(Mis)Governed

April 22, 2014

I’ve been mulling over our state of governance these days. Spurred on by the news of Councillor Adam Vaughan’s planned departure for federal politics, ponderingI kept wondering why anybody would make that particular jump. Sure, there’s the clout and prestige. In theory, the real levers of power are operated from Ottawa.

In theory.

Reading through John Lorinc’s piece today about Vaughan and the role the federal government plays in the running of cities, I have my doubts about the efficacy of delivering effective municipal policies from the federal level. You can offer up money, maybe even ideas. But hands-on tools to contribute directly? That’s a little more complicated.

According to a document that’s nearly 150 years old and a handful of court rulings during that time span, municipalities are nothing more than “creatures of the province” and “exist only if provincial legislation so provides…” dustydocumentCities fall in that place of dark matter between federal and provincial jurisdiction. To propose any sort of strategy, say housing or transit, for municipalities, Ottawa could be seen to be stepping on provincial toes. Why risk antagonism if you can just ignore these issues instead. We’d really love to help but our hands are constitutionally tied.

There have been attempts, for sure. The Liberal government’s New Deal For Cities Municipalities Communities (or whatever it wound up being called) under Paul Martin delivered increased funding that remains in place but little in terms of clarity. Nearly a decade on, cities remain without any sort of national housing or transit strategy. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), cities face more than a $200 billion infrastructure deficit.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how a change in government in Ottawa is going to reverse that. powerlessAt least, not in the short term.

I was boring family and friends over the long weekend, talking about this particular challenge of governance. Citing a certain Paisley Rae who had paraphrased Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi for me, talking about the importance of the various levels of government in our lives. (If I get this wrong, it’s all on me). Imagine if just out of the blue our federal government disappeared. Poof! Suddenly gone. How long would it take you to notice a real impact on your life? A month? Do the similar thought experiment with the provincial government. Poof! Gone. You’d notice in about a week? Now your elected representatives at City Hall. Vanished into thin air. Almost as soon as you step out the door, their absence would be evident.

Of course, it wouldn’t be that simple. It would depend entirely on where you lived and other circumstances. There’s much more overlap than that.

Still.

I think the role of our municipal level of government is highly under-valued and egregiously under-funded. oldendays1They are expected to do things that they have no jurisdictional command of or the fiscal tools to deal with. As the above article points out, the FCM claims that Canadian cities receive only 8% of the country’s tax revenues but are responsible for 60% of the infrastructure.

I’ve long contended that this political mismatch between the responsibilities demanded and the lack of capacity to deal with them has resulted in an increased presence of buffoonery at the local level of representation. Of course, we can elect somebody like Rob Ford because, in the end, it doesn’t matter. There’s no real power invested in that office. When we do dare to elect somebody with ambitious ideas for our cities, David Miller for example, they are destined to disappoint us because, in the end, they lack the real power to fully enact their plans.

What is clearly needed at this point of time is a complete constitutional overhaul. This isn’t 1867. Much, much has changed including where the majority of people live in this country. kickupafussCities. The hierarchy of revenue and power needs to be shuffled and rearranged.

Of course, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. So politicians like Adam Vaughan with ambition and big ideas gravitate to where positive change is possible even if it hasn’t been much in evidence, well, during our lifetime. All we can do is cross our fingers, wish him well in his endeavours and look for new politicians to represent us at City Hall who aren’t content with the severe limitations that will be placed on them, and who have their own plans to shake up the status quo that serves fewer and fewer of us.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


Wasted Effort

June 5, 2012

$16.4 million.

According to the Globe and Mail’s John Lorinc, that was the “Total council cost (including mayor’s office)” to the city of Toronto in 2011.

$16.4 million.

Any way you want to parse that number it’s nothing but peanuts. As a percentage of the operating budget? Even rounding it down to the nearest billion which would be 9, $16.4 million works out to roughly .18%. Yeah, less than a fifth of a percent.

