End Of Term

August 29, 2014

The final city council meeting of the 2010-14 term caught me by surprise. dohDidn’t see it coming, tucked away as it was in the final week of August. I’d got used to no meetings in August, summer break and all that. They’ll be back in September…

It’s a surprising lack of awareness when you consider city council has been something of an obsession of mine for 4 years now but, you know, it feels a bit like we’ve all moved on. I mean, isn’t t there a campaign to focus on? And if history is our guide on such matters, 90% of the old faces (minus the ones electing not to run for re-election) will be back. They always come back.

History, in the immediate short term, meaning, right around right now, may rush to judge this past council term harshly. Fractious. Tumultuous. Divisive. Counter-productive. With little to show for itself except for the self-inflicted bruises and scratches.judgeharshly

Some of which will be undeniably true.

But whatever rot you want to see in the dynamic of this outgoing city council, it all starts right at the top.

Mayor Rob Ford came out of the blocks swinging, determined to bully the body he was elected to lead into submission. My way or the highway. Fractious. Tumultuous. Divisive. Counter-productive.

From appointing an all-suburban Executive Committee through to Don Cherry’s pugnacious inaugural address and his unilateral declaring Transit City dead, Rob Ford set the tone in establishing not so much a sense of leadership as autocratic rule. He wanted to fight. He got a fight.

Then, of course, the crack, the booze, the loss of power.whiteheat

History, longer term, should look upon this outgoing city council kindly. It eventually stepped into the leadership vacuum created by our neglectful mayor. It beat back and contained his most destructive policy impulses. It relegated him to where he’s most comfortable, screaming, shouting and stamping his feet on the sidelines.

It was seldom pretty and there certainly were some grave missteps (*ahem* Scarborough subway *ahem*) council did all on its own. Still, all things considered, it could’ve been so much worse. Much, much worse.

The lesson, boys and girls, and one we here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke have been harping on for a while now, and will continue to harp on as the campaign kicks into full gear, is that council matters. Council matters above and beyond the mayor. calfropingFor all the hype and high profile limelight shone on the mayoral race, similar consideration needs to be given to how you cast a vote for your city councillor. There are two equal opportunities for each of us to influence the direction our next city council takes.

Voting for city councillor should not be an after-thought, a 2nd choice, a throw in for a player to be named later. In the end, after all the chest beating, arm twisting and horse trading, your city councillor will determine the decisions made affecting this city as much as the mayor will. They aren’t part of this team or that team. They’re your home team.

Going forward you’re going to hear much from us here about getting involved, getting active, and the fact of the matter is, whatever efforts you’re willing to make, they may be most affective going towards electing strong, smart, inclusive, forward thinking city councillors. focusIf City Hall gets a majority of those types of councillors, it’ll make little difference who’s elected mayor. What we should take away from the past 4 years is that our city councillors work for us, for the city, with the mayor not for the mayor.

When all is said and done, it’s a better city council that will make a better city.

council counselingly submitted by Cityslikr


Challengers To Watch XIII

August 28, 2014

Talking to Paul Bocking about Ward 35 Scarborough Southwest, it’s difficult to imagine how it sent the current councillor to City Hall to represent it. oneofthesethingsAs seen through Mr. Bocking’s lens, Ward 35 has the second lowest average family income in the city, the residents depend heavily on bus travel to get around, there is a prevalence of aging apartment towers.

And yet when you think of the incumbent, Michelle Berardinetti, what immediately springs to mind about her work in her first term is the Scarborough subway, bike lane removal and elephants.

Paul Bocking sees this election as one about inequality. (Yesterday’s news about the alarming rate of children living in poverty in Toronto certainly emphasizes that point.) Ward 35 is full of working class neighbourhoods hit hard by the collapse of the local manufacturing base. Former good paying jobs now replaced by minimum wage, temporary employment. Small businesses unsuccessfully competing with nearby big box stores.ward35 A car dependent area of the city under-serviced by public transit. A destination for new Canadians looking to put down community roots.

Many of the solutions to the problems ailing places like Ward 35 are at the macro level, beyond the reach of local politicians. But the answer to that is not simply ignoring the problems, hoping another level of government will sort everything out. It’s the job of a city councillor to highlight those problems and to use what tools are available to alleviate them, to create a dynamic where positive change is possible.

