The Face Of Our Political Age

December 31, 2015

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The year (in) ahead.

I fear that this is the face of politics in 2016. Out of context it looks like pure, unadulterated joy. Unrestrained happiness, unfiltered exuberance.

But… but…

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Pull back and it doesn’t look so benevolent. Joy becomes unhinged. This is the face of someone capable of anything. Open to any possible suggestion, no matter how malicious or nasty. “Sure, strange man in the red ball cap, you want to crush this baby’s head in your hands? I offer up the child to you.”

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With no elections for us here for at least 2 years, perhaps we’ll be spared the worst excesses on the political scene in 2016. We can sit back in sort of bemused detachment, watching the grand spectacle to the south of us, although no longer smug in the knowledge that such a thing, to such extremes, could ever happen to us here. We’ve seen this face before. We’ve worn this face. It does not lead to anything good.

auld lang synely submitted by Cityslikr


An Indelicate Balance

December 28, 2015

How to be Rob Ford and not Rob Ford at the same time? This is the quantum politics Mayor John Tory is trying to determine as he enters his 2nd full year in office. quantumphysicsHe misses no opportunity to point out to everyone and anyone who’s listening how he isn’t Rob Ford: the return of civility to City Hall, respect re-bestowed upon Toronto by the international community, no more of the proverbial drunken stupors.

The mayor, however, never wants you to forget that, like Rob Ford, he stands firmly opposed to taxes and waste. Firmly. We can build shiny new things, expand necessary services and programs, world class up Toronto, done and done on high hopes and pure hearts. All we need to do is tighten our belts. Root out efficiencies and dead weight. Like that.

What Mayor Tory needs us to believe and accept is that his predecessor’s mess was manifest purely in the personal not policy realm. Policy failures, such as the cutbacks to TTC service, had nothing to do with revenue shortfalls or fiscal mismanagement but were the direct result of character flaws. The years 2010-2014 projected as tabula rasa on the governance front. disappearNothing but scandal and misconduct.

The problem for the mayor is that he’s not really fooling anybody. Non-Ford supporter critics of Mayor Tory, largely from the left side of the political spectrum, see him fighting for at-or-below inflationary levels of property tax rate increases and fending off talk of new revenue sources and can only conclude that it’s pretty much the same old same old, business as usual. This is what’s got the city in the financial straits it currently sits in.

At the other end, the hardcore Fordists, see through Mayor Tory’s suggested City Building Levy, and scream (rightly) that it’s just a property tax increase by a different name. Like the Scarborough subway levy although, for this camp, that’s another thing entirely. The people want subways. Subways, subways, subways!

So Mayor Tory has certain Toronto Sun columnists and editorialists, who never see a tax hike as anything other than proof positive of government overreach, yipping at him quantumphysics2while those having battled the Ford assault on City Hall coffers and services regard this mayor as just a well-mannered faux-populist who really ought to know better. There’s little room left for him to balance, his base squeezed onto an untenable platform made up largely of wishful thinking and constant thanks that, it could be worse, we could still have a Ford as mayor.

Not to cut the Fords much slack on this but a solid argument could be made that they actually believed their tax-and-spend, stop the gravy train rhetoric. Basic math never really mattered to them. The numbers didn’t have to add up. An obstinate and willful stance in opposition to facts passed for principled politics for the Fords. They didn’t have to be right to be right.

But how can a politician like John Tory, elected to the mayor’s office as a sensible, reasonable, prudent alternative to the madness of the Fords pursue policies with similar reckless abandon? johntoryvisionDuring the start of the 2016 budget process, he is being told by city staff in no uncertain terms that the city has a revenue problem. Its dependency on the property tax base and a still hot real estate market in terms of the land transfer tax is unsustainable. We must look seriously at other sources of revenues.

Mayor Tory’s reaction?

To propose an additional half-percent bump in the property tax rate, call it a ‘levy’, and look for further efficiencies at City Hall. It is as indifferent to staff advice and the reality on the ground as anything Rob Ford displayed. How is that sensible, reasonable or prudent?

Mayor Tory touts his willingness to work with his opponents at council on the Gardiner east hybrid to deliver a better option than the one he championed earlier this year as an example of the improved governance style under his watch.ignore Yet, whatever option finally emerges will be, fingers crossed, the best of the worst option on the table, not to mention, in all likelihood, the most expensive. The obvious choice, the one touted by city staff, the sensible, reasonable, prudent option, was to tear that section of elevated expressway down, rebuild it at-grade. Mayor Tory ignored all that and pushed ahead with what he believed to be the most politically advantageous choice.

In October 2014, nearly 70% of Toronto voters delivered what was almost exclusively an anti-Ford mandate. Picking up a 40% plurality of that vote, John Tory has read those numbers and concluded that it was merely the personal scandals Torontonians rejected, the confrontational and abrasive governance style, too. We were all good with the bad math, the deplorable accounting practices, the complete and utter disregard of expert advice, the detrimental policy choices.

