It Couldn’tve Worked Out Any Better

March 24, 2011

If he were alive today, think of what a proud papa Mike Harris would be of the municipal government in Toronto that he sired. Maybe he’s smiling down beatifically from Heaven upon his progeny and all the conservative goodness he helped wrought… Mike Harris is dead, right?

(Sorry. Can never passed up the opportunity to pilfer that bit from Stephen Colbert. A few years back, he joked about something that would have ‘Lou Dobbs rolling over in his grave.’ He then turned to ask his crew, ‘Dobbs is dead, right’?)

I was thinking of this as I read through an article Ben Bergen linked to from 1998. Megacity: Globalization and Governance in Toronto by Graham Todd in Studies in Political Economy. Of the many reasons the Harris Tories rammed through Bill 103 in the face of widespread opposition to it throughout the entire 6 cities facing amalgamation, one was particularly nefarious if highly speculative and largely restricted to the old city of Toronto and the borough of East York. It suggested that the neo-conservative Harris was looking to smother the more liberal downtown tendencies under a stuffed suburban pillow that was more closely aligned to his politics. Such thinking gained a degree of legitimacy when the mayor of North York, Mel Lastman, defeated Barbara Hall, Toronto’s final mayor, in the first election of the new megacity.

Now a third administration in and it’s interesting to note that the mayor and his most trusted advisor, Councillor Doug, are from Etobicoke. The Deputy Mayor is one Doug Holyday, the last mayor of pre-amalgamated Etobicoke. The Council Speaker is Frances Nunziata, the last mayor of pre-amalgamated York. The Executive Committee is made up entirely of suburban councillors save Cesar Palacio whose downtown ward butts up against suburban York. A certain pattern emerges regardless of how intentional.

Of course, if we want to dwell on the damage inflicted upon this city, both downtown and suburban, by the ill-thought out amalgamation, there would be worse examples than those currently at the helm. Not a whole lot worse, mind you. But most definitely worse.

To lay the blame for our current fiscal crisis solely on the profligacy of the Miller administration, to spuriously point to the big budgetary numbers that grew during his 7 years in office as even the moderate councillor, Josh Matlow, did on Newstalk 1010 last Sunday, as proof positive of waste and gravy at City Hall, is to suggest that only what happens in the last two years or so matter. It denies history, really, or at least, your grasp of it. Or it suggests you’re just an ideologue.

The provincial Tory view of the reduction of costs through an increase in efficiency with amalgamation was suspect to many from the very beginning of the exercise. (Enid Slack, current Director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, wrote back in the early days of amalgamation: “It is highly unlikely, however, that the amalgamation will lead to cost savings. On the contrary, it is more likely that costs will increase.”) Most studies since have backed that view up.

In fact, how the Tories went about amalgamating flew in the face of the neo-liberal world view they were espousing. “Flexible forms of governance,” Todd writes, “it is thought, are more consistent with the reality of and necessity for competitive, export-oriented, knowledge-based, whiz-bang approaches to economic development.” So the Harris government replaced 6 smaller municipalities with 1 big, lumbering behemoth and claimed that it would be somehow more efficient? More cost effective? They seemed to have mistaken having fewer local governments for flexibility.

Or maybe they were just using a different definition of the word ‘flexible’. Todd suggests in the paper that unlike previous municipal governance reforms that had intended “…to consolidate the role of local government and the public sector in regulating development…”, the 1998 amalgamation was intended to do just the opposite. It was never about dollars and cents. That was simply a red herring to make the process more palatable. There was still going to be the same number of people demanding the same level of services whether they came from 6 governments or one. At some point of time, economies of scale simply don’t work.

It was all about control of how the city functioned. One government over a wider area was politically more pliable, flexible if you will, and easier to deal with than six. There were more differences of opinions, a wider area of dissension to exploit. Imaginary savings were offered up in exchange for the keys to City Halls. By the time we realized that, what were we going to do, de-amalgamate?

Add to this loss of local control and inevitable rise in costs of running a bigger city, there was that whole downloading/offloading of services onto Ontario municipalities by the provincial government. Cities told to cough up portions “… of provincially mandated social services such as social assistance, public health care, child care, homes for the aged, social housing, disability and drug benefits”. Some, I repeat some, of which have been uploaded back to the provincial government, slowly and on their time line. A $3.3 billion gap according to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario estimated back in 2007.

Of course let’s not forget the de-funding of their half of the TTC annual operating budget that the Harris Government undertook and that has never been reassumed by Dalton McGuinty. Call it $200 million/year that Toronto property taxes must come up with. Add to that the hundreds of millions of dollars foregone by Mel Lastman during his property tax freeze during his first term. A brilliant fiscal move copied by our new mayor on his first budget cycle, along with eliminating the vehicle registration tax and any other form of revenue generation the province had given the city with the City of Toronto Act. No, no. We don’t want that on our hands. We didn’t ask for that responsibility.

Instead, we’ll blame the last administration for our financial woes. We’ll blame the lazy unions and other special interest groups that are looking for handouts. The Gravy Train has stopped, haven’t you heard. The time has come to privatize anything that isn’t nailed down. Sell off lucrative assets too if we have to. Maybe even if we don’t. Everything is on the table.

Yeah, it’s hard not to view our new mayor as the inevitable outcome of decisions made nearly 15 years ago. The offspring, the love child of our former premier. Too bad Mr. Harris didn’t live long enough to see the success his political son had become.

condolencely submitted by Cityslikr


Our Liberal Media Bias

March 21, 2011

At the risk of revealing myself to be a downtown pinko elitist (ha, ha), I have to ask the question: who the fuck listens to AM radio? Outside of sports fans, that is, and I think it is sports coverage sensibilities that define the presentational style of the whole band. Strongly held opinions expressed vehemently, often times with little to no evidence backing up said opinions and rarely rising above the level of You Suck/They Suck.

