On A Need To Know Basis

January 14, 2013

I don’t think it much hyperbole to suggest that budgeting is the most important aspect of governance, especially so at the municipal level. alookatthebudgetIt pretty much determines a city’s quality of life. The number of police and firefighters on the street. The state of good repair for important pieces of infrastructure. How many people will die on the streets in any given year.

The budgets here in Toronto are complex and complicated, no question. It just sort of comes with the territory when the annual operating budget comes in and around $10 billion and the capital at roughly $1.5 billion. That’s a lot of moolah that needs to be found and services that need to be funded adequately.

So it’s curious to me when councillors fail to reach out to their constituents in any meaningful way during the lead up to the council budget debate and vote. Hey, everyone. Here’s what’s happening. Here’s how I’m going to vote. Any questions? Concerns? Opinions as to what you think is and isn’t important?

Running down the list compiled earlier this month by Social Planning Toronto shows that less than half of our councillors organized any sort of budget forum for their constituents although that may’ve changed in the last few days. (We are happy to be corrected and updated to any omissions we make.) publicconsultationsAm I over-reacting to think there’s something wrong and neglectful about that?

By my estimation, some twenty of the councillors I’d expect to vote along the fiscal lines of Mayor Ford (yes, I’m including Councillor Karen Stintz in that group) had no public consultation on the budget process. There were six councillors on the other side of the political fence who didn’t although I’ll give Councillor Joe Mihevc a pass on his ‘maybe’ as he doesn’t seem averse to public consultations. And I’ve thrown Councillor Raymond Cho into the latter category despite having no idea where he’s going to come down on budget votes since seeking the provincial Progressive Conservative nomination in the next election.

Now, I could rush to the ideological conclusion that right wing politicians, once in office, don’t care to fraternize with the hoi polloi. Don’t bug me in between elections, folks. We’ll talk again in 2014.

But I won’t. Let’s just chalk that discrepancy up to the nature of being in power versus not. This is Mayor Ford and his supporters’ budget. They don’t need to consult the public’s opinions or fully inform them because a ‘mandate’ is why. shhhI’m sure the roles were reversed back in the day David Miller was in power.

But what I will note is the urban-suburban, geographic divide.

In Scarborough, only Councillor Chin Lee held a budget town hall. Councillor Gary Crawford was planning on attending one while also offering to meet up with groups at City Hall. Up in North York, 4 councillors either held formal sessions or met in for smaller budget get-togethers. In York, Ward 13 councillor Sarah Doucette was alone in holding a public meeting. None of the elected representatives in Etobicoke deigned to put together a budget town hall for their constituents.

In fact, in Ward 6, Councillor Mark Grimes declined to attend last week’s community organized budget session. Why? Your guess is as good as mine if you read through a statement he issued.

patronizing“Every year the capital and operating Budget seems to be the most contentious issue we deal with at City Hall,” he said.

“It’s difficult to comment on any one item without looking at its context as part of the whole. I’ve been gathering feedback from around the ward, meeting with city staff and I’m looking forward to the (budget) meeting. There is going to have to be a give and take from all sides of the debate, but I think at the end of the day we’ll find ourselves with a budget everyone can be proud of.”

It seems Councillor Grimes believes the budget’s too ‘contentious’ to be discussed in a public forum outside of a city council meeting. Leave the ‘give and take’ up to the councillors, folks. That’s what they’re elected to do. You can’t possibly expect a councillor to give any sort of budgetary context in just two or three hours, am I right? Next thing you know, people’ll be standing up on chairs and the like.

Meanwhile downtown, in the former cities of Toronto and East York, only the above mentioned Councillor Joe Mihevc and Councillor Paula Fletcher didn’t hold public budget sessions (again, all this is subject to updates and corrections). Setting aside the left-right politics for the moment, it shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice the wildly divergent degrees of engagement based on location. letmefinishThe broad strokes suggest politicians in the core engage with their constituents. Those in the suburbs don’t.

Which leads me to ask one very pertinent question.

When we talk of political alienation as a part of the rise of what we once referred to as Ford Nation – suburbanites being left out of the conversation, neglected, ignored – should we really be pointing the finger at out-of-touch, downtown elitists? Overwhelmingly it seems councillors from the suburbs failed to consult their own constituents on such an integral matter as the budget. Perhaps political disengagement begins much closer to home.

inquiringly submitted by Cityslikr


Councillor Christmas Continues

December 27, 2012

(Christmas day may be past but our City Hall holiday spirit continues. Today, Councillor Sarah Doucette, Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park!)

*  *  *

sdoucette

1) The Gift of Councilling: What is the one moment in 2012 that struck you as the best example of why it was you became a councillor?

High Park – rebuilding the Jamie Bell Playground within 4 months after the fire and keeping the High Park Zoo open.

2) Going Forward: In 2013, what is the one aspect you would like to see happen that would help develop better civic discourse?

Respect for the deputation process – This year I was only able to give residents 48 hours notice of a public meeting regarding the closure of the Runnymede Fire Station. This gave them less than 12 hours notice before the deputation registration deadline.

merrychristmas2012

seasonally submitted by Councillor Sarah Doucette


Room To Grow

May 13, 2012

One of the advantages of this thing I do to while away the hours between when its socially acceptable to drink is that I can not only riff on ideas put forth by others in order to fill up the blank pages – like a jazz musician putting his own notes on a established theme – but I’m allowed to take my ideas and run with them for a subsequent post. Acting as my own source. The ultimate insider ball.

Like say, just this past Thursday. In bemoaning the mayor’s abdication of responsibility… no, not bemoaning, exactly. More pointing it out and realizing that there’s an upside to it, I suggested that in the empty space provided, a handful of first term councillors have taken the opportunity to start exhibiting a little moxy, some chutzpah, a long cool drink of independent mindedness. They’ve thrown themselves a debutante ball.

In retrospect, being elected to City Hall for the first time in 2010 must’ve been like winning the lottery and immediately being held up at knifepoint and told to hand the cheque over. Wait… but I haven’t even cashed it yet.

The 14 newcomers were thrown into what could only be described as a bear pit. Some found their footing fairly quickly and not in the least bit unsurprisingly. There was the mayor’s brother, touting the purest form of Team Ford DNA. Others like councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Mike Layton were destined to be on the other side, owing to pedigree in Layton’s case and both being elected to represent wards as anti-Ford as they came.

But for the other 11, it has been a strange, strained, tumultuous, uncharted trip.

At the start, Mayor Ford was a force to be reckoned with. Defy him at your peril, mere council mortals. Fear the wrath of Ford Nation!

Sensibly, many neophyte councillors ducked for cover, quietly taking sides and hoping not to be noticed. Councillors Sarah Doucette and Mary Fragedakis usually leaning to the left, Executive Committee members Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson along with councillors Gary Crawford, Vincent Crisanti and James Pasternak lining up behind the mayor. John Tory endorsed Mary-Margaret McMahon, councillors Ana Bailão and Josh Colle made up what was soon termed (mostly derogatorily) the ‘mushy middle’, voting with Mayor Ford as often as not in the early going.

The 14th newbie, Councillor Josh Matlow broke from the pack earliest, trying to stake out a highly visible non-partisan man in a neither black nor white shade of grey suit. His timing was off, however, not to mention coming across as more than a little self serving. For the first year or so of the Ford administration, compromise and negotiation were simply not part of the equation. It was all about His Worship’s way or the highway.

Pressure was applied to play along. Projects were threatened without consultation. It was tough to learn the ropes when you were always coming under assault. Discretion, for many, was the better part of valour at this juncture. Keep heads low until the storm passes.

It started to break late last year. With Councillor Ford’s ill-advised land grab of the Portlands, the pushback began. Soft spoken Councillor Jaye Robinson took a very public stand against the move which, coming from a member of the mayor’s Executive Committee, signalled that dissent was now possible. Mayor Ford backed down on that, forging a rare council consensus that saved some face but his ironclad grip on the majority of rookie councillors had been broken.

Councillor Robinson didn’t jump ship entirely, remaining a reliable mayoral ally or, at least, not a vocal critic of him. That is, until she announced recently that at the end of the year she’ll be leaving her position on the Executive Committee. It seems she’s looking to spend the second half of her first term a little less affiliated with Mayor Ford.

Fellow ExComm member Berardinetti is travelling a similar but slightly rockier path. While maintaining a closer adherence to the Ford agenda than Robinson, Councillor Berardinetti has already bailed out of her position as a member of the Budget Committee, citing a desire to concentrate more on her constituency work as the reason. It probably also had something to do with her not being as down with the cutting and slashing especially in the face of an increased surplus since the original budget showdown in January.

Now she’s in the middle of a tussle with the mayor over the fate of the 5 cent plastic bag fee. He wants to kill it outright. Councillor Berardinetti wants to try and find a way to redirect the money to the tree canopy fund.

“I don’t know how it is going to happen,” Mayor Ford said. “I can’t support that.” I don’t get it. I don’t like it. End of discussion.

“I’m not sure if he fully understands what we’re trying to achieve here,” the councillor said, “and quite possibly he hasn’t read the full report.” Ouch. I’d call that a serious lack of deference now being shown to the mayor by a member of his very own Executive Committee.

“Berardinetti told the Sun she wasn’t surprised by Ford’s position,” Don Peat writes, “but she stressed he won’t be able to get council to scrap the bag fee.”

Yeah, that thing the mayor wants to do? He can huff and puff all he wants. It’s not going to happen.

Just like not reversing the $15 million or so of cuts in the 2012 budget. Another new councillor, Josh Colle, served as the face of that mayoral rebuff. It didn’t need to be a big setback as it was a miniscule fraction of the overall budget but Mayor Ford’s unwillingness to bend even in the slightest turned it into a major PR bomb. Emboldened, council, along with a solid majority of new members, turned its sites on the transit file in March and assumed complete control of it, sidelining the mayor to a state of almost insignificance.

How much so? Take a look at Councillor James Pasternak. A strong Ford loyalist from the get-go he’s now drifted notably from the Ford fold, rankling under the continual pressure to follow marching orders. He broke decisively during the budget debate despite the mayoral squeeze. “I would say it [pressure] was intense. Very intense,” he told the National Post. “I was looking for an opportunity to speak during the [budget] debate, but every time I’d try and get on the speakers’ list, I would be called away for another mini-caucus in the members’ lounge or in the back room.”

Perhaps in order to keep a closer eye on him or to lure him back with a plum post, Mayor Ford put him on the Budget Committee to replace the outgoing Councillor Berardinetti. So far the move hasn’t exactly brought him back into line. With an even bigger surplus than expected announced a couple weeks ago, Councillor Pasternak wants more of the cuts in this year’s budget reversed. Voted down at his inaugural budget committee meeting, the councillor was not deterred.

“There’s going to be a floor fight on council on this item,” he told the Globe and Mail. “We’re going to move it straight up there and that way all 44 councillors and the mayor have a say in what’s important to Torontonians. I think the most important thing is we have to cut through a lot of the histrionics of financial despair that were plaguing the budgetary process into the fall and early 2012.”

In the space of less than a year, one of city council’s most intimidated new councillors has not only abandoned Mayor Ford but done so openly and loudly. Labelling the mayor’s handling of the budget process histrionic and vowing a ‘floor fight’ at council in response to the budget committee’s refusal to defy the mayor, Councillor Pasternak has staked his position and, perhaps, his political future in the wide open political territory of moderation. By clinging so stubbornly to his far right comfort zone, Mayor Ford has inadvertently given plenty of room for the newcomers to stretch their wings and find their own place on the spectrum, free of coercion or bullying from an administration that, with one self-inflicted wound after another, has diminished its power to wield that sort of clout.

submitted by Cityslikr


Colle Cocked

January 19, 2012

A remarkable day starring two, up until now, unremarkable councillors.

And I don’t use ‘unremarkable’ in a pejorative sense. Just not noteworthy. Bereft of distinction. Having made no real dent or splash yet. A kind of, who’s my councillor again kind of councillor.

Until budget day on Tuesday. In one swift motion (ha, ha), rookie councillor Josh Colle made his presence felt and established himself as a very real force to be contended with. Not only did he catch the mayor and his guard flat-footed with a move to reinstate some $15 million of the more controversial cuts back into the 2012 operating budget, he withstood a blustery, cantankerous line of questioning from a brigade of under-prepared Ford Teamsters in a polished and confident manner that suggested a much more veteran politician. He was politely aggressive with the baiting line of queries and also very funny. When a more friendly colleague, Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon rose to ask him her questions and accidentally referred to him as the other Josh, Matlow, Colle waited for the laughter to subside before responding, “Yes, Councillor Doucette?”

His performance and not unreasonable motion changed the tone of the day’s debate and paved the way for moves by other councillors to stave off another $4 million in cuts including the additional savings demanded of the Toronto Public Library. Councillor Colle nudged Mayor Ford from the driver’s seat, sending the administration into scramble mode in the hopes of beating back the motion and preserving the mayor’s budget.

