I Just Want To Stop (And Grab A Bixi Bike)

May 23, 2011


People Got To Move

When I think about those nights in Montreal…

I get the sweetest thoughts of me and Bixi.

If there is a better way to see a city, to visit the nooks and crannies, get to neighbourhoods one might normally overlook while visiting another city, it hasn’t been invented yet.

Bixi, baby. Bixi.

2 years older than the Bixi Toronto with roughly 10 times the bikes and stations, Montreal offers up a vision of just how well a bike sharing program can serve a city. Yeah, yeah. I know it’s in the hole right now. Great ideas don’t always immediately take. And judging from the expressways and multi-lane roads running throughout the downtown core, Montreal is no less a car-oriented place than we are here. So it’s going to take time. But to abandon it at this early stage would be an admission that cycling really isn’t a vital component of your transit plan.

Travelling around a wide swath of Montreal on the Bixi network is pretty well effortless (if you don’t include trying to scale that one big mountain in the middle of the place.) The rhythm goes something like this: bike, walk, bike, walk, walk, bike, patio, bike, walk, patio, bike, walk, walk, patio, walk, patio, walk, bike, patio, patio, patio…  You could replace some of those patio stops with a gallery or two. Shopping if you really must although, why would you when it takes time away from riding? And patio visiting.Of course, a bike sharing program alone cannot bring cycling to a wider number of users. People must be comfortable taking to the roads and that can only happen when they feel welcome onto a city’s streets, big and small. That means more accommodation to cyclists and an acknowledgement that the roads belong to them too. Without that, the Bixi idea will be little more than the cute novelty the name suggests.

besottedly submitted by Cityslikr

City Staff — Just Doing Their Job

May 21, 2011

City staff.

Is there a faceless group more vilified and/or acclaimed by our elected representatives? Entrenched, intractable obstructionists to some on some days. Bringers of light, knowledge and wisdom to others on other days. And vice versa.

It must be a special breed of person to climb the ranks of the city staff, so to speak. Able to set aside their personal political beliefs to provide nonpartisan service to the city. To cater to whim and ignorance if necessary but help forward thinking ideas take flight when they appear, mirage-like above the rough and tumble of business as usual. Ignored and extolled in unequal measure.

I sat thinking about this during Tuesday’s city council debate on garbage privatization. City staff littered the periphery of council floor, responding to the grilling from various councillors. Some of it amicable, some of it, not so much. They were there to answer questions about the report recommending privatizing residential garbage collection in District 2. Defenders of the privatization faith on this particular day.

What they weren’t defending, however, was the mayor. That’s not their job. While it may seem like that’s what they were doing, they were only assuming the position that, in short, stated that privatizing waste collection in one of the city’s four districts would save the city $8 million. It just so happened that’s also what the mayor believes. Interests intersect.

Now, how they arrived at that conclusion is another matter entirely. I’d imagine it all depended on how the request was framed. If a mayor, say, one of a more curious and open minded sort, went to staff and asked more along the lines of, You know, I’ve been wondering about this whole privatization of garbage collection thingie. Do you think you could crunch some numbers and let me know if it would save the city money or not?, city staff might’ve been defending something quite different on Tuesday.

Somehow, and I’m only guessing here, Mayor Ford didn’t pose the question quite like that. Having campaigned hard on the theory that privatization would save the city money, $49 million/year citywide was the going rate last year when the C.D. Howe Institute’s report was the baseline all the I’ll Smarten The City Up candidates were using, I believe it was, it’s hard to imagine, once elected, the mayor would then ask for a report that might challenge his assumption. The request probably sounded more like, The city’ll save money privatizing garbage. Show me how much. Bigger number, the better. And I need it yesterday.

We’re not talking about fudging figures here. It’s about best case scenarios and commencing from the jumping off point that knows cities save money by privatizing waste collection. There’s no nul hypothesis involved. A real scientific, rational approach would be trying to prove your hypothesis wrong. This was all about trying to prove a position right.

And remember, not long after assuming office, at a press conference Mayor Ford said he was looking for a 5% cut across all departments. If department heads couldn’t deliver those savings, the mayor intimated darkly, he’d find department heads that could. My thinking is, there’s not a lot of back-and-forth, give-and-take, brainstorming happening between city staff and the mayor’s office. I’m envisioning more of Scotty’s constant state of duress under his captain. “Damn it, Jim! I’m an engineer not a doctor. We’re already at warp speed 10,000. The magic chrysalids won’t hold. Oh my god, they’re disbanding the PTA!!!” (Yeah, I don’t know anything about Star Trek.)

