A Weak-Willed Strong Mayor

Lest this begins to look like a retreat to the familiar, a purely Toronto municipal politics blog, the second such item in three days, you can put your mind at ease. Nothing but pure fluke. Just a happenstance of circumstance as they say, and if they don’t, they should. The torpid weather. An annoying struggle with another piece of writing. Some rather exceptional matters in and around City Hall.

It started during the first day of the final council meeting of the term, next stop municipal election in October. The item up for debate was the city Ombudsman’s interim report on last year’s park encampment clearances. Amidst the reactionary caterwauling from the usual suspects, Were these people really homeless?, Weren’t they more a mixture of criminals and activists? Weapons! Drugs! Performative Artists!, Mayor John Tory got to his feet to chastise Councillor Josh Matlow who had asked the city staff who oversaw the implementation of the clearances if they would apologize for the aggressively ham-fisted park approach to the evictions.

According to Toronto Star columnist and City Hall Watcher Matt Elliott: “After Matlow asks for an apology from staff over the 2021 encampment evictions, Mayor John Tory suggests Matlow must be in favour of encampments. The mayor says he, by contrast, opposes encampments. “They are unsafe, they are unhealthy and they are illegal.” [bolding mine]

Conflating support for the unhoused, forced outside into these encampments by events and crises beyond their control, a pandemic, a severe lack of shelter space and affordable housing, poverty, mental health and addiction crises, and support for the encampments themselves, is pure John Tory when he forgets that he’s always pretending to be progressive minded. Evidently, he’s already kicked-in to campaign mode. Despite the din of Dickensian level villainy being tossed around the room by his political allies, the mayor decided he could not stand by and allow city staff to be vilified with demands of accountability for their actions.

Another day. Another term. The same John Tory.

Later that same afternoon, the premier of the province, Doug Ford, emerged from his post-election hibernation to announce that his government was in the process of granting the cities of Toronto and Ottawa something called ‘a strong mayor system’. After the start of yet another municipal election campaign, the premier wades in with yet another substantial change to municipal governance, the last one, four years ago, to cut the number of city councillors in half. We are, it seems, one election cycle away from Doug Ford, using provincial powers over municipalities at his disposal, to rid City Hall of every meddlesome councillor and declaring himself Czar of Toronto for Life, a position he’s always coveted, premier of the province being nothing more than a way station along the way toward the prize.

The debate over the ‘strong mayor’ is too detailed for this post. I recommend Brian Kelcey’s January Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) op-ed for a nuanced and reasoned argument in favour of strengthening the office of the mayor in bigger municipalities. For me, just viscerally, granting one elected official increased powers can only lead to a diminishing of democratic participation especially at the local level. It trends authoritarian which isn’t really showcasing much positive these days. Rather than hand the position of mayor more power over council colleagues, I’d prefer to see council itself vote for the position of mayor, bestowing the candidate with the best chances of reaching regular consensus the position, an idea pitched by John McGrath a-way back when in 2012.

Like I said, too multifaceted a debate for here and now.

What concerns me in this particular situation, coming from Doug Ford, is that it has nothing to do with better or more effective and efficient municipal governance. It is simply about power. Like the decision to cut council numbers in 2018, to place real, actual power into fewer and fewer hands. And not just any hands, as it turns out. Pure speculation here but I’d bet the farm, if I had a farm, that with another mayor at helm in Toronto, David Miller, say, or Olivia Chow or Jennifer Keesmaat or Gil Penalosa, say, the last thing Doug Ford would be doing is giving them more power to operate.

For his part, the current mayor of Toronto is all for the move. Surprise, surprise. A creature in the mold of noblesse oblige pretense with pure C.E.O inclinations who doesn’t like to wallow in the messy back-and-forth of hoi polloi democracy. “We need to speed up the pace of how we get things done,” Mayor Tory said. Alarm bells should be going off and red flags waving whenever this kind of statement gets thrown around to support consolidating more power into a single office.

The mayoral claim that the strong mayor news from the province came as, well, news to him yesterday was undercut somewhat when he confessed that “he’s had no formal conversations with Ford about expanding the powers of the mayor’s office, but that the topic of finding ways to speed up housing construction came up in ‘passing’ during the pair’s most recent meeting in June.” Uh-huh. And within 24 hours of the strong mayor announcement, both the mayor and premier are singing from the same got-to-build-more-housing-more-faster hymn book although, as Councillor Gord Perks claimed in Twitter thread yesterday, “I cannot think of a single time Toronto City Council voted down a housing proposal the Mayor supported. Nor can I remember an instance of Council delaying a housing proposal of his.”

In the parlance of the Watergate investigation, Mayor Tory needs to come clean about what he knew and when he knew it. Or maybe that was in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Instead of using a genuine crisis to cover his magisterial political grasping, what the mayor needs to be frank about is why he wants even more power when he’s been so averse to use the powers of the office already at his disposal. All over social media the past couple days have been examples of opportunities he’s had during his two terms in office to wield his mayoral might without having done so, in the housing file, no less, and as equally egregiously, taxation. While crying poor in the face of a monumental operating budget shortfall, some $800+ million, I believe, and waiting for the feds and Queen’s Park to deus ex machina in the cash, he’s refused to even consider broaching the taxing levies granted to the city since 2006.

