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


Trash Talk

May 12, 2011

Let’s talk some trash. Trash collection, that is. And that’ll be the last recycled pun (except for that one) we’ll use on the issue.As we hurdle toward the westward-ho garbage privatization debate set for city council next week, wouldn’t it be nice to have some solid facts and figures on the table in order for those who will ultimately make the decision to do so logically and with well grounded reasons for proceeding. Councillor Josh Matlow attempted to accomplish such a task on Tuesday night hosting a town hall meeting moderated by the ever moderate Steve Paikin of TVO fame. On one side was pro-privatization advocate and Public Works and Infrastructure Committee Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong. Hugh MacKenzie, economist and research associate at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, represented the anti-side of the equation.

Reading through accounts of the evening, it’s clear that no real consensus emerged. “Last night’s trash talk offered no clear answer on the garbage privatization debate, but one very popular moderator,” Carly Conway of the Torontoist tweeted yesterday. Hey. Maybe if we contract out trash collection to Steve Paikin, everyone might be happy! “It answered some questions for me and, frankly, left me with more questions than I came in here with,” Councillor Matlow told the Torontoist after the town hall.

It seems inconceivable to me that such an important issue that deals with not only a lot of money but peoples’ livelihoods couldn’t be a little more clear cut. Evidence must exist out there from towns and cities that have unloaded trash collection onto the private sector. Case studies, analysis, comparisons of before (privatization) and after, of places that have maintained public service. Metaviews, I guess, is what I’m thinking.

If I were an actual journalist or one of those people who aggregate and research such things, perhaps it might all become obvious which way to go. I’m not but I’m perfectly willing to read the work of someone who has done it. So far, however, such documents are few and far between, lost in a sea of studies all that can be easily shrugged off by opponents as tainted by self-interest or ideology. Unions will weigh in against privatization but they’re just looking after their own jobs, right? Try reading this instead from the National Solid Wastes Management Association, a ‘trade association that represents the private sector solid waste and recycling industry.’ Yeah, so they have no dog in this particular hunt, do they.

The field is awash in solid anecdotal evidence, frankly. For every Etobicoke that loves its privatized trash collection, there’s an Ottawa that has brought at least some of it back in-house after a brief private dalliance. (Interestingly, if I understand correctly, Ottawa re-publicked collection in the older downtown area of the city which is more analogous to the core of Toronto than Etobicoke is.) Like Tuesday’s townhall, neither side is able to deliver the knock-out blow that will sway a crowd to fully embracing its position.

Running with that boxing analogy, shouldn’t the advocates for garbage privatization have to win decisively like any challenger seeking to dislodge the established champion? If we’re going to take a leap of change purely for the possibility of saving money and improved service, the case for it needs to be nearly irrefutable. Yes, we’re going to save this much money. Yes, you’re going to be happier with the service. Guaranteed, to use the mayor’s TV pitchmen promise.

As the privatization pointman, Councillor Minnan-Wong has done nothing of the sort. His constant referencing to Etobicoke as an example for why the rest of the city should privatize is both unconvincing and, possibly, inapplicable. He assured the audience at Tuesday’s town hall that Etobicoke receives no more complaints about trash collection than the unprivatized parts of Toronto. No more complaints, Councillor? Shouldn’t we be aiming for fewer? He was unable to answer some important questions from the audience including gender equity hiring by private firms. When all else failed, the councillor claimed his job was not about social engineering.

Moreover, the savings he (and the rest of the pro-privatization crowd) talks about Etobicoke receiving may not work out in the rest of the city that is laid out in a far less orderly pattern. As we’ve discovered over and over again here in post-amalgamated Toronto, what’s good for Etobicoke may not be good for East York. Money saved in one former city may not be possible in another.

