Disbelief Fatigue

September 20, 2012

What’s the best way to torpedo an out of town, largely benign, taxpayer funded business ‘trade mission’ taken by some elected representatives? Spend your decade+ time in politics railing about out of town taxpayer funded jaunts taken by elected representatives. It makes for some awkward questions before you even get to the airport.

No reasonable person living in a rational time would begrudge our politicians the opportunity to occasionally head out, meet and greet, talk and listen, move and shake with the wider world as part of their job description. Maybe it brings 100s of new jobs with it. Maybe different approaches to governance are hashed out. Or maybe it just lends itself to help develop a wider, broader perspective. Surely that can’t be bad.

As long as there are proper checks in place, guidelines to follow, transparency on offer so that we can be as sure as we ever can be about these things that propriety is being maintained and, for the most part, we are funding a work-related trip, have at it. Enjoy. Learn. Schmooze.

Nobody I take very seriously on these matters decried Mayor Ford’s Chicago trip this week. That is, until he tried to pretend it was somehow different from other trips members of city council take as part of doing the city’s business. That somehow this was different and new ground was being broken.

Or that it wasn’t costing taxpayers one dime or one red cent.

See, this is where the mayor does himself no favours, creates a mountain out of molehill and proceeds to overshadow any positives he may have been contributing. It also reveals, once again, his inability to see past his own nose, out beyond the bubble of his own life. What seems to be mounting evidence of a stunning lack of empathy.

He’s paying for the trip out of his own pocket therefore it’s costing the taxpayers nothing. What about city staff? Is he covering their trip as well? Are they? What about the eight councillors attending the trip with him?

Well, Councillor Michael Thompson made it pretty darn clear he wasn’t paying for the trip out of his own pocket. “It is important city business,” Councillor Peter Milczyn said, “so it is an allowable expense under the office expense policy that is how it is being paid for.” Councillor Michelle Berardinetti also expressed some doubt she’d be footing her bill on her own dime.

And they’re right!

If they’re traveling on legitimate business, if it’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs, the economy, the economy, the economy, if they’re working hard “…to promote trade between the City of Chicago and the City of Toronto,” as Councillor Thompson said, why the fuck should they have to pay for it? The idea is that we’d all benefit from that. So yeah. Submit your receipts and expense report and it’s all good.

Our rich mayor should not be the standard bearer for public service. Among the countless other reasons why, we don’t want to start demanding from those who seek elected office they pay for any and all on the job incidentals. It would restrict the field of candidates to a very small and, quite possibly, democratically undesirable segment of our population. Mitt Romney anyone?

And has anyone ever asked Mayor Ford, come tax time in late April, if he writes off all the work related costs he incurs as business expenses? It would make sense if he did. Perfectly legitimate. But, we have been told, there’s only one taxpayer, haven’t we?

It’s this constant twisting and turning of the truth that grows tiresome. The cognitive dissonance the mayor must operate under – official trips are gravy unless he goes on one of them – is now not just his to deal with. It’s ours. It’s afflicting not only our discourse but the running of the city.

In The Grid yesterday, Edward Keenan wrote about how Mayor Ford built his career on sweating the small stuff, “…pointing out penny-ante spending frivolities”. Councillor Rob Ford convinced us it was important enough to the city as a whole that we elected him mayor. His inability as mayor to cope with, let alone even understand or comprehend the bigger stuff, the defining issues like transit, public housing, the basic fundamentals of adhering to conflict of interest rules somehow gets framed as partisan gamesmanship. You just disagree with/are piling on the mayor because you’re [fill in the blank].

We’re living through some sort of political event horizon currently. Reality’s gravity is sucking all matter that’s been flimsily attached to misguided belief. I’m pretty sure I know which is which but the fact I’m not absolutely convinced makes me very nervous about how this is all going to turn out.

weighed downedly submitted by Cityslikr


We Really Going Down This Path?

March 29, 2012

Watching The Bottom Line segment last night on the CBC’s National a day before the federal budget was coming down and one of the panelists Patricia Croft said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the private sector experienced a serious recession a few years back and now it was time for the public sector to face its own recession.

???

So the divide is complete. Those not lapping it up at the public sector trough for these past 3, 4 years, the unlucky sods stuck toiling away heroically in the private sector trenches have seen tough times, buddy. They’ve endured while their lazy counterparts in government, most all unioned up, have been picking the pockets of hardworking taxpayers, living large on our dime.

Now it’s time for a little payback, err, comeuppance, I mean, yeah, OK, payback. Enough is enough. We all know what caused the recession. Wildly inflated public sector wages, benefits, pensions and sick days. Those damn teachers brought us to the edge of financial apocalypse! We demand restitution! We demand a day of reckoning!

