.

Or at least, that’s how it rolls with those who don’t share the same political colours like the current premier of Ontario, Liberal Dalton McGuinty. Premier McGuinty better play ball or else the mayor’s all in with the like-minded conservative, Tim Hudak. I want my ill-advised subway or else.

But what to do when a Conservative is already in power? Not to mention that one of the bigwigs, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, is also a family friend? To make requests or demands of them in return for your support would be to suggest that they’re already not doing enough. Almost like a criticism. Criticizing is what you do to opponents not brothers-in-arms.

So personally, I expect to hear very little from our mayor during the federal campaign. He’ll lie low, maybe even use the 5 weeks or so as a distraction, to pull off some stuff that might draw more attention if eyes weren’t otherwise focused elsewhere. And hope for a Conservative majority win. Once that’s in place, then it’s on to Queen’s Park to install a Conservative government there this fall.

With those ducks all in a row, a trifecta, city, province, country, then the real work can begin and our city will grow and prosper as cities always do under the beneficent and enlightened rule of Conservatives.

submitted by Cityslikr

Breakdown of An Executive Committee Breakdown

March 27, 2011

(In case you missed it earlier this week, we posted a piece over at Torontoist. Out of sheer laziness, we’re re-posting a truncated version of it here today. If you’re feeling equally as lazy, this one’s for you.)

* * *

If you’ve spent any time lately at city council and found yourself uninspired by the lack of substantive debate and partisan chest-beating (or bleating, depending on your view), may I suggest you take a pass on attending any Executive Committee meetings. At least watching the entire council at work in the chambers, Team Ford is diluted somewhat, usually triumphant in the end but at least put through its paces, challenged on almost equal footing by the opposition. But in committee room #1? The Executive is let off the leash, barely touched by ‘visiting’ councillors or deputants who hope to make any sort of impression upon them.

Made up of the mayor’s handpicked standing committee chairs, the executive committee acts as the official brain trust of an administration; the public face of Mayor Ford’s unofficial brain trust consisting of his councillor brother and staff. The Executive Committee basically preps the mayor’s agenda that will be presented at and bludgeoned through the next city council meeting. At Executive Committee motions are gussied up, some lipstick and rouge slapped on them in the form of minor amendments to make them look all pur-dy. Or sometimes, motions go there to die, killed by an indefinite referral.

This isn’t entirely surprising since the Executive Committee is essentially chosen by the mayor as his on field team. No one expects serious splits, divisions or close votes. That’s for council. This is how the mayor marshals his forces to try and advance his agenda.

But I don’t think I have seen a less incurious, less thoughtful or less intellectually rigorous group outside of a church. No one cared about input from those who took the time to attend the meeting and express their views. This administration seems to believe that the “people” spoke last October 25th and all this is now just an annoying distraction from the work that has to be done. They couldn’t even muster the pretense of listening. Twice as the meeting wound down, they had to stop after it was pointed out there wasn’t a quorum – 7 committee members – present. Once, during a discussion about how they were going to proceed with their Core Service Review! The nuts and bolts of governing. You know, the very essence of what a municipal government does.

Which should come as little surprise since the driving force of Mayor Ford’s Executive Committee seems to be the dismantling of the activist government of their immediate predecessor. A fancy way of saying, Stop the Gravy Train.

There are two reasons for that, I believe. One is pure ideology. Like the mayor himself, the active members of the Executive Committee, the ones who contribute more than simply casting a vote when they’re told, are hard core, tried and true, anti-government neo-conservatives. Barely 10 minutes would pass during the meeting when somebody wasn’t yammering on with trite bromides like ‘learning to live within our means’, ‘governments are just like households’ and respect for the taxpayer.

The second and equally applicable reason for the Ford administration’s anti-Miller sentiment is much more personal. It’s pure, bitter resentment at having been excluded and sidelined for the past 8 years or so. When various members of the Executive Committee aren’t talking of finding efficiencies and waste, they let it be known how badly they were treated by the Millerites, excluded or kicked off that board, ignored or ridiculed at that committee meeting. It’s like revenge of the nerds but in real life.

If true, I’m sure some of it was along partisan lines. Councillor David Shiner pointed out that he’d been turfed from the board of Toronto Hydro because he wasn’t supportive enough of green initiatives. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that.

But I’d also suggest that, with the possible exception of Councillors Shiner and Michael Thompson, the more I see of the Executive Committee, the more I’m convinced that most of them along with the chair of the committee, Mayor Ford, are lightweights. They bring very little to the table in terms of original ideas or well-developed thoughts. Those that do bother to express an opinion, rarely do so in any sort of rational or compelling manner. They’re too busy checking off the list of grievances at previous slights.

None embody this bubbling cauldron of spiteful, inchoate animosity better than the Budget Chief, Mike Del Grande. Hectoring and disagreeable, the councillor from Scarborough is equal parts know-it-all and I-told-you-so. He lectures rather than asks questions. Berates not debates. He re-configures his opponents’ arguments into ones better suited for him to deride and dismiss. At one point of time during Monday’s meetiong, the councillor told a skin-crawlingly personal story of paying the way for his university aged daughter and how under his roof it was his rules and he who holds the purse strings… Oh my god, the poor woman!

The truly galling aspect of this, though, is Councillor Del Grande’s temerity to lecture others about the value of money. Here’s a guy, always boasting of his chartered accountant credentials and how he understands that you can’t spend more than you have, revenues must match expenditures, and yet he was all onboard cutting the VRT and freezing property taxes thereby denying the city millions and millions of dollars? With a straight face he demands our respect for him as a sound fiscal manager?

This Executive Committee is the ugly manifestation of the Ford Nation. Like a jilted lover, it has seized control, determined to prove its worth. It brooks no dissent and counters any disagreement or outside opinion with vitriol and contempt. Retribution not reconciliation is its agenda. This is the heart of an administration that has more interest in getting even than it does in governing.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr