(Mis)Governed

April 22, 2014

I’ve been mulling over our state of governance these days. Spurred on by the news of Councillor Adam Vaughan’s planned departure for federal politics, ponderingI kept wondering why anybody would make that particular jump. Sure, there’s the clout and prestige. In theory, the real levers of power are operated from Ottawa.

In theory.

Reading through John Lorinc’s piece today about Vaughan and the role the federal government plays in the running of cities, I have my doubts about the efficacy of delivering effective municipal policies from the federal level. You can offer up money, maybe even ideas. But hands-on tools to contribute directly? That’s a little more complicated.

According to a document that’s nearly 150 years old and a handful of court rulings during that time span, municipalities are nothing more than “creatures of the province” and “exist only if provincial legislation so provides…” dustydocumentCities fall in that place of dark matter between federal and provincial jurisdiction. To propose any sort of strategy, say housing or transit, for municipalities, Ottawa could be seen to be stepping on provincial toes. Why risk antagonism if you can just ignore these issues instead. We’d really love to help but our hands are constitutionally tied.

There have been attempts, for sure. The Liberal government’s New Deal For Cities Municipalities Communities (or whatever it wound up being called) under Paul Martin delivered increased funding that remains in place but little in terms of clarity. Nearly a decade on, cities remain without any sort of national housing or transit strategy. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), cities face more than a $200 billion infrastructure deficit.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how a change in government in Ottawa is going to reverse that. powerlessAt least, not in the short term.

I was boring family and friends over the long weekend, talking about this particular challenge of governance. Citing a certain Paisley Rae who had paraphrased Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi for me, talking about the importance of the various levels of government in our lives. (If I get this wrong, it’s all on me). Imagine if just out of the blue our federal government disappeared. Poof! Suddenly gone. How long would it take you to notice a real impact on your life? A month? Do the similar thought experiment with the provincial government. Poof! Gone. You’d notice in about a week? Now your elected representatives at City Hall. Vanished into thin air. Almost as soon as you step out the door, their absence would be evident.

Of course, it wouldn’t be that simple. It would depend entirely on where you lived and other circumstances. There’s much more overlap than that.

Still.

I think the role of our municipal level of government is highly under-valued and egregiously under-funded. oldendays1They are expected to do things that they have no jurisdictional command of or the fiscal tools to deal with. As the above article points out, the FCM claims that Canadian cities receive only 8% of the country’s tax revenues but are responsible for 60% of the infrastructure.

I’ve long contended that this political mismatch between the responsibilities demanded and the lack of capacity to deal with them has resulted in an increased presence of buffoonery at the local level of representation. Of course, we can elect somebody like Rob Ford because, in the end, it doesn’t matter. There’s no real power invested in that office. When we do dare to elect somebody with ambitious ideas for our cities, David Miller for example, they are destined to disappoint us because, in the end, they lack the real power to fully enact their plans.

What is clearly needed at this point of time is a complete constitutional overhaul. This isn’t 1867. Much, much has changed including where the majority of people live in this country. kickupafussCities. The hierarchy of revenue and power needs to be shuffled and rearranged.

Of course, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. So politicians like Adam Vaughan with ambition and big ideas gravitate to where positive change is possible even if it hasn’t been much in evidence, well, during our lifetime. All we can do is cross our fingers, wish him well in his endeavours and look for new politicians to represent us at City Hall who aren’t content with the severe limitations that will be placed on them, and who have their own plans to shake up the status quo that serves fewer and fewer of us.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


The Kids Are Alright

January 22, 2013

Next time you get all hot under the collar at what you perceive to be shenanigans, childish antics or just a general sense of out-of-control behaviour by our municipal politicians, you really need to take a deep breath and a long look at André Côté’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance report, kidsarealrightThe Fault Lines at City Hall: Reflection on Toronto’s Local Government. Given the constraints and competing interests at work, it’s really remarkable anything gets done at all. And despite what you might be hearing around Toronto these days, quite a bit gets done, starting with ten billion dollars or so worth of operating and capital budgets just approved last week.

Could things run more smoothly? Of course they could. That’s true at both Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill as well. Probably every place of government the world over.