This goes beyond simply keeping taxes low. It’s about investing in communities. Creating opportunities for everyone to better their lives. goldenmileThis is something’s that’s done door-to-door, street-by-street.

Bocking is no stranger to that kind of community activism. He has been part of the fight against TTC fare hikes and cuts to service, delivering a deputation on that topic during the 2012 budget fight. He is a big proponent of the community benefits program, fighting to ensure that when major public infrastructure projects like the Eglinton Crosstown LRT are built, jobs and training are made available to local residents. As a high school teacher, Bocking is well aware of the disconnect between school boards and city council. He’d like to see more integrated programs between the two and a reassessment of the fees charged by schools to use their facilities which, currently, are priced far beyond the reach of many local groups.

It is an approach most notable for its ground up activism rather than a top down, edict like proclamation style. communityIf elected city councillor, Bocking vows a much more inclusionary engagement with residents. There were few community consultations on very important issues that arose over the course of the past 4 years, including the subway-LRT debates, a waterfront casino, budgets. As a fan of movements like Participatory Budgeting, Bocking would change that, endeavouring to seek resident input before big decisions are made.

He admits that the Scarborough subway is an issue when he goes knocking at the door but he senses people aren’t as committed to the idea as subway advocates claim. When the merits of the LRT get pointed out – serving more people and more communities – many don’t seem as vehemently opposed. Again, it’s all about better community engagement.

For Bocking, the subway debate is more of an abstract issue. Something that, even if it comes to pass, is a decade away at best. communitymeetingIt won’t help anyone in Ward 35 now. Certainly not as much as improving the current TTC service will. Certainly not like ensuring tenants’ needs are addressed. Certainly not the way increasing the accessibility and affordability of children’s programs would.

The best city councillors don’t simply represent their community. They build their community. That isn’t accomplished fighting ideological battles or stirring up resentment toward other wards or areas of the city. Community isn’t built from above. It’s created through engagement and listening to the concerns and ideas expressed by each and every member of it.

Paul Bocking seems to have a knack and predisposition for that kind of work. If we’re to bridge the so-called urban-suburban divide that currently afflicts municipal politics here in Toronto, communityengagementwe have to hope places like Ward 35 elect candidates like Bocking as their city councillor in order that they actually join in on our collective conversation instead of being relegated to shouting from the sidelines. We need to start hearing from them not about them.

As a city councillor, Paul Bocking seems determined to give residents of Ward 35 a voice rather than be the voice for them. Real civic engagement starts right there.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


Challengers To Watch XII

August 26, 2014

This one’s a tough one.

I know J.P. Boutros. I’ve chatted with J.P. Boutros. jpboutrosHad drinks with J.P. I like J.P.

It’s going to be difficult to be seen maintaining any sense of unbiased perspective here. So be it. Take it into consideration as you read on.

J.P. Boutros is running for city council in Ward 16 Eglinton-Lawrence. He was an advisor on transit for the former Ward 16 councillor, former TTC chair and former mayoral candidate, Karen Stintz. To say he had a fiery baptism in the heated cauldron of city politics would be whatever’s under an understatement. Rob Ford. Public transit. Subways, subways, subways. Let’s get rid of streetcars.

The death of Transit City. Service cuts. Fare hikes. Gary Webster. The coup against the mayor to take back control of the file, put the Eglinton Crosstown LRT back on track. One City.

This kind of turmoil might’ve put off public life for some people, apparently not J.P. He cites “loving city politics” as one reason for deciding to enter the race. fierycauldronThe second, and probably more important reason?

Well, it starts with the Scarborough subway.

We all know this story, pretty much by heart now. The mayor’s dream of the Sheppard subway extension dead, reborn in the form of a subway extension of the Bloor-Danforth line instead of the planned LRT line. How’d that happen? Well, your guess is as good as mine but it was probably a toxic mix of both political ambition and cravenness at a couple levels of government.

Its appearance as an item at the TTC commission meeting caught J.P Boutros by surprise. When he expressed a WTF after the fact, he was pulled to the side (not by his then boss, I’m assured) and told to know his place. “You’re an advisor not an elected official.”