My way or the highway, folks. I know a thousand people out there who would die to have your jobs. If you don’t like it, there’s the door.

When was the last time your boss came to you and dropped a big, steaming load of impossible on your desk and you just turned around and told him to go fuck himself? The mayor, having gone public with the fact he’s not going to abide with anyone not abiding by his wishes, asks/demands city staff for a report that accentuates the positives of garbage privatization. What are you going to do but eliminate the negative?

Now, many of us raised on the ‘Yes, Minister/Prime Minister’ franchise might love to think there is a scheming, conniving Sir Humphrey Appleby bureaucracy at work, undercutting the pols when their hubris calls for it and saving their asses as needed. Oh, if only life were exactly like TV. We’d all remain young, beautiful and hairless in all the right places.

Since it isn’t, let’s assume the work environment at City Hall is pretty much like work environments everywhere. A reflection of the dynamic at work between the boss and staff. It can be creative and vital with everyone asked for their input and expertise in pursuit of the best outcome possible. Or simply a one-way street, hierarchical in the extreme, demands made, desired results delivered. Staff doesn’t determine which scenario plays out. That’s the boss’s job.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr

Garbage Debate

May 19, 2011

It all ended so anti-climatically. A day’s worth of debate and bluster, bare knuckles and bared teeth. A flurry of motions, amendments and barely contained confusion, wrapping up in a couple, three quick votes. Then a recess was called, an in camera session declared, spectators, many clad in union supportive orange, wandered from the council chambers toward the elevators, surprised to learn that it was all done, the deal sealed.

Toronto now has private garbage collection, west of Yonge Street to Etobicokie, from Steels down to the lakefront. Sort of. Rather, a call to tender out trash collection in the city’s District 2 has been approved by council. The winning bid will then be brought back, further debated and voted on, subject to a series of stipulations and benchmarks crafted at Tuesday night’s council meeting to help ensure that the savings we have been guaranteed will be had.

Let’s call it step 1 toward the full implementation of Mayor Ford’s campaign pledge to privatize garbage collection citywide, thereby fulfilling his mandate of respecting the taxpayers and saving them x amount of dollars. (x being a fluid, evasive number dependent on who was touting it and for what purposes but always variable.) It wasn’t the slam dunk many of the mayor’s previous initiatives were and much of the drama had been bled from it when, in the face of some stiff opposition to an earlier plan to have council give carte blanche to the Bid Committee to sign off on any deal, Team Ford appeared to have caved to council’s will. The real battle is set to happen when the selected bid comes before council for its approval.

Of special note is the role played by the so-called mushy middle in tempering the mayor’s desired stampede to full on privatization. The two Joshes along with Ana Bailão, new councillors all, managed to push through amendments that, in theory at least, establish more rigorous oversight when the bid comes back to council for final approval. In doing so, they delivered a few nice body shots to the mayor, proving that he is not invincible and his grip on the majority of council members is not ironclad.

Yet… yet… not meaning to diminish their achievements, defeating the mayor in some important votes on such a high profile item that he so identifies with is nothing to sneeze at, but it all felt so unnecessary. I know Councillor Josh Matlow is a big proponent of ‘process’, of not adhering to simple ideology in determining how decisions are made. It just seemed to me that the process should’ve been simpler. There were two sides to the debate. Those favouring privatized waste collection and those not. (Or in Mayor Ford’s more nuanced view, those respecting taxpayers versus tax-and-spend socialists.) Each presents and makes their respective cases, the pros and cons discussed and deliberated thoroughly and thoughtfully, leading to a majority decision. That’s council process.

If the mayor and his forces want to privatize garbage collection, all they have to do is to prove that it will save money and improve the service we already have. Simply put, they couldn’t do it. Their numbers are suspect and all they had for improved service was to point out that in Etobicoke where collection has been fully private since the mid-90s, they get no more complaints than in the rest of the city.

No more?! That isn’t an improvement. That’s a wash. And without being able to show that privatizing will actually respect the taxpayers and save them money, all they had to go with was guaranteeing there’d be no more strikes.

And that’s not even guaranteed. There’s no way the city can include a no-strike clause in any contract it signs with a private firm. City staff admitted as much on Tuesday. All that is possible is a decreased likelihood of future strikes because non-union workers don’t tend to go on strike and, from the arguments I heard, private waste collection is usually performed by non-unionized workers. Workers working for less money and with less benefits which is where the savings for the taxpayers are supposed to come from.

