Yes, Virginia. There Are Still Back Room Boys.

October 18, 2013

I’m not one who goes in for the dark, smoky backroom conspiracies, where doughy white guys meet up to plot their evil plans and machinations to control every aspect of our lives. backroomTammany Hall’s a historic relic, smashed to bits by forces of reform and enlightenment. It’s the 21st-century, baby. Everything’s on the up-and-up. One person, one vote.

So you’ll have to excuse me if I gave short-shrift to this bit of backroom, doughy white guy display of sheer entitlement earlier this year in Calgary. As Lisa Geddes of Global News describes it, “Cal Wenzel, the founder of Shane Homes, presents developers and home builders with his plan to control city council by backing development-friendly candidates.” Damn you, liberal elite, nanny staters and your no-smoking laws! The ambiance demanded to be smoke-filled!

The secretly videoed speech caught people’s attention and subsequently mired the supposedly non-partisan Manning Institute in some icky political goo. But even the most cursory of glances at the news about next Monday’s municipal election in Calgary shows that the back room musings of a small group of men have become front-and-centre campaign issues despite the controversy. tammanhall1The man himself, Preston Manning, hasn’t exactly shied away from displaying how his bread got buttered.

From a non-Calgarian perspective, there are a couple real eye-poppers from this situation that we best pay attention to.

For starters, smaller council numbers are much more susceptible to capture by special interests, let’s call it. It’s just basic math. As Mr. Wenzel pointed out in the video, on a 15 member city council (including the mayor), you just need 8 votes to have your way. That’s a lot fewer campaigns you have to pitch in and help on, a much lighter stress on the pocket book.

Regardless of your political bent, picture Toronto, a city more than twice the size of Calgary, with 24 or 25 councillors. You’d need 13 to control the agenda. That’s basically the mayor’s Executive Committee. For those leaning right, David Miller’s Executive Committee. Those on the left? Rob Ford’s Executive Committee.

The future of 2.6 million people in the hands of 13 elected representatives and, perhaps, a shadowy group, organized enough with enough money to have put them in that position of power. It may seem all cleanly governable but hardly very accountable to the wider voting public.

Mull that over for a bit, and then tell me you still want to cut the number of city councillors in half. tammanyhallI just might have to suspect your democratic impulses.

While his interest in the subject might be for reasons diametrically opposite to mine, Cal Wenzel’s observations on the nature of municipal government I can certainly get behind, and it’s something I’ve been saying for a while now. Ultimately, the position of mayor doesn’t matter in terms of managing the policy direction council decides to follow. A mayor can set the table and write out place cards. A mayor can demand people sit where they’re supposed to sit. But a mayor can’t make anyone eat what’s been put in front of them.

The buck stops with council and whether or not a mayor gets behind the majority of his/her colleagues is inconsequential to the proper functioning of local government. It’s the key wards in any city that will determine the ultimate outcome of a municipal election. moneybagmanPiece together a working coalition and it will not matter who is wearing the chain of the mayor’s office. The blueprint has already been established.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Even easier with access to ready money and influential voices, especially those working around a singular, self-interested cause like pro-development. How do you unite around candidates representing a bigger, broader, more inclusive mandate?

Well, I would start by seeking out people who don’t use or respond well to this kind of language and thinking. “On our side or not…” “Done a really good job for us.” “There are some at city council who are totally out of control.” “As long as we have votes swinging our way…” “Unless we get somebody in there that’s on our side …”

It smacks of empire building not city building. A circling of the wagons and shrinking of consensus. Stunted democracy.

We need candidates not vetted in back rooms. Candidates who are well known in community centres and as part of tenants, residents, neighbourhood and business associations. widercommunityWe need candidates who represent communities not individuals or individual interests.

They’re out there. We have to start looking, and we have to start looking soon. Our election is just over a year away. Rest assured and rest uneasily that there’s already meetings like Cal Wenzel’s happening around the city. The 2014 election is being plotted and many of us remain on the sidelines.

alarmedly submitted by Cityslikr


Where The Rubber Meets The Road

October 17, 2013

If you’re reading this, chances are you already know my rather strong views on private automobiles. carhateBluntly, I can’t stand them. I fucking loathe them, in fact. At my most vituperative, I see them as the root cause of all that’s blighted cities and social connectivity since World War II.

Yes, I can be unreasonable on this particular issue.