How about per population? Again, rounding it down to a workable round number like, say, 2.5 million, divided by 16.4 million comes to about 15 cents. That’s right. City council costs every man, woman and child in Toronto 15¢ per year. [Or, if you do the math properly, $6.56/Torontonian/year. Still a pretty sweet deal. h/t Mg]

Yet our deputy mayor, ostensibly the 2nd most powerful politician in the city, has spent what seems like an inordinate amount of time and energy in an attempt to reduce that number even further. To where, I wonder. What amount are we willing to give to our elected officials in order for them to govern the city? Are we looking for a corps of volunteers like the fire department of Councillor Holyday’s youthful days in Etobicoke? (I completely made that up. I have no idea if Etobicoke’s fired department was ever volunteer or, even, if our Deputy Mayor spent his youth there.) Or maybe, we want part time positions, no benefits; just dedicated folks coming in every now and then in between their other jobs in order to fill out the necessary paperwork.

If the city needs to be run like a business, doesn’t another shopworn cliché need to be trotted out? You get what you pay for.

Unsurprisingly, Deputy Mayor Holyday has run up against the stony wall of reality. New rules that he’s proposing to the Executive Committee this month “…would allow councillors to offload various costs, such as smartphone bills and office renovations, onto the general council budget,” Lorinc writes, “in effect freeing up more funds for other councillor office expenses.” Let the good times roll, folks. Bunny suits all round!

That’s right. In his search for further cuts to the ways councillors use their office expenses, the deputy mayor is, in fact, proposing to restore some of the cuts Mayor Ford made a successful campaign platform from. Could it be good sound bite politics that bash at the hornet’s nest of electorate anger turn out to be terrible policy ideas?

One of the items off the table for consideration, however, is any agreement to have the mayor sign off on councillor travel expenses. In his bid to rid the city of gravy, it seems the mayor thought it necessary for him to micromanage the oversight of $53,000. I’m not even going to bother to figure out that percentage of the operating budget, suffice it to say, it’s a ridiculously infinitesimal amount that would be a colossal waste of energy for a mayor of a major city to expend.

Of course, how long would it take for Mayor Ford to just rubber stand a ‘Denied’ across every request to reimburse travel expenses? We all know the mayor isn’t much of a traveller, except stateside for Florida jaunts and to take in NFL games. OK. There was that one time he went down to Mexico on official PanAm Games business but that was forced on him by the previous mayor.

If the mayor had his way, councillors would stay put here at home or pay for any trips on their own dime. It’s called city council for a reason. The city. Stay here. Do your job. There’s nothing to be gained, nothing to learn by spending your time elsewhere.

There’s certainly no need to be going to something like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference for example. That ‘lefty shmoozefest’ according to the Toronto Sun’s and Team Ford typist Sue-Ann Levy. Nearly one-quarter of Toronto councillors were in attendance when, surely, just Giorgio Mammoliti and an assistant to take notes and file a report would do.

What are other cities and their representatives going to tell Toronto that it doesn’t already know? Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. You need a weekend living large in Saskatoon to find that out?

Such continued myopia is a serious detriment to this city’s well-being. The mayor’s right hand man (or the mayor’s right hand man’s right hand man) is discovering the limits of cutting our way to fiscal health. Our structural deficit has little to do with bloat in the operating budget and everything to do with limited access to proper revenue tools outside of property taxes. Just like every other city in this province and in this country. Getting together at an annual conference to air out and hear ideas on how to go about fixing that can only help. Travel expenses for 11 councillors to attend is a very, very small price to pay.

But as we’re discovering, there is no price to pay that is too low to escape Mayor Ford’s notice. Every expenditure is suspect, every dollar must be contested. It gives the appearance of doing something substantive without really doing much at all.

on the cheaply submitted by Cityslikr


How About That Infrastructure Deficit?

June 20, 2011

Do you want to leave our grandchildren our deficit to deal with?

It is a mantra often sited by deficit hawks to guilt us into cutting government spending. An iteration of it was pronounced in the U.S. by former Senator Alan Simpson when he was appointed Republican deficit commissioner last year. “If you don’t want your grandkids picking grit with the chickens, better ignore soundbite politics and get lawmakers to find real solutions to the deficit,”  so said Simpson who seemed unaware of the irony of using a soundbite to criticize ‘soundbite politics’.

Two can play at that game, Senator Simpson. What if we plug one word into that phrase? Do you want to leave our grandchildren our infrastructure deficit to deal with? How does that change the equation?