And the ever changing amount of savings should also serve as a yellow flag of caution. All throughout last year’s municipal campaign, pro-privatization candidates trumpeted the $49 million Toronto would save going private with their garbage collection as reported by the C.D. Howe Institute. Under closer scrutiny, that report’s methodology was called into question. Now we’re hearing $8 million/year west of Yonge. Or maybe $6 million. $2 million isn’t being ruled out. What’s next? Well actually, we’re not going to save any money doing this…

And frankly, if the likes of Councillor Doug Ford can blow off $7.8 million or the city pays to police officers for paid duty overseeing construction sites and the like (“Keep in mind [paid-duty costs represent] one-half of 1 per cent of the construction projects that we have to pay for,” the councillor said), where’s the reasoning for undertaking such a massive change of operation in collecting our garbage? What will his response be at next week’s council meeting when a fellow councillor points out that an $8 million saved privatizing garbage collection amounts to about 1% of the near $800 million shortfall the city’s facing? Blustery dismissiveness, I’m guessing.

With no firm or substantive savings to tout and the only improved customer service to point to is the assurance that privatization will mean no more garbage strikes like we saw in the summer of 2009, it’s hard to see this as anything but ideological. According to the Toronto Star’s David Rider, at Tuesday’s town hall meeting “Minnan-Wong said the contract would have ‘continuation of service’ provisions to ensure that, even if the contractors’ workers went on strike, the trash would get picked up in the privatized district.” In other words, in contracting out garbage collection, the city would insist that the winning bid include a provision that would bring in scabs to cross a picket line in the case of a strike, thereby rendering the power of collective bargaining null and void.

Huzzah! Questions linger about what if any savings taxpayers will see. We can’t say for sure if they’ll notice any difference in how their trash is collected. As continued innovation in recycling? Like Councillor Minnan-Wong has said, social engineering isn’t really our job. But we do know one thing. Privatization is going to stick it to the union. Guaranteed.Spite based policy making. In tough times, is there anything more satisfying?

stinkily submitted by Cityslikr


It Couldn’tve Worked Out Any Better

March 24, 2011

If he were alive today, think of what a proud papa Mike Harris would be of the municipal government in Toronto that he sired. Maybe he’s smiling down beatifically from Heaven upon his progeny and all the conservative goodness he helped wrought… Mike Harris is dead, right?

(Sorry. Can never passed up the opportunity to pilfer that bit from Stephen Colbert. A few years back, he joked about something that would have ‘Lou Dobbs rolling over in his grave.’ He then turned to ask his crew, ‘Dobbs is dead, right’?)

I was thinking of this as I read through an article Ben Bergen linked to from 1998. Megacity: Globalization and Governance in Toronto by Graham Todd in Studies in Political Economy. Of the many reasons the Harris Tories rammed through Bill 103 in the face of widespread opposition to it throughout the entire 6 cities facing amalgamation, one was particularly nefarious if highly speculative and largely restricted to the old city of Toronto and the borough of East York. It suggested that the neo-conservative Harris was looking to smother the more liberal downtown tendencies under a stuffed suburban pillow that was more closely aligned to his politics. Such thinking gained a degree of legitimacy when the mayor of North York, Mel Lastman, defeated Barbara Hall, Toronto’s final mayor, in the first election of the new megacity.

Now a third administration in and it’s interesting to note that the mayor and his most trusted advisor, Councillor Doug, are from Etobicoke. The Deputy Mayor is one Doug Holyday, the last mayor of pre-amalgamated Etobicoke. The Council Speaker is Frances Nunziata, the last mayor of pre-amalgamated York. The Executive Committee is made up entirely of suburban councillors save Cesar Palacio whose downtown ward butts up against suburban York. A certain pattern emerges regardless of how intentional.

Of course, if we want to dwell on the damage inflicted upon this city, both downtown and suburban, by the ill-thought out amalgamation, there would be worse examples than those currently at the helm. Not a whole lot worse, mind you. But most definitely worse.

To lay the blame for our current fiscal crisis solely on the profligacy of the Miller administration, to spuriously point to the big budgetary numbers that grew during his 7 years in office as even the moderate councillor, Josh Matlow, did on Newstalk 1010 last Sunday, as proof positive of waste and gravy at City Hall, is to suggest that only what happens in the last two years or so matter. It denies history, really, or at least, your grasp of it. Or it suggests you’re just an ideologue.