Two points in Mr. Côté’s report jumped out at me as legitimate causes of both the institutional as well as current struggles politicians face at City Hall. One is entirely external and, as it stands now, almost entirely out of our local politicians’ hands. The second is very specific to our present situation.

Another factor that clouds political accountability at City Hall is the degree of provincial control over municipal affairs. The Province sets election dates and service standards, limits the use of taxes, requires approval for certain asset sales, and uses conditional funding arrangements to force compliance in important policy areas. The result is that the City’s field of action is constrained. The reliance on fiscal transfers also breaches a basic principle of public finance: accountability is blurred when the level of government making the spending decisions is different from the one that raises the revenues.” [page 5]

Everything municipal governments do in this province can be undone or undermined by their provincial overlords. We are their ‘creatures’, according to a 19th-century document written when this was an agrarian country and not properly challenged in nearly 150 years. eviloverlordUltimate accountability lies almost exclusively in the hands of politicians not necessarily elected to mind municipal level issues. In most cases, we should refer to them as absentee landlords.

Take Toronto, for example. (Please, the rest of the province chimes in.)

Against our collective will, we six municipalities, were messily forced into one by an antagonistic Queen’s Park government. ‘Efficientized’ to use Lucas Costello’s term; a lean, mean level of government meant to shed its fat and reap a certain windfall of streamlined bounty. Never mind that none of that happened because it was never intended to in the first place. It was all part of a downloading scheme almost entirely for the purpose of lightening the fiscal load on the provincial coffers.

Toronto was never given the appropriate powers commensurate with the much larger entity it had become. In fact, it was stripped of a level of governing that oversaw some of the more contentious, citywide services like policing and transit. Gone was Metro council, leaving only one politician at City Hall representing the interests of the city as a whole. The mayor.

Now figures as disparate as academic Richard Florida and councillor-brother Doug Ford have publicly mused about countering this problem by instituting a stronger mayoral system like they have in the U.S. Frankly, I find that notion to be a fucking nightmare scenario. strongmayorAll well and good if you like the policies and directions of a Mayors Bloomberg or Miller or Ford but what if you don’t?

Let me run a hypothetical by you that we can all be appalled at.

A Mayor Giorgio Mammoliti in a strong mayor system?

One might argue if we had such a thing, we’d be more careful with who we elect mayor. And if we aren’t?

My suggestion is rather than seek to beef up our municipal governance by bestowing more power upon one person, we look to increase it for the 2.6 million residents who live here. How? Well, that’s another post entirely and probably by someone with much stronger public policy credentials than I possess. (Paging John McGrath. Call me!)

This does take us the second important point brought up by Andre Côté in his report.

Reformers should also bear in mind that, under the existing system, Mayors Rob Ford and David Miller have had notable successes in advancing their policy agendas. Both academic literature and recent history suggest that a combination of public profile, political acuity, and a willingness to use the softer skills of persuasion and consensus-building can result in successful and effective lead­ership at City Hall, even without a strong mayor system.” [page 7]

Pre-amalgamation, mayors in their respective cities had fewer councillor cats to herd and the issues were largely more specifically localized. liontaming(Many that weren’t were dealt with at the Metro level.) So they didn’t need more powers to push their agenda or items forward.

Such is not the case in post-amalgamation Toronto. Yet both Mel Lastman and David Miller managed for most of their terms in office to get `er done. Rob Ford too in his first year or so as mayor. Then he didn’t. Ultimately, he has no one else to blame but himself for that.

That’s not quite right.

We the voters are to blame as well because a plurality of us voted for a candidate who possessed few of the traits necessary to be an effective mayor in Toronto. ‘Political acuity’? As a campaigner perhaps but certainly not as mayor. ‘…a willingness to use the softer skills of persuasion and consensus-building…’. Never ever during his time at City Hall did Rob Ford display that particular trait. In fact, he revelled in being the exact opposite, the outsider, the lone wolf.

We elected him mayor despite all that and somehow seemed surprised how badly it’s all worked out.