I came across an article last week in my Kawartha.com via the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. In it was a laundry list of infrastructure needs for Ontario cities, towns and communities that amounted to $100 billion of unfunded ‘unrepaired and unbuilt’ infrastructure according to the provincial government’s own estimates. “… delaying upgrades means higher costs in the long run,” according to the FCM’s Gabriel Miller.

‘Higher costs in the long run’. Try using that phrase with fiscal conservatives and watch their heads explode. We don’t have the money, they’ll yowl. But if we don’t find the money now it will end up costing more later. Thus, the infrastructure deficit is born.

What’s doubly interesting in this debate is that it is not simply we here in ‘tax and spend’ Toronto facing such a dilemma. Places big and small, conservative and liberal are under similar pressures. According to myKawartha, every Toronto resident would have to pay more than $1,000 extra on their property tax bill to deal with its infrastructure gap while residents of wee places like Prince Edward County and Perth face closer to $2,000 per person. Even the Fords’ favourite frugal city, Mississauga, is looking at nearly $450 million of debt in the next decade needed to fund infrastructure projects.

Clearly, it is a situation beyond the control of municipalities to deal with on their own. The revenue tools necessary to grapple with it are not at their disposal. So the internecine, right-left battles we’re now witnessing here at city council are fruitless. We can slash and burn all we want but we’ll still have an infrastructure deficit. Probably even more so. Since our ability to generate more revenue is severely limited, neither can we tax our way to better infrastructure health because the costs would be too unbearable for most households to carry. Although claiming we are over-taxed as a way to cut and freeze taxes is fallacious at best, highly destructive at worst.

This is a fight that needs to be re-directed at so-called ‘senior’ levels of government. Their coffers are where our tax money goes (90%+ by most estimates). They, both Liberal and Conservative, have been the laggards on this issue, dating back to the 1980s. For the past 3 decades, successive federal and provincial governments have been able to ignore this coming perfect infrastructure storm as it manifests itself mostly at the local level. Disintegrating roads and sewer systems. Dilapidated community centres. Diminishing social housing.

In fact, one could argue that both Ottawa and Queen’s Park have attempted to balance their books on the backs of cities. We need to start calling them out on that. Municipal politicians who don’t are simply doing the dirty work of their provincial and federal masters. They are the ones burdening our grandchildren with an infrastructure deficit and should be judged accordingly.

judgmentally submitted by Cityslikr


The Incurious Case of Mayor Rob Ford

June 8, 2011

We have developed a complicated relationship with our elected leaders. On one hand, we want them to be firm, resolute, strong in their convictions. On the other hand, we don’t like when they get all uppity and know-it-allish. Mr. Smarty Pants thinks he’s smarter and better than the rest of us. Imagine being forced to sit down and have a beer with him. Bo-r-r-r-r-r-r-ing!

Thus, we have creatures lurching up at us from the reactionary lagoon like George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Rob Ford — faux-populists – capturing a wave of support with their simplistic world views and down home mutterings that convince us that they’re just one of us. They’re looking out for us. They have our best interests at heart.

We want our leaders to have answers. They just don’t have to be the right answers. Hell, they don’t even need to make a lick of sense. Just blurt them out forcefully with no sign of wavering or hesitation.

Having all the answers means never posing questions or contemplating issues. Why bother? It’s just a big waste of time. I know what I know and everything else is pretty much m’eh. Eggheads need not apply. Stay up in your ivory towers where you can’t inflict your voodoo rational discourse and logic based reason on the hard working taxpayers of this city, province, nation.

So it should hardly come as a surprise that our mayor, His Honour Rob Ford, couldn’t be arsed to attend last weeks Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Halifax. What is anyone there going to tell him that he doesn’t already know? Did he really need to spend 4 days or so in some tiny city without an NFL franchise to find out that the answer is nothing more than Stop The Gravy Train? Send QB Mammoliti instead. He’s better at pretending to listen to other peoples’ opinions.

While it might be unrealistic to think that the official mayor would learn anything of value from a long weekend conference as he notoriously has trouble sitting through a day long meeting without developing a severe case of ants in his pants, why not send the actual mayor, Brother Doug, the so-called smart one, to take his spot? I mean, they kind of look a like. He could’ve said he was Mayor Ford and many of the non-Torontonians in attendance would be none the wiser.