But that’s really all the rabid pro-privatizers had to go on, and they went with it with all the shrill, hectoring vehemence they could muster. Between Councillor Mammoliti and Speaker Nunziata, they painted a veritable Mad Max of garbage collection up in their York wards. Trash ridden streets, broken and busted bins, anti-social, unionista collectors putting the fear into old ladies and keeping them cowering in their houses, taking cover weekly, waiting until the garbage trucks passed to re-emerge out in the daylight to clean up the mess left behind.

All anecdotal and unlike anything I’ve ever seen with garbage pickup outside of my house. More to the point, every horror story councillors Mammoliti and Nunziata used to fire up their supporters must be matched by similar tales of woe in Etobicoke because as Chair of Public Works and Infrastructure, Denzil Minnan-Wong, and city staffed told council repeatedly, complaint levels on both sides of the fence are roughly the same. Privatization has not proven to be an ingredient for increased public satisfaction.

In terms of process, the anti-privatization argument at Tuesday’s council meeting won the day if for no other reason than their opponents’ case was flabby, unproven and based almost exclusively on hearsay and unbridled emotion demanding vengeance on those who caused us so much discomfort and heartache for nearly 40 days during the summer of 2009. On the face of it, the vote should’ve been one-sided in the other direction that it ultimately went. That is, if councillors had left their concerns of being smeared as free spending socialists and enemies of taxpayers back in their offices.

All was not lost. If some of the amendments that managed to get out from under Councillor Mammoliti’s down turned thumb are adhered to as the debate moves forward, and the numbers are actually explained and examined honestly and without bias, the move towards privatization may not yet be a done deal. Of course, that’s predicated on the assumption that the councillors still sitting on the fence of the privatization issue really are waiting for all the facts to fully emerge. That’s something I’m not convinced of.

trashily submitted by Cityslikr

Proper Usage

May 17, 2011

Yesterday @GraphicMatt Elliott over at Ford For Toronto linked to the comment section of Luca De Franco’s Spacing article about the battle over the proposed Fort York pedestrian/cyclist bridge. One particular comment quoted an email response from the city’s budget chief, Mike Del Grande. The above linked piece at Ford For Toronto covers the gist of Councillor Del Grande’s response much more thoroughly than we will here but one sentence caught our attention.

“This bridge will cost 22 [million] + the opportunity to gain 25 million from proper usage of the site,” the budget chief wrote. “So it will really cost 47 million at the end of the day. Sorry, that is very poor use of limited funds the City has.”

‘Proper usage’? You know once someone starts spouting euphemisms they aren’t willing to come right out and say what they really mean. What kind of ‘proper usage’ would net the city $25 million? Not many things outside of parceling off a prime piece of real estate, I’m thinking. So to Councillor Del Grande’s mind it’s not just about saving money and building a cheaper bridge. It’s about selling off city assets – I mean, ‘monetizing’ the city’s assets — to deal with an impending, tsunami-sized budget hole next year.

So it begins. Under the banner of sound fiscal discipline or whatever other business-speak blather the budget chief spews forth, it’s nothing more than a fire sale. One-off transactions that may plug a temporary hole but could end up costing the city more in the long run, if not in direct financial terms but in the ability to control development, plan neighbourhoods, create livable public space. Councillor Del Grande is simply waving the white flag of surrender and admitting that he’s out of his depth. The best he can come up with in the face of a budget crunch is to sell, outsource and privatize everything that’s not nailed down.

There’s. No. More. Money. Everything’s. On. The. Table. Everything. Must. Go.

The Waterfront. Toronto Hydro. Toronto Parking Authority. Unload it all. Cash for control. It’ll look good for the annual bottom line. Until next year, of course, when all that revenue dries up and there’s another shortfall. Rinse and repeat.

“Bridge yes but not at any cost,” Budget Chief also notes. “But… does not carry the day. This kind of thinking has caused a great financial problem for the City.”

