Stumbling Toward Progress

January 22, 2016

Wow!

And what a week it was.whirlwind

Under the steady, competent and business-like stewardship of John Tory, this kind of wild ride at City Hall was supposed to be a thing of the past. Granted, not your garden variety, crack-fueled, more-than-enough-to-eat-at-home sort of melodrama we’ve previously witnessed. Purely political, up and down the daily calendar. But still.

It all began with a fairly standard bit of annual budgeting that’s happened for the past few years. Ix-nay he-tay alk-tay bout-ay ew-na evenue-ray. Pilfer reserve funds. Continue to squeeze a little harder on the stone in the hopes of getting blood this time around. Circle three times, click you heels twice. Declare the budget balanced in the fairest, most reasonable, prudent manner possible.

Then it started to rain staff reports and the going got crazy.

SmartTrack. Redrawn options for the Gardiner East hybrid. The Scarborough subway extension. New numbers and projections. countNew configurations. New realities. New respect for expert staff advice, depending on the project, of course. Proposed compromises that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than the original plans. Fewer subways. More LRTs. More developable waterfront land. Tighter turn radii.

Somewhere in the midst of all that doubling and tripling back mayhem, the man who should be chief of police leveled a broadside against his organization, demanding fundamental reform of the way it goes about its policing business. He then went silent or was silenced. The head of the Police Services Association responded with a public pout. The former reform-minded chair of the Police Services Board filed a complaint against the actual chief of police and the Police Services Board for not clarifying statements the police chief made during a year end interview questioning the accuracy of statements the former TPSB chair made about implementation of proposed reforms. joustingWe then learned the police were deploying some 50 combat ready assault rifles for front line officers as tools of de-escalation and in no way was militarizing policing in the city.

Mayor Tory deemed it all to be reasonable. Nothing to be alarmed at. As you were.

You could look at all this and conclude that it was simply the result of an industrious administration dealing with the inevitable array of issues that come from governing a growing and busy metropolis. Shit happens, am I right? Roll up your sleeves and get down into the goo. This city isn’t going to run itself.

But it doesn’t feel like that at all to me. At week’s end, it kind of feels like a reckoning. Bills have come due and need to be paid.

The mayor’s refusal to have a serious discussion about proper revenue streams, holding tight onto his campaign promise of keeping property tax rate hikes to at or below the rate of inflation, continues to hamstring the city for yet another year in dealing with a wall of serious fiscal matters, both on the capital and operating sides of the ledger. madscrambleIt’s even more ridiculous in light of how he’s backtracked on other hare-brained campaign promises, mostly revolving around public transit. He’s insisting on putting off a tax and spend conversation that will only get more difficult the closer we get to another election.

On the policing front, the mayor took his spot on the board rather than designate a council colleague in his place. So he was right there, hands on, to change the culture both on the board and in the services itself. A shot at serious reform, which he keeps talking about, within reach. A new, forward thinking chief waiting in the wings, reports and recommendations for implementation of change on the table in front of him.

But he blinked, retreated, embraced the status quo. More business as usual.

Where there is some brightness, some hope for more positive outcomes is on transit, a file the mayor, and as a candidate before that, made even more problematic and difficult to negotiate, layering on additional fanciful talk and plans in his bid for the job. headlesschickenBut he’s backtracked on SmartTrack. He’s rethought his once adamant support of the Scarborough subway extension. Having joined the crowd in politicizing transit planning, he’s now attempted to hand it back, tattered and somewhat worse for wear, to those who actually know a thing or two about transit planning.

The retreat comes with some potentially good results. The city could end up with an Eglinton Crosstown running from Pearson airport right through to the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto. We might build fewer subways in Scarborough and more LRTs. So much new transit could be in the offing that we as a city will have no choice to not only talk about new revenue sources but to actually implement some in order to help pay for and operate it.

This comes, unsurprisingly, with a whole boatload of caveats. The new SmartTrack mock up is still so dependent on unknown variables like capacity and fare pricing as to remain highly theoretical, and yet, is something of a linchpin for the new proposed Scarborough subway alignment to work properly. chaseyourowntailIs $2 billion (or more) for one subway station too steep a price to pay to try and ensure a non-fractious majority of city council buy in? All the delays and false starts have pushed timelines further and further down the road, past upcoming elections cycles, leaving most of today’s proposed projects susceptible to future political interference, still just lines on a map.

Unlike the budget process and the policing news, however, I don’t see this week’s transit resets as steps back or no steps taken at all. At least in the light of recent transit upheavals in Toronto, what’s occurred over the past few days is something akin to progress. If not forward momentum, let’s call it forward motion.

It shouldn’t have to be this fucking hard, and I will not absolve Mayor Tory of any blame for contributing to the ongoing difficulty. fingerscrossed1If he had’ve met the parochial chest-beating of the Ford’s head on, and not derided and sneered at his opponents who did so, none of this would’ve been necessary. We wouldn’t have lost so much time and money while he and his team pretended SmartTrack was actually a thing, that the Scarborough subway had any legitimacy whatsoever.

But, there it is, and here we are.

Try as I might to wrap this up on an optimistic note, I can’t bring myself to do it unless you consider It’s Not All Bad News upbeat. In the flurry that was this week, there may be some cause to be hopeful. Maybe. When it could be worse is not good enough, it will have to do.

Open ended. That’s all I’ve got.

unfinishedly submitted by Cityslikr


Keeping Up With The Joneses

January 18, 2016

It’s odd to wake up on a Monday morning, read through your local news and information and realize there’s a lot of change in the air. goodnewseveryoneDeputy Chief Peter Sloly suggests a complete overhaul of our approach to policing. Former city council candidate and Better Budget TO co-founder Alex Mazer raises the possibility of some ‘fiscal honesty’. Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat has plans on completely re-imagining King Street from Dufferin all the way east to River.

Oh my. I think I just gave myself a case of the dizzies. So much… possibilities!

This comes after a weekend of occasional contemplation on what seems to be the inevitable strategic retreat by Mayor Tory on his heavily touted (by he and his team, at least) SmartTrack transit plan. On Friday stories began to emerge about scaling back and spending less on it. The always dubious ‘western spur’ dropped and replaced (Fingers Crossed!) by the westward extension of the Eglinton Crosstown to the airport. The eastern branch north of the Kennedy subway station quietly binned. stepbackLeaving some sort of expanded GO train-like service tracing the much more desirable Relief Line route, the slightest impression acknowledging SmartTrack even once existed as a concept.

I wondered what the campaign architects of SmartTrack were thinking now. Was this pretty much how the saw things happening? They knew, along with a solid majority of everybody else, that the plan was wholly unworkable. Just get their guy elected, go through the motions, not to mention millions, pretending he was serious about building SmartTrack. When it hit smack dab into the wall of reality, revealed to be the sham it was, stitching together a couple good ideas into an ill-fitting and grotesquely expensive cloth, walk it back, on the advice of the experts that weren’t, apparently, available during the 10 month long campaign.lipstickonapig

SmartTrack was an election scheme in no way meant to refute the heavy-rail, off-road transit vision of John Tory’s main rival for the job, Rob-then-Doug Ford. That’s why it was referred to as ‘Surface Subway’. That’s why John Tory backed the Scarborough subway. John Tory refused to confront the political pandering that sat deep in the heart of the Ford approach to transit planning. Instead, he chose to wrestle it into his own image.

So, I look at today’s news, the transformative opportunities, and temper my immediate enthusiasm. Just how willing is John Tory, essentially, to buck the status quo, to grapple with the ghost of the Ford administration? Little so far would indicate his willingness to do so. Every restoration of TTC service he announces is more than equaled by expedited expressway repairs, Gardiner hybrids and traffic flow announcements. Do we really expect him to stand strong in the face of the inevitable outrage at the chief planner’s plans to de-emphasis car travel along King Street and in the downtown core?

Fiscal honesty? I write this as I’m following along with the budget chief’s lunchtime presser. “We did not have to use revenue tools on this budget,” Councillor Crawford told reporters. putalidonit1All the while keeping property tax rate increases impossibly low, raiding reserve funds and insisting on line-by-lines cuts to office supplies and travel costs in order to try and plug the inevitable holes in the operating budget. Sound familiar? It should. That’s what’s been passing as ‘fiscal honesty’ at City Hall for the past 5 years or so.

And as mayor, John Tory sits on the Police Services Board that passed over the opportunity to appoint reformer Peter Sloly as Chief of Police, all the while holding the door open for the similarly reform-minded chair, Alok Mukherjee, to make an early exit. He’s already had the chance to help affect much needed change and dropped the ball. Well into his second year in office, it’s difficult not to see Mayor Tory as anything but an obstacle, no less than his predecessor.

Of course, it’s hard to look forward when you’re constantly checking back over your shoulder to see what your competition’s up to. Ultimately, it’s of cold comfort that John Tory defeated Doug Ford to become mayor if, in the end, there’s little to differentiate between the two in matters of policy. kipMaintaining the status quo is maintaining the status quo even if you can’t see the gold chain around somebody’s neck.

If John Tory really wants to establish an enduring legacy during his time in office, he could do so by challenging the Ford city building and governance mystique head on, bury it six feet under the ground where it belongs. The possibilities in doing so are in evidence in today’s news. But, for me, the mayor’s motivations remain opaque. Like with SmartTrack, he seems more intent on a simple redesign, keeping a uninterrupted message, only delivered by a different messenger.

not anticipatingly submitted by Cityslikr