City Staff — Just Doing Their Job

City staff.

Is there a faceless group more vilified and/or acclaimed by our elected representatives? Entrenched, intractable obstructionists to some on some days. Bringers of light, knowledge and wisdom to others on other days. And vice versa.

It must be a special breed of person to climb the ranks of the city staff, so to speak. Able to set aside their personal political beliefs to provide nonpartisan service to the city. To cater to whim and ignorance if necessary but help forward thinking ideas take flight when they appear, mirage-like above the rough and tumble of business as usual. Ignored and extolled in unequal measure.

I sat thinking about this during Tuesday’s city council debate on garbage privatization. City staff littered the periphery of council floor, responding to the grilling from various councillors. Some of it amicable, some of it, not so much. They were there to answer questions about the report recommending privatizing residential garbage collection in District 2. Defenders of the privatization faith on this particular day.

What they weren’t defending, however, was the mayor. That’s not their job. While it may seem like that’s what they were doing, they were only assuming the position that, in short, stated that privatizing waste collection in one of the city’s four districts would save the city $8 million. It just so happened that’s also what the mayor believes. Interests intersect.

Now, how they arrived at that conclusion is another matter entirely. I’d imagine it all depended on how the request was framed. If a mayor, say, one of a more curious and open minded sort, went to staff and asked more along the lines of, You know, I’ve been wondering about this whole privatization of garbage collection thingie. Do you think you could crunch some numbers and let me know if it would save the city money or not?, city staff might’ve been defending something quite different on Tuesday.

Somehow, and I’m only guessing here, Mayor Ford didn’t pose the question quite like that. Having campaigned hard on the theory that privatization would save the city money, $49 million/year citywide was the going rate last year when the C.D. Howe Institute’s report was the baseline all the I’ll Smarten The City Up candidates were using, I believe it was, it’s hard to imagine, once elected, the mayor would then ask for a report that might challenge his assumption. The request probably sounded more like, The city’ll save money privatizing garbage. Show me how much. Bigger number, the better. And I need it yesterday.

We’re not talking about fudging figures here. It’s about best case scenarios and commencing from the jumping off point that knows cities save money by privatizing waste collection. There’s no nul hypothesis involved. A real scientific, rational approach would be trying to prove your hypothesis wrong. This was all about trying to prove a position right.

And remember, not long after assuming office, at a press conference Mayor Ford said he was looking for a 5% cut across all departments. If department heads couldn’t deliver those savings, the mayor intimated darkly, he’d find department heads that could. My thinking is, there’s not a lot of back-and-forth, give-and-take, brainstorming happening between city staff and the mayor’s office. I’m envisioning more of Scotty’s constant state of duress under his captain. “Damn it, Jim! I’m an engineer not a doctor. We’re already at warp speed 10,000. The magic chrysalids won’t hold. Oh my god, they’re disbanding the PTA!!!” (Yeah, I don’t know anything about Star Trek.)

My way or the highway, folks. I know a thousand people out there who would die to have your jobs. If you don’t like it, there’s the door.

When was the last time your boss came to you and dropped a big, steaming load of impossible on your desk and you just turned around and told him to go fuck himself? The mayor, having gone public with the fact he’s not going to abide with anyone not abiding by his wishes, asks/demands city staff for a report that accentuates the positives of garbage privatization. What are you going to do but eliminate the negative?

Now, many of us raised on the ‘Yes, Minister/Prime Minister’ franchise might love to think there is a scheming, conniving Sir Humphrey Appleby bureaucracy at work, undercutting the pols when their hubris calls for it and saving their asses as needed. Oh, if only life were exactly like TV. We’d all remain young, beautiful and hairless in all the right places.

Since it isn’t, let’s assume the work environment at City Hall is pretty much like work environments everywhere. A reflection of the dynamic at work between the boss and staff. It can be creative and vital with everyone asked for their input and expertise in pursuit of the best outcome possible. Or simply a one-way street, hierarchical in the extreme, demands made, desired results delivered. Staff doesn’t determine which scenario plays out. That’s the boss’s job.

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Trash Talk

Let’s talk some trash. Trash collection, that is. And that’ll be the last recycled pun (except for that one) we’ll use on the issue.As we hurdle toward the westward-ho garbage privatization debate set for city council next week, wouldn’t it be nice to have some solid facts and figures on the table in order for those who will ultimately make the decision to do so logically and with well grounded reasons for proceeding. Councillor Josh Matlow attempted to accomplish such a task on Tuesday night hosting a town hall meeting moderated by the ever moderate Steve Paikin of TVO fame. On one side was pro-privatization advocate and Public Works and Infrastructure Committee Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong. Hugh MacKenzie, economist and research associate at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, represented the anti-side of the equation.

