Happy Birthday, Dear Councillor

August 11, 2011

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.

HB greetingly submitted by Cityslikr


Our Summer Farce

July 24, 2011

(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.)

*  *  *

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.

resubmitted by Cityslikr


Core Services Review Review Two

July 12, 2011

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.

Phee-ew!

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.

Oh, the city we would have.

matter of factly submitted by Cityslikr


Our Rose-Coloured Glasses

April 14, 2011

Having taken the last few days off and away from the local scene, I’ve returned with a new thing in mind. Instead of reacting to every seemingly insane utterance and idea that emerges from the mayor, his kin or administration’s various mouthpieces with immediate shock, dismay and/or heart-stopping rage, I’m going to look for the silver lining. My assumption is not going to reactively be: what the fuck is he/they thinking/doing!? No. I’ll take a deep breath, set down the rock in my hand and careful weight the pros and cons of the matter at hand. Serenity Now.

For instance, yesterday’s news about a recommendation to shut down 21 of the 23 citizen advisory committees. My old self would’ve immediately sprang up in outrage and pointed out that this was just another example of Mayor Ford reneging on a campaign promise of more openness and transparency, showing absolute no respect for the taxpayer whatsoever. How could eliminating citizen access to city staff be in any way, shape or form transparent or open?

That would be the old me. The new me however spots a subtle sign of genius in it. A boldly counter-intuitive move not to simply increase citizen/taxpayer/customer/stakeholder input but to foist responsibility entirely onto their laps. You want to talk cycling strategy? Go ahead. Talk amongst yourselves. City Hall’s no longer in the listening business.

The previous administration was accused of only pretending to listen to its citizens. It would go through the motions of openness and transparency before proceeding with whatever it was intending on doing in the first place. Mayor Ford and his team are proposing to do away with that middle step altogether. They’re going to drop the pretense. Save everyone the time and aggravation.

So citizens can get together, draw up plans and strategies, all without the bother of talking to City Hall first. Instead, and I’m a little fuzzy on how this next step will work, they assemble some sort of package, let’s call it a business plan as that’s more in line with the current administrations thinking on things, and… call the mayor? “Hey, Your Honour. A few of us taxpayers met up, hashed out some details and we’ve got this thing we’d like to talk over with you. You said we could call anytime, day or night.”

Or maybe, and here’s where the genius in the mayor’s scheme may lie, citizens/taxpayers/customers/stakeholders wouldn’t have to talk to anyone at City Hall at all in the future. If you look at the plan of eliminating citizen advisory committees from a different angle, it’s all about complete freedom. Not only is the Ford administration offering to do away with government consultation, perhaps it’s thinking of eliminating government entirely. Just do it. Don’t talk about it. Don’t advise. Just. Do. It. Democracy unfettered by oppressive government intervention.

This isn’t neo-conservatism, folks. Hell, it’s even moved beyond Ayn Randian Libertarianism. We’re talking Anarchy, with a capital A.

This line of thinking would certainly be in synch with brother Doug’s musings on waterfront development. “You don’t subsidize the most valuable property in Canada to the tune of $10-million an acre,” Councillor Ford said. “You let the private sector buy it and let them develop it. We can control it. We can say we want a round building here and a square one here. We can control it but we don’t spend 1.5 billion dollars in tax dollars when everyone’s feeling pressure. It’s just common sense.”

Common sense, indeed. We all remember how great the waterfront was pre-Waterfront Toronto 2001, before the government went and got its nose in how the private sector was so ably and magnificently doing business down there. Let’s relive the 1980s glory days.

Replace ‘private sector’ with ‘private citizen/taxpayer/customer/stakeholder’ and you get the same general gist of how things would work without the unnecessary bureaucracy of advisory committees. Have citizens/taxpayers/customers/stakeholders come up with ideas about bike paths, say, or a youth program or public art installation on their own and all the city says is ‘make it round’ or ‘make it ‘square’. Done and done, and we’re off to the races.

In trying to see the world through the mayor’s eyes, I’m starting to realize that the only thing standing between an active and inactive citizenry is government itself. Its intrusive presence is nothing but an impediment to our participation in how things are done around here. The less we depend on government, the more freedom we will experience. Let’s not stop at eliminating just citizen advisory committees. Dream bigger. Imagine the freedom we’d have if we got rid of City Hall itself.

look at me I’m Sandra Deely submitted by Cityslikr


D.C. Photo Album

April 12, 2011

Yesterday Washington DC mayor Vincent Gray, six councillors and over 30 others were arrested (no, not for doing crack) protesting restrictions that will be imposed on the city with the budget deal struck last week that averted a federal government shutdown. It is the oldest of American traditions, agitating against taxation without representation. Moreover, it represents the problem facing most urban centres throughout North America. Senior levels of government playing political football with municipalities. A more detailed post on that to follow but first…

Photos of our trip!