All of which Mayor Tory now vigorously pursues if in slightly different guises. Attritional and limited levels of tax rates and revenue sources. schrodingerscatQuixotic cost savings quests. Ruinous public transit projects. Just like happened during the Ford administration. But somehow different with Mayor Tory at the helm, he wants us all to believe.

He’s got away with it for his first year. With reports due early in the new year on things like the Scarborough subway and SmartTrack, an impending budgetary shortfall forcing some tough choices out into the open, 2016 looks to provide a somewhat rockier road for Mayor Tory. How much longer can he continue trying to be not Rob Ford and Rob Ford simultaneously? Even the smallest of particles has to ultimately become one thing or the other.

summarily submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club XIV

December 22, 2015

It’s odd reading John Jerome’s 1972 book, The Death of the Automobile, and knowing that nearly 50 years later no such thing has happened, not even close. deathoftheautomobileJerome never lived to see it. He died in 2002. There’s no reason to think the death of the car will happen in my lifetime.

The Death of the Automobile is like reading a murder mystery novel where you know the eponymous victim is still alive and well at the end, barely a scratch on him.

The confident prediction of the automobile’s demise Jerome makes throughout the book is based on what should be firm grounds: the eventual rational decision made by consumers. Cars are expensive, to own, to operate, to facilitate, to design a society around. Eventually, Jerome assumed, there’d be a critical mass of people realizing all that and insisting on fundamental changes in mobility.

“We stopped building roads to places,” he writes. “We began building roads for automobiles.”

It is a view that is really only gaining traction in some places here in North America now, more than 4 decades after Jerome expressed it. And that may be overly optimistic on my part. corinthianleatherHere in Toronto, where the conversation about car-dependency is long overdue, capital spending on road works is projected to surpass that of public transit building. In 2015!

The death of the automobile indeed.

Jerome misread the public’s attachment to their cars and the industry’s ability to persuade them of that attachment. Watch a car commercial now and see exactly how it’s done. Freedom, open roads, the thrill of the ride. No congestion. No roadside breakdowns and repair bills. No horrific high speed collisions. Just fun, fun, fun, until her daddy takes the T-bird away. The loss of which would be truly catastrophic.

This underestimation on Jerome’s part is notable since he was something of an automotive insider. A non-fiction author and journalist, he wrote for such car oriented publications as Sports Car Digest and Car and Driver where he eventually became managing editor. deathoftheautomobile1Jerome even went on to a job as an advertising copywriter where he worked on car campaigns.

But Jerome wrote confidently that what he rationally saw as the private automobile’s destructive nature on people, the environment, cities, everyone else would too, sooner rather than later. You can fool some of the people, some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people, all of the time. Eventually, the gig would be up.

It turns out people are more resistant to change than John Jerome figured. Cars got a lot safer to drive than when he was writing the book. The carnage on the roads he was witnessing, due mostly in his view to manufacturer aversion to safety measures, much like that of cigarette makers, if you promote new and improved safety features, you’re tacitly admitting your product was unsafe to begin with, dropped significantly. Traffic deaths in the U.S. hit their peak the year The Death of the Automobile was published, at over 54,000. In 2013, 41 years later, that number sat at just under 33,000 despite a population increase of over 100 million and a doubling of vehicle miles travelled.

Safety for you and your family has now become a selling feature. Bigger vehicles provide more protection. deathoftheautomobile3Technological gadgetry enhances a driver’s navigational abilities. It’s not just luxury on sale anymore. It’s an oasis of calm in the turbulent and troubled seas of modern life.

Driving has become more entrenched since Jerome’s book was published. “The car makes the suburb possible,” he wrote and that’s still true today. Suburban population growth continued to explode through the last 3 decades of the 20th-century, outpacing that of the inner city, urban areas until very recently. Driving remains the only real option in many of these areas. You can’t not drive. Otherwise, you can’t get anywhere.

It is really this aspect of car-dependency and its unsustainability that has changed the conversation ever so slightly.

Nowhere does the sense of the destructiveness of automobiles grip harder than in the cities. “I can tell you one thing, the cities are finished,” said the elder Henry Ford, back in the twenties. Possibly he had in mind a gentler automotive effect, but he was a prophet indeed when he uttered those words. Stewart Alsop used the same quote to head a deeply pessimistic Newsweek column [1971], in which he ran through the elements which spell doom to the cities in the near future.

Jerome was writing during a time when the future of cities did really seem bleak. Not just the ruinous trajectories of the industrial, Midwest rust belt places epitomized by Detroit but back then even New York City sat on the brink of bankruptcy. deathoftheautomobile2“Go to hell!” the president of the United States flipped the Big Apple off.