A perfect mayor (if such a thing existed) will in no way paper over all the problematic governance realities this city faces. hogtheballIt would be foolhardy to think otherwise. But we shoot ourselves in the foot, and vote against our best interests when we throw our support behind a candidate based on a platform of sticking it to others at City Hall. Such an us-versus-them approach is destined to failure, not only for the candidate in question but the entire city as everything becomes a grind not a collaborative effort.

The city doesn’t have the power it needs but it has to stop squandering the power it does have. That starts with electing a mayor who is able to see past their own narrow focus and reach out to interests that are not their own.

co-operatively submitted by Cityslikr


Reassessing More Than Our Property Values

August 17, 2012

In an announcement this week of Mark Towhey becoming Mayor Ford’s new chief of staff, Kelly Grant of the Globe and Mail writes that he wants to focus on the mayor’s economic strategy, including plans for the city to “implement policies to grow its assessment base, rather than raise property taxes year after year.” An ensuing social media conversation took place, questioning if that were even possible, using a wider/higher property assessment in lieu of higher property taxes. Minds much brighter than mine struggled with questions of provincially mandated revenue neutral reassessments, averaging, etc., etc.

The short answer seems to be: raising revenue is much more difficult and complicated than simply cutting services, programs and generally just not doing anything much. Our fiscal status quo leans toward inaction. Claiming we can’t afford something is simply an admission of one of two things. You’re either ideologically opposed to the concept of taxation or you don’t understand government financing. Or maybe both.

Complicating matters for Ontario municipalities is that the provincial government keeps us on a pretty short leash in terms of revenues. We rely so heavily on property taxes as a revenue source because it’s the only one we have much control over. And as the discussion this week showed even that is watched over carefully by Queen’s Park.

How?

Well, it seems cities just can’t reassess property values and then slap on the tax rate to the new numbers. In a place like Toronto that would in, all likelihood, generate a significantly higher amount of revenue. From the city’s website (h/t to Brent Gilliard) comes a provincial commandment. The effect of reassessment, at the municipal level, is “revenue neutral” and does not generate any additional revenue for the City. With a reassessment, the City must adjust the tax rate to remain revenue neutral, so no new funding comes to the City of Toronto as a result of property valuation changes.

Reassess all you want, the province tells us, it just can’t generate any more money for you.

Of course, there’s a much larger discussion to be had on this point. Municipalities shouldn’t have to depend so heavily on property taxes to, you know, run the city. Both their calculation and implementation is complex, cumbersome and, often times, politically thorny. Of all taxes, none seem to be taken as personally as property taxes. California’s 1978 Proposition 13 that severely limited the state’s ability to adjust property taxes could be seen as the granddaddy of tax revolts. Property taxes also don’t truly reflect the economic activity going on at a municipal level at any given time.

Internationally, many cities have adopted other models of taxation for new streams of revenue. Sales tax, payroll tax, hotel tax, a motor vehicle tax… OK. So Toronto certainly didn’t help its cause by backing an administration that was hell bent on repealing one of the few taxes the province allowed it to institute, the VRT, as soon as it was sworn in. Like a petulant teenagers, tossing their allowance back into their parents’ faces. We don’t need your stinking handouts. Oh, and by the way, mom and dad. Can we have some cash for extra police officers and some transit we need to build?

Still, it is odd how stingy Queen’s Park is in terms of allowing its municipal governments to figure out ways to pay for things. What’s it to them if we decide to generate revenues through a city or regional sales tax? How will a, say, .5% sales tax going into the city’s coffers adversely affect the province’s bottom line? It’s not like they’re rushing to finance Toronto’s major infrastructure needs like transit. Before you start bellowing ‘Transit City! Transit City!’ at me, note how I used the word ‘rushing’. We’re getting transit. On the province’s dime. On the province’s time.

It’s hard to look at the recent additions to Toronto’s transit system before the Eglinton crosstown broke ground and not see a pattern of self-interest on the province’s part. Arguably, we got subway lines where we needed them least that successive government’s at Queen’s Park used to burnish their cred with a very specific segment of voters. You want subways? We gave you subways. Where we wanted.

