Where It All Starts

Etobicoke York Community Council.

You know, if we could ever convince enough people that involvement in matters of city planning, revenue generation or affordable housing was as important to them as their neighbour’s fence and available parking, fenceheightswe would have a very actively engaged citizenry.

It is amazing (and I use the word in all its non-pejorative meaning) the dedication residents display to matters that directly affect them. People want to be heard. They will put in great effort and care, and set aside personal fear of public speaking to step forward and have their say. It’s not always eloquent. Some of it is definitely self-serving. But it’s usually passionate and heartfelt.

Messy, messy, beautiful democracy at work.

Based on a geographic area of the city, the Etobicoke York Community Council’s responsibilities include making recommendations and decisions on local planning and development, as well as neighbourhood matters including traffic plans and parking regulations. Community Councils reports to City Council but they also have final decision-making power on certain items, such as fence by-law exemptions and appointments to local boards and Business Improvement Areas. 

Etobicoke York is one of four community councils, the others being North York, Scarborough and Toronto East York. micromanage1And while I wondered if fence exemptions were specific to Etobicoke York, apparently that’s not the case. (Click here and type in ‘Fence Exemptions’.) We are a city united in fence exemptions, amalgamated in hedgerow heights.

I won’t lie. There were times early on in the meeting when I wondered if, given the current council structure, councillors should really be adjudicating over many of the picayune matters that crop up at community councils. Bigger fish to fry and all that. Surely there must be a more productive way to sort out what seemed to be personal grievances.

But then, an item sprung up, after the fence exemptions had been dealt with, that made me reconsider my condescending thoughts.

On the face of it, another seemingly routine matter. Traffic light placement. Essentially, the city was replacing a pedestrian controlled crosswalk with traffic lights but the discussion evolved into whether simply moving the crosswalk 300 metres east would make more sense. This then precipitated a much bigger conversation about traffic flow and pedestrian patterns. Some of the nuts and bolts of urban planning.

Here was a local resident, getting actual face time with elected officials to express his views on how traffic should move in his neighbourhood. trafficplanThe politicians were able to see how rules, regulations and by-laws might be affecting residents, and to ensure some flexibility in the enforcement stemming from those rules, regulations and by-laws. City staff aren’t supposed to interpret or adaptively implement rules. At community council, councillors can. A face is put to a decision.

Of course, not all the business that comes up at community council meetings is of the micro-local kind. The three more suburban community councils are noted for their brevity in comparison to the Toronto East York Community Council which traditionally spends additional time on wider ranging issues like tall building development and bigger commercial matters (not to mention it is the most populous of the community councils). It’s not unusual for a councillor sitting on, say, the North York Community Council to wrap up business there and get downtown to City Hall to take in the remainder of the Toronto East York Community Council.

But on Tuesday, the downtown came westside as I’m sure nobody’s ever said before. civicengagementNot only did members of the EYCC fight to get their meeting done by lunch, most of them came back for a rare evening session where the 7 year planning process for the Mimico 20/20 development was having another public airing. Some 150 members of the public came out to hear and give 3+ hours of deputations about what was shaping up to be a major reformation of the Ward 6 lakefront neighbourhood.

This was the whole ball of wax. The Official Plan. A Secondary Plan. Revitalization. Intensification. Mobility. Affordability. The big daddy of fence extensions, you might say. The local councillor, Mark Grimes, seems genuine in his desire to try to give a more liveable shape to the wall of high rise condos moving west from the core along the water. But questions remain — big, city altering questions – how best to do that.

Remarkably, in the face of such substantive change, the general tone of the deputations was one of willing accommodation. civicengagement1Yes, there was a contingent of NIMBYism. Those who cherished the view of the lake from their front porch or who wanted to maintain the feel of a small town in the midst of the big city. One deputant brought forth a proposal to build everything on stilts to enable everyone easy access to the lake. But they were in the minority.

Most spoke eloquently, ardently and knowledgeably about the proposal. It wasn’t perfect to anyone in the room for sure. Yet, as an outsider, it seemed like progress toward an acceptable solution was happening. Members of the community council voted to defer a decision for a couple months in order to try and hammer out further solutions. There were no angry outbursts as the audience filed out of the room nearly 4 hours after the meeting started.