It’s almost as if this otherwise weak-willed politician believes he will become strong if the word is thusly enacted from on high into some sort of statute.

There are solid arguments in favour of strengthening the mayor’s office, and I confess a deep, abiding wariness toward them. Made by honest brokers of the concept, though, they all come with other conditions and stipulations that attempt to balance the scales between robust decision-making and always fragile democracy. Maybe such details will be part of the legislation the province brings in at this late date, less than 100 days before the municipal election. Maybe. But I think it’s fair to ask if either Doug Ford or John Tory have earned the legitimacy to be considered honest brokers.

1 thought on “A Weak-Willed Strong Mayor

  1. “Brother”,

    Whether or not it gets added to the powers of a Toronto strong mayors office, we certainly could use some more balance in municipal-provincial relations for the transit file in Mount Dennis.

    Our neighbourhood is being jammed by the Metrolinx Eglinton Crosstown West Extension (ECWE) Dubways Project which plans to run across a 1.5 km LRT Expressway Bridge that will divide heritage lands of the Eglinton Flats with elevated concrete infrastructure, and clearcut a swath of mature forest across am established parkside to do so.

    These lands have indigenous significance but Metrolinx seems to have forgotten to reach out to their representatives, or even to ensure a local dialogue on options took place where their members could participate, This shameful treatment happened despite the area having been used for a number of years as a planting area for tradition medicines and birch trees, the City granting a licence for land management of the riverside lands immediately north of Eglinton.

    Last fall the Mount Dennis Community Association held a community walk from under the Eglinton Humber River overpass which their team participated, and then along the river trail past the site of the previous Justice Lodge and into the lands near the current Healing lodge, led by the Indigenous Community Advisor, which Metrolinx were informed about but chose not to engage in.

    Recently the Metrolinx ECWE team held its own community walk, and came to understand the community.s resolve to lodge a dispute about the segment plans. This was immediately raised through the York South Weston Councillor and community deputants who received support from the Mayor and unanimous Council approvals through two successive Council meetings, The City directed the Toronto Transit Service Expansion Office to negotiate with Metrolinx to underground the elevated part of the Mount Dennis segment and report back on necessary procurement adjustments.

    Metrolinx last Board meeting on June 28th received our community deputation about this dispute, and the ECWE project team have engaged in a CBC article and online pre-event briefings of two Mount Dennis community stakeholder groups before holding a 2 hour in-person Open House on July 26th to show display boards and hold a public discussion on the project, Here the City’s position to negotiate was applauded and Metrolinx representatives were again faced with opposition to proceeding with implementation until an acceptable infrastructure design method was determined for the segment that gained local support through a negotiated review process.

    Meanwhile, the City has just approved the Mount Dennis land use secondary plan that recognizes the objective of creating an ecoNeighbourhood, as well encouraging connecting a community to a major natural area, and heritage planning to follow. And we have learned the transit project will use a Federally funding community Bike path and pedestrian connection recently built from the adjacent Pearen Park Children’s Playground to Fergie Brown and Emmett Parks and connecting with the Humber River trail, by turning it into a heavy construction equipment runway and storage area and restricting public park access for years.

    Yes we know about transit construction effects, disturbance impacts, temporary road bypasses and environmental updates on transit projects that must be filed. The Mount Dennis long involvement in planning engagement followed by implementation experience of the temporary and permanent construction impacts and lasting environmental and community character aesthetic impacts of the Black Creek LRT Tunnel Portal and Bridgeway are keenly present in our thinking. We also know about promises for world class infrastructure design, have community members who have professional experience in infrastructure finance,plannng and construction, plus we understand world health development concepts like prudent avoidance and how participatory planning should work.

    We strongly believe in respecting the land and valuing the abilities of the people most effected as resources to finding the solutions that are required. We consider the model Metrolinx has used has been hard selling our actively engaged community on a pre-determined plan with the rationale of all-technical-ducks-are-in-a-row, and it-costs-more-money-to-make-changes-now to what the ECWE project team have internally determined.

    Area politicians have advised us that Metrolinx has separately briefed them that this is an environmentally sound. cost effective plan that has taken numerous online hours of public meetings and has public support demonstrated in large and representative survey polls. It appears however that Metrolinx forgot to tell them that these hours were spent mostly hearing about how you the community participants and sidewalk superintendents can make the bridge look prettier and assuring that Metrolinx is really not planning to clearcut our parks but cannot give details on the route yet although it is in final stage of tendering because we the project staff at Metrolinx won’t really know until the contractor tells us their proposed scope of work. And we at Metrolinx will sit on the freedom of information report that you, the volunteer community representatives, will need to pay for in order to see any detailed reference information we have prepared about your concerns.

