Yes, Virginia. There Are Still Back Room Boys.

I’m not one who goes in for the dark, smoky backroom conspiracies, where doughy white guys meet up to plot their evil plans and machinations to control every aspect of our lives. backroomTammany Hall’s a historic relic, smashed to bits by forces of reform and enlightenment. It’s the 21st-century, baby. Everything’s on the up-and-up. One person, one vote.

So you’ll have to excuse me if I gave short-shrift to this bit of backroom, doughy white guy display of sheer entitlement earlier this year in Calgary. As Lisa Geddes of Global News describes it, “Cal Wenzel, the founder of Shane Homes, presents developers and home builders with his plan to control city council by backing development-friendly candidates.” Damn you, liberal elite, nanny staters and your no-smoking laws! The ambiance demanded to be smoke-filled!

The secretly videoed speech caught people’s attention and subsequently mired the supposedly non-partisan Manning Institute in some icky political goo. But even the most cursory of glances at the news about next Monday’s municipal election in Calgary shows that the back room musings of a small group of men have become front-and-centre campaign issues despite the controversy. tammanhall1The man himself, Preston Manning, hasn’t exactly shied away from displaying how his bread got buttered.

From a non-Calgarian perspective, there are a couple real eye-poppers from this situation that we best pay attention to.

For starters, smaller council numbers are much more susceptible to capture by special interests, let’s call it. It’s just basic math. As Mr. Wenzel pointed out in the video, on a 15 member city council (including the mayor), you just need 8 votes to have your way. That’s a lot fewer campaigns you have to pitch in and help on, a much lighter stress on the pocket book.

Regardless of your political bent, picture Toronto, a city more than twice the size of Calgary, with 24 or 25 councillors. You’d need 13 to control the agenda. That’s basically the mayor’s Executive Committee. For those leaning right, David Miller’s Executive Committee. Those on the left? Rob Ford’s Executive Committee.

The future of 2.6 million people in the hands of 13 elected representatives and, perhaps, a shadowy group, organized enough with enough money to have put them in that position of power. It may seem all cleanly governable but hardly very accountable to the wider voting public.

Mull that over for a bit, and then tell me you still want to cut the number of city councillors in half. tammanyhallI just might have to suspect your democratic impulses.

While his interest in the subject might be for reasons diametrically opposite to mine, Cal Wenzel’s observations on the nature of municipal government I can certainly get behind, and it’s something I’ve been saying for a while now. Ultimately, the position of mayor doesn’t matter in terms of managing the policy direction council decides to follow. A mayor can set the table and write out place cards. A mayor can demand people sit where they’re supposed to sit. But a mayor can’t make anyone eat what’s been put in front of them.

The buck stops with council and whether or not a mayor gets behind the majority of his/her colleagues is inconsequential to the proper functioning of local government. It’s the key wards in any city that will determine the ultimate outcome of a municipal election. moneybagmanPiece together a working coalition and it will not matter who is wearing the chain of the mayor’s office. The blueprint has already been established.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Even easier with access to ready money and influential voices, especially those working around a singular, self-interested cause like pro-development. How do you unite around candidates representing a bigger, broader, more inclusive mandate?

Well, I would start by seeking out people who don’t use or respond well to this kind of language and thinking. “On our side or not…” “Done a really good job for us.” “There are some at city council who are totally out of control.” “As long as we have votes swinging our way…” “Unless we get somebody in there that’s on our side …”

It smacks of empire building not city building. A circling of the wagons and shrinking of consensus. Stunted democracy.

We need candidates not vetted in back rooms. Candidates who are well known in community centres and as part of tenants, residents, neighbourhood and business associations. widercommunityWe need candidates who represent communities not individuals or individual interests.

They’re out there. We have to start looking, and we have to start looking soon. Our election is just over a year away. Rest assured and rest uneasily that there’s already meetings like Cal Wenzel’s happening around the city. The 2014 election is being plotted and many of us remain on the sidelines.

alarmedly submitted by Cityslikr

Time For A Little Game Of Chicken

Despite the divisive and highly acrimonious environment that has settled over council chambers at City Hall these days, through all the sniping and partisan hackery, there is one item that could easily muster the support of more than a 2/3s majority of councillors. This city is being severely short-changed financially by the two levels of senior government, and have been for going on 20 years now. It is not a situation unique to Toronto or other municipalities in this province. It’s happening nationally. Listen to Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi. It’s taking place in the United States. Witness Chicago’s budget battles.

