So, I’m having a quiet conversation the other day with a painter friend of mine, Donald… actually, my friend’s not a painter and his name isn’t Donald. But we were having a quiet conversation the other day.
City councillors have been pretending to practice austerity and delivering at-or-below inflationary property tax increases for about a decade, while roughly maintaining services. They’ve increased some revenues, mostly through fees like transit fares. But otherwise, they’ve relied on the booming real estate market and finite help from the provincial government to keep things going.
Mayor Tory and his council allies are also continuing to trot out the shop worn claim that taxes and other revenue streams are unnecessary or unbecoming, even, until we bear down and squeeze out every last drop of inefficiency there is to be found especially in the operating budget. Until such a time as there is shown to be absolutely no waste, or gravy as the previous guy called it, talk of new revenue will remain theoretical. This, of course, is an impossibly high goal to set which, as we’ve probably suggested before, may well be the whole point of such a futile exercise.
Bringing me to my quiet conversation with my friend the other day.
Of course there are still efficiencies to be found. No one has ever said otherwise. Here’s an example right here in a Toronto Star article from Thursday by David Rider, Audit finds waste inCity of Toronto cleaning services. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain a year,” according to the Auditor General.
There you go. Although, I must point out that it’s also not good news for champions of contracting out services, like Mayor Tory, who like to tell us that the private sector, by its very nature, brings about efficiencies and automatically saves us money. Still. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Get ‘er done.
Now, here’s the meat of the conversation between my not-Donald-the-painter friend of mine and me. Hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Hell, let’s call it a million bucks. Unless the auditor general or whoever else finds 50, 75, 100, 200 of those kind of examples of waste and inefficiencies, we still won’t have enough money to maintain the current services and programs we have, never mind anything new. This is what Mayor Tory’s been told by two consecutive city managers now. Efficiencies for sure but not just efficiencies. It’s not going to be enough.
Moreover, I said to my friend, I said, It’s put up or shut up time for these efficiencies fiends. You claim there’s still lots of efficiencies to be found, find them. Find them and bring them to the budget table. No more vague generalities and focus grouped catchphrases involving sides and dressings.
Anyone who’s followed along with the budget process the last 6 years or so will recognize the approach of the various self-proclaimed fiscal hawks we elect to city council. Pre-determine the property tax rate to give yourself a pretty good idea of what that year’s operating budget will be and then force anyone proposing new spending to make a deduction somewhere else in the budget. An offset, it’s called. This is how much we’re spending. It’s all zero sum after that.
How be this time around, anyone coming to the budget proceedings saying we have to find efficiencies, needs to bring said efficiencies to the table. You don’t want to raise the property tax rate above the rate of inflation? Find the efficiency offset. 1% property tax increase equals roughly $24 million for the city. Before you start talking about 2% or 4% or 5% cuts to budgets, you need to show some $48 or $96 or $120 million in efficiencies found.
Because across the board budget cuts are not the same thing as finding efficiencies. If we’re going to start talking about ‘unprecedented’ and ‘devastating’ cuts, as Nickle suggests some might be, the onus needs to be placed squarely on those pushing them under the banner of finding efficiencies. We must demand specifics, details down to the penny. Show us the efficiencies found, show us the money.
Otherwise, you’re just proposing cuts for cutting’s sake, and that’s something else entirely. That’s just ideology. That’s a completely different conversation.
Please bear with me if my initial points are a little blurry and all the thoughts not strung together in any sort of coherent fashion. No, Sue-Ann Levy is not ghost writing this post. It’s just that I’ve been banging my head repeatedly against the wall, trying to figure out the general m’eh attitude toward Mayor Ford using his own family printing business, Deco Labels and Tags, to whip up he and his staff a batch of gold embossed business cards.