Yet, we continued to urbanize, and the clash with the cult of the car intensified, slowly for sure, too slow for many, but it is intensifying. The mistakes of the past are now staring us right in the face, affecting our daily lives. Those concerns Jerome had back in the 70s are now front and centre in the city building conversations we’re having. Little by little, bit by bit, the supremacy of private vehicle use is being challenged.

It can be a little dispiriting to read The Death of the Automobile and realize that we’ve been aware of the incompatibility of people and cars for a couple generations now, that they operate at cross-purposes. But Jerome is such a solid writer with an extensive insider knowledge of the industry – Did you know that one of the Ford Company’s biggest and best sellers, the Mustang, was originally just an extras decked out Ford Falcon? Same body, same design, just a flashier image. – the book is a great read. deathrace2000We as a society may have taken longer to see the things Jerome was seeing but, it does appear that we’re getting to that point now, ready to have that conversation about, if not the death of the automobile, the severe containment of it as the primary… a-hem, a-hem… driver of the way we go about getting about our lives.

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


Smoke Them Out

December 20, 2015

Here’s the original, less gooder edited version of the 2016 budget launch post I wrote for the Torontoist earlier this week.

Speaking of which, while I recognize plenty of worthy causes out there for your consideration this holiday season, you would be making a very substantive contribution to the life of this city by sending some cash the Torontoist’s way. Councillor Shelley Carroll, a former budget chair at City Hall, gave her Best Budget Coverage nod to the Torontoist’s work this week. This can’t happen over the long run without help from readers and everyone else who wants to truly be in the know about the city they live and go about their business in.

So do yourself a favour. Contribute now.

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As the 2016 budget launch wrapped up at a special Budget Committee meeting today, I said to a fellow council watcher as we left the room, “Well, the chicks have come home to roost.” The piper was now demanding his payment. [Insert another cliché here for an imminent moment of decision.]

In what’s being referred to this year as a “Preliminary Budget” instead of what I believe has been called in recent years, “Staff Recommended Budget”, city staff crunched the numbers on both the operating and capital sides of the ledger and delivered up a document that, at first glance, didn’t scare the hell out of everybody. shortfallThe opening pressure on the operating side seemed highly manageable. $57 million, and bringing in Mayor Tory’s proposed at the rate of inflation property tax rate increase of 1.3%, drops it down to just $23 million. A relatively meagre 2.17% bump in the rate would eliminate the opening pressure altogether.

But here’s where the budget qualified as only ‘preliminary’ and not ‘staff recommended’.

City staff did not eliminate the operating deficit as it has done previously, recommending a property tax rate increase for city council to essentially rubber stamp (after much back and forthing during the next couple months). This year, staff threw down the gauntlet, as City Manager Peter Wallace said they would do earlier this month at his fiscal foundation presentation at Executive Committee. closethegapHere’s the revenue you have. Here are the things you said you want to have. You, city council, decide on how and what gets funded. You balance the books, not staff.

Oh, and one last thing: there’s an additional $67 million of requests and directives from council that staff have yet to find any funding for. TTC service improvements like early Sunday openings. Much of the mayor’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. Unfunded. In reality that makes for a $124 million opening pressure before you start factoring in property tax rate increases.

And hey. Let’s not even get started on the unfunded capital expenditures city council has thought would be nice but conveniently forgot to find funding for.

Lest you think I’m all gloom and doom here, that is not my intention.

This approach by staff to starting the budget process in the hole, negatively unbalanced, forces city council to start putting its collective money where its mouth is. nowwhatFor too long, too many of our local representatives have drawn up grand Wish Lists, amassing proverbial castles in the sky (and subways in the ground) without ponying up the cash to pay for it. Worse yet, strangling off sources of revenue in the name of Respecting The Taxpayers.

Well, not this year, not if city staff has their way. With this year’s preliminary budget introduced not balanced, staff is attempting to smoke out councillors from their respective hiding spots. You want to keep taxes low and refuse talk of any other new sources of revenue? What are you going to cut? What services are you going to deny or take from city’s residents? You want to help people lift themselves out of poverty? You want the trains to run on time and not over-capacity? How much do you want to increase taxes (above the rate of inflation, by the way)? chickcomehometoroostDo you want to have another discussion about new revenue tools?

City councillors can no longer have it both ways. That is exactly how Toronto has found itself with a mountain or two of unfunded liabilities and projects waiting in the wings. False promises of grand services, a world class city and low, low taxes. Efficiencies will pay for that, with a little dose of current from capital. All good.