My car-hatred is much more nuanced than that, hopefully at least. I’ve had some of my greatest travel moments on road trips, seen stuff I’d probably never have the time to see otherwise. In fact, I came across this little gem over the Thanksgiving weekend just north of the shores of Lake Erie. Never would’ve happened without being behind the wheel of a car.

But as a form of commuting on a daily basis? And designing and building cities around that form of transportation? An unmitigated disaster in terms of, not only liveability, but pressures it puts on the public purse.

You see, the conventional wisdom holds that to build, maintain and operate the road network needed to accommodate private vehicle use costs much more than the revenue brought in by users of that system. In short, we subsidize lifestyles based around car use. roadtripThose dependent on their vehicles to get around aren’t paying their fair share.

Of course, by ‘conventional wisdom’, I mean people like me who are trying to imagine a post-car city which is not a city without cars but one where they’re down the hierarchy of how people get from point A to point B. Those who don’t necessarily share my views may see things another way. They will point to all the money they hand over to operate their vehicles. Gas taxes. Licensing and registration fees. Insurance. Parking. Parking tickets.

The problem is, there’s not enough actual data to point to in order to settle the argument and, more importantly, set good public policy. There are dribs and drabs, fragmentary information here and there that only really ever seem to back up one’s particular point of view. That’s what makes the Conference Board of Canada’s report, Where the Rubber Meets the Road: How Much Motorists Pay For Road Infrastructure, so important.

It starts to put some meat on the bones of this debate.notenoughinformation

Now whether or not it’s grade A, prime cut meat, that’s for another day. I haven’t read the report thoroughly enough to pass judgement on the methodology (and not entirely sure I could even if I wanted to). I’m just so happy it’s out there, ready to be talked about.

A couple things jumped out at me.

“The report finds that road users in Ontario cover a significant portion of road infrastructure costs…”

To my mind, ‘a significant portion’ is not the full portion. So that the costs associated with building and maintaining our road networks are more than the revenues generated from those using the networks. In other words, drivers are being subsidized.

“…  and that cost recovery [revenues through taxes, fees and fines etc.] in the GTHA is higher than it is for the province as a whole.”

As Tess Kalinowski writes in the Toronto Star, “… Toronto-area drivers paid about $3.7 billion in fuel excise taxes, licensing fees, fines and other expenses, wimpycompared with $2.7 billion that governments spent on building, policing and maintaining the region’s roads” while in Ontario as a whole, “…drivers generate about $7.7 billion in revenue and the province and municipalities spend between $10 billion and $13 billion on roads.”

That suggests while drivers in the GTHA are more than covering the costs of roads they use, they’re subsidizing drivers in the rest of Ontario for their roads. In other words, we’re being short-changed here. Leading to this future exchange when Metrolinx starts talking about revenue tools for the Big Move: Why should I be paying for transit in Toronto? I don’t know. Why is Toronto paying for your roads in Petawawa?

Again, let me repeat, these are all numbers that haven’t been widely vetted and in no way should be treated as set in stone. The conversation has just begun.

For me though, the real eye-opening number in the report is the cost of owning a vehicle. Over $10, 000 per household in 2011. That is a whole whack of cash and highlights why many drivers honestly believe they are more than paying their way. How couldn’t they be? 10K a year! And now we want more from them?

It’s not enough to just respond with a shrug and say, If you don’t like it. Get rid of your car. This entire region outside of a small portion of the downtown core has been built on the promise that you can get to wherever it is you want to go, cheaply and quickly, in the comfort of your own private vehicle. roadrage3Maybe that was once true. Turns out not to be the case anymore.

We have to offer better alternatives before demanding everybody leave their cars behind. We can only do that if we honestly start calculating the full costs of how we get around this city, this region, this province. I suspect Where the Rubber Meets the Road doesn’t do that to everyone’s satisfaction but it’s a start. That’s what every journey begins with, right? A start.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


Let’s Just Disagree To Agree

October 16, 2013

Watching as the wagons circle tighter around Mayor Ford, what remains of his loyal footmen launching darts at the most recently exiled from the base camp, iwonderI wonder if I too am being politically opportunistic. While the likes of councillors Giorgio Mammoliti, Denzil Minnan-Wong and (of course) Doug Ford along with the faithful stenographers at the Toronto Sun attempt to diminish and denigrate their colleague, Paul Ainslie, with school yard name calling, I embrace him as one of ours. A principled, well-informed participant in our local democracy.

Yeah. That’s how I see myself when I look in the mirror in the morning. After applying a little spit and polish. Don’t you?