A rookie on the municipal politics scene, it might’ve offered an opportunity for Councillor Ford to familiarize himself with the terrain, get the lay of the land, reach out and touch other urban leaders. Even as a token gesture to show that Toronto, the country’s biggest city, is taking municipal issues seriously. You know, lie. Keeping up appearances and all that.

But maybe Councillor Ford was too busy, fielding all those calls from outraged taxpayers, indignant that some charity thingie had blocked their god-given right to drive on the Gardiner and DVP for a few hours on the weekend. Maintaining a constant vigil to ensure motorists’ freedoms aren’t being trampled on is a full time job. Leaves little time to go off hob-knobbing with all those per-fesser, conference attending types who’ve never held a real job in their lives.

“Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow” – William Pollard.

Arrogance is debilitating especially when mixed with an unhealthy dose of incuriosity. Leaving your own assumptions unchallenged gives you the answers you’re looking for but invariably limits your options. In individuals, it’s tiresome. In our elected representatives, it’s deliberate sabotage of the public discourse.Those sort of politicians aren’t looking out for our best interests. How could they be? They’d have to know what our best interests might be in the first place and to do that they’d have to start asking questions they don’t already know the answers to.

posingly posted by Urban Sophisticat


The PM At The FCM

June 1, 2010

Sitting watching the video of Prime Minister Harper’s speech to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities from last Friday and I think it safe to say without fear of contradiction that I have not seen such a perfunctory public performance since paying $17 000 to witness the Eagles play Hotel California during their Hell Freezes Over For A Third Time reunion tour.

The man so didn’t want to be there. (Just like Don Henley.) He had nothing but contempt for those he had deigned to speak to. (Just like Timothy B. Schmit.) He chanted the phrase ‘Canada’s Economic Action Plan’ relentlessly as if to ward off evil spirits. (Just like Joe Walsh.)

Our Prime Minister couldn’t so much as muster up the pretense of graciousness to try and appear that he gave even a passing shit about the speech or who it was he was talking to. With the whole G20 meeting heat swirling around him, he put in an appearance and left the stage without taking any questions from the audience. Thank you and good night! Actually, it was less of a rote performance and more of a sound check.

And Conservatives wonder why they can’t make an electoral breakthrough in the country’s biggest cities? Even just a little love from Montreal, Vancouver or Toronto would put them securely into majority territory but somehow they are simply unable to reach out. Toronto should fuck off, we were told by Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Minister John Baird in the midst of the biggest economic downturn in decades.

While Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff didn’t exactly blow the roof off the place, he gave the impression that he’d at least put some thought into what he was going to say rather than slapping something together in the limo ride from the hotel. Ignatieff talked about the future, with cities being offered a more equal partnership. He talked about a national public transit strategy. An affordable housing strategy. A national infrastructure bank. To his mind, cities weren’t merely a “delivery system for the federal government’s stimulus program…” but “… ladders of opportunity.”

Hokum? Quite possibly. There is little question that many of the problems cities face currently can be traced back to a federal Liberal government’s budgetary slashing and burning in the early-to-mid-90s. A wrong they never even thought of righting until Paul Martin’s minority situation more than 10 years later almost, a cynic might argue, as a ploy to shore up their urban base.

Still, it’s preferable to a prime minister who steps in front of an audience of municipal leaders and refers to them as pothole fillers. That’s a level of smug self-importance and lack of awareness that is nothing short of staggering. Or maybe in Harper’s case, it’s completely calculated.

Like their eagerness to be seen dissing the “experts”, “academics” and “eggheads” in order to play to their perceived Sarah Palin base, maybe the idea of coming into Toronto and calling its mayor a filler of potholes went exactly as planned. This might also explain their whole lack of concern about the G20 controversy. Knowing how you can never not score points from coast to coast to coast by being seen sticking it to Toronto, it is very possible for this very political prime minister that he’s using the event to mark his territory as the top dog, alpha male boss. We’re bringing the G20 meeting here, see. We’re not even going to ask your permission, got it. We’re putting it on where we want with complete disregard for any suggestions you may have about where would work best. Because I’m the Prime Minister of Canada and you’re just a pothole filler.