The difference of opinion, however, arises over what exactly to do about it.

While many of the right leaning councillors acknowledge the problem, their solution seems to consist of shrugging their shoulders and saying, what are you gonna do. We’ve tried and tried with very little to show for it. Let’s move on. It doesn’t hurt that the lack of proper funding plays into their desire to shrink local government down to size. Any case they might make for a more sound fiscal arrangement between the city, the province and the federal government is undercut by the mayor’s refusal to stop claiming that we don’t have a revenue problem.

Still, they do have a point. Previous administrations have endeavoured to secure not only more money from Queen’s Park and Ottawa (in most cases, money they once provided) but also to establish a stable funding formula in order to move past the almost ad hoc, yearly struggles to balance our books. All to only limited success.

Moderate councillors suggest we keep on keeping on, nagging away at our deadbeat provincial and federal politician to do the right thing and start ponying up the cash they owe us. On Tuesday, Councillor Pam McConnell successfully put through a motion for the City Solicitor “…to report to the Executive Committee on the legal implications of the allocation, funding and downloading of Provincial responsibilities to municipalities including a comparison of how municipalities in other provinces have responded to provincial downloading pursuant to the British North America Act and the Constitution Act, 1982.” The BNA Act? Chortles were heard from the council floor. Or maybe that wasn’t chortling. Maybe it was the sound of straw clutching.

But why not seek legal counsel on this issue? We are, after all, legally bound as nothing more than ‘creatures of the province’. Doesn’t that entail a degree of responsibility on the province’s part to keep us properly fed and housed? Aren’t even the lowliest of creatures entitled to move about freely, outside the cage of inadequate transit? (Yeah, I went there.)

Yes, yes, yes. Of course, go about your quixotic tilt. Councillor MacConnell’s motion passed 39-6, with only the mayor and some of his hardest core supporters voting against as well as.. what? Councillor Josh Matlow? What up with that, Councillor?

(Nope.. nope.. Do not get distracted by the curious case of Councillor Josh Matlow’s centrism. That’s… another post entirely.)

In any case, that’s more long term thinking. What about the here and now? Dire warnings rang out over the course of the meeting’s two days that if we could not get our fiscal house in order, if we could not come to some sort of agreement between service cuts and tax hikes, if we could not balance our budget as we were legally mandated to do, as we have every year previously, well, provincial caretakers would swoop down from their perch at Queen’s Park and do it for us. Oh, the shame! Oh, the horror!

You know what? Sometimes I think we should just dare the province to do it. One budget year, we just simply acknowledge that we have not been given the proper tools to do the job adequately and that instead of inflicting damage upon the city and the people living within it, we choose instead not to balance our books. Like the other two levels of government do, we run an operating deficit.

And if the province has a problem with that, hey, come on down, folks. You try it. You get your hands dirty, slashing and burning. You take the heat from citizens outraged at tax hikes. Yeah. Not so easy, is it?

Maybe the time for playing nice has come and gone. Maybe it’s time to up the ante a little. To, I don’t know, start withholding any money we normally pass along in the form of HST payments. The feds owe us some back taxes? Queen’s Park has some outstanding fines? We’ll just take that off the cheque we’re cutting for you, shall we?

Now, as with any belligerence married to a woeful lack of understanding about the implications, ramifications or even possibility of such gestures, my suggestion comes with a Wikipedia-like citation needed. All I’m saying is that we start exploring different approaches to the dysfunctional manner of our relationship to the other levels of government. Playing nice, rolling over and hoping for a rub of the tummy and the occasional bone thrown our way is not proving to be the healthiest of methods. Been there. Done that. And the fucking t-shirt is about 3 sizes too small.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. A more aggressive approach may be in order. By any means necessary. It’s time we thought of ways to beat our federal and provincial representatives out from the bushes where they’ve been hiding, avoiding their responsibility. We need them to come to the table and negotiate not from a position of power but as equal partners. Asking politely hasn’t worked to date. We need to start demanding. To do that, we just might have to upset an applecart or two.

feistily submitted by Cityslikr

The Short Drive From Etobicoke To Brampton

Fealty to ideology above all else.