A little Canadiana along the way to the Capital

Taken from the top balcony of the Newseum, a relatively new site in DC, situated beside the Canadian Embassy on Pennslyvania Avenue. A building dedicated to the quaint notions of the positive contribution made by the field and journalism and the importance of free speech. Crazy, eh?

A bike sharing program, Capital Bikeshare, is up and going in DC. While I wouldn’t say bike lanes are everywhere on city streets, where they are is pretty cool.

Imagine the 1st green president, with a bone to pick with congress, jumps on his bike share bike and rides straight up to the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue right to Capital Hill.

Hotel Harrington. Home of the Kitcheteria. What the hell’s a ‘Kitcheteria’? Part cafeteria, part ironic embrace of cheese?

And finally, who doesn’t love lion cubs?

Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals alike can agree on at least this one thing. Those cubs are adorable!

swooningly submitted by Cityslikr


Not So Much Where You Live

November 16, 2010

Leisurely making my way through Jeb Brugmann’s Welcome to the Urban Revolution when the concept of “city consumers versus trained urban citizens” stopped me up. Three weeks after the election that made Rob Ford Toronto’s mayor-elect and with much chatter about the divide revealed by his win, here to me was an idea that transcended mere geography. Could this be an insight into the core political sensibilities of the two camps?

Anybody who’s been following along with the post-election analysis knows of the downtown core/inner suburb, old city of Toronto/other places that weren’t Toronto but are now divide. We examined Edward Keenan’s article about here last week. Marcus Gee did as well over the weekend in the Globe and Mail although he failed to cite Mr. Keenan as his primary source material. The general consensus is that there were enough exceptions to prove the rule that it was suburban Toronto alienation from City Hall over the past 7 years that led them to vote for Rob Ford in droves while downtowners thought anyone voting for Ford was an idiot.

Here’s another take on it. “City consumers versus trained urban citizens.” Rob Ford supporters, regardless of where they live, think of the city only as far as what it gives to them personally. A place to live and work. Getting between those two places easily and safely is of primary importance and should be the main thrust of what a municipal government does. Pave the roads. Fix the streetlights. Clean the streets of garbage, both literal and figurative. Do it as cheaply as you can especially in the short run. Almost anything beyond that is simply ‘The Gravy Train’.

Trained urban citizens, on the other hand, see the city not so much as a set place on a map (that’s GPS to you city consumers reading along) but more as an entity that morphs along with its residents. The city extends beyond our backyard or office lunchroom or driver’s seat. It is a collective organism living and dying by the actions of those who are a part of it. What makes a city truly livable is when a majority of decisions made, from the corridors of City Hall right down to even personal ones, have a net positive effect on a majority of its citizens. An impossible goal to achieve, perhaps, but a better one to aim for than simply an every man for himself free-for-all.

There are more than a handful of credible theories about the origins and development of cities. At the core of each of them, however, is the inherent social nature of the human species. Push comes to shove, we basically like to hang out with each other. Arguably, we need to hang out with each other. Not everybody, of course. There will always be that one neighbour in the apartment above you who cannot get enough of Bon Jovi at top volume. Or the couple across the street who don’t think they have to clean up after their dog that makes a habit of pooping on your front lawn. But overall, we thrive and prosper with positive interconnectivity at all levels of our lives, and that is made much more possible when more of us have the opportunity at that positive interconnectivity.

That’s why 53% of eligible voters in Toronto didn’t vote for Rob Ford. Cities seldom flourish with short term solutions. Rob Ford is all about short term solutions appealing to our least likeable and most anti-social trait. What’s in it for me?

So, the upcoming battles that will be waged at City Hall won’t be fought along where you live lines although, clearly, the maps suggest they will be. No, it’s going to be about the overlap between what some think is best for themselves and what others see as being best for the city. Streetcars versus buses? Green initiatives? More cops at the expense of social services cuts? No longer mere campaign slogans, these are now items that very well may be put on the table for debate. You know, the whole ‘Vision Thing’ that was raised and summarily dismissed during the election race. An approach to city building that goes beyond the end of our own laneways, neighbourhoods and even outside ward boundaries.