Correcting that situation is reason #2 Boutros is running for city council.

Since announcing, he’s been stridently hitting that anti-Scarborough subway note, specifically the property tax increase needed to pay the city’s portion of it. ward16It’s absolutely unnecessary since the proposed Scarborough LRT extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway was going to be paid for entirely by the province. A better transit option, as he sees it, with none of the costs.

If we’re fine with a bump in our property taxes, why not use it instead for things the city actually needs? Which Boutros has pledged to do if elected, and if he’s able to help put council back on the LRT track in Scarborough. Yes. As city councillor for Ward 16, J.P. Boutros would push to have that debate opened up again.

“We have something on the books that’s signed right now [the city’s Master Agreement with Metrolinx to build a Scarborough LRT], that’s good to go,” he told the Globe and Mail’s Oliver Moore. “Let’s do it.”

Instead, the city could spend some of the additional revenue in the wider community, better and more parks and green spaces, for example. hitthegroundrunningBoutros has proposed that the city buy some school land the Toronto District School Board is trying to sell off, Bannockburn, keep it as a park for Ward 16 residents. Spending money where you need to rather than where you don’t.

This would put J.P. Boutros at odds on a couple of important levels with the ward’s outgoing councillor and his former boss. Even more so than on the TTC file, Karen Stintz stands as a rabid penny-pinching conservative of the most extreme kind. Not for nothing was she regarded as one of the leaders of the Miller era Responsible Government Group, a de facto opposition band of councillors including the likes of Mike Del Grande, Denzil Minnan-Wong, Frances Nunziata and Case Ootes.

Is that the kind of representation Ward 16 expects from its city councillor?

Boutros doesn’t think so. At the doors he’s been knocking on, taxes haven’t really been much of a talking point he’s hearing. Development, and the proper managing of it, is always a big issue in Ward 16. goodeggTraffic and congestion. Minimizing the impact on the community as the Eglinton crosstown makes its way through. Parks. Ward 16 loves its parks.

People want to believe their money is being spent wisely. It’s a constant refrain I’m hearing from candidates. If that’s not what you’d call fiscal conservatism, then the phrase is utterly meaningless.

In what is now an open ward, J.P. Boutros brings some actual City Hall experience to the table. Some serious City Hall experience. I asked him if there was any baggage that comes with it especially given how acrimonious the transit debates were. Did he make it on many councillors’ shit list?

He shrugged. Not that he knew of. Thought he was able to talk cordially with all the councillors, regardless of political stripe. This time around, if he gets elected in October, he’ll be able to do so as a colleague not as someone’s assistant.

Again, let me re-iterate here. I know J.P. Boutros. I like J.P. Boutros. So, I’m very biased when I say this but it would represent a notable shift at City Hall if Ward 16 elects him as city councillor. shiftgearsKaren Stintz was something of a polarizing figure during her time in office, even before she became TTC chair. I think Boutros brings less ideological division with him. The tone will be different.

“If you can’t run on your own beliefs,” he tells me, “you’re doing it all wrong.”

I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt with that statement and take him at his word. I hope voters in Ward 16 do too.

hopefully and helpfully submitted by Cityslikr


No One Gets Out Alive

August 22, 2014

I begin this already doubting its relevance to the wider general public. Which may ultimately be the point of it, I guess. doubtAlthough, why bother then, you could ask.

Indeed.

Earlier this week a whole lot of dust was kicked up when noted political thingie and Olivia Chow campaign volunteer whatsit, Warren Kinsella, referred to mayoral rival John Tory’s Smart Track transit plan as ‘Segregationist Track’ in a tweet. Outrage ensued. How Dare Hes abounded. Demands for an apology were issued.

The offending tweet was deleted. Kinsella apologized, put up a Gone Fishin’ sign, and went silent. The Chow team put some distance between itself and Kinsella, the volunteer. New news broke. People moved on. The earth kept spinning.

Honestly. Did you hear about any of this?gonefishing

If not, maybe the actual intent of the tweet is still at work.

During the initial fury, amidst the calls of misappropriation of the word and the accusations of ugly intimations of racism contained in the tweet aimed at John Tory, Siri Agrell, a communications strategist, consultant and a David Soknacki (another mayoral candidate) fan, dropped this into the debate:

“If intent is to plant a counter-narrative that Tory is racist, is getting everyone in the media to report tweet really a strategic stumble?”