What part of ‘The Mayor Using His Family Business To Print Business Cards’ doesn’t immediately scream ‘Wrong!’ to everyone? I don’t care if he’s been judicious in not sole sourcing the job out or if he paid fair market value for the order or..or..or.. whatever other flimsy justification he, his brother and staff come up with. There’s a point at every council meeting I’ve ever attended where councillors have to stand and declare ‘an interest’ in a particular item that’s coming up for debate. It’s short hand for ‘conflict of interest’, usually entailing some family member working for the department in question or ownership of a property that may benefit (or not) in a decision council is about to make. Declaring a conflict of interest.
So how can the mayor of Toronto using his family run business to print his business cards be anything other than a conflict of interest? How? How?? Oh. Councillor Minnan-Wong? You had something to say about the matter on The Agenda Monday night?
“But I can also tell you that if the mayor had his druthers about this that he would’ve just had Deco Labels do it for free and had it just delivered to City Hall. But the problem is there are other individuals at City Hall that don’t want him to have these free contributions made to save the taxpayers money for some reason beyond me that was made a few years ago. He would’ve just gone to Deco Labels, had them printed and had the city not be expensed at all. But city council won’t let him do it.”
Hmmm. ‘… other individuals at City that don’t want him to have these free contributions to the taxpayers money…’? Could one of those ‘other individuals’ be the city’s Auditor General, Jeffrey Griffiths? Or then Integrity Commissioner, David Mullan? Seems this practice of using his family business to outfit his office with supplies has been an ongoing concern since back in the early days of Mayor Ford’s time as a councillor. (h/t Edward Keenan whose dynamite article I’m just riffing on here). Turns out, it’s a force of habit that’s been frowned upon but Rob Ford just keeps plugging away at it. Somehow.
And yet the mayor’s council colleagues like Denzil Minnan-Wong, presumably without benefit of a similar family business to help him out around the office, can’t see what the problem is. It’s beyond him why anyone could object to Mayor Ford conducting his official business on his own or Deco Labels and Tags’ dime. (Can you say, `corporate donation`, Councillor Minnan-Wong?) Pish-posh. All’s fair as long as it saves the taxpayers money.
Well councillor, if that’s the case, I say why stop at just measly business cards and letterhead? If it’s all about saving the taxpayers money, let’s try and hand the whole shooting’ match over to anyone who can afford it? Surely there’s got to be someone out there with $9 billion/year they’d be happy to part with in order to run the city. Be great if they could match that again to cover off some of our capital costs too. Then it wouldn’t cost us li’l taxpayers a thing to live in the city.
Never mind the darker implications of public service becoming only the domain of those who can afford it. What about oversight and accountability? Personally, I want to know what our elected officials spent and where the money came from. And frankly, I don’t care if the mayor wants some fancy business cards although I do have to agree with Mr. Keenan that coming from Rob Ford, it is a bit, errr, rich with a noxious whiff of hypocrisy to boot. We’re going with the cheapest bid in contracting out waste collection but not for our business cards? And trying to placate the situation with an ‘I’m paying for it out of my own pocket’ doesn’t cut it either. That money may have come out of your pocket but how exactly did it get in there in the first place? That’s the kind of thing I want kept above board and on the table for everyone to see.
Openness and transparency. That’s a concept Councillor Ford promised to usher in to City Hall if elected mayor. Yet, here he is, still playing fast and loose with his office expenses, maintaining ongoing business with his family firm, fighting off a Compliance Audit Committee request to look through his campaign financing books. It’s all so unseemly and smacks more of disrespect for the taxpayers.
I wanted this one to be positive, to sing with the upraised voice of a vibrant, participatory democracy. Citizens, not taxpayers or stakeholders or customers, taking time out of their schedules, out of their lives to engage with their elected local representatives. Volunteer members from the city’s various communities, be it cycling, pedestrian, tenant advocacy, aboriginal support, those whose hobby it is to restore the Don River… yes, while you and I spend our free time on the Twitter or however else it is you spend your free time (but doesn’t everybody spend all their free time on the Twitter?)… there are dedicated groups of people who go and pitch in to help bring the Don River and its immediate surroundings back to life. All coming together to have their say in how business is being conducted at City Hall.
