A little Wikipedia bird tells me that today is Councillor Norm Kelly’s 70th birthday. Three Score and Ten. Happy Birthday, councillor, and many happy returns.
On this auspicious occasion, may I offer you more than just simple birthday wishes? How about some helpful birthday advice.
I am not one for enforced retirement based on some arbitrary age. Many senior citizens flourish in their golden years, their accumulated wisdom brought to bear on the problems, joys and complexity that is our modern life. Dotage is not for them. It is a youthful sprint to the proverbial finish line.
But for some octogenarians minus ten, I imagine, it would be good to step back from the fray, from the hurly burly, to a more gentle period of reflection, assessment. To bounce grandchildren on your knee, spoil them rotten, fill them full of sugar before sending them back to their parents, secretly loving the hassle it will cause to those who hassled you way back when. To hop in that Winnebago and drive to places you’d never been able to visit before. To write that book you’ve always been meaning to write.
Doesn’t that all sound so very, very appealing, Councillor Kelly? So much more relaxing then spending your time, desperately trying to stay on top of what’s going on at City Hall.
I know there’s still another 3 years or so before your term is up, and there’s so much more work to be done, so much more you have to offer the city, bike lanes to install and then to uninstall. Systemic indebtedness that needs to be wrestled to the ground with wildly ineffective slashing of discretionary budgets. But today is the first day of the rest of your life, councillor. Maybe it’s time to turn that page, begin a new chapter. Rest on whatever laurels you may’ve accumulated over all those years of public service.
And no one says you have to step out from the limelight. Look at your old colleague Case Ootes. ‘Retirement’ is working well for him.You don’t have to make a decision now. Just tell me you’ll think about it before you blow out the candles on your birthday cake. Make it your wish. Sometimes birthday wishes do come true.
(Since summer is the season for repeats, a rebroadcast of our post at the Torontoist, looking at the Core Services Review of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. Re-enjoy.)
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The good news emerging from yesterday’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee meeting was that there was no last minute, duplicitous motion put forward by any of the mayor’s men to derail or erase projects in other councillors’ wards. In May, Councillor David Shiner (Ward 24, Willowdale) nixed the Fort York bridge, pulling the rug from out under Councillor Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina). Last month, it was Councillor John Parker (Ward 26, Don Valley West) blindsiding Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) with the news that plans were afoot to remove the Jarvis bike lanes.
The bad news, however, was three-fold.
First, the KPMG core services review report was revealed to be wholly unsatisfactory in addressing our alleged budget crisis. Under questioning from committee members, councillors Layton and Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park), as well as visting (i.e. non-committee member) councillors like Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East) and Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina), the report and its corporate authors (along with City staff) went limp. It quickly became clear just how narrow the report actually is, offering only the broadest strokes of possible “savings opportunities” (a.k.a. cuts), with little to no examination of the impact or implications of taking such opportunities. (For instance, the health impacts—and subsequent economic burdens—of rolling back fluoridation in the water or scaling back environmental programs were not included in the report that recommended those cuts.) The validity of the report’s comparative analysis with other cities came under question too. Aside from size, why Melbourne, Australia? An entirely different beast, structurally and governmentally; where were the instructive comparisons? And why were no other municipalities in Ontario examined in the report? They suffer under the exact same provincial handcuffs as Toronto does. Wouldn’t that be more helpful?
Even worse was how the subject of waste diversion was handled. The report clearly ignored key relevant numbers—such as the amount of money the city receives from recycling, which brings down the actual cost to us of collection—in assessing the financial benefits of potential cuts. Additionally, KPMG’s suggestion that our target rates were too ambitious was questioned by a deputant who claimed, in fact, the city of Toronto lagged behind almost ever other municipality in the GTA and was still below a proposed provincial target of 60 per cent.
Such deficiencies just begin to scratch the surface of the problems with the KPMG report. After nearly eight hours of listening to presentations, deputations, questions, and answers, it was hard not to come to the conclusion that the report is little more than a big ol’ softball for the mayor to hammer for extra bases. Big, scary cuts will be dangled out at us with no intention of ever implementing them, so that other cuts will actually happen and we’ll all breathe a heavy sigh of relief, telling ourselves that, well, it could’ve been a whole lot worse.
Bringing us to problem number two. The right wing on the Public Works Committee doesn’t give a shit about any of that. To a man (and they were all men) they couldn’t have looked less interested in yesterday’s proceedings if they’d pulled out blankies and pillows and taken a nap right on their desks. At one point of time, three of them—councillors Grimes (Ward 6, Etobicoke-Lakeshore), Parker, and Shiner—left the room entirely, bringing things to a halt due to a lack of quorum. The questions they asked of staff, KPMG, and deputants were few and far between. Committee chair Denzil Minnan-Wong’s (Ward 34, Don Valley East) sole purpose, it seemed, was to run interference for staff and the KPMG representatives when the line of questioning from other councillors got a little too aggressive or demanding.