Ahhhhhh!

Essentially, have someone who gives you plausible deniability take the hit for a contentious public statement and when the heat cools, the heat always cools especially in a 10 month long election campaign, what’s left behind, the residue if you will, is the question of why anyone would want to make you think John Tory is a racist.daffyduck

Arguably, Kinsella’s choice of words was inappropriate. Arguably, he should’ve apologized quicker and louder. Pull the pin. Detonate the grenade. Brush the smoke smudge from your face. Ooops. Sorry. Step back from the damage.

Still.

A couple days on now and all that really lingers, if anything is lingering from the incident at all, is that question. Why would anyone suggest that John Tory is a racist? ‘Segregationist Track’? What’s that even mean?

And then the explanation.

Take a look at Tory’s Smart Track map. That dark blue void of nothingness, up in the left hand corner, where a bright red line should be, representing the Finch West LRT and new rapid transit options for the residents of northwestern Toronto. A part of the city home to many of the city’s non-John Tory phenotypes, let’s say. New Canadians hailing from non-white countries around the globe. People representing places that give us bragging rights to our official municipal motto, Diversity, Our Strength.

How come John Tory isn’t prioritizing their transit needs? Why is he ignoring a fully funded by the province piece of vital transit infrastructure in their neighbourhoods? Does John Tory not care about visible minorities?

Don’t be ridiculous. I mean, seriously. Just stop… being ridiculous. John Tory isn’t a racist. Some of his best—Don’t be ridiculous.

OK, fine. Then why has John Tory’s Smart Track plan wiped the Finch West LRT off the transit map? Can he explain that for us?

There you have it. This thing that began as a question of Olivia Chow’s character judgement about those who are working on her campaign, even peripherally, becomes more a question of John Tory’s priorities and who he’s actually looking out for. Who exactly is part of John Tory’s vision of the city?

And those of us who like watching the insider baseball nod our heads, struck by the possible cleverness of the strategy. outragedHuh, we say. Well, let’s see how this all plays out. This is why these people get paid the big bucks, I guess. They know how to play the game.

Of course, we are in the minority, we close observers of the game. Quite possibly the far bigger audience, the general electorate out there who will ultimately determine the outcome, won’t see it that way. They won’t appreciate the nuance of the tactics like we do. Floating the John Tory is a racist balloon might be seen as nothing more than the worst kind of mudslinging. Everything they fucking hate about politics.

Or claim they hate, anyway. Going negative has a proven track record, going negative practitioners will claim. Hell, Rob Ford’s entire existence is built on a negative platform, a campaign of hate and hurled baseless accusations of corruption and incompetence.

People might not like it but they seem to take the bait an awful lot. At least, the people who continue to participate and come out to vote even if they’re not happy or enthused about doing so. The others? The growing number of people who’ve just tuned out and turned off? smotheredWhy bother voting? It only encourages them.

They’re the casualties of the war rooms. Democracy is dead to them. They’ve walked away and not looked back.

So, I guess the bigger question is, is it worth it? Is the shot at elected office worth the long term harm inflicted on democracy? We pay very smart people enormous amounts of money for the benefit of candidates, and at the expense of the general voting public. Is that a sustainable democratic model?

I don’t ask this rhetorically. I have no answer to it. I’m just a concerned citizen.

discontentedly submitted by Cityslikr


Challengers To Watch XI

August 21, 2014

We’ve spent the last 4 years looking at costs and ignoring the benefits.

This is pointed out to me over dim sum by Franco Ng, city councillor candidate for Ward 39 Scarborough-Agincourt. ward39It’s a sentiment that comes as something of a relief to me because I had no idea what to except from somebody who’d worked in Mike Del Grande’s office for 4 years. Mike Del Grande, the penny-pinchingest, grumpiest and one of our least favourite city councillors.

Franco Ng is nothing at all like that.

This is not to say that during the two hours spent together, we agreed on everything. We certainly didn’t see eye-to-eye on LRTs in the suburbs (although Mr. Ng had no strong feelings about the Scarborough subway – he told me nobody was talking about it at the doors he’d knocked at either) or the right for permanent residents to vote but there was certainly a strong basis of understanding between us about what this city needs to do going forward in order to remain prosperous and a desirable place to live.