Control of the purse strings will always translate into political control. Cities less dependent on the province means cities less willing to let the province dictate its terms. What do you call that? A more equal partnership. It doesn’t quite have the ring of ‘creatures of the province’ that must sound much better to ears at Queen’s Park.

For many provincial politicians, cities are more a political chessboard than they are economic engines. All moves must be tightly controlled and very, very limited. Unless you’re the queen, of course. In provincial-municipal matters, never ever forget who’s the queen.

pawnly submitted by Cityslikr


Childish Behaviour

February 24, 2012

I could not disagree with Christopher Hume more if he were, well, Rob Ford.

He’s plea to the province to assume control of Toronto’s transit file is nothing short of madness, an adolescent whine. I want my mommy. Send lawyers, guns and money. Dad, get me out of this.

Long has been my stance, if not in these pages than in discussions I’ve had, that the main reason voters in cities including here seem comfortable casting their ballots at the municipal level for, how to say this delicately, clowns, clowns, jokers, the inept and certifiably deranged, is because they believe that it doesn’t really matter. There’s this blind faith that regardless of what happens, no matter what shit we manage to cover ourselves with, there’s a safety net to break our fall. The province would never let us burn our playhouse down.

We are the junior level of government, the farm team if you will, the bush leagues. Expectations are low, so why not have some fun with it? Politics as performance art. Since there are no consequences, we can afford to take a flyer or two, an appliance salesman here, a blustering buffoon there. It’s not like it’ll make any difference to our lives, right?

As we’re slowly beginning to realize, that’s not in the least bit true. In fact, it’s downright misguided from where we’re standing. Municipal politics matters. A lot. But to scream for a lifeline now, to call for the cavalry only reinforces the already hardened preconception that we’re not responsible enough to take care of ourselves. That when push comes to shove, we’re happy to hand over responsibility to the adults in the room and let them sort through the mess we’ve created.

And even that’s more than a little galling. In terms of public transit in Toronto, we are hardly the chief culprits in the bind we’re in currently. Plenty of blame to go around, with Queen’s Park topping the list. I mean, hey. If cities are nothing more than creatures of the province than the province has to bear some of the burden in how we’ve turned out, right?

Imagine if you will, the Mike Harris government (and yeah, I’m looking hard at you, Councillor John Parker) not filling in the hole that had already been dug in Eglinton Avenue back in 1996. This whole above/below ground LRT battle would be moot. We might even already have a Sheppard subway extension! Or what if the McGuinty government had long since made good on its promise to re-upload it’s portion of the annual TTC  operating budget that their predecessors had wiped their hands clean of (again, I’m looking hard at  you, Councillor John Parker)? That’s hundreds of millions of dollars Toronto would’ve had in its coffers or been able to give to the TTC for expansion or state of good repairs. Maybe had Premier McGuinty not wavered back in the spring of 2010 and scaled back on some of the original Transit City plans, then candidate for mayor Rob Ford wouldn’t have seen it as negotiable. Maybe had Premier McGuinty not wavered again, this time in the face of a Mayor Rob Ford, and signed their Memorandum of Understanding, throwing all transit planning back up into the air.

These are the people Mr. Hume wants to take charge? Arguably the very architects of our transit disarray? What on earth will that accomplish?

Despite Mayor Ford’s continued intransigence, city council is getting a handle on the situation. Doddering patrician types like the National Post’s Terence Corcoran sniffs at the February 8th city council meeting that asserted council’s primacy over the mayor, calls a timeout and declares we should just start all over. Well you know what, Mr. Corcoran? Fuck you. Democracy’s messy.

If people would just accept the fact that Mayor Ford lost, that city council (re)approved the Transit City plans for the Eglinton and Finch LRTs, that in a sop thrown to the mayor, a panel will make recommendations about Sheppard Avenue next month, we could just get on with things. Ignore the petulant child jumping up and down, holding his breath and turning red in the face. It doesn’t matter. Paying attention to him only reinforces the grade school view of municipal politics.

As does asking the province to come in and sort our problems out. Ironically, it also puts the normally fierce critic of the mayor, Christopher Hume, on the same side as the man he so obviously loathes. You don’t think Mayor Ford would love to divest himself of public transit decisions? Here, take it and all the related costs. Then we can just bitch and moan if it doesn’t work out to our liking, blameless. Take our traditional place in the backseat, counting on our parents to get us to where we’re going and only asking over and over, are we there yet? Are we there yet?