Reading through accounts of the evening, it’s clear that no real consensus emerged. “Last night’s trash talk offered no clear answer on the garbage privatization debate, but one very popular moderator,” Carly Conway of the Torontoist tweeted yesterday. Hey. Maybe if we contract out trash collection to Steve Paikin, everyone might be happy! “It answered some questions for me and, frankly, left me with more questions than I came in here with,” Councillor Matlow told the Torontoist after the town hall.

It seems inconceivable to me that such an important issue that deals with not only a lot of money but peoples’ livelihoods couldn’t be a little more clear cut. Evidence must exist out there from towns and cities that have unloaded trash collection onto the private sector. Case studies, analysis, comparisons of before (privatization) and after, of places that have maintained public service. Metaviews, I guess, is what I’m thinking.

If I were an actual journalist or one of those people who aggregate and research such things, perhaps it might all become obvious which way to go. I’m not but I’m perfectly willing to read the work of someone who has done it. So far, however, such documents are few and far between, lost in a sea of studies all that can be easily shrugged off by opponents as tainted by self-interest or ideology. Unions will weigh in against privatization but they’re just looking after their own jobs, right? Try reading this instead from the National Solid Wastes Management Association, a ‘trade association that represents the private sector solid waste and recycling industry.’ Yeah, so they have no dog in this particular hunt, do they.

The field is awash in solid anecdotal evidence, frankly. For every Etobicoke that loves its privatized trash collection, there’s an Ottawa that has brought at least some of it back in-house after a brief private dalliance. (Interestingly, if I understand correctly, Ottawa re-publicked collection in the older downtown area of the city which is more analogous to the core of Toronto than Etobicoke is.) Like Tuesday’s townhall, neither side is able to deliver the knock-out blow that will sway a crowd to fully embracing its position.

Running with that boxing analogy, shouldn’t the advocates for garbage privatization have to win decisively like any challenger seeking to dislodge the established champion? If we’re going to take a leap of change purely for the possibility of saving money and improved service, the case for it needs to be nearly irrefutable. Yes, we’re going to save this much money. Yes, you’re going to be happier with the service. Guaranteed, to use the mayor’s TV pitchmen promise.

As the privatization pointman, Councillor Minnan-Wong has done nothing of the sort. His constant referencing to Etobicoke as an example for why the rest of the city should privatize is both unconvincing and, possibly, inapplicable. He assured the audience at Tuesday’s town hall that Etobicoke receives no more complaints about trash collection than the unprivatized parts of Toronto. No more complaints, Councillor? Shouldn’t we be aiming for fewer? He was unable to answer some important questions from the audience including gender equity hiring by private firms. When all else failed, the councillor claimed his job was not about social engineering.

Moreover, the savings he (and the rest of the pro-privatization crowd) talks about Etobicoke receiving may not work out in the rest of the city that is laid out in a far less orderly pattern. As we’ve discovered over and over again here in post-amalgamated Toronto, what’s good for Etobicoke may not be good for East York. Money saved in one former city may not be possible in another.

And the ever changing amount of savings should also serve as a yellow flag of caution. All throughout last year’s municipal campaign, pro-privatization candidates trumpeted the $49 million Toronto would save going private with their garbage collection as reported by the C.D. Howe Institute. Under closer scrutiny, that report’s methodology was called into question. Now we’re hearing $8 million/year west of Yonge. Or maybe $6 million. $2 million isn’t being ruled out. What’s next? Well actually, we’re not going to save any money doing this…

And frankly, if the likes of Councillor Doug Ford can blow off $7.8 million or the city pays to police officers for paid duty overseeing construction sites and the like (“Keep in mind [paid-duty costs represent] one-half of 1 per cent of the construction projects that we have to pay for,” the councillor said), where’s the reasoning for undertaking such a massive change of operation in collecting our garbage? What will his response be at next week’s council meeting when a fellow councillor points out that an $8 million saved privatizing garbage collection amounts to about 1% of the near $800 million shortfall the city’s facing? Blustery dismissiveness, I’m guessing.