It’s remarkable, really, just how effective this bait and switch has been performed. That all this government debt, from the federal right down to the municipal level, has been due to reckless spending out of the public purse. None of it came from a mania for slashing taxes or a lack of oversight of financial institution that believed in their own corrective powers and that greed was indeed good – bankers gone wild!

And here we are, anemically digging ourselves out from under the wreckage, no serious questions asked or answered about how we really got into this particular mess, and now it’s time to gut our way back to prosperity. Trust us, we’re instructed by the same people who led us off the cliff in the first place, this is how it’s done. Have we ever steered you wrong before?

We’ve asked this question more than a few times before but in light of this week’s budget madness it bears repeating. How exactly does it work, this cutting your way to growth? You keep wages stagnant, remove benefits, reduce pensions, making people more vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. They respond either by piling on more personal debt or tucking what money is left under a mattress. That expands the economy how exactly?

I don’t know why I even bother asking, frankly. No actual answer is ever forthcoming. We cut our debt and debt payments and, voila, there’s more money in the bank to spend on those things people really want. Except, point me to an example where that’s actually happened. Don’t talk to me about the Chretien/Martin Mid-90s Miracle where, in fact, the pain wasn’t short but sweet. Instead it was just passed along, downloaded if you will, to the provinces who, if they aren’t resource extracting the shit out of their economies, are mired down in debt and dislocation, themselves having offloaded as much of the fiscal difficulties onto their municipalities.

As Trish Hennessy pointed out earlier this week at Framed in Canada, this austerity model has so far proven to be hypothetical, illusory, nice and neat on the blackboard but not the proven panacea its adherents claim. With each cut and reduction Greece makes, more bailout money is needed to keep it from collapsing. Great Britain is travelling down a similar path. Austerity, along with its philosophical tax cut soul mate, aren’t really driving economies in the direction their proponents tout.

Rahm Emanuel, that staunch fiscal conservative according to Councillor Doug Ford, is looking at “a ‘major new infrastructure program’ to create tens of thousands of jobs across Chicago by ‘coordinating the revitalization of Chicago’s infrastructure.” What? Government spending in Chicago?! But Mayor Rahm. Everybody knows governments don’t create jobs. Governments just get in the way of the real job creators in the private sector. Unless they don’t.

Our friend Matt Elliott over at Ford For Toronto today wrote about how Mayor Ford should be luxuriating in the spotlight (our words not his) with his handling of Toronto’s labour situation. Deals signed with very little disruption so far, ‘phenomenal news’, according to the mayor, that gives the city flexibility. Flexibility to reduce the work force, to outsource jobs to the private sector, to start respecting the taxpayers.

No doubt this is exactly what Mayor Ford campaigned on, probably even more so than his promise to build subways. He was elected to bring unionized city workers to heel. Punch them in the face, bust their unions preferably. So that we would never have to endure the horrors of another summer garbage strike. Ever.

They need to get a taste of what the real world’s like out there. They need their own recession. Recovery starts from the bottom and our public workers haven’t hit there yet.

questioningly submitted by Cityslikr


Time For A Little Game Of Chicken

September 30, 2011

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


Boxstore Aesthetic

April 29, 2011

There’s not much I can add to the discussion about this week’s decision by the Public Works Committee to kill the Fort York pedestrian bridge that hasn’t been already said more fully and completely by Derek Flack at blogTO and Ford For Toronto’s Matt Elliott. Except maybe to introduce a new word to the English language. Derived from a combination of despair and anger that has become the prevalent mood here in Toronto during the Mayor Rob Ford era. Angair? Desger? Despanger? (Try it with a French pronunciation. Day-PAN-jay.)

How many times and ways can we talk about myopia and short-sightedness? Pennywise and poundfoolishness. The stunted notion of ‘core services’ being seen as little more than roads and sewers and not the wider, longer view of all round liveability.

That the public face of the move to kill the bridge is Councillor David Shiner comes as no surprise. He is part of the core group of Team Ford whose prime motivating factor seems to be, even more than simple political ideology, exacting revenge on anyone or anything from the Miller administration for excluding them from positions of power or influence. Once the mighty budget chief under Mel Lastman, Councillor Shiner was reduced to outsider status during the David Miller years, and somebody has to pay for that slight.

He couldn’t really have bagged a bigger prize, either, than the Fort York bridge. Not a big ticket item money-wise (less than the revenue the city won’t see from the decision to repeal the VRT), it was the baby of Ward 19’s former councillor and Miller’s Deputy Mayor, Joe Pantalone.  ‘An attack on taxpayers’, Councillor Shiner called the bridge and its ‘fancy’ design. Fancy’s the old way of doing things at City Hall. Austerity (in both mind and matter) is the new fancy.