The provincial Tory view of the reduction of costs through an increase in efficiency with amalgamation was suspect to many from the very beginning of the exercise. (Enid Slack, current Director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, wrote back in the early days of amalgamation: “It is highly unlikely, however, that the amalgamation will lead to cost savings. On the contrary, it is more likely that costs will increase.”) Most studies since have backed that view up.

In fact, how the Tories went about amalgamating flew in the face of the neo-liberal world view they were espousing. “Flexible forms of governance,” Todd writes, “it is thought, are more consistent with the reality of and necessity for competitive, export-oriented, knowledge-based, whiz-bang approaches to economic development.” So the Harris government replaced 6 smaller municipalities with 1 big, lumbering behemoth and claimed that it would be somehow more efficient? More cost effective? They seemed to have mistaken having fewer local governments for flexibility.

Or maybe they were just using a different definition of the word ‘flexible’. Todd suggests in the paper that unlike previous municipal governance reforms that had intended “…to consolidate the role of local government and the public sector in regulating development…”, the 1998 amalgamation was intended to do just the opposite. It was never about dollars and cents. That was simply a red herring to make the process more palatable. There was still going to be the same number of people demanding the same level of services whether they came from 6 governments or one. At some point of time, economies of scale simply don’t work.

It was all about control of how the city functioned. One government over a wider area was politically more pliable, flexible if you will, and easier to deal with than six. There were more differences of opinions, a wider area of dissension to exploit. Imaginary savings were offered up in exchange for the keys to City Halls. By the time we realized that, what were we going to do, de-amalgamate?

Add to this loss of local control and inevitable rise in costs of running a bigger city, there was that whole downloading/offloading of services onto Ontario municipalities by the provincial government. Cities told to cough up portions “… of provincially mandated social services such as social assistance, public health care, child care, homes for the aged, social housing, disability and drug benefits”. Some, I repeat some, of which have been uploaded back to the provincial government, slowly and on their time line. A $3.3 billion gap according to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario estimated back in 2007.

Of course let’s not forget the de-funding of their half of the TTC annual operating budget that the Harris Government undertook and that has never been reassumed by Dalton McGuinty. Call it $200 million/year that Toronto property taxes must come up with. Add to that the hundreds of millions of dollars foregone by Mel Lastman during his property tax freeze during his first term. A brilliant fiscal move copied by our new mayor on his first budget cycle, along with eliminating the vehicle registration tax and any other form of revenue generation the province had given the city with the City of Toronto Act. No, no. We don’t want that on our hands. We didn’t ask for that responsibility.

Instead, we’ll blame the last administration for our financial woes. We’ll blame the lazy unions and other special interest groups that are looking for handouts. The Gravy Train has stopped, haven’t you heard. The time has come to privatize anything that isn’t nailed down. Sell off lucrative assets too if we have to. Maybe even if we don’t. Everything is on the table.

Yeah, it’s hard not to view our new mayor as the inevitable outcome of decisions made nearly 15 years ago. The offspring, the love child of our former premier. Too bad Mr. Harris didn’t live long enough to see the success his political son had become.

condolencely submitted by Cityslikr


Deputations And Disregard

January 20, 2011

Let it be a given that annual public consultations on City Hall’s proposed budget are, always have been and always will be an exercise in, if not futility, let’s call it pretense. The people talk. City councillors (at least, those with a hand in crafting the budget) pretend to listen. A show trial of democracy without all the messiness of executions afterward.

So I hesitate to suggest that the consultations currently underway for budget 2011 are any more of a façade than previous ones but some councillors and the mayor seem to be jettisoning even the pretense of pretending. After hearing overwhelmingly from deputants telling him that they’d prefer no service cuts to tax cuts, Mayor Ford claimed that, “Obviously people want a zero-percent tax increase. I’ve heard it from all over.” Someone get the mayor a Q-Tip. Clearly he has some waxy build-up.