With no firm or substantive savings to tout and the only improved customer service to point to is the assurance that privatization will mean no more garbage strikes like we saw in the summer of 2009, it’s hard to see this as anything but ideological. According to the Toronto Star’s David Rider, at Tuesday’s town hall meeting “Minnan-Wong said the contract would have ‘continuation of service’ provisions to ensure that, even if the contractors’ workers went on strike, the trash would get picked up in the privatized district.” In other words, in contracting out garbage collection, the city would insist that the winning bid include a provision that would bring in scabs to cross a picket line in the case of a strike, thereby rendering the power of collective bargaining null and void.

Huzzah! Questions linger about what if any savings taxpayers will see. We can’t say for sure if they’ll notice any difference in how their trash is collected. As continued innovation in recycling? Like Councillor Minnan-Wong has said, social engineering isn’t really our job. But we do know one thing. Privatization is going to stick it to the union. Guaranteed.Spite based policy making. In tough times, is there anything more satisfying?

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A Pattern Emerges

The threads of Mayor Rob Ford’s Toronto are starting to weave together and form a discernible pattern. Like those 3D Magic Eye posters that were all the rage back in the 80s, deciphering what exactly the thing is we’re looking at all depends on your perspective and ability (or willingness) to see behind the white noise. A simple mess of colours to some becomes a distinct shape to others.Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler snapped the above photo and posted it on Twitter last week. ‘Service reduction’ of bus routes should not be confused with ‘major service’ cuts that themselves are different from the No Service Cuts. Guaranteed. pledge Mayor Ford made on the campaign trail last year. Although it might be hard to tell the difference if you’re one of those people who depended on the night time and weekend runs of the 127 Davenport or 33 Forest Hill routes.

Done on the q.t. via posted notice, lost amidst the heavy din of a proposed 10 cent fare increase earlier during the budget process that the mayor and TTC chair Karen Stintz bravely beat back, it is the Ford way. Big noise trumpeting the cutting of taxes or freezing of fees followed by a wee peep of an announcement of a ‘service reduction’. If only a few folks are adversely affected does it really amount to a service cut? The tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it and all that.

Some, sensing the way the wind’s blowing in Ford Nation, have decided that the public sector is no longer the place to be. Take Geoff Rathbone, for example. The city’s General Manager of Solid Waste Management Services announced last week that he was stepping down from his post to take up the vice-president position of resource recovery for Progressive Waste Solutions.

Aside from being the 5th city manager to pack up and head out of Dodge since Mayor Ford came to power, Mr. Rathbone’s departure is also more than a little eye-brow raising since one of the last steps he took in his official capacity with the city was to author the report recommending privatizing a portion of Toronto’s garbage collection. His new employer will, in its position as “one of the country’s largest waste management firms,” in all likelihood make a serious bid on the contract that Mr. Rathbone has proposed. Admitting to the National Post that “… the timing of his departure ‘may not be perfect’ but ‘you can’t necessarily choose when opportunities come to you.’” May not be perfect? You think?

That’s not to question Mr. Rathbone’s credentials as he seems well liked and respected by councillors of all political stripes but the idea that this ‘opportunity’ arose coincidentally with the move toward privatization seems a little disingenuous and hard to swallow. While we’re assured the city’s integrity commissioner will keep everything above board, the fact that such a move is even considered legitimate should be of concern. We’re now outsourcing expertise for the benefit of the private sector with no real guarantee that we’ll see anything in return for it. Note the ever dwindling amount of savings privatizing garbage collection west of Yonge Street will give us. $6 million this week, down from $8 million last week, both wildly off the $49 million in savings claimed in a C.D. Howe report that pro-privatization proponents touted Toronto could save with city wide implementation.

We’re selling the city off by the pound with little benefit to show for it. So, it’s little wonder that managers like Geoff Rathbone are heading for the greener pastures of the private sector (made that much more green with the outsourcing public services). The city’s function will be nothing more than to provide customers for businesses.

The picture comes fully into focus with the news of Mayor Ford’s blank schedule pages. “Previously information had been given out,” said the mayor’s press secretary, [Adrienne Batra], “perhaps too much.” We had complaints in our office too, from citizens who met with mayor wondering ‘Why is my name on a very public calendar?’ So we have to take steps to ensure we protect people’s privacy.”“Why is my name on a very public calendar?” Perhaps because you’re meeting with the mayor. A mayor who campaigned hard against secretive, backroom deals. Now it’s none of our business who the mayor meets with. So much for accountability and Mayor Ford’s Respect for Taxpayers. All gone the way of No Service Cuts.

The Ford Nation. Reduced expectations, increasingly beholden to private interests and where no questions need be answered. A clear pattern of public de-servicing.

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