What other explanation is there for Mayor Rob Ford finally wading into the federal campaign to endorse Stephen Harper?

“Folks, so many people said: ‘Rob, why are you getting involved, you’re supposed to be non-political,’” said Ford at a Tory rally in Brampton last night. Umm, what? Who ever told the mayor he should be non-political during the federal campaign? In fact, there was an early push to get him to speak up for urban issues like the mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, was doing. I think what Mayor Ford is mixing up is political with partisan. But that’s pretty well par for the course.

The bigger question though is what the fuck the mayor was doing endorsing Harper in Brampton? I know that in his part of Etobicoke area codes may be 416 but hearts and minds pine for the 905. As Matt Elliott pointed yesterday in Ford For Toronto, Conservatives in 905 “… seem crazy for Rob Ford and the “stop the gravy train” stuff…”. (Think the line in Sweet Home Alabama, ‘In Birmingham they love the guv-ner’ and sing ‘In 905 they love the may-yore’. Kind of creepily fits, doesn’t it?) And federal Conservative hopes are pinned in ridings in that part of the GTA, so it makes sense from their end to have Mayor Ford pimping for them. What exactly does the mayor get in return, though?

So the Conservatives snag some suburban seats, enough even to secure a majority government, and if Mayor Ford is seen to have assisted in it, how is that going to help the city of Toronto? Newly installed 905 MPs, working for a government that has no urban agenda, are going to expend political capital fighting to help an NDP orange/Liberal red Toronto? I see a whole world of animosity not co-operation.

Maybe the mayor does too and that’s part of the motivation on his part to get involved. More anti-government crusading conservatives at the levers of power help create a wave of anti-tax and spending. Hey. If the federal government isn’t going to help out with social housing or immigration settlement costs, there’s nothing we can do. My heart bleeds for you but my hands are tied, folks.

Ideological thinking 1, city issues 0.

And if the mayor’s magic doesn’t work in the 905 like it did last fall in 416, and Ford Nation fails to sweep through the greater GTA? Well, no harm, no foul. I’m mean, he’s the mayor of Toronto after all not Brampton or Mississauga. He pitched in to help, even in the face of giving his own city the finger. So you can’t say he didn’t try.

Which may explain why the mayor didn’t insist on the Conservative leader coming right into town, at least once during the campaign. (A sidebar, yer honour? Wouldn’t you be a little offended if, as a mayor of a city, either offering up help or being asked for help during an election, and you didn’t even get the courtesy of a visit to your city? Might you not take that as a slight?) With apparently a couple seats in play here in Toronto, including Eglinton-Lawrence and right on the mayor’s turf of Etobicoke Centre, you’d think Mayor Ford would rally the troops there, in the alleged heart of Ford Nation. Imagine the coup of handing even one 416 seat to the Conservatives. How could that not count as a solid with expectations for an I Owe You One?

That’s the best case scenario for the mayor however, although perhaps not for the citizens of Toronto. Imagine the possible horror that might be inflicted upon us with a newly elected Stephen Harper owing Mayor Ford a favour. But what if the mayor threw his support for Harper at a gathering in his own backyard and didn’t deliver the goods on election day? The vaunted Ford Nation was powerless to turn the town Conservative blue. Might that be a sign that the Nation is no longer so vaunted? That maybe the mayor’s victory last fall wasn’t so much a trend as it was a one-off; a fluke of timing and circumstance rather than a country embracing its far-right, conservative roots.

Publicly backing the Conservatives right here in Toronto and having voters in the city ignore him might take a little swagger out of the mayor’s step and the mayor is nothing without his swagger. He couldn’t risk losing that but somehow still couldn’t refrain from stepping from the sidelines and wading into the federal fray despite there being no discernible upside for the city he purports to lead. The important takeaway message from that is to realize exactly where Mayor Ford’s interests lay. It’s all about self not about city.

Alabambaly submitted by Cityslikr