And after a particularly fractious and protracted process in East York, Budget Chief Mike Del Grande reportedly quipped that he “heard lots of numbers but at end of the day, I’m not sure it’s reflective.” Not reflective of what, Councillor Del Grande? The opinion of a vast majority of people who took the time to come out and have their voices heard? Or just not reflective of the opinions of those you agree with?

But, to be fair to the Budget Chief, he had endured what sounded like a grueling quarter of a day or so, defending the proposed budget out in East York. Me? I chose to attend the meeting up in North York as it was much easier to get to from downtown. I’m all about getting involved in the democratic process as long as it doesn’t put me out too much.

The proceedings in the council chambers at the North York Civic Centre were more placid than those, it appears, in East York. One might even call them somnolent. Presided over by a congenial even folksy Councillor Ford, deputants came and went, almost exclusively decrying the budget’s proposed cuts to both services and taxes without raising much of a stir from the other members of the budget committee. Councillors Milczyn, Parker, Shiner, Di Giorgio and Deputy Mayor Holyday rarely interacted with anyone other than themselves, asking few questions of the deputants or providing little to no feedback. Only when those stepping forward to speak heaped praise upon the proposed budget (I counted 4 of the 40 or so deputations doing so) did any of these councillors snap to attention or show even a lick of interest.

In fact, the four hours of deputations could’ve been completed in half the time if it hadn’t been for Councillor Shelley Carroll and, to a lesser extent, Anthony Perruzza. They, along with Councillor Ford, appeared to be the only ones from the council perspective who came to actually listen and react to deputations. Carroll did much more than that. Ask questions, tweet pictures, head up into the crowd to assist deputants who were having trouble figuring out the process. It was the Shelley Show, and when she finished up in North York, she made her way over to the East York location to pitch in there.

To be honest, these deputations are in many ways as much about Carroll’s time as budget chief as they are about the 2011 budget. While the proposed document sets out Mayor Ford’s plan for Toronto, it is also a complete repudiation of the previous administration. Tax and spend. A spending problem not a revenue problem. (Dis)respect For The Taxpayers. That which made The Gravy Train run. All of it (or at least the last 4 years) under Carroll’s fiscal watch.

She is the remaining face of the Miller administration’s power group. The mayor retired voluntarily. His Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone, Speaker Sandra Bussin, protégé Adam Giambrone, likewise all gone, less voluntarily. Carroll is the last one standing. She is doing so boldly and unwaveringly.

Carroll was at her best last night when she tangled with the few speakers who heaped praise on the budget for its attacks on spending and taxes but offered little in the way of helpful suggestions about which fat to trim. This includes the Board of Trade’s Carol Wilding who categorically refused to go on the record to say which services she would recommend cutting in order for the city to achieve a budgetary balance. Distancing herself from the dirty business of fiscal belt-tightening, all she would say when asked about cuts was that it was all in the presentation she’d handed out to the councillors.

It was especially invigorating to witness Councillor Carroll verbally pick up the representative from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses by the scruff of the neck and point that, for all his squawking about tax relief for businesses, he had failed to inform his membership and the public at large about the special program the Miller administration had established to help smaller businesses offset property tax increases. Much blubbering and backtracking ensued from Mr. CFIB and no attempted assistance from Councillor Di Giorgio could rescue him. At least, I think it was assistance Di Giorgio was offering. It was never clear exactly what he was up to on the rare occasions he opened his mouth.

Councillor Carroll is emerging as the voice of sanity at City Hall in the face of the Ford juggernaut. She has been relentless in not only defending the spirit of the Miller administration but in insisting on reasonable debate and discussion, conducted in the proper manner using established protocol. She is standing firm in front of the bulldozer Ford and his boys want to take to our municipal government.

She is being assisted certainly by the likes of Councillors Vaughan, Perks, Davis and McConnell. The difference is, the mayor’s supporters will all dismiss these as downtown, pinko, left wing, elitist kooks. That’s a smear they can’t use on Carroll. Despite her high rank in the Miller administration, she has serious big L liberal pedigree (which we don’t hold against her) and represents a suburban ward, deep up in Ford Country. She should be one of them. She’s not. This makes her a formidable foe of the mayor which we should remember and hold onto when things begin to look bleak.