We’re not but we also need to realize that dad’s handed us the keys to the car.

adultly submitted by Cityslikr


Time For A Little Game Of Chicken

September 30, 2011

Despite the divisive and highly acrimonious environment that has settled over council chambers at City Hall these days, through all the sniping and partisan hackery, there is one item that could easily muster the support of more than a 2/3s majority of councillors. This city is being severely short-changed financially by the two levels of senior government, and have been for going on 20 years now. It is not a situation unique to Toronto or other municipalities in this province. It’s happening nationally. Listen to Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi. It’s taking place in the United States. Witness Chicago’s budget battles.

The difference of opinion, however, arises over what exactly to do about it.

While many of the right leaning councillors acknowledge the problem, their solution seems to consist of shrugging their shoulders and saying, what are you gonna do. We’ve tried and tried with very little to show for it. Let’s move on. It doesn’t hurt that the lack of proper funding plays into their desire to shrink local government down to size. Any case they might make for a more sound fiscal arrangement between the city, the province and the federal government is undercut by the mayor’s refusal to stop claiming that we don’t have a revenue problem.

Still, they do have a point. Previous administrations have endeavoured to secure not only more money from Queen’s Park and Ottawa (in most cases, money they once provided) but also to establish a stable funding formula in order to move past the almost ad hoc, yearly struggles to balance our books. All to only limited success.

Moderate councillors suggest we keep on keeping on, nagging away at our deadbeat provincial and federal politician to do the right thing and start ponying up the cash they owe us. On Tuesday, Councillor Pam McConnell successfully put through a motion for the City Solicitor “…to report to the Executive Committee on the legal implications of the allocation, funding and downloading of Provincial responsibilities to municipalities including a comparison of how municipalities in other provinces have responded to provincial downloading pursuant to the British North America Act and the Constitution Act, 1982.” The BNA Act? Chortles were heard from the council floor. Or maybe that wasn’t chortling. Maybe it was the sound of straw clutching.

But why not seek legal counsel on this issue? We are, after all, legally bound as nothing more than ‘creatures of the province’. Doesn’t that entail a degree of responsibility on the province’s part to keep us properly fed and housed? Aren’t even the lowliest of creatures entitled to move about freely, outside the cage of inadequate transit? (Yeah, I went there.)

Yes, yes, yes. Of course, go about your quixotic tilt. Councillor MacConnell’s motion passed 39-6, with only the mayor and some of his hardest core supporters voting against as well as.. what? Councillor Josh Matlow? What up with that, Councillor?

(Nope.. nope.. Do not get distracted by the curious case of Councillor Josh Matlow’s centrism. That’s… another post entirely.)

In any case, that’s more long term thinking. What about the here and now? Dire warnings rang out over the course of the meeting’s two days that if we could not get our fiscal house in order, if we could not come to some sort of agreement between service cuts and tax hikes, if we could not balance our budget as we were legally mandated to do, as we have every year previously, well, provincial caretakers would swoop down from their perch at Queen’s Park and do it for us. Oh, the shame! Oh, the horror!

You know what? Sometimes I think we should just dare the province to do it. One budget year, we just simply acknowledge that we have not been given the proper tools to do the job adequately and that instead of inflicting damage upon the city and the people living within it, we choose instead not to balance our books. Like the other two levels of government do, we run an operating deficit.

And if the province has a problem with that, hey, come on down, folks. You try it. You get your hands dirty, slashing and burning. You take the heat from citizens outraged at tax hikes. Yeah. Not so easy, is it?

Maybe the time for playing nice has come and gone. Maybe it’s time to up the ante a little. To, I don’t know, start withholding any money we normally pass along in the form of HST payments. The feds owe us some back taxes? Queen’s Park has some outstanding fines? We’ll just take that off the cheque we’re cutting for you, shall we?