If you’re a believer that the building of strong, sustainable cities is the future of building a strong, sustainable country, there is nothing our current Prime Minister says or does that can fill you with any confidence whatsoever. He clearly doesn’t share that view. To him the future is little more than balanced budgets and low, low corporate taxes. Cities aren’t even on his radar. They’re an after-thought, places to host international gatherings where he can sit beside other world leaders, basking in significance. Cities are just somewhere we live, where there are pot holes to be filled by lesser politicians than he.

submitted by Cityslikr


Crazy, Crazy, Crazy

May 31, 2010

Crazy Hazel McCallion, McHellion I’ll call her, as I’m sure no one ever has before, she’s at it again, spouting off nonsensical blatherings. Won’t this woman ever retire? Talk about your career politicians.

At a pre-meeting of big city mayors before this weekend’s gathering at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Mississauga mayor McCallion pooh-poohed a call for a new, more equal partnership between all three levels of governments. According to last Thursday’s Toronto Sun, “…McCallion said a new partnership is not enough — it’s time to open the “can of worms” that is the constitution to give recognition to the important role of cities, enshrining powers and revenue sources needed to keep municipalities viable.” Has grandma finally lost her marbles? Surely she can’t mean opening up the always divisive constitutional process just for the sake of such a trifling matter like municipal powers?

“It really means a look at the constitution, there’s no question about it,” McCallion said.

Now I know there are some who would say that perhaps we should cede a little ground on this issue to someone of McCallion’s… errr… experience. I mean, the woman just might be old enough to actually know the intention of the makers’ of our constitution, going all the way back to the original British North American Act of 1867? Maybe old Hazel has some insider information.

But if there really is “no question” about looking at the constitution why hasn’t anyone else suggested it?

Where's Hazel?

In order to give cities the powers they need to sustain and upgrade infrastructure and build stronger communities, wouldn’t our elected officials in Ottawa and Queen’s Park utilize every means at their disposal to make sure that happens, including looking at the constitution? Surely to god our Prime Minister and Premier, M.P.s and M.P.P.s aren’t so petty and rigid that they would blindly adhere to some document written back during the middle years of Queen Victoria’s reign simply in order to keep power (and revenue) in their grubby little hands while municipalities heave and convulse under the weight of increasing fiscal and human responsibility. That can’t be what McCallion’s suggesting.

And if there really was “no question” about looking at the constitution wouldn’t this be a major topic of debate during our current municipal election campaign? With all the tough talking hombres we’ve got running for mayor in 2010, you’d think at least one of them would be pushing the idea of increasing Toronto’s share of power and revenue through constitutional reform instead of nattering ineffectually at each other and casting highly dubious aspersions upon the present council and the mayor. If Hazel McCallion — who has been mayor of the 6th largest city in Canada for longer than most of Toronto’s mayoral candidates have been old enough to vote — has decided that the only way for cities in this country to continue to grow sustainably and prosper is for a constitutional rejigging, and none of our candidates seem to agree on that or even deign to bring the subject up on the campaign trail, well obviously, Hazel McCallion is talking through her hat on the issue.

Perhaps McCallion needs to take a little time out (nap maybe? Don’t old people need naps in order to keep themselves functioning properly?) and then read Carol Goar’s take on the matter in the Toronto Star. “…local taxpayers have lost their appetite for mayors and councillors who see Canada as a dynamic urban nation,” Goar informs us. “… the debate about building strong, sustainable city-regions has almost petered out,” she continues. You see, Hazel? If the Toronto Star has decided that we should just shut up, sit back and let senior levels of government ignore the needs of the some 80% of Canadians who live in cities, that’s the end of the discussion. We don’t want to hear talk of provincial status for Toronto or the GTA. Or pie-in-the-sky, pipedream calls for constitutional reform in order to put power and actual decision making in the hands of, you know, citizens.

It’s off the table, old lady. Municipalities are the playthings and pawns of our higher ups, regardless of how negligent and detrimental the policies of senior levels of government may be to our lives. You’d think after more than 30 years of being mayor, you’dve cottoned on to that fact.

insanely submitted by Cityslikr