That is the difference between trained urban citizens and city consumers. It isn’t just about my house or my bike lane. It’s our community, our roadway. A vital difference in the general well-being of any city, and one that must be overcome if this whole notion of an amalgamated Toronto is to work for everyone who chooses to call it home.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


Toss Us A Bone, George

October 19, 2010

So it seems George Smitherman has unveiled the final act of his storybook – no, wait – Grimm Brothers march to the mayoralty. Rather than an uplifting coda, singing to us all about his plans to make Toronto a better place, he goes subterranean, pointing out the monster waiting under the bed if we don’t vote for him, appealing to our basest trait, fear. The picture perfect, logical conclusion to the most cold-blooded, calculating campaign in recent memory.

The Smitherman ploy? To hammer at the lingering progressive voters who haven’t yet jumped ship over at the Joe Pantalone camp, not with incentives or positive reasons as to why they should switch allegiance to Team Smitherman but because if they don’t… if they don’t… Mayor Rob Ford! Oogliebooglie!! And if that scary, scary scenario comes to pass, well, it’ll be everybody’s fault who didn’t vote for George. George’ll just be some innocent bystander. He told us so.

The man is kicking sand in our faces, people. He’s taunting us, brazenly running on a resolutely right wing platform and telling us that we over here on the left side of the political spectrum have no choice but to vote for him. Why? Because he’s not Rob Ford. That is the very definition of a deal with the devil.

Take Smitherman’s latest poke to the eye of progressives when he dropped by for a quick cup of coffee at last night’s 519 Community Centre debate. When asked if he supported safe injection sites, he rejected them out of hand, suggesting that he “…wasn’t convinced of its merits.” The former Minister of Health for Ontario isn’t convinced of the merits of safe injection sites?! You know who else isn’t convinced of the merits of safe injections sites, George? Rob Ford. And he’s an idiot.

If this were just an aberration or odd tic in Smitherman’s otherwise moderate campaign (and at this point, I’m not looking for anything more radical than moderate), it could be overlooked. Harm reduction is contentious. But it simply further tilts his candidacy further right into Ford Country.

A Pantalone-prone exaggeration? Smitherman’s proposed a one year tax freeze if elected. A tax freeze in the middle of a supposed financial crunch? You know who else loved to freeze taxes? Mel Lastman. He’s proposed to cut about 1300 jobs from City Hall (while increasing police numbers by 50 which would be half the number Rob Ford promises) through attrition while increasing service to the city’s citizens through the magical neo-conservative way of defying common sense. Less workers = more service. His transit plans are fuzzy at best, both bashing Transit City while expropriating most of it with minor tweaks to call it his own. And mysteriously, he’ll pull in a cool $100 mil from the province to chip into the TTC’s operating costs although he’s been castigating Pantalone and the current administration for always going to the province, cap in hand. Oh yeah, and he’s pledged a “time out on construction of new bike lanes on arterial roadways.”

George Smitherman has shown very little progressive tendencies during this campaign but since Rob Ford has shown none that somehow justifies Smitherman asking, no, demanding, our vote. Well, you know what? Fuck you, George. It’s going to take a lot more than scare tactics to pry my vote away.

So instead of meekly handing over our franchise simply because we’re frightened (and call it ‘strategic’), how be we demand at least a little quid pro quo? We don’t have to ask for the complete capitulation from George that he’s asking from us. Just a morsel. A tidbit. Throw us a bone, George, because simply campaigning on being less bad than Rob Ford isn’t going to do it.

How about something like this?

We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke vow to at least think about voting for George Smitherman if he pledges to adhere to the recommendations that emerge from the panel he promises to convene if elected, headed by John Sewell, to look into “restoring local decision-making and local democracy.” It ain’t much as we notice that he explicitly doesn’t mention ballot or voting reform and hems everything in by stating any recommendation cannot increase spending at City Hall. But, it’s something we could hold on to; to help rationalize and justify, even a little, to ourselves that by giving over our vote to such a despicable and disagreeable candidate, we weren’t completely selling our souls out of childish fear.

If every progressive voter who hadn’t yet gone over to the dark side demanded just one thing – a proper bike lane rethink, no increase to the police budget, a realistic transit plan – from George and all his minions out there, rustling up the scare, then at least we’d have something, an unwritten pact with the man. And if elected, he began to stray and ignore what he once promised to us, we would have a common cause, uniting us in dedication to chasing him from office in 2014. Progressives who’d sold out and bitter centrists, working together in a sweet sounding coalition called Anybody But George.

— defiantly submitted by Cityslikr