And there will be times over the course of the next 4 years when things will look bleak.

fan boyishly submitted by Cityslikr


One Councillor And One Mayor Are Not Enough

September 28, 2010

Early on at last night’s Ward 19 council debate, it became clear to me that Toronto’s post-amalgamated governance structure is woefully lacking in delivering us the representation we need and deserve. As the questions piled up (both prepared from business and residents association as well as the audience’s more free form stylings), most expressed concerns about purely local issues. The moratorium on restaurants and bars on Ossington Street. Park upkeep and organization at Trinity-Bellwoods. Traffic congestion in Liberty Village and parking at the CNE.

Undoubtedly, some of these have city wide implications concerning matters like density and park management, but it still felt awfully parochial, if I can use that term non-derogatorily. The debate was held in a parish, after all. So why not `parochial’?

Local matters should be the main duty of those seeking a council seat. To look out for the interests of their constituents. Councillors represent the peoples’ voice at City Hall.

But this leaves the city wide view in the hands of the mayor and the mayor only. Councillors sit on various committees that oversee municipal aspects for the entire city like transit, police, planning but they remain councillors first and committee members second. Leaving us with one voice in the face of 44 who must straddle the line between city building and ward defending. Sometimes these two roles not only don’t jibe but are in direct opposition to one another.

Which may explain some of the palpable anger and discontent at the debate last night toward outgoing councillor for ward 19 and mayoral candidate, Joe Pantalone. He was accused by many of non-responsiveness and unilateral decision making. Perhaps this was always the case but I can’t help thinking that as a high ranking official in the Miller administration, Pantalone stopped looking out for the concerns of those who had elected him while he was concentrating on the bigger picture of Toronto as a whole.

A city of this size and diversity cannot be properly represented by one official and a handful of councillors who are secure enough in their ward positions that they can attend to wider city matters. We need another municipal level of government (yes, I said another level of government) whose sole purpose is for the greater good of the city and to coordinate its place within the entire GTA region. A Board of Control, say, elected from the ashes of the former cities of Toronto, York, East York, North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke. Call it, oh I don’t know, Metro Council. But this thing with a mayor and 44 fiefdoms doesn’t really seem to be fully functioning.

It’s a dilemma I’ll be facing when it comes to deciding where to cast my vote for ward 19 councillor. On one hand, there’s Karen Sun. From her, I get a sense of someone looking to contribute to the building of a better city. That’s not to say she won’t stand tall for the people of this ward. She just seems to have a bigger vision. One that goes beyond the Trinity Spadina border.

On the other hand, there’s David Footman. Having just encountered him last night, it would be presumptuous of me to make sweeping generalizations about his campaign but what I saw at the debate (and read from his campaign literature) is a bull terrier in defense of ward 19 and the people living here. Mr. Footman very likely possesses thoughts about the city in its entirety. Upon first impression however, his strengths seemed to be very much local, on the ground.

Toronto voters should not have to make such a choice. Or rather, there should be a second option. To vote for someone like David Footman whose primary job is to look after our neighbourhood needs. And to vote for Karen Sun as our representative for matters encompassing the entire city. Such a system was in place back before we were all one city. Nothing about amalgamation has ameliorated the situation to the point where we don’t require a similar set up again.

undecidedly submitted by Cityslikr


How’d We Become The Enemy?

September 7, 2010

Lying in bed on Labour Day morning, with the CBC’s The Current on the radio — welcome back from your summer vacation, Anna Maria Tremonti! Looking forward to ignoring you once again for most of the 2010/11 season. – listening to former Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP, Janet Ecker, talk about the new wave of Canadian conservative populism. When she referred to the typical adherent of this movement as ‘Mr. & Mrs. Front Porch’, I thought to myself, “Wow! Could she be any more patronizing?” How exactly is it that we’ve become the enemy?

We, of course, being the so-called downtown, intellectual, liberal elite. Or, to put it in Ms. Ecker’s vernacular, ‘Mr. & Dr. 3rd Floor-Deckers’. So far in this municipal election campaign, we have become the target for the ire coming from Mr. & Mrs. Front Porch due to the unflagging support we show to “our” mayor down at “our” City Hall. Apparently, “our” taxes haven’t risen while “our” services have. “Our” free spending councillors have lavished all their attention and money on “our” downtown wards especially for things like “our” bike lanes which squeeze out the cars coming in from the city’s inner suburban ring when everyone there steps off their front porches to drive downtown to work.

None of which is true, of course. It is only pronounced loudly and often. Downtown taxes have increased along with everyone else’s and, from my own, very anecdotal evidence, while services might not have declined over the past few years, I’m certainly paying more for many of them than I did in the pre-amalgamated Toronto.

But here’s the thing. I’m not blaming those who live in the former cities of Etobicoke, York, North York, East York and Scarborough for this turn of events. We’re all in the same boat here on this one, now paying the unexpected costs we were not told about by those who enforced amalgamation on us. Despite some urban experts saying that the economies of scale not always applying to bigger cities, we were sold a bill of goods about lower costs, lower spending, lower taxes in the megacity by the Harris government, consisting of members like Janet Ecker and Rob Ford’s father, Doug Sr., who defied the wishes of his own Etobicoke constituents to not be absorbed into a bigger Toronto and sat on his hands except to vote ‘yes’ on amalgamation.

And now Ecker’s invited onto the radio to explain grassroots anger, using a clearly test marketed term like ‘Mr. & Mrs. Front Porch’?! Or Rob Ford is championed as looking out for these little guys as he campaigns vigorously to be the hatchet man who will carry out the cuts that were inevitable in light of amalgamation and the downloading that accompanied it? (Or, to put it more poetically, doing the dirty work of his beloved late father.) If there’s any resentment I bear towards Mr. & Mrs. Front Porch, it’s the misdirected rage and anger. Do they have reasons to be angry about the way the city’s working? Sure. Just rage against the ones that actually were really responsible for bringing about this turn of events and not the easiest scapegoats being handed over to you on a platter.

I’m not one to ascribe much to conspiracy theories especially on the part of our elected officials. While a proponent of the power of government to do good, I just don’t think they are capable of pulling off grand schemes to hoodwink the population at large. So there was no alien crash landing near Roswell, N.M. or a 2nd gunman on the grassy knoll. Both are too big a secrets to go unsolved for decades.

But I am beginning to think that maybe the Mike Harris government did come close with the amalgamation of Toronto. It was said at the time (and many times since) that along with helping the provincial ledger sheets with a non-neutral revenue neutral swap of services with the city, the biggest boon for the province with their amalgamation sleight of hand was to water down the progressive core with the more Tory friendly inner suburbs. At worst, the city would become ungovernable due to the constant squabbling between the two factions.

Well, kudos to you, Mr. Harris and Ms. Ecker and Mr. Ford Sr.’s son. We have swung from the right to the left and are now threatening to lurch heavily right once more with fingers being pointed in every direction and accusations of mismanagement and corrupt governance thrown around for good measure. Dysfunctional is the label Toronto’s getting and no one benefits more from it than our overlords smiling smugly at Queen’s Park. Yes, it is no longer the Conservatives but as Dalton McGuinty can most definitely attest to, amalgamation is the gift that just keeps giving. At least, to him and all those who rule from that particular roost if not the citizens of the city.

wonderingly submitted by Cityslikr


A Man Walks Into A Gymnasium…

March 6, 2010

How we came to be wandering around an East York middle school in the early evening hours of a Wednesday night, desperate to find a washroom is of little import to this story. Suffice it to say that our once steadfast, unswerving bladder has grown iffy and we no longer tremble at the thought of adult diapers. In fact, we count down the days until we can confidently start sporting them without fear of public ridicule. Life will be much less complicated then.