As city staff made clear today, it wasn’t all good. If they have their way, 2016 will be the year city council will finally have to either put up or shut up. There is no longer anyplace they can hide for cover.

resubmittingly submitted by Cityslikr


A (18) Year End Review

December 18, 2015

There are times when it’s impossible to match the city Toronto is, has become, to the leadership it’s regularly inflicted on itself and endured. torontostreetIn many, many ways this place exhibits a vibrancy and animated quality it in no way deserves. At least, looking at it from the top down which gives me pause to reflect on the importance I place on the role our elected local representatives play in the day-to-day operations of Toronto. Maybe they’re not all that ultimately. Maybe I’ve just wasted the last 5 years of my life in the mistaken belief that it’s in any way necessary to be following closely the ins-and-outs at City Hall.

Looking back over the almost two decades now of amalgamated Toronto, it seems voters don’t place the same kind of significance on municipal politicians as I do. The established pattern being, Don’t demand too much from us, especially money, Don’t change too much, especially near where we live, Don’t bother us much, especially at dinner time.

A variation on the old municipal maxim: Keep our streets clear and safe, get the garbage picked up on time and make sure our toilets flush properly. smalltownDo that, and keep our taxes low? We’ll get along just fine.

So when the 416 all became one big family back in 1998, most of us weren’t in the market for any sort of urban renaissance. The same as before, please. Only on a bigger scale.

We gave ourselves Mel Lastman who came to power promising a property tax freeze and a little bit of cable access razzamatazz! Despite his obvious inadequacies, Mel had friends in the provincial government. It was all going to be alright. If nothing else, Mel gave us our first taste of international embarrassment, developing us some antibodies for what was to come.

After 7 years of bumbling, increasing disinterest in governance and a whole lot of overt corruption, Toronto tidied itself up, putting David Miller in office on a promise to clean up the mess left behind by Mel and his cronies. He did, and a whole lot more. mellastmanIn the end, probably too much for Toronto’s conservative tastes.

I really need to elaborate on this for a moment. As an unrepentant Millerite, I brook little of the bullshit narrative about how his administration drove the city into the ground fiscally or caved in to the unions or whatever other bogeyman his opponents like to float out there. It’s simply not true, and any cold, hard look at the history will show it.

I mean, after all, who are you going to believe? Me or Sue-Ann Levy?

No, in fact, the Miller administration took the hard steps in the direction of making Toronto a more self-sustaining, fairer, more inclusive, 21st-century city. What it didn’t do, and this is important, it was a crucial error that helped paved the way for the insanity that followed, the Miller administration did not attempt to engage with enough people beyond those who were already on board. I think it was smug with self-satisfaction, convinced that the rightness of what it was doing was obvious to all. It didn’t need to explain itself. davidmillerThe truth was self-evident.

It created the bubble that, when things got rocky, the financial crisis of 2008 which evaporated money coming from senior levels of government to Toronto for projects like Transit City, then the outside workers strike, retirement parties and bunny suits, when shit hit the fan, voters saw the bubble as the enemy, the thing to vote against.

Or maybe, 7 years, two terms, is more than enough time for a mayor and the city to sour on each hour.

Either way, in marched Rob Ford, on a wave of discontent and anger with the outgoing administration. Those feeling left out and left behind saw their champion in Rob Ford. He embraced that position and everything he did in office he did in the belief that he was looking out for the little guy. robfordbobbleheadHe fed on that discontent and anger, stoking it, inflaming it. Rob Ford represented Toronto’s angry era.

Mel the Clown. Earnest David. Angry Rob.

Civically, at the political level, we got tired. We wanted some peace and quiet. We wanted normal. Yes, after a decade of tumult, we pined for some of them good ol’ days. Just keep our streets clear and safe, get the garbage picked up on time and make sure our toilets flush properly. Do that, and keep our taxes low? We’ll get along just fine.

A little competence. Is that too much to ask?

Indeed.

I imagine you think you know where I’m going with this but, no, not entirely. This is not another John Tory hit piece. Do I think he oversold his competence? For sure. Do I believe he is severely over-matched for the job he faces? torontocongestionNo question.

But this has to do with us, the voters, the residents of this city. We have to stop buying into the notion that there are simple solutions to the problems we face. We have to stop believing in all the fuzzy math we’re being pitched. This isn’t about throwing money at problems either. It’s about not looking to the familiar in the hopes of adapting to the change going on all around us.

The Toronto about to say hello to 2016 is not the Toronto that greeted 1998 although, looking at the faces still at city council, a counter-argument could be made about that. We have to recognize what’s no longer working and figure out ways to fix it because the truth is we’re coming up painfully short on important matters the will have an irreversible negative impact on this city if we don’t. torontosign1Transit is the most obvious example but affordability, sustainability and our continued, cowardly refusal to insist on new ways to police and keep everyone in this increasingly diverse city safe are as equally important.

John Tory is not to blame for the current state of affairs. He is doing exactly what 40% of voters in Toronto in 2014 wanted him to do. Pretty much business as usual but without the crack and booze filled melodrama. What Torontonians need to accept, and accept quickly, is that business as usual is no longer good enough.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr