Shut Up And Just Look Pretty

Of the many symbols the city of Washington D.C. represents, the one that should resonate most with those of us living in big cities throughout North America is that of a helpless lack of local self-determination. While the situation in DC is much more extreme, having neither full voting representation at the federal level (except for 3 votes in the electoral college) or a state mechanism to stand up for it on a national stage, it reflects a city’s lowly place in the political hierarchy. “Creatures of the province” we are in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario, Washington is a Constitutional article, proclaimed into existence from the perceived necessity to provide a secure site for all three branches of the federal government. A compromised location where it is not because that’s where the people were but because it’s where north met south.

An 18th-century administrative outpost without its own from of governance until it was bestowed upon them in 1973. Even with that, however, the city operates entirely at the behest of Congress which still maintains control over its budget and has the final say on any and all matters. Like many of its urban counterparts, the social demands made upon Washington DC are many and the resources to meet them are few.

Grand edifices are built (and, man oh man, does DC have some grand edifices) but many of the city’s residents live a little less grandly. They are not the visiting members of Congress’s concern. Why would they be? None live here so aren’t in any way accountable to those who do.

Severely under-represented at the federal as it, DC is often used as a bargaining chip, tossed as red meat to the usually antagonistic, anti-urban sensibilities of the Republican party when the fair-weather Democrats feel they have bigger fish to fry. As happened last week during the budget showdown. To secure a deal, the President allegedly gave over certain aspects of the city’s social policy like access to abortion and needle-exchange to the Republicans in order to secure wider funding for Planned Parenthood.This led to Tuesday’s arrest of DC Mayor Vincent Gray and 6 councillors who were protesting the move and their lack of say in the matter.

“Is DC the president’s to give?” was a question asked at Monday’s protest.

Good question, and one any resident of a city groaning under the combined weight of neglect and unequal fiscal transference might rightfully ask. Outside of the John A. Wilson building where the DC mayor and council do their work, in between demands for voting rights and outright statehood for DC, a digital banner calculates the amount of federal tax the district’s residents have paid this year. Over one billion dollars. Without having any say in how it’s spent. That’s one of the sparks that ignited the American Revolution, wasn’t it?

It’s the nature of a country’s relationship with its cities, too. Where the majority of its citizens live. Where the majority of the wealth is generated. Where the majority of opportunities lie. And yet, cities continued to be M.I.A. in the halls of power. Even during an election campaign, with all 3 of the leaders of Canada’s biggest national parties holding ridings in two of the country’s 3 largest municipalities, you’d think there’d be more talk about city building. A national transit strategy. Housing. Immigration.

Yet all is eerily silent on that front which, sadly, may be sound electoral strategy since our system does not truly indicate the actual urban demographic that we’ve become. But it’s nothing short of foolhardy when it comes to governing. Badly functioning cities inevitably lead to badly functioning societies.

Of course, we can keep saying that until we’re blue in the face. (Seriously, we can.) The sentiment just keeps falling on deaf ears. Perhaps, deep down, regardless of where they come from, politicians of all stripes just wish that cities could be more like Washington, DC. Seen but not heard.

plaintiffly submitted by Cityslikr

We Want To Rule. Just Don’t Ask Us To Govern.

Last week the notion got floated that if the province really, really insisted, the Ford administration was more than willing to hand it control of the TTC. That it got publicly slapped down in fairly quick order by folks from the McGuinty government should come as little surprise. Queen’s Park still refuses to re-upload its obligation of paying 50% of the annual operating costs that it booted in 1995, so the idea that they would willingly pick up the tab for the entire operation seems, well, more than a little fanciful.

I am hardly a transit expert. Scratch that. I am a transit ignoramus. That may be a bit strong. I don’t know nearly enough about public transit as I should. There. That’s better. So I wouldn’t dare offer an opinion as to whether it would be better or worse if the TTC was under the auspices of our provincial government. There might be some sense in it if it provided a certain seamlessness to an entire GTA regional transit system. On the other hand, it would distance management even further from the day-to-day operation in an organization already maligned as being out of touch with its customers. In addition, the province in its oversight of Metrolinx hasn’t been heaped with praise for its responsiveness to the public.

No matter. The province doesn’t appear willing to saddle itself with a millstone like the TTC leaving it in the hands of the city now under a leadership allergic to actual governance. It talks up mightily the concept of customer service but wants the scope of the services it provides limited. Policing. Potholes. Streetlights. Anything more than that and it’s probably gravy.

It’s a divestment of authority under the banner of fiscal discipline that is the mark of small-minded municipal politicians unconcerned with much else outside of keeping taxes low and the streets safe and clean. As if we’re living in Mayberry or Pleasantville. They seek as little responsibility as possible as more responsibility only comes with more decisions and increased complexity. Complexity, ultimately, costs.

Problem is, 21st-century cities especially big ones like Toronto are complex organisms, long since outgrown the facile perspectives on municipal governance now on offer by our current mayor. Yes, we (like every other municipality in this province) are saddled with an incredibly dated structural burden that goes back to Confederation when we were an agrarian country and cities were looked down on as nothing more than ‘creatures of the provinces’, subject to provincial whim, abuse and neglect. But the world has changed, whether or not senior levels of government accept that fact, and cities that stand pat, unwilling to adapt to their growing importance on a global scale, are in danger of turning themselves into backwaters.

Backwaters deem public transit unimportant enough to try and unload. Backwaters question environmental measures like re-forestation and water efficiency. Backwaters relegate culture, nutritional programs and even libraries as outside the sphere of “core services” that they should provide. Backwaters sound like this: “Graffiti is vandalism, pure and simple.

The blind forces of urbanization flowing along the lines of least resistance show no aptitude for creating an urban and industrial pattern that will be stable, self-sustaining, and self renewing.

So wrote Lewis Mumford some 55 years ago. Unfortunately, those ‘blind forces of urbanization’ are now hard at work here in Toronto, refusing to look up from their abacus and see that the well-being of the city depends on much more than the bottom line. ‘Affordability’ is not always about money and ‘hard decisions’ don’t always mean cuts to services that make a city more competitive, attractive and liveable.

Hard decisions aren’t those that are made that conform to your ideology. Hard decisions are made by those who take their leadership role seriously and see themselves as more than merely bookkeepers. Hard decisions accept responsibility. They don’t shirk it. And so far, Mayor Ford and his team seem determined to show they want less responsibility for the welfare of all the citizens of this city, and that hardly bodes well for either our posterity or prosperity.

cheaply submitted by Cityslikr

Father Knows Best

Premier Dalton McGuinty is starting to get on my tits in a big way.

A week ago or so, the Globe and Mail reported that provincial government insiders were musing almost out loud that if the province were to get back into long term co-funding of the TTC in the way they used to in the olden days, there would be strings attached. More money equaled more control of and more say in the operations.

Then this week the premier decides to wade into the city’s election campaign, saying that there needs to be a debate about whether or not the TTC should be made an essential service and barred from striking. What’s that then, Dalton? Is there anything else you’d like us to do? How be you just tell us who to vote for? Fuck that. Why don’t you just install the new mayor and save us all that money, fuss and bother having an election.

We really, really need to reframe the terms of this relationship.

As it stands, the premier of Ontario acts like a disapproving father dealing with a profligate child. Finally forced to put his foot down, he is now insisting on putting his 2 cents in about how the kid spends his allowance and who he’s going to date. There, there, that’s a good boy now. Daddy knows best.

Someone needs to remind Dalton where the money that he is being so sanctimonious with comes from. Us. Here in the cities. PST soon to be HST. Provincial income tax. Etcetera, etcetera. It’s not actually his money to bestow upon us with instructions how to use it.

Or at least, it shouldn’t be. Only an outdated, 19th century constitutional glitch allows the premier of Ontario to pontificate upon and wield unworthy authority over powerless municipalities. It’s a sad state of affairs that is becoming more and more untenable and ultimately detrimental to the well being of cities. Drastic action needs to be seriously contemplated.

Who would’ve thought that here in 2010, we would be wistfully looking back to the enlightened leadership of Bill Davis?

increasingly angrily submitted by Cityslikr