Franco Ng is what I’d call a post-amalgamation Torontonian. While having very strong ties to the ward, he’s been a north Scarborough resident for 15 years, there’s no sense of us-versus-them, suburb-versus-downtown, we get nothing-they get everything from him. bridlewoodmallHe wants to put Ward 39 on the map, make it a place people want to visit, move to, stay and raise families while working to make the city as a whole a truly global city. A place that isn’t just somewhere up there.

It will be a daunting task in many ways.

The ward is a typical single-use suburban ward, built around private vehicle use, now entering a phase where that’s no longer economically viable. I met Franco at the Bridlewood Mall, at the corner of Warden and Finch. Getting off the bus, I walked through a vacant part of the parking lot which was being used exclusively as a warming spot for seagulls. The mall had seen better days, for sure. Franco walked me through the inside, full of vacant stores. More modern malls, with better amenities were a drive away in nearby Ward 40 and up a bit in the city of Markham.

Plans were afoot for Bridlewood. Condominium developments were going up. There was a new library branch in the mall. Bright and busy for a Tuesday afternoon. You should see it during the school year or at night, Franco tells me. It already may be too small a space to accommodate the people who want to use it.bridlewoodmalllibrary

This was the kind of pressure places like Scarborough-Agincourt were facing these days. Competing with not only surrounding communities to attract residents, businesses, visitors, but the wider world around us. Huge tracks of land designated for heavy industry, much of which has departed to cheaper territories. What to do with it? The tension is playing out right now with the battle over building a TTC bus garage near a seniors’ residence that has encroached onto industrial land.

How can a local councillor deal with such macroeconomic and citywide issues?

Franco Ng proposes starting street by street, developing and promoting a pride in place in order to bring about better neighbourhood integration. He tells me there are few residents associations in the ward and no BIAs. None. Without those, there’s very little engagement within the ward or with the city as a whole.

This is a frequent point made by many of the council candidates I’ve met out in the inner suburban parts of the city. A noticeable lack of civic engagement. They are not participants in governance. bridlewoodmallcondoThey are spectators.

“There’s no sense of ownership,” Ng tells me. You don’t really know what you have until you take part in getting it, I guess. This is what happens when you treat residents as taxpayers and not hands-on contributors to the process of community building.

It’s unfortunate too because, despite my downtowner view of places like Ward 39 being car strewn hellscapes (I mean, there are a lot of cars, lots of wide, wide roads and parking lots, interminable bus rides to get places by public transit), there’s a lot of green, public spaces there. The ward has 16 parks, Ng informs me, with the jewel being L’Amoreaux. The hydro corridor is beginning to fill up with soccer leagues and the like.

The elements are in place to build on all that. It’s just going to take a new approach to local politics. Less insular and backward-looking and more embracing new possibilities.

It’s about seeing the residents of Ward 39 as resources not, well again, just taxpayers. Franco says that taxes aren’t really a hot topic with the residents he’s met. wardenbusPeople seem to get the difference between spending money and simply throwing money away.

When the Steeles-L’Amoreaux neighbourhood was ‘de-prioritized’ earlier this term and some of the services offered there scaled back, people wanted to know why. They get investment in the community, in people of the community. Taking us right back to the beginning of this. Costs versus benefits.

After 4 years of inflammatory, divisive in-fighting at City Hall, the easiest way to combat it going forward is to elect city councillors who aren’t entrenched in old approaches, old ways of thinking. Franco Ng has bigger fish to fry than simply nursing old grudges or championing empty political platitudes. He wants to kick start a real sense of community in Ward 39, put it on the map as somewhere people want to visit and move to. lamoreuxparkThere’s a whole new world of regional discourse and planning he wants to move on, a dynamic that’s very much in play for parts of Toronto where you simply cross a street to get to another municipality.

There are real choices and alternatives for voters in wards like Scarborough-Agincourt. Franco Ng is one of them. 2014 is shaping up to be an important race between the past and the future in Ward 39. Let’s hope (and work toward) it chooses to go forward.

encouragingly submitted by Cityslikr