Of course, had we been strapped into our adult Depends™©® on this particular late-winter early Wednesday evening, we might not have stumbled across the Community Consultation Meeting. Having finished our business in the unlit boys room (couldn’t locate the light switch, so stop thinking what you’re thinking), we followed the murmur and din to the school gymnasium where the meeting was already in progress. A quick head count gave us 125-150 residents although we do have a knack for wild miscalculations of this type in either direction. So let’s go with not less than a 100 and no more than 300… 500. The gym was about a third full. Do the math yourself.

Along with some number of residents, there were two city councilors, a city planner and a representative from the architectural firm of the proposed building site that was the focus of this meeting. Just west of Woodbine Ave on the south side of the Danforth was a big pit, free of buildings due to a fire in 2001. (For a better background on the issue, check out Deca Diaries.) Like much of this major east-west artery of Toronto as well as its west of the Don Valley extension, Bloor Street, large swaths are less than commercially vibrant aside from the more trendy stretches like Yorkville or Greektown. For every little café or restaurant that has popped up, there are a plethora of old taverns, men’s clubs and dollar stores.

This, despite the fact that there are many bustling communities lying both north and south of the main drag and the subway rumbles below it. Business activity simply has not flourished. Much of this, in our humble opinion, has to do with the preponderance of vehicular traffic that races back and forth and is given preferential treatment, making for a less than pleasant pedestrian environment. But that is an opinion based less on fact than emotion and isn’t really part of the equation.

Or maybe it is. Because at this meeting there was a clear (but civil) divide between homeowners concerned about disruptions to their area with more congestion, less parking and those welcoming such a change, seeing it as an uptick in the tone of the neighbourhood. It wasn’t congestion, to their way of thinking, but the hustle and bustle of city life.

At the centre of the debate was a mixed use proposal to fill in the pit with a 3 tier complex consisting of nine, twelve and four story buildings. Three commercial units would occupy the ground level with some 140+ condominiums spread throughout the rest of the space; in the 8 stories above the stores, the 12 stories in the building behind that and the 4 stories which spread out south of Danforth Ave. in between the empty space behind the homes that fronted the two streets on either side of the block. (You can get a better visual of it here from an earlier application to the city for the project.)

Aside from issues of parking, there were concerns from nearby residents about noise, deliveries, privacy and the quality of shops the development was planning to bring in. Above all, many took issue with the fact that the 12 story building was at odds with the present bylaw that was supposed to allow buildings of no more than 9 stories in this area (owing to some sort of calculation that factored in street width amidst other things. My bladder was making demands again, so I wasn’t giving it my full attention at that point.) So this made it a question of re-zoning. To get this done, developers and the city had to show the benefits gained by the existing properties in the vicinity that the change in the bylaw would bring. The trick is, benefits lie in the eye of the beholder. Benefits for some are seen as drawbacks to others.

There is no question in this case that regardless of any perceived benefits, the proposed building is going to adversely affect 20-30 households on the side streets. Backyard views are going to be irrevocably altered and very likely not for the better. What is now a quiet look at a relatively open space to neighbouring yards and houses that aren’t right on top of each other will become a wall of windows. Regardless of the extensive landscaping that is being offered up as part of the new development, what was once something of an urban oasis for some households will be… less tranquil, let’s call it.

Yet what choice does the city have? Its official city plan calls for a drastic increase in density in accordance with a provincial policy statement from their Planning Act that is part of an overall anti-sprawl growth strategy. It is spots like this at Woodbine and Danforth along a major transportation line with access to nearby schools, parks and other amenities that have been targeted for development of this type.

Without a doubt, there are going to be losers in the face of a high density future. Homeowners who have lived in spots like this for 30 years and carved out nice, neighbourhood lives. Condos will spring up and peer into their backyards, reminding them that yes, indeed, they live in a big city. Hopefully, they will be at least financially compensated as property values increase so that whenever they do sell their homes, prices will reflect the positive growth their neighbourhood has experienced.

But who’s going to buy a house with a condominium complex towering over it? Future Toronto homeowners, is my guess. Those who understand that to survive in any sort of sustainable fashion, cities are going to become more full and denser, and living almost right on top of your neighbour will be just simply a fact of life.

empty bladderly submitted by Urban Sophisticat