What’s especially rich about Councillor Shiner’s demand for more financial accountability in somebody else’s ward is that he’s one of the beneficiaries of perhaps the biggest boondoggle… I mean, investment in future development… in recent memory:  the Sheppard subway line. Running through a bottom slice of his Ward 24, we have recently heard the councillor get up and defend the mayor’s plan to extend the subway, extolling ‘the subway to nowhere’’s contribution to a construction boom along its corridor. An argument some have made about the Fort York bridge. Its fancy design would help spur interesting investment around it much more than a Gardiner Expressway version of it might.

It’s also interesting to note that in justifying his decision Councillor Shiner said, “… just think about what that $23 million could do for bridge rehab, for road repair; think of the community centres it could fix up, of the children’s services and child care centres it could provide.” I believe that this is the same councillor who back a few months during the budget debate, grilled a representative from the Toronto Public Library about switching projects after money had been specifically allocated even if timelines and preparedness dictated a strategic change. Doesn’t his rationale about using possible savings from a scaled back version of the bridge on more pressing needs use the same kind of reasoning he dismissed on the part of TPL?

While I’m sure impossible to track, it would be interesting to see how much of any savings that might arise from a new, modified bridge construction Councillor Shriner will then fight to spend on infrastructure upgrades, community centres and child care. Colour me sceptical (which is more or less teal-like) that’ll be the case. Instead, I see whatever money there is being flushed down the sinkhole created by tax cuts and freezes, and the fundamental ill-will the conservative faction at City Hall bear toward generating revenue.

The fate of the Fort York bridge is the inevitable outcome that arises when politicians elected on a platform of respecting taxpayers not citizens gain power. There’s no bigger picture outside the bottom line. Why do anything special or fancy when it can be done for less money? Imagine the oodles of dough saved for Paris way back when if Napolean III told Baron Haussmann that his plans were all pretty and such but let’s scale it back a little, shall we. Why build a stage with a Frank Gehry proscenium arch (to use an example from one of the mayor’s favourite cities, Chicago) when a concrete band shell would work just as well?

despangerly submitted by Cityslikr


The President’s Man Goes Local

October 5, 2010

So Rahm Emanuel resigned his post as chief of staff to the most powerful position on the planet (after, that is, the top 5 places within the Chinese government structure) to run for the mayoralty of Chicago. This is a guy who served for three terms in the House of Representatives. He’s now running to be mayor of Chicago. A power broker inside the D.C. Beltway packs it in for what looks to be a rough ride of an election in the 3rd biggest city in America.

Does that strike anyone else as a step down a rung or two of the success ladder?

I mean, aren’t mayor positions simply consolation prizes for those without the goods to make it big at state/province or federal levels of government? It certainly seems to be the case here in Toronto during this particular campaign cycle. Also-rans and not-quite-good-enoughs battle it out for ultimate supremacy of this backwater burg we call home.

Yet, here’s arguably the meanest, nastiest and most successful backroom Democrat in recent memory heading out of Washington to try his luck running for the lowly position of mayor. Obviously it’s some sort of punishment being meted out for the crime of pushing President Obama too far to the middle. Yeah, thanks for all your help, Rahm. How be you just run along now and try your hand at local politics?

Or, maybe this is a case of an extremely motivated politician realizing just which way the wind is blowing, where the action really is. Cities are where it’s at, baby. In this globalized world of increasing urbanization that we’re living in, cities are assuming control of the agenda, the engine driving innovation, sustainability, diversification. What politician with an elevated sense of self-importance (one can posses that trait in a good way) wouldn’t want to be at the forefront of all that?

Gazillionaire Michael Bloomberg, touted as a possible independent candidate to run for the presidency of the United States, takes a pass, opting instead to stay as mayor of New York City. In Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa dabbled for a time in California state politics before moving into the municipal arena, first as a council member and then mayor. Portland Oregon mayor Sam Adams has burst onto the national scene as a leading advocate for building environmentally sound cities. So famous has he become that a beer has been named in his honour.

But over the course of Toronto’s dreary 9 month campaign so far, we’ve been told it’s just about filling potholes and fixing street lights. After 7 years of tentatively stepping toward the future, all we’re hearing now is what we can’t do, not what’s possible. Voters are cowering in the face of necessary and exciting change; their fears and worst instincts catered to by unimaginative candidates who seem oblivious to the shifting sands of where power is headed. We imperil our ability to adapt to what’s coming and thrive in the possibilities that will arise if we hand over the levers of power to someone incapable of seeing past nickels and dimes.

Rahm Emanuel seems to understand this. He’s angling to take the reins of a great but deeply troubled city. Much more troubled than even the worst case scenario being painted about Toronto by the hysterics contending for the mayor’s position. Chicago’s money woes are significantly worse than ours. Allegations of actual corruption and cronyism have stuck to some of the outgoing city officials. Crime is a significant problem there and not just a convenient bogeyman being shaken around in order to frighten voters.