That he remains firm in this belief that reckless spending is the source of Toronto’s current money woes speaks to either a fundamental lack of understanding of the budget process or just plain ol’ willful ideology. The city could cut its discretionary spending to the very finest of cores and still find itself in a pinch due to the mandated services it must provide. Maybe that’s the path Councillor Del Grande wants to travel down. But I’d respect him more if he had the courage of his convictions to admit it was a choice and not a necessity foisted on him by the profligacy of the previous administration.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr

The Toronto Sun’s Rally Cry

May 16, 2011

I tend to try and ignore the noise that emanates from the pages of the Toronto Sun. It’s not a newspaper so much as an organ of right wing dissemination. Sometimes the silliness tends to reach such stratospheric levels (I’m looking at you, Sue-Ann Levy) that I can’t help but comment.The org’s front page last Friday, however, did stop me up in my tracks. Rallying Cry. Call goes out to ‘Ford Nation’ to support mayor. The accompanying article was, if not innocuous, less propagandistic than the cover appeared to be. It seems the mayor’s office sent out an email to those on its campaign update list (aka ‘Ford Nation’), alerting them to the upcoming service review public meetings and urging them to sign up and attend. ‘Stacking’ the room as Councillor Janet Davis suggested.

Clearly, Mayor Ford has little interest in reaching out past his constituency. Instead, he’s choosing to firmly entrench it in an us-versus-them (them being the downtown pinko kooks) division that he can use to further his interests. His interests not the city’s. Thereby making the public consultation process for the service review less of an open forum and discussion to hear all views and more of a partisan pep rally.

But it was the timing of the Sun’s cover that really drew my attention to it. On the very day of its appearance on the newsstand and in curbside boxes, the mayor was attempting to quash requests going before the Compliance Audit Committee to have his campaign financing examined. His bid to proceed with the privatization of waste collection west of Yonge Street was headed to debate at City Council this week. The city had decided not to appeal a court ruling that ordered a by-election for Ward 9 that would take Ford foe Councillor Maria Augimeri off the council playing field until later in the summer and quite possibly install another rabidly pro-Ford member at council.

A rough and tumble patch is looming for Mayor Ford and it just struck me that the Sun might be trying to marshal the mayor’s supporters to his defense. Setting aside the most obvious argument about if this is something a so-called newspaper should be doing – the Sun is as relentless in its attack on politicians and institutions that don’t share its reactionary views as it is in supporting those that do – it is more disturbing for its promotion of a cult of personality. The mayor and his ‘nation’ aligning against the dark forces of opposition. You’re with us or you’re a’gin us.

Now, I hesitate to float the word ‘fascistic’. It comes loaded with all sorts of connotations of Nazis, brown-shirted thugs and the Holocaust. Even divorced of that imagery, to label a municipal politician as a fascist is all sorts of over-reaching and, very possibly, trite. But there is a tendency in this administration and the press that slavishly backs it to exhibit elements of fascism, none more so then this appeal to a ‘nation’ of followers. It end runs reasoned debate or discussion. It’s all about gut instincts and visceral emotion. To disagree or oppose is to reveal yourself as a foe, a pinko, a kook.

It’s interesting to go through a full definition of the meaning of fascism. Take Dr. Lawrence Britt’s 14 Characteristics of Fascism for example. Again, much of it is focused on national government with aspects concerning the military or religion that are beyond the control or oversight of municipal politicians so is not applicable. Yet, some of the points are disturbingly relevant to what we’re watching unfold here.

“Powerful and Continuing Nationalism”. Ford Nation. “Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause”. Bureaucratic fatcats. Pinko kooks. Union thugs. “Controlled Mass Media”. Obviously that’s beyond a mayor’s control but Dr. Britt talks about “sympathetic media spokespeople and executives”. Think about how Mayor Ford has frozen out the Toronto Star because of what he feels has been biased reporting against him. He referred to the Globe and Mail as a ‘socialist newspaper’ in the now infamous Fat Fuck video. “Corporate Power is Protected”. If not protected, it is certainly promoted through privatizing anything that’s not nailed down. “Labor Power is Suppressed”. Replace ‘suppressed’ with ‘criticized’ or ‘undercut’. “Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts”. Two words for you: downtown elites. “Obsession with Crime and Punishment” The mayor’s campaign promise for more police officers. The recent uncontested wage contract.This is not simply name-calling or shrill alarmism about our doomed democracy in the face of the jackboots. It’s about process. About having an open debate on issues and prevailing through persuasion not bullying or trying to gin the system by use of propaganda and cheap appeals to our tribal instincts. Governing by division can never lead to a healthy consensus or a greater good. I refuse to believe that anyone, no matter how misguided they may be, seeks public office for any reason other than that despite mounting evidence that points to the contrary.

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