All of which leads to the third and most damning problem of the committee meeting. After all was said and done—reports given, deputations made, questions asked—the councillors on Public Works voted to punt the report to the stacked-with-mayoral-allies Executive Committee. Except for seeking further information on snow removal (a big item in places like Shiner’s North York ward), street cleaning, and water fluoridation, the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee decided to make no decisions or even recommendations on the KPMG report, leaving it entirely in the hands of Mayor Ford and his executive. It is a move that will quite likely get repeated at every committee meeting over the course of the next 10 days or so. There will be much posturing and posing, ignoring of deputations, blowing smoke and spinning narrative, sound and fury signifying nothing, only to have each and every decision handed meekly over to the mayor to deal with as he sees fit. A complete and utter abrogation of responsibility by the majority members of the City’s standing committees.
Perhaps, that’s overly harsh. Maybe it’s a gambit on some councillors’ part to try and make the mayor show his hand, to be the first to go on record saying what he wants cut. Either way, it seems that the committees are telling us that tough decisions have to be made. Just not by them.
Imagine if Mayor Ford and his Merry Band of Yes Men spent nearly the time and energy managing reality as they do trying to wrestle it into submission. Or conversely, simply came out and honestly said, this is how we see things and this is what we’re going to do about it. We’d either have a functioning city council or they all would’ve been blown out of the water last October and, well, we’d have a functioning city council.
Instead we have the circus side show that was yesterday’s unveiling of the outside consultant group KPMG’s assessment of the city’s core services review. First up, Public Works. If I’m understanding it correctly, this one was a complete and utter waste of time and money, examining services 96% of which “… are core municipal services, either mandatory as a result of provincial legislative requirements or essential to the continued operation of the City as an urban area.” In other words that MC Hammer sang, can’t touch this.
Even if council were willing or able to enact all the cuts KPMG offered up as options, it would amount to a whopping grand total of $10-15 million according to the Torontoist. Take that, next year’s $774 million operating budget shortfall. You’ve been reduced a whopping 1.93%. A hill of beans is what I’m suggesting.
Dutifully, like an organ-grinder’s pair of monkeys, Budget Chief Del Grande and Public Works and Infrastructure Committee chair Minnan-Wong performed at the press conference ‘technical briefing’ in the mayor’s continued absence, blowing smoke for media consumption, in turns embracing and distancing themselves from the report. Cherry picking, some might say. Jettisoning water fluoridation probably wasn’t on the table, according to Councillor Minnan-Wong but, hey, even if the city scaled back work on cycling infrastructure, they’d still be doing more than the previous administration ever did. So we should rest easy in the knowledge that if we’re knocked down off our bikes and smash in our teeth, they will have been perfectly healthy teeth.
When reporters started asking questions, Minnan-Wong ratcheted up the double-speak to even greater heights. Hearing that a majority of people involved in the core services review consultation process expressed a preference for paying higher taxes in order to maintain current services, the councillor pronounced such views statistically invalid because those participating were ‘self-selected’. I’m not up on my statistic-ese but isn’t everyone who chooses to take part in the online surveys and public consultations ‘self-selected’?
In other words, they are active and engaged citizens. To hear the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee chair tell it, anyone choosing to participate in public consultations is self-selected and therefore statistically invalid. Bringing up that whole thorny issue of the usefulness of elections, I guess.
Not to be undone for sheer chutzpah in terms of ignoring the reality swirling around him the budget chief swung for the fences when he allowed himself to be quoted saying, “We have the lowest taxes in the GTA, with the greatest services provided.” I says, what now?! Can you run that by me again, Budget Chief To The Mayor Who Says We Don’t Have A Revenue Problem We Have A Spending Problem? We have the lowest taxes in the GTA and yet you voted to repeal the Vehicle Registration Tax and freeze property taxes right before starting to run around Chicken Little-ish warning us of an oncoming budget tsunami?
Don’t fear though, Councillor Del Grande assured the gathered media throng, he’s a chartered accountant. Leading one to assume that they let just about anybody into those professional schools including folks without a seeming grasp of basic arithmetic. Exactly what course is it that teaches cutting taxes and revenues doesn’t lead to some sort of budget crunch?
But apparently the budget chief, the PWI chair and all the others gathered around Mayor Ford are completely at home with cognitive dissonance. Commission a report that fundamentally undercuts everything you stand for politically, no problem. There’ll be the odd word or phrase or bullet point that, if spun correctly, will fully support your argument. Those you can’t? Pronounce them statistically invalid. Playing with facts is fun. Playing with reality is even better because it is what you make it and nobody can take it away from you. We have a spending problem, dammit. I don’t care what anybody says, even high-priced consultants we paid to tell us we have a spending problem and who may be suggesting that, in fact, we don’t.
The fun is only beginning, too. Carefully stage managed to present the more untouchable services first, the rollout is heading toward what’s thought of as the ‘soft’ services. The real source of gravy like libraries, parks, recreation, community centres, public transit. That way, the reality will be that they’ve got no choice. Their hands were tied by the province or political reality (you can’t be cutting sidewalk snow shoveling in your Ford Nation base) in Public Works and the other ‘hard services’. So sorry, folks. You can always sit around Chapters when we close your library branch on the Sundays.
From a strategy point of view, it’s nothing short of top notch. Tactical shock and awe, dropping the possibility of big ticket cuts first that you have no plans whatsoever of enacting. So when you take them off the table, it’s greeted with a sigh of relief and we’re then prepared to accept cuts to easier targets. Bike lanes. Libraries. After school programs.
You know, the usual suspects.
Just imagine, though, the possibilities if such PR ingenuity was put into something actually concrete, beneficial, constructive.