Despite all of that, Rahm Emanuel wants to be the mayor of Chicago. There’s an element of flight, certainly, from an administration looking to take a hit in next month’s midterm elections. If it does happen, there’ll be plenty of fingers pointing at Emanuel as a prime architect of Obama’s fall from grace. But he could run toward a much more lucrative spot in the private sector, assuming such a thing exists anymore which also might explain the President’s low approval ratings.

Emanuel’s decision to follow in the footsteps of Richard M. Daley bespeaks of how important cities have become on the political landscape. Those accepting that new reality have begun to assume responsibility for proper future planning, at times defying upper levels of governments by setting more stringent environmental targets and broadening personal rights and freedoms. In the vacuum created by the divestment of powers by successive federal and provincial/state governments as a way to balance their books, forward thinking cities have assumed the responsibilities and set out on a course to not only remake themselves in a 21st-century fashion but the regions and countries that they are part of as well. Savvy politicians like Rahm Emanuel recognize that and are jumping at the chance to get involved.

It’s unfortunate Toronto has been hijacked by mayoral candidates more content to wallow in petty grievances and almost tribal hostility instead of generating ideas about how best to move into a future where cities will be at the forefront of policy decisions and societal change. If the next mayor doesn’t understand that and seize upon it, all the advantages we as a city have presently (and we have many) will be for naught. Our enviable position cannot be translated into expanded opportunity by merely filling potholes and fixing streetlights. We need to stop shying away from thinking bigger.

civically submitted by Urban Sophisticat


A Labour Day Thought Worth Repeating

September 6, 2010

Because it’s the last long weekend of the summer, and because it’s rainy and dreary outside, and because we’re lazy, and because we’re still reeling from the realization that Nicholas Cage can actually still act, having watched him in Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant last night, because of all this, we’re bringing you our first, official repeat column.

Hey. Everyone’s doing it. It is still summer after all.

We’re not entirely laying a turd on you or anything. It will be topical. Since it’s Labour Day, we’d thought we’d replay the column written by our colleague, Acaphlegmic, on May 1st. The Other Labour Day.

It’s just as pertinent now as it was way back then, perhaps even more so. As our municipal campaign has heated up, the anti-labour/anti-union rhetoric has only intensified. To some of our politicians and their rabid followers, city unions and workers are a big part of the myriad of problems the city faces. Just like the auto workers were when they were asked to take pay and benefit cuts to help out their poor, beleaguered employers. If only they wouldn’t demand so much, maybe the industry wouldn’t have found itself in the dire straits  it did.

Yeah. That was the problem.

The face of labour may be changing but we should take a moment today and stop to remember that much of what we have, like the first day in September being work free for many of us, is not due to the munificence of the markets or the beneficence of our bosses. It is because of the sacrifice and willing to risk life and limb of those who were truly fighting for the little guy. Lest we forget.

A Good May Day To You

It’s May 1st. May Day. International Workers’ Day.

It always brings to mind the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the revolutionary groups are discussing life under the Romans.

To paraphrase slightly: What have the unions ever done for us?

Modern May Day “celebrations” can be dated back to the late-19th century as a commemoration of Chicago’s Haymarket Massacre in 1886. Twelve people died (including 7 policemen) when a bomb was thrown during a labour demonstration that was held calling for an 8 hour workday.

How quaint. An 8 hour workday. What kind of starry-eyed idealists were these that believed such things possible? If there are those out there reading this who pay their rent/mortgage, put food on the table and are ready to finance their childrens’ university education, all on an 8 hour workday, raise your hands.

It’s one thing to ask to work only 8 hours a day/5 days a week but another thing entirely to expect to earn a proper living on it. For at least the last 30 years wages have stagnated for the middle class as it shrank in size, squeezed from both burgeoning top and bottom ends. Simply to maintain economic ground, most people have had to work longer and take on increasing amounts of debt.

Occurring simultaneously, union membership has fallen. In the United States, more than one-third of employed people belonged to unions in 1945. By 1979, union membership had fallen to 24.1 percent. Thirty years later, union workers only made up 12.3% of the work force.

A coincidence? Perhaps. We are not unaware of the fact that correlation does not imply causation. There have been many factors, oftentimes interrelated and interdependent, over the past 3 decades that have contributed to the growing fiscal imbalance between work and pay. Still, it is funny that in these days of economic struggle unions and those that belong to them are derided and dismissed as lazy fat cats, bloodsuckers and artifacts of the past.

Of course, May Day festivities and revels long pre-date unions and workers. They go back to pre-Christian, pagan seasonal rituals denoting the end of the long, dark winter in the northern hemisphere. According to Celtic legend, bonfires were set alight at strategically important sites to “mark a time of purification and transition”.

Maybe the time has come to meld the two traditions, modern and ancient. How be we burn some shit down to purify and transition to a more fair and equitable era? And then we can all dance happily around the Maypole.

revolutionarily submitted by Acaphlegmic