I wasn’t alone yesterday in finding myself wincing slightly while taking in Councillor Ainslie’s press conference denouncing the mayor’s robocall response to Ward 43 residents after the councillor had voted against the Scarborough subway plan.

“What I’ve been about as a Councillor is the value of taxpayers’ money,” Ainslie said, “I’m with this mayor in fighting the gravy train at city hall…Many people like the Ford agenda, and so have I. That’s why I backed Rob Ford from the outset, and was a member of the Mayor’s Executive Committee. I’m proud of all that has been accomplished.”

There’s so much about that statement that makes me want to scream. The gravy train! simpsonsshudderWhat accomplishments? I’m sorry, councillor. You backed Rob Ford from the outset?

Looking back at some of my posts from early on in this administration, I clearly had a low opinion of Councillor Ainslie. Confession time. I was the brains behind a Twitter parody account mocking the councillor. (A sidebar: parody accounts are really, really hard to sustain. My hats off to all of those who can pull it off.) For me, he represented that largely silent block, enabling the administration’s worst instincts.

But as I pointed out in my post yesterday, Councillor Ainslie was also quietly going about interesting business in terms of civic engagement and participation as chair of the Government Management Committee. Earlier this year, he pushed forward with the Nathan Phillips Square revitalization (which he had originally opposed back in the day) complete with a new bike parking station. “If you’re getting people off the road, out of their cars using either public transportation or their bikes, in the long run, I think it is worth it,” he said. reconsiderAinslie’s been instrumental in trying to alter the approach the city takes with development charges in order to direct growth in areas that have been long neglected.

I can’t believe I actually have to write this — for my sake as much as anybody’s – but times being what they are… Gradations of political approaches, let’s call them, actually still survive out there in the world of imaginary black and white. Only those thriving on an us-versus-them divisiveness want to pretend otherwise. Despite the attempts at easy to understand packaging that highlights a brand, it’s counter-productive to try and govern in such a manner. As we’re currently experiencing.

Look, I’ve already said that, given the importance of subways to the very viability of the Ford administration and just how vocal Councillor Ainslie was in opposing this particular one in Scarborough, there should’ve been a parting of ways. But the unnecessary attempts to vilify him, the Burn The Witch squeal is nothing but scorched earth policy. paintswatchesDefy us, Defy Ford Nation, and there will be dire consequences.

That’s not how things get done. That’s how things get undone.

Councillor Ainslie and I arrived at an agreement that the LRT option for extending the Bloor-Danforth subway further into Scarborough was the best way forward for entirely different, if related reasons. His was financial. It was a needless imposition on municipal taxpayers. “For the record, I have always supported a subway for those who live in Scarborough,” the councillor said in his statement. “Just two and a half months ago I joined the Mayor and voted in favour of a subway. I voted for a subway based on sound financial transparency, disclosure and the commitment there would be no tax hike for people in this city and especially my constituents.”

I don’t happen to agree. Scarborough doesn’t need or deserve a subway. consensuspieIt needs better transit and it needs it 20 years ago. In my opinion, LRTs are a much better fit. I’d be perfectly happy with a dedicated property tax increase that built more LRTs running all through Scarborough and York and North York and Etobicoke.

Despite that difference of opinion, Councillor Ainslie and I ended up in the same camp. That’s how democracy is supposed to function. Reaching a workable consensus through negotiation and horse-trading.

That’s just a basic civics lesson we seem to have forgotten, much to our detriment.

kumbiyahly submitted by Cityslikr


Standing Up To The Mayor

October 15, 2013

Here’s why I’m not a gambling man.

kennyrogers

Back in the early days of the Ford administration if you’d offered me the longest of long shot odds that Councillor Paul Ainslie would be a likely candidate to publicly break with the mayor, I’dve turned you down flat. Not possible, I’d say. There aren’t odds oddsy enough to make me take that bet.

Well, here we are.

On Friday, Councillor Ainslie not only resigned his chair of the Parks and Recreation committee exitstageright(automatically walking away from the powerful Executive Committee in the process) but he did so in a very loud and public fashion.

According to the councillor, Mayor Ford “ran out of ideas a long time ago” and has a “lack of strategic objectives.”

Ouch.

Councillor Ainslie isn’t the first former ally and Executive Committee member to part ways with the mayor but he might be the noisiest. Both councillors Michelle Berardinetti and Giorgio Mammoliti slipped away gently, citing their own reasons for doing so. Councillor Mammoliti has already crawled back onto the Executive Committee, directly replacing Ainslie.