At issue yesterday (among other items) was a staff report from the City Manager brought before the mayor’s Executive Committee recommending the dissolution, decommissioning or reconsidering of 21 of the city’s 23 citizen advisory and working committees. “Advisory bodies are generally composed of a combination of Council members and members of the public. Working committees are composed solely of Council members to assist Council and its standing committees to accomplish specific tasks.” Now, this move is not out of the ordinary, as such committees are designated for the term of each council and these were from the previous term.
But the breadth of the suggested cuts and the lack of any replacement bodies gave the appearance that this administration isn’t all that concerned with citizen engagement. An administration dedicated, at least while the mayor was out on the campaign trail last year, to more transparency, more accountability, more respect for us, the taxpayers, Joe and Josephina Q. Public. Why the need to reduce the presence of citizen advisory committees? The report itself notes that there is no financial impact of this decision. So eliminating these committees wasn’t due to fiscal restraint although Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday has pointed out that there would be savings. “… [Citizen advisory committees] do cost something because we’re involving a lot of staff time that might be better off doing something else.” You see, it’s all about making the government ‘leaner’ according to the Deputy Mayor and apparently ‘leaner’ means less citizen involvement.
And nothing that happened at the committee meeting yesterday did much to dispel that notion. The room was packed for the meeting’s 9:30 start. Some 80 mailed submissions had been sent in from the public and there were over 40 deputants scheduled to speak. The first wrinkle came when the committee decided to deal with some other business first – the issue of the advisory councils was due up 3rd but Budget Chief Mike Del Grande asked for and got the votes to move an item with Section 37 benefits and development charges up. “We dealt with a couple of items we were told were going to be quick,” said Deputy Mayor Holyday, “and they weren’t.” He admitted that the move had been a mistake.
Now, I’m willing to give the Executive Committee the benefit of the doubt on this and not think they deliberately pushed back the item to take the wind out of the speakers’ sails. To make people wait and wait for their turn to be heard, perhaps a few of them with other things to do, other commitments, would be forced to leave before they had the opportunity to have their say. I’ll take the Deputy Mayor on word that that was not their intention. But it sure looked that way.
The quick items weren’t and the actual one that was scheduled to go before the advisory committee item, the Street Food Pilot Project, certainly didn’t wrap up swiftly which, frankly should’ve been expected. The fiasco that was the A La Cart program absolutely needs to be examined in depth to find out exactly what happened, how and if to compensate those who got caught up in excessive red tape and a not entirely well thought out process. This items shouldn’tve got short shrift and it didn’t.
By the time the committee took a break for lunch at 12:30, those still waiting to give their deputations on the advisory council item were told not to rush back, they probably wouldn’t be getting around to it until 3 p.m. 5 and a half hours after the meeting had started. Needless to say, there was some eye-rolling and grumbling in the crowd about intentions on the part of the committee to dampen their voices.
Those who did return after lunch or at 3, noticeably fewer than had left, discovered that estimate too was grossly off. There was more A La Cart discussions and then a timed item which had to dealt with before the committee could get the advisory council item. Which timed item, you ask? You’re going to love the double irony of this.
Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) – Response to Auditor General’s Report titled “Toronto Community Housing Corporation – Controls over Employee Expenses are Ineffective”.
That’s right. Now the Executive Committee had to hear from the Auditor General about the TCHC not 6 weeks, 2 months ago before the board was turfed, management dispatched and Case Otis installed as the supreme being. The urgency was all after the fact, long past when questionable decisions had been made.
The double irony? So urgent was this matter that the meeting had to be temporarily halted because there was no quorum. Yes, more than half of the Executive Committee were so desperate to hear what the Auditor General had to say about the TCHC spending scandal that they left the room. So speakers still present were further delayed as someone had to go off and drag an Executive Committee member back to the room to re-start the meeting.
Just before the stroke of 5, nearly 7 and a half hours after the meeting began, the first speaker to item EX 5.3 Council Advisory Bodies and Working Committees sat down in front of the Executive Committee.