    Yet with the pretty looking artistic perspectives, the on site tours, in person display boards and powerpoint presentation evidence over more than a year of segment meetings, we the community stakeholder representatives judge this to be gaslighting, Ther is no possibility of Metrolinx truthfully stating this plan to be a result of 3+ years of an authentic attempt by Metrolinx to do a collaborative planning of major transit infrastructure with the engagement of our community.

    This segment plan has no social licence. We have a project level dispute with Metrolinx that is now escalating to Ontario Ministers level and we are calling for their urgent direction to their agencies to resolve this. There can be separate project agreements negotiated between the City an Metrolinx that respect existing master agreements and Provincial guidelines, and there are clear dispute resolution processes embedded in these existing agreements, with provisions for adjustments in existing project contracts and for making in-market procurement changes. Unmanageable speed driven by an organizational management directive to get this project delivered immediately is the critical issue.

    We call for a hold on Metrolinx tendering for Tunnel 2 and Elevated Structure contract proposals that are due in September, and a rethink on engineering options with contract adjustments. This review should include any needed adjustments to link with existing tunneling Infrastructure Ontario contract, as Rexy and Rennie are already boring their way eastward along Eglinton from Renforth Drive at a reported 15 metres per day since April. The Tunnel 1 contract runs through the middle of Infrastructure Ontario Minister Kinga Surma’s Etobicoke Centre riding.

    If either Minister Surma or Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney are listening, please advise Metrolinx’s new Chief Capital Officer Andrew Hope he together with City Transportation Services Expansion Office Exec Director Derrick Toigo should jointly have a serious dialogue with the Mount Dennis locals, as supported by all of Toronto City Council and its Mayor. This process should give priority to starting talks with the local leadership of the indigenous peoples, all of whom want to get on with building transit that is built as sustainable development but demand that Metrolinx respect the land and the river and their rights of access.

    And someone in all levels may want to call for reopening the legislation on navigable waters of this section of the Huber River and speak with both Ministers to include Indigenous rights to paddle canoes and walk the shoreline as heritage modes of river transport. They may also ask respectfully that you ensure Metrolinx first share the details on the plans, and incorporate changes recommended by the Indigenous representatives to limit impacts and maximize benefits in their community perspective. For example cutting areas in mature forested wetland ecological areas need to be agreed to, and where any tree cutting or wetland is needed for temporary or permanent access points of the transit project, that Metrolinx is to ensure best uses for the cut trees and harvested vegetation, and that Metrolinx engage them in full restoration planning as collaborating partners.

    This planned project of Metrolinx impacts all of our globally diverse local community in Mount Dennis, but we recognize the needs of our indigenous colleagues and their family wellness as first and central to our quality of life and and collective sustainability. Community facilities for healing and for educating in indigenous knowledge are being developed NOW, These require proper access from today forward to bring together people from across the city region and the province plus important visitors from neighbouring provinces, the US and international countries to these lands,

    How our governing system honours indigenous rights is in local global dialogue, We have introduced two leaders to Metrolinx who will guide them if you as Ministers direct Metrolinx to hold and rethink. Please take the opportunity to properly honour these significant lands and the indigenous people’s rights to use and protect them, as part of an educational and healing process involving the wider community.

    Also we respectfully ask that you advise Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster to announce this project review in his upcoming open letter, and direct that negotiation to include the affected community stakeholders be via Andrew Hope and not Fanny Sunshine. Or you might simply hold your counsel here until CEO Verster reports to his Q3 2022 Board meeting and see if he directs the ECWE Subways Project Sponsor to issue the immediate community update open letter in his own name with negotiations to proceed now and report back at the end of this year.

    Driving this project too fast through the fist of complex agreements and without the proper social licence in the name of speed is demonstrably reckless in this local situation, More so in a highly sensitive and historically meaningful time for social, economic and environment relations of intergovernmental proportions.

    Whether it is strong political will or strong office, we need Toronto Mayor Tory, York South Weston elected representatives Councillor Nunziata, MPP Michael Ford, and MP Ahmed Hussen to jointly call for an immediate procurement hold in order for a proper objective review of the ECWE Mount Dennis Segment plan and a report back with a consensus position and adjustments needed by Q1 2023 after City Council has reassembled.

    Then let the various Municipal election candidates of all political brands have a respectful debate separately on these matters and help encourage finding ways of supporting sustainable city-building at a neighbourhood level. The local community stakeholder dialogue on the ECWE Mount Dennis segment with Hope and TOigo will proceed in a timely manner, include representation from the community in a non-partisan way not involving City election campaign-related people, and it will be accountable for progress by year end.

    Metrolinx’s Board, the governing body for the Provincial Transportation Agency chaired by Don Wright, can give its official stamp of approval to the rethink process at its Q3 2022 meeting in September, with revisions needed by the joint plan delivered at its Q1 2023 meeting, and hopefully gaining the Mount Dennis community’s resounding endorsement.

    Let’s establish a strong values-based collaborative process to build a transit showpiece that is the backbone of sustainable urban development in Mount Dennis, not force expressways though significant indigenous river lands, heritage colonial green space, and major urban park sites in the name of speed.

    Rick Ciccarelli, Mount Dennis ecoNeighbourhood Initiative

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