Only Councillor Jaye Robinson’s departure from the inner sanctum back in June made a similar kind of splash. She was turfed for suggesting in her outside voice that maybe Mayor Ford should take a little time away from his position to deal with any sort of personal issues he might be having. pileonRobinson has not shied away from her break with the administration, weighing in on her colleague’s exit and the subsequent robo-call roll out from the mayor’s office that followed.

“We should be encouraging independent thought at City Hall,” she said in the radio interview and referred to Mayor Ford’s ‘leadership style’ as nothing more than “bluster and intimidation” “The farthest thing from transparent and accountable government.”

Along with Ainslie’s transition from an almost Tommy-like support (deaf, dumb and blind…actually, let’s call it Gary Crawford-like support) at the beginning of this term to a bona fide outspoken maverick of Mayor Ford, Councillor Robinson’s increasingly pointed criticism may well represent the soft support that put the mayor over the top in the 2010 election. It’s now evaporating and that should be of some concern to those dreaming of a second term. tommyThe simple fact of the matter is, there isn’t one without at least some of the mushy middle voting public across the city.

Of course, for some this latest schism with a former ally is no fault of the mayor’s. After Councillor Ainslie’s resignation on Friday, councillor-brother Doug went on full smear alert, chalking it up to Ainslie being miffed for having been overlooked to replace outgoing budget chief, Mike Del Grande (who himself kicked up some dust leaving the position. It didn’t amount to much as he seems to just have retreated into a sullen surliness). Frankly, I’d be pissed too if I’d been passed over for the job by Councillor Frank Di Giorgio. If anything is proof of Councillor Ainslie’s assertion that the mayor lacks strategic objectives, it would be his appointing of Frank Di Giorgio as budget chief.

As with almost everything that comes out of the mouth of councillor-brother Doug, the truth about the rift between Ainslie and the Ford administration is much more robust, let’s call it, beginning a lot earlier and in a far more nuanced way.

While Councillor Ainslie was enabling the mayor to run roughshod through the halls of City Hall, cutting this tax and that service, he was also steadily tinkering as chair of the Government Management Committee. yourefiredHe pushed through small but important things like getting wireless service throughout all of City Hall that helped further citizen engagement to the bigger enchilada on that score: sending a request to Queen’s Park for permission to start using alternative voting methods in forthcoming municipal elections. He was actually helping Mayor Ford keep a campaign promise of delivering a more open and transparent government.

But then things seemed to come unglued with some back stage mayoral shenanigans at the Garrison Ball in March. Ainslie was knocked from his post as Government Management Committee chair a couple months later and served briefly as chairs of the Parks and Recreation Committee until this week.

Until his decision to reject the Scarborough subway on Tuesday and opt for the already in place subway. When he stood up at council to make his case for the LRT, he said that he’d gone into the previous weekend fully intending to vote for the subway. Then he started really reading the staff report and just saw the mounting costs that had no definite end to them. yourefired1He found himself weighing his options between a fully funded LRT, ready to go, with no extra costs lurking in the corners versus a subway proposal dripping with unknowns and a much higher price tag.

However, subways have become so integral to the Team Ford brand that to vote against them and vote against them so overtly couldn’t be seen as anything other than an outright rejection of the administration. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, another member of the Executive Committee, also voted against the subway but did so in a more low key fashion, so escaped notice.

Or maybe as a potential rival for the mayor’s job next year, he’s being allowed to keep close relations so he doesn’t have much distance between himself and the mayor if they have to campaign against one another.

Or quite possibly, Councillor Minnan-Wong shares enough of Mayor Ford’s loathing of government and taxes hediditthat he’s allowed a longer leash in order to wreak all the damage he can while the clock’s running down.

That’s not the kind of fiscally conservative politician Councillor Paul Ainslie is, obviously. Plus, he’s from the holy land of folks in Scarborough. So he was expendable. He needed to be made an example of.

It’s nothing personal, according to the mayor, although it seems voting against the Scarborough subway was nothing short of a ‘personal attack’ on Mayor Ford according to Councillor Ford. Go figure. *shrug* It’s about politics and political calculation. Plain and simple. The plan is to ride the subway issue to re-election and anybody seen as standing in the way? Electoral road kill.