Now, I am a cold-hearted bastard by nature. Very few things bring a tear to my eye or hope to my heart. There’s kittens and then there’s… yeah, kittens. That’s about it except when I witness plain, ordinary folk nervously take a seat in front of a group of politicians and civil servants just to let them know what they think. To get involved. To engage in the political process. It is a glorious thing to behold.
Yes, there were some smooth operators, lawyers and consultants among them, who were clearly comfortable in the spotlight. Those who had done this kind of thing before. But consider this. No one was there yesterday defending their piece of the pie. These were all people giving over their time and effort in hopes of persuading the Executive Committee to keep citizen advisory committees going on a volunteer basis. They weren’t asking for money. They were offering the city their help. For free.
People taking time off work to speak. People not at home to cook dinner for their family. People, in the words of one deputant, “… not against change” but who just “want to be a part of that change.”
I could go on at length but I’ll spare you my maudlin blubbering. The reception most of the speakers received was perfunctory at best. The members of the Executive Committee asked few questions, most of their attention turned to making sure enough of them were present to maintain a quorum. I don’t believe Councillors Mammoliti (probably off figuring ways to defund Pride) or Shiner were ever in the room during deputations. Councillor Kelly left early and Councillor Thompson, when he was present, spent most of it away from his chair talking to members of the press and the mayor’s staff. Citizen democracy wasn’t foremost in their minds.
Unsurprisingly, the City Manager’s report was passed and it will now be up to council to decide the fate of the advisory committees. It was a big fuck you to engaged citizens from the Ford administration. If you still believe that the mayor is listening to the little guy, you are clinically delusional.
Not all was doom and gloom, however. Just before the vote was held to adopt the staff report, after all the deputants had spoken, Councillor Jaye Robinson used her 5 minutes to speak to express concern about the details of the report. It was ‘light’, I believe she called it, meaning not fully thought out or explored. She then offered up a motion requesting a further review and exploration before proceeding with a decision. (Not being a journalist I’m scrambling to get a copy of the councillor’s motion. Will update as soon as I do.) This was significant for a couple reasons.
One, Councillor Robinson has not yet proven to be the most independent minded of councillors. A rookie on council, the perception so far has been that she operates under the mayor’s thumb, whipped into siding with him on important votes. That she offered up this motion running contrary to the mayor’s wishes at Executive Committee is a hopeful sign that she’s rankling under the weight.
And her motion last night was clearly flying in the face of what the mayor wanted. Once she put it forth, there was a behind the scenes scramble by the mayor’s staff, mainly Mark Towhey, the mayor’s Director of Policy and Strategic Planning. We watched as he coached Councillor Cesar Palacio (worth the price of admission itself) through an amendment to Robinson’s motion. But it didn’t appear to sit well, so the mayor called a quick recess where he huddled with the city clerk and some of this team. They came back, pulled Councillor Palacio’s amendment before going to a straight vote on Councillor Robinson’s motion.
It was defeated and the staff report was then passed as is but here’s the second significant point. The vote on Councillor Robinson’s motion was very close. Again, my non-journalist roots are showing through and I don’t have the exact numbers (will update when I get them) but I believe the vote went 6-4 against the motion. At the Executive Committee. The mayor’s handpicked team that, to date, has basically served as a rubber stamp for whatever it is he wants to do. Special commendation needs to go out not only to Councillor Robinson but also Councillors Denzil Minnan-Wong and Peter Milczyn (two of my least favourite councillors) who both stood firm in the face of the mayor’s icy stare in voting for Robinson’s motion.If there is this kind of split showing at the Executive Committee level, then the fissures under pressure for the mayor’s wider coalition at council must be immense. A close watch should be held on this item as it goes to council next month. If the mayor doesn’t have his way, it may be an indication that he simply can’t bully his agenda through and might be forced to start resorting to such tactics as negotiation and compromise, neither of which is his strong suit.
So maybe out of the ashes of yesterday’s Executive Committee soiling of civic engagement will come a new found democratic spirit at City Hall. Or at least, the autocratic tendency that Mayor Ford has displayed since coming to office will be just that much more difficult to wield effectively. If so, active citizen engagement will have played a large role in bringing that about.