I ask because I found myself yesterday afternoon listening to Councillor Josh Matlow’s regular 1 hour spot on Newstalk 1010’s Sundays with John Downs. As we have written here previously, the good councillor from Ward 22 is an intriguing new face at City Hall, bright, articulate and, as of yet, politically amorphous. He comes across progressive minded when he speaks on all the various platforms he has, and he has a lot of platforms especially for a new councillor. Yet when he votes, he more often than not falls in line behind the mayor’s agenda. Slippery or open to compromise? An opportunist or pragmatist? Time will tell.

This dichotomy was on display as Councillor Matlow took to the airwaves to question the $3 million on offer for outside consultants to come in and uncover all the wasteful spending that Mayor Ford as a candidate claimed he could easily find on his own. There were systems already in place at City Hall, according to Matlow, like the Auditor-General looking into spending like it had at TCHC. Handing over an extra $3 million to have another entity do what could be done for a fraction of that price smacked a little like the gravy the mayor was so intent on eliminating.

So far, so good but this thought was bandied about in the midst of jokes about crazy councillor spending, the TCHC ‘scandal’ and Councillor Matlow’s pronouncement that Mayor Ford was right about one thing. The city’s budget did balloon under David Miller. End stop. The intimation being that it ballooned because of wasteful spending. No other explanation need be discussed although there are plenty of other plausible, laudable reasons even, why the budget numbers rose. (h/t Ben Bergen.)

Councillor Matlow was able to appear that he was critiquing the mayor while accepting whole-heartedly the narrative framework that there was plenty of gravy still flowing at City Hall. Commence the slow clap. Well played, Mr. Matlow. Well played indeed.

More than that, however, my concern is, if John Downs gives over an hour of his show per week to talk to a councillor, why just Josh Matlow? Why not throw it open to all comers? For a diversity of opinion, from the far right to the far left and all points in between. Let Toronto (or at least the portion of Toronto who spends their Sundays listening to AM radio) hear a whole range of views.

Unless, of course, that isn’t your intent. Unless what you’re really trying to do is narrow the debate so it ranges from A all the way to B. But why would a media outlet do that? It makes no business sense, limiting your audience reach like that, undercutting any possible growth…

Yeah, yeah. I’m being facetious. Liberal Media Bias? What Liberal Media Bias? Point me to all those leftie councillors with their own outlet to deliver their thoughts on the goings on at City Hall? Where can I get my weekly dose of Janet Davis, Gord Perks or Shelley Carroll? Adam Vaughan used to be a television journalist. You’d think his former employers over at CityTV would jump at the chance to give him 30 minutes a week to opine on the state of municipal affairs. Remember before he was mayor, how Rob Ford had his regular spot over on 680 with John (Johnny to his good friends) Oakley?

And before you start screeching about George Smitherman and the $1billion eHealthscandalexcessivelyhighenergycosts and all the other offal you involuntarily vomit up every time his name is mentioned, for those of us actually over here on the left, the George Smitherman who ran for mayor was never one of us. The fact that Newstalk gave him a show is akin to Fox News hiring former Indiana senator Evan Bayh, arguably one of the most conservative Democrats ever to serve the party since the collapse of the Dixie Democrats way back when. Empty proof of their objectivity as they claim to deliver news and information from both ends of the political spectrum.

No, it seems when it comes to how they spend their Sunday afternoons, left leaning councillors can only hope to listen to the radio not have their own shows on it. Or, like Councillor Joe Mihevc, they can go out into the community and talk to people, face-to-face, as they did in the old days before the advent of new-fangled contraptions like the wireless. After enduring an interminable hour with John Downs and friend, I wandered up to catch Councillor Mihevc talk about “City and citizens…How the city sees its citizens and how citizens perceive its city. How do we talk to each other? What counts?”

Me, 10 other people and the councillor in the community gallery at the Wychwood Barns for the third of four scheduled St. Clair Salon Sundays. Not the glamour (or reach) of AM radio but an actual give-and-take between engaged community members and their elected representative. I have to admit, I’ve never found Councillor Mihevc to be a forceful speaker at council meetings and the like but one-on-one, up close and personal, he really is quite charming, thoughtful, gracious and well-spoken.

And passionate. Especially about transit. Councillor Mihevc didn’t give up his Sunday afternoon for self-promotion or to score political points. He sat down with a small group and led a discussion on how to encourage further citizen participation beyond just voting. “Deepening democracy,” Mihevc called it. We didn’t solve that particular equation but it’s reassuring to know that there 10 people out there who think that it’s an important enough issue, that of voter/civic apathy, to come out on a brisk weekend day and discuss it with other like-minded people. *Cliché Alert! Cliché Alert!* What’s that saying about big things starting with small groups? No, seriously. What is it? I can’t remember.I know Councillor Matlow isn’t purely a media hog and he too goes out into the community. I know this because he never fails to tell me that’s what he’s doing.  And this isn’t intended as a slag of him. Entirely. Councillor Matlow bad, Councillor Mihevc good. It’s just that for every active, hands-on engagement with citizens Councillor Matlow does, he undercuts it by participating in the pretense of informed dialogue that is AM talk radio. You can’t be fully informed if you’re only hearing one half of the debate.

submitted by Cityslikr