The democratic process in action. Community council as the burning gears of civic participation. Voting is just the beginning. Engagement puts meat on the bones. Maybe it all starts with fence exemptions.

fencebuilding

fence-buildingly submitted by Cityslikr

3 Responses to Where It All Starts

  1. Mark J. Richardson says:

    …and after you type in ‘Fence Exemptions’ – then search for “Refusal of a Boulevard Cafe Permit” and ponder why #Toronto is so Patio-Phobic…?

  2. Sonny says:

    The design of Etobicoke is problematic where there are even “food deserts” but ex mayor Holyday wouldn’t care anyways. The Fords are doing their Mayor’s cleanup photo op somewhere in Grime’s riding…

    P.S. who does the coke in Etobicoke?…

  3. Patrick Smyth says:

    I left the UK so that I wouldn’t have to live under that witch, Margaret Thatcher. I learned this week that she was a hero to John Parker. That came as no surprise. I first came across his notion of fairness when I was deputing at the North York Community Council. The issue was a 7 storey over-sized building being shoe-horned into a two storey single family neighbourhood. When my five minutes were up, with no substantive comment all he could say was, “next time you need to bring a planner”. He supported the Ward Councillor who wasn’t supporting the local community. The monster building was approved. It’s called Ward Politics. Regardless of what deputants have to say, if the local councillor wants something to be approved the other councillors get behind it. It’s a wee club for those who made it past the post first.

    I’ve deputed many times over the past 20 years. Never once was it a pleasant experience. Usually, the panel of elected officials paid more attention to their Blackberries, or their home-made cookies. Few ever listened. When they were in the room, I saw them gabbing with their neighbour or cavorting with a member of the audience. Residents were lucky if they were honoured with such a visit. Usually it was a lobbyist, or a developer, that got the personal touch. I’ve noticed not many citizens show up to depute again.

    The next time I deputed in front of John Parker it was the same thing. A large, 20 storey tall building was being objected to by a well-organised group of citizens. I allocated my 5 minutes to the planner, who this time spoke for the community. Another deputant did the same. The Speaker, Maria Augimeri, objected, claiming that if everybody did this they’d never get home in time for tea. However, even with his 15 minutes, the planner had no impact on the outcome. No questions, no debate. The Ward Councillor was in favour of the developer’s plans. The monster building was approved. An agreement with the community to provide free Affordable Housing units was reneged on just 10 days later at the Council Meeting. No Notice had been given that this was to happen. There was no opportunity for deputations. The developer got a huge financial bonus, the City and community got nothing. There has been no explanation yet for that stunning flip-flop.

    I used to go to the Committee of Adjustment too. When the City changed the rules I had to stop. I had spent a lot of evenings there in support of community members faced with challenges from property developers. Now, it’s just impossible to justify going during the work day. My work life is too busy and taking time off was affecting my income. To me, it was a brutal attack on local democracy. The last time I was there was in support of objections to closing-in open space at Yonge and Eglinton. The local councillor had just been elected shortly before. The area had been designated open-space-deficient in 1967. It was a no-brainer to support the local residents. The local councillor was eloquent on the importance of retaining the open square. That all changed however in 2009. That’s when the new owners of the site, RioCan, made application to convert open space to retail on the North West corner. In spite of thousands objecting, many deputations at community council and still being open-space deficient, RioCan got its approval.

    Today, the CoA is chaotic and out of control. Planning is firmly in the hands of unqualified councillor-planners. Decisions are made well in advance of Public Meetings. Club rules trump all else.

    Most of my community work now is to do with community planning. Much of it is informed by City policies on development. Things like the Tall Buildings Guidelines. Yes, those were presented ONLY at the Toronto and East York Community Council. It got to shape those important policies. Unfortunately, when they were rolled-out to the other parts of the City, it only adds to the notion that the downtown elites know what’s good for the rest of us. Much like the time Vaughan, Perks, McConnell, Davis, Fletcher got to tell my community that we couldn’t have those Affordable Housing we all agreed to at the North York Community Council. Toronto and East York can have them, just not where I live.

    It’s the democratic process but there’s something very wrong with it. It smells like something is rotting, and few see it happening right under their noses.

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