Now, as with any belligerence married to a woeful lack of understanding about the implications, ramifications or even possibility of such gestures, my suggestion comes with a Wikipedia-like citation needed. All I’m saying is that we start exploring different approaches to the dysfunctional manner of our relationship to the other levels of government. Playing nice, rolling over and hoping for a rub of the tummy and the occasional bone thrown our way is not proving to be the healthiest of methods. Been there. Done that. And the fucking t-shirt is about 3 sizes too small.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. A more aggressive approach may be in order. By any means necessary. It’s time we thought of ways to beat our federal and provincial representatives out from the bushes where they’ve been hiding, avoiding their responsibility. We need them to come to the table and negotiate not from a position of power but as equal partners. Asking politely hasn’t worked to date. We need to start demanding. To do that, we just might have to upset an applecart or two.

feistily submitted by Cityslikr


How About That Infrastructure Deficit?

June 20, 2011

Do you want to leave our grandchildren our deficit to deal with?

It is a mantra often sited by deficit hawks to guilt us into cutting government spending. An iteration of it was pronounced in the U.S. by former Senator Alan Simpson when he was appointed Republican deficit commissioner last year. “If you don’t want your grandkids picking grit with the chickens, better ignore soundbite politics and get lawmakers to find real solutions to the deficit,”  so said Simpson who seemed unaware of the irony of using a soundbite to criticize ‘soundbite politics’.

Two can play at that game, Senator Simpson. What if we plug one word into that phrase? Do you want to leave our grandchildren our infrastructure deficit to deal with? How does that change the equation?

I came across an article last week in my Kawartha.com via the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. In it was a laundry list of infrastructure needs for Ontario cities, towns and communities that amounted to $100 billion of unfunded ‘unrepaired and unbuilt’ infrastructure according to the provincial government’s own estimates. “… delaying upgrades means higher costs in the long run,” according to the FCM’s Gabriel Miller.

‘Higher costs in the long run’. Try using that phrase with fiscal conservatives and watch their heads explode. We don’t have the money, they’ll yowl. But if we don’t find the money now it will end up costing more later. Thus, the infrastructure deficit is born.

What’s doubly interesting in this debate is that it is not simply we here in ‘tax and spend’ Toronto facing such a dilemma. Places big and small, conservative and liberal are under similar pressures. According to myKawartha, every Toronto resident would have to pay more than $1,000 extra on their property tax bill to deal with its infrastructure gap while residents of wee places like Prince Edward County and Perth face closer to $2,000 per person. Even the Fords’ favourite frugal city, Mississauga, is looking at nearly $450 million of debt in the next decade needed to fund infrastructure projects.

Clearly, it is a situation beyond the control of municipalities to deal with on their own. The revenue tools necessary to grapple with it are not at their disposal. So the internecine, right-left battles we’re now witnessing here at city council are fruitless. We can slash and burn all we want but we’ll still have an infrastructure deficit. Probably even more so. Since our ability to generate more revenue is severely limited, neither can we tax our way to better infrastructure health because the costs would be too unbearable for most households to carry. Although claiming we are over-taxed as a way to cut and freeze taxes is fallacious at best, highly destructive at worst.

This is a fight that needs to be re-directed at so-called ‘senior’ levels of government. Their coffers are where our tax money goes (90%+ by most estimates). They, both Liberal and Conservative, have been the laggards on this issue, dating back to the 1980s. For the past 3 decades, successive federal and provincial governments have been able to ignore this coming perfect infrastructure storm as it manifests itself mostly at the local level. Disintegrating roads and sewer systems. Dilapidated community centres. Diminishing social housing.

In fact, one could argue that both Ottawa and Queen’s Park have attempted to balance their books on the backs of cities. We need to start calling them out on that. Municipal politicians who don’t are simply doing the dirty work of their provincial and federal masters. They are the ones burdening our grandchildren with an infrastructure deficit and should be judged accordingly.

judgmentally submitted by Cityslikr


If We’re Not Going To Take Ourselves Seriously

June 1, 2011

Friends and family often question my obsession with municipal politics. While recognizing its importance in the operation of our city, they express serious reservations about the cast of characters involved.

“Municipal politicians are clowns,” I’ve heard said. “Buffoons. Bush League. The B-Team.”

