After reading The Local’s September article, How Toronto’s Councillors Became Nearly Unbeatable, I did a little creative calculation myself, tabulating the average time the 19 incumbents running for re-election on Monday have spent at Toronto’s City Hall. Close observers will immediately spot a discrepancy with my math. 19 incumbents? But there are only 18 running. What gives?
So, my methodology.
19 because I included Jon Burnside (aka Captain Encampment Clearance) who is running in the ward vacated by outgoing city councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (aka Denzil the Dismal). If you’ll recall, Burnside was a city councillor for 4 years before he lost out in 2018 after Doug Ford’s mid-election attack on City Hall, reducing ward numbers by half. In my mind, that makes him an incumbent candidate with name recognition especially factoring in the hearty endorsement he’s received from Mayor Tory.
I’ve tallied all years served as city councillor, Metro councillor and mayor going back pre-amalgamation and skipped any school board trustee positions because, well, I’m essentially lazy. In the cases of Stephen Holyday and Mike Colle, I’ve included time served by their father and son, respectively, because family matters. I ignored the years Jim Karygiannis spent as a Scarborough city councillor even though Nick Mantas was his E.A. and owes his political career so far to that fact.
Not so much irregularities as idiosyncrasies.
And what did I find?
An average of 14.68 years spent as an elected official in Toronto by the incumbents running for city council in 2022. That’s slightly higher than the 13.8 figured by The Local which pointed out that’s longer than every one of the other 10 largest cities in Canada and the U.S., by almost one full, four-year term. According to the article, incumbents on Toronto city council have almost a 90% success rate getting re-elected.
Toronto has an incumbency problem. Like uninvited dinner guests, your friend mistakenly thought there was a +1, who just linger, long after the clean up’s done and one of the hosts has gone to bed, blathering on about fence exemption applications and street width to building height ratios.
Why won’t they just leave already!?
T’row da bums out! the call comes. Who will rid us of this tiresome deadwood? Down with the old guard! New faces! New voices! New blood! We’ve suffered enough from this sclera fever.
Invariably such talk turns to term limits.
The simplest of solutions to a complex problem.
Desperate times demanding desperate measures.
As The Local points out, in New York City, which does have term limits, the average time on city council is a mere 2.2 years. That’s a churn of turnover that seems to border on unstable in any sort of institution. Besides, New York has a much more multifaceted governance structure than Toronto where we have simply a mayor and 25 councillors serving almost 3 million people, rudimentary, I might argue with too much power in too few hands. Regularly changing the names on the office doors will do little to address that functionally undemocratic condition.
Admittedly, that’s a drastic example. If we instituted a two term limit and assume there’s still a 90% re-election success rate, the average turnover time will be around 8 years. Plenty of time to get yourself settled and familiar, champion your policy initiatives and get out again, smelling only slightly stale but not mildewy.
Would Toronto be a better place in 2022 if Mark Grimes, Paula Fletcher, Shelley Carroll and Michael Thompson had been ushered out elected office in 2010? Paul Ainslie in 2014? Josh Matlow, Jaye Robinson and Gary Crawford in 2018? Frances Nunziata in 1906? Hypothetical, for sure. In some cases, definitely. In others, probably. Still others, who knows? A fresh Hell is still Hell, right?
Take the case of Gord Perks.
(A disclaimer here: I know Gord Perks personally. I like Gord a lot. He is not my city councillor, so my claim that he’s a very good local representative comes from a distance. Bias declared.)
Perks has been at City Hall since 2006. A stalwart progressive, he’s been very much the face of the opposition since the election of Rob Ford as mayor in 2010, and continuing on through John Tory’s tenure. Much of his time as councillor has been on the defensive, fighting to maintain established services, programs and policy ideas threatened by the axe of austerity wielded by both Team Tory and Ford Nation. Until 2018 when the ward he represented, Parkdale, was forcibly enlarged by the provincial government to include tonier High Park, Perks was very much on the forefront of contending with the pressures of gentrification on some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Now, he is under fire (along with most of council’s progressives, incumbent and outgoing) from some very prominent city voices for his silence over the opaque hiring as interim City Manager of Tracey Cook, the bureaucratic overseer of the brutal and callous park encampment clearances during Covid. Locally, Perks has also remained quiet on the question of over-policing of cyclists in High Park, a criticism that’s grown into a general complaint toward his whole approach to road safety, too car-friendly for drivers using High Park, too slow in combatting traffic deaths along Parkside Drive on the eastern boundary of the park.
Legitimate concerns, no question. Important ballot questions, evidently, as it seems Perks is in the midst of a pitched battle, assisted in no small part, by John Tory’s endorsement of one of his opponents, an endorsement that may play well in the High Park section of the ward. Democracy, right?
Would things be different now, different in a more positive way, if Perks had been limited out of office back in 2014?
More pertinently, do these disagreements and anger toward decisions the councillor has made indicate he’s tired or over-the-hill or too set in his granddad ways, too entrenched and rigid in his ways of thinking? Or are they just that, disagreements? Sorted out ultimate (in a perfect world) at the ballot box.
Yes, yes. Incumbent advantage. I get it. No doubt. No doubt. In making things fairer for challengers, do we think voters are going to be any better at electing good non-incumbents when the time comes? No matter, term limiters say. In 8 years time, they’ll be able to try again. Fingers crossed! To use a cliché, should we be throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Has 16 years of Gord Perks overcome the deficit of 19 years of Mark Grimes? My vote is yes, by a long shot. But that’s just me.
There are other ways, I believe, to shave off some of the incumbent competitive edge. I’d start by bringing about municipal parties, an idea I’ve warmed to over the years. Not carbon copies of the provincial and federal factions, something that already exists behind the scenes. Like Vancouver and Montreal, for instance. Parties that may come together just for the election campaign say, a bloc of like-minded candidates working toward a common goal and under a common banner. Or they stay together and operate as one governing entity, headed by the mayor. An identity a voter can label and categorize rather than just a name you recognize.
Of course, we’d need provincial approval for such a thing, of course. Of course. Because municipalities in this province remain 155 year-old constitutional babies. But why not start there? An unofficial official party, running under the same colours, vowing to stand up for the city and rallying residents in every ward around their displeasure with the constant diminishing of local democracy by Queen’s Park. That way everyone would understand exactly what it is a candidate stands for. Something other than their own re-election.
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(tl;dr? TVO’s John McGrath delivers a quick summary for both Term Limits & Municipal parties here.)