This couldn’t come as any sort of surprise to Councillor Ainslie. He too must’ve made some calculations and decided to roll the dice on his political future, prepared to face his constituents as a careful custodian of their tax dollars rather than just another mayoral flunky. Again, I’m no betting man but if I were, I wouldn’t put my money against the councillor on this one.

rollthedice

fingers crossedly submitted by Cityslikr


Suburban? Moi?

October 11, 2013

Just in case you think city council’s Scarborough subway decision put an end to the conversation once and for all, justbeguntofightlet me disabuse you of that flightful bit of fancy. While the LRT plan to replace the aging SRT may’ve had the plug pulled on it, we’ve now moved to which subway are we going to build. That battle’s just begun and, as reported in Spacing yesterday, doesn’t look like it’ll be resolved any time soon.

*sigh*

A more theoretical and interesting discussion cropped up following the subway decision in, of all places, Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly’s Twitter timeline. No, no. That’s no typo. And let me be clear, it was not a conversation intentionally instigated by the long time Scarborough councillor but one, like much of the city business that swirls around his presence at City Hall, grandboulevardhe just occasionally and unwittingly runs smack into.

You see, the deputy mayor like most of the Scarborough subway supporters have embraced the technology almost exclusively for its world classiness. They take every opportunity to point out all the glitzy international destinations that have subways running underneath their grand boulevards. New York. London. Paris. Madrid. Ipso facto, if Toronto truly wants to consider itself world class, it needs to start playing subway catch up.

The fact that many of these same cities are also building LRTs as a part of their transit network is usually greeted by silence when it’s pointed out to the likes of Deputy Mayor Kelly and other subway-philes.

But yesterday, he chimed in with a new counter-argument. whome1“Madrid builds subways in the city,” the deputy mayor tweeted. “Scarborough is IN the city. Madrid builds LRT’s in the suburbs. Our suburbs are in the GTA.”

Wow.

That is either the dumbest assertion I have heard in a while or a stroke of pure ingenuity in rationalization.

Given the source, I’ll assume the former but, probably not coincidentally, it’s a line of reasoning I encountered a few days earlier. Another subway advocate told me he was all for LRTs but “… in the ‘burbs (like Markham, Durham and Oakville)”. Apparently, with the expansion of growth out into the wider GTA, almost exclusively built on a suburban model, the former suburban municipalities that are now part of the legacy city of Toronto should no longer be viewed as suburbs and therefore, need to be treated accordingly.

With subways. Like they have in every other city worth mentioning.

It reminds me of the punch line to a joke never told in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. “I’m not Saul. I’m Paul. And this guy’s the Jew.”

Scarborough’s not a suburb. Markham’s a suburb. They should be the ones getting an LRT.suburbandream

You can’t just simply ignore intensive post-war design and development based almost exclusively on private automobile use and single family detached housing by pointing out that newer cities around you are more car dependent and single family house-y. That doesn’t make a place any less that because other places are more so. Inner suburb. Outer suburb. Note the similar word in both those descriptors.

It’s as if grafting a transit mode associated with a densely populated urban core will magically transform the suburban landscape of Scarborough into Manhattan. That’s like me envying a bird and wanting wings sewn to my back so I can fly. It doesn’t work like that. I’m simply not built for flight.

I know this is not your grandpa’s Scarborough. Much has changed over the course of the last four decades. attemptedflightThe demographics. More intensification. A bigger population.

But just a head’s up. Subways aren’t going to make you any less suburban. No one’s going to suddenly mistake you for Madrid. Or downtown Toronto even.

Besides, as long as this kind of stuff keeps happening, any claim that Scarborough has moved from its suburban roots is kind of suspect. In reaction to an application to build 50 townhouses on a vacant lot in his Scarborough East ward, Councillor Ron Moeser said, “I’ve got a single-family community that wants to stay that way.” For the record, Councillor Moeser voted in favour of the Scarborough subway.

This is not to say Scarborough (or Etobicoke or North York) can’t change. That the city’s suburbs shouldn’t endeavour to build healthier communities and neighbourhoods by decreasing their reliance on private vehicles. lookinthemirror1It’s just that there are better approaches that reflect the current reality on the ground than mindlessly demanding a type of transportation designed for an entirely different built form.

Scarborough is now a part of the city of Toronto, a big chunk too, nearly a suburban quarter of it, occupying its eastern boundary. Insisting on more subway stops isn’t going to alter that. Demanding better transit sooner will go a whole lot further in making the entire city more connected, more inclusive and, yes, maybe even a little less suburban.

non-judgementally submitted by Cityslikr