In part, I think such a dismissive view just comes with the territory. Municipal politicians oversee mundane but vital matters. Sewage, snow plowing, parking, pot hole filling. It all lacks a little nobility. Like sending off soldiers to die in faraway lands.

There’s also a degree of over-abundance, let’s call it. A problem of perception. Here in Toronto, for every 1 MPP or MP, there are 2 city councillors. So there are double the chances of experiencing clownish behaviour and buffoonery.

That said, it’s very difficult to ignore the fact that Toronto, especially since amalgamation, has flirted, courted and indulged in some very heavy petting with political folly. If Mayor Ford actually serves out one term (pending campaign financing audit), 10 of our first 17 years as a mighty megacity could, and very likely will be, deemed as an abject failure to take ourselves seriously. We’re all adults. How could we not foresee the consequences of our actions and realize that no good would come from the mayoralties of Mel Lastman and Rob Ford?

So yes. There are times, too — too many times it feels like — when following the municipal politics scene can only be viewed as a mug’s game. Rubber-neckin’ at a car wreck. Assistant coaching your kid’s t-ball team and your kid is the worst player on the team.

Why bother? Just step aside and let the big boys use the field.

Such a Bad News Bears moment played out last week when federal Finance Minister and Ford family friend Jim Flaherty came to town to last week to take part in the groundbreaking or another piece in the Waterfront Toronto development, Underpass Park. “This is transformative,” Flaherty pronounced. “It’s important not just for Toronto, but for Canada.”

Not just for Toronto. But for Canada.

Or as the mayor’s brother, Councillor Doug, has said, ‘a boondoggle.’ In fact, he wrote off all of Waterfront Toronto as “… the biggest boondoggle the feds, the province and the city has ever done.

The Fords seem unable to toss up anything besides lifeless hanging curve balls about belt high for other politicians with even a modicum of ability with the stick to go yard with. It’s not even fun to watch. Switching sports analogies, remember the teachers-students rugby match in Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’? Just like that.

Even with his fresh majority win in last month’s election and a minor Conservative breakthrough in Toronto itself, it’s hard to imagine the Finance Minister taking his late friend’s sons out to the woodshed on this. But maybe there was a bull session over son beers and nachos at the family compound. “A boondoggle?!” Flaherty exclaims. “A boondoggle!? I’ll give you a boondoggle. How about a cool $35 billion for engineless fighter jets? I know my boondoggles, boys. Waterfront Toronto ain’t one of them.”

The Finance Minster along with the local MPP and city councillor then head off to witness the start of this transformative piece of waterfront real estate. The mayor and his brother are AWOL. Like the mayor has been for every Waterfront Toronto meeting he has supposed to attend as a sitting member of the board. As a councillor, he wasn’t a big fan either of the city’s involvement with the waterfront, voting against approval for private investment near the Sherbourne Common late last year. (h/t to Ford For Toronto for all the links. We swim in the beneficence of your knowledge pool.)

It takes some doing for someone to make this Conservative government seem like city builders or deep urban thinkers. Yet somehow we’ve elected that very person and his equally blinkered and terminally short-sighted brother as our dynamic duo mayors. What does that say about us, as citizens, taxpayers, residents of Toronto? That we don’t care about how this city grows and develops as long as it doesn’t cost us too much? Or are we just cognizant of the fact that it hardly matters who we elect municipally? Ultimate power doesn’t lie with us or our locally elected officials. So why not just go for the entertainment value and send in the clowns. There’s only so much damage they can inflict before the adults step in and sort the mess out.

Such a condescending view, with correspondingly low expectations for municipal politicians, invariably leads to candidates seeking only to limbo under the low bar and nothing more. High fliers and over-achievers need not apply. As Homer Simpson once said, ‘trying is the first step to failing.’ Municipal politics is only for those who dare not to dream big or are merely content to take marching orders from their betters.It may be fun to watch for a little while but like any Punch and Judy show, the spectacle grows dismal and dreary. Humour is replaced by cruelty, and you’re left wondering why the hell you continue to watch.

clownishly submitted by Urban Sophisticat