In the end, they didn’t. The mayor suffered a string of defeats, close, close, close but inevitable defeats and as much credit as Councillor Colle deserves for that, so does Councillor James Pasternak. Arguably traversing much more political ground than Colle to wind up on the opposite side of the mayor – he had been pretty much a sure thing for Mayor Ford for most of the year+ he’s been councillor for Ward 10 – Pasternak wound up being the very unlikely swing vote that pushed Councillor Colle’s motion over the top.

Not for a lack of trying to keep him in the fold by the mayor’s forces. At one point during Tuesday’s meeting, both the mayor and his brother, Doug, made their way across the chamber floor in Councillor Pasternak’s direction. The mayor gestured like a grade school principal who’d just caught a child running in the hallway for the councillor to follow them to backroom. Councillor Pasternak willingly obeyed and the three of them disappeared from the room.

What was said and how, I couldn’t tell you. One would assume it took more dark, threatening tones because for the mayor to be offering up goodies in return for the councillor’s vote, well, that would just be antithetical to what we’ve been hearing from the mayor’s office for months now. The cupboard’s  bare, there’s no money for ‘pet projects’. So as important as the vote was, and we’re talking really, really important, like 4 new libraries, 3 new community centres and a subway right up to the councillor’s door important, it would be monstrously hypocritical for the mayor to be promising favours in return for votes.

Whatever was said, offered, threatened behind closed doors failed. Councillor Pasternak didn’t blink. He defied the mayor and voted for Councillor Colle’s motion.

As did another right of centre councillor, Chin Lee who continued his drift from the administration. And let’s not forget, Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, the only girl allowed in the Etobicoke Councillor Boys Club that includes the mayor’s brain trust, his brother and the Deputy Mayor, Doug Holyday, along with the hangers-on, Councillor Vincent Crisanti, Mark Grimes and Peter Milczyn. While her intentions might not have been the most noble (“Leaf collection, for me, was absolutely important”), she stood her ground, gleefully flashing her thumb in the opposite direction of the one Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti insisted on displaying despite its noticeable lack of efficacy.

Combined with the other members of the newbie mushy middle, Councillors Ana Bailão, Josh Matlow and Mary-Margaret McMahon, it was enough of a faction, along with the left of centre crowd of councillors, to best the mayor in every budget motion save two, I believe. It was a rebuke if not quite a repudiation of the direction Mayor Ford wanted to take the city. It put on the brakes but did not turn the car around.

The budget that passed remained chock full of highly questionable cuts. The mayor and his team can still rightly claim that they are spending less than they did last year which, to their way of thinking, means something significant. Before losing control of the budget meeting, Team Ford deftly managed to snip off any nascent move that may have been building to increase the property tax increase from 2.5%. Budget 2012 can still rightfully be called a Mayor Rob Ford budget.

But at what cost?

There’s now clearly disorder in the ranks. If they can lose an ally like Councillor Pasternak on such an important vote as a budget vote, who’s next? Fellow rookie councillors and Executive Committee members, Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson, must feel as if they were hung out to dry. They now have to wear things like their vote in favour of demanding a full 10% cut to the TPL and explain it to their constituents. For what? Where an unwavering allegiance to the Ford brand might’ve seemed like just good politics last year, six months ago, two weeks ago, it’s suddenly more like a millstone around their necks.

Ditto Councillor Crawford. Another Ford stalwart, Councillor Michael Thompson was awfully quiet during the budget meeting. He dutifully voted along with the mayor but certainly kept his head low while doing so. And how long will even Councillors Grimes and Milczyn – both of whom were targeted for defeat by the Ford campaign during the 2010 election – blindly follow him, realizing the mayor can’t even win over city council on important matters let alone orchestra a successful race against them in 2014 if they don’t now obey his every command?

Yes, Councillors Josh Colle and James Pasternak may’ve just skimmed a speck of dosh from the surplus stash the mayor tucked away on the capital side of the budget on Tuesday. A mere less than .2% of the operating budget, as Edward Keenan pointed out in his comprehensively excellent article yesterday. But there is every reason to suspect that they succeeded in blowing up the prevailing Ford era dynamic at City Hall where the mayor pronounces and it is so.

They’ve opened the floodgates. The Curtis Flood-gates, that is. Free agency has come to city council.

borasly submitted by Cityslikr