The Magic Middle

March 15, 2011

Talk is brewing of some sort of middle ground bubbling up from the rancorously partisan divisions at City Hall. Over at Spacing yesterday, John Lorinc wrote of the Gang of Six; six new councillors who didn’t hue to strict left-right voting patterns during the protracted special council meeting called by the mayor last Wednesday to de-board the TCHC. While Mayor Ford comfortably triumphed on the main issues of the evening, some cracks formed on side motions and amendments that showed the administration doesn’t hold an iron grip on a majority of council.

So as we move forward from what everyone’s referring to as the low-hanging fruit that the mayor’s been successfully bashing away at – and yes, as complicated an issue as the TCHC imbroglio was, its treatment by city council and the press made it a big ol’ low-hanging, over-ripe fruit – and onto more challenging matters like, say, garbage privatization, selling off of city assets, further and deeper cuts to things like the TTC, things may not go as swimmingly the mayor’s way. What happens when things become much more contentious not just between right and left but for those trying to navigate the bipartisan, middle way? When the mob’s frenzied, anti-government bloodlust is sated and people start looking around and realizing, wait, you’re cutting what? That wasn’t part of the deal.

Will the so-called tug-of-war between the left and right on city council become less one-sided with the current winners, Team Ford, having to learn how to be conciliatory instead of confrontational? Is this administration even capable of such a gesture?

It seems hard to imagine not just because the mayor’s been so heavy-handed since taking office but his decade long career as a councillor points to a pathological inability to get along with those he doesn’t agree with. His is a black and white world, and consensus is deemed a sign of weakness. You’re either with him or against him. If you’re against him, it can only mean that you’re a socialist. Or worse.

The problem with the debate so far is that it’s being painted in terms of this radical view of Mayor Ford. I am hard pressed to think of any current (or recent) councillor who veers as hard left as the Fords veer hard right. Yes, City Hall was called Silly Socialist Hall under David Miller. By Sue-Ann Levy who shares the equally skewed opinion with Mayor Ford and his brother that anyone to the left of them is a… how did she describe it in a recent babbling rant? “…gravy train-enabling, public teat-sucking, union-loving… leftist hangers-on and despicable leftist hypocrites.” The mayor himself back in the day when he was still a councillor referred to the Globe and Mail as a ‘socialist newspaper’ in the now infamous Fat Fuck video that he starred in with Giorgio Mammoliti and John Barber.

The Globe and Mail. A socialist rag.

This current council does not suffer from a deeply divided left-right cleft. It is all about the far right versus moderates. The question is, under the baleful, full court press of the mayor and his team, can a genuinely moderate group of councillors emerge and start holding sway come vote time?

Let’s start with the six Lorinc mentions, Councillors Bailão, Berardinetti, Colle, Matlow, McMahon and Robinson. If they consistently voted with the 16 or so who regularly oppose the mayor, they’d still come up 1 short of a majority. Councillors Chin Lee and Ron Moeser have not been slavish in their devotion to Mayor Ford, so they couldn’t be ruled out as allies in this enterprise. That still leaves this group precariously dependent on everyone dutifully following suit which, it seems, only the mayor can count on currently.

So to cobble together a more comfortable consensus, you’d have to look to chip away at that wall of unflagging support Team Ford now can count on to push his agenda through. Discounting the new councillors Crisanti, Crawford and Pasternak who have cast their lot in with the mayor and mortgaged their future on his continued popularity… oh, and his brother, Doug, the mayor’s political Siamese twin… there are 16 councillors who all worked with Mayor Ford when he was a councillor. We know they all didn’t share his views or votes back in the day. In fact, it would be interesting to figure out what kind of common ground they shared with the mayor while serving as councillors together. (Paging Ford For Toronto! Paging Ford For Toronto!)

Surely a handful of these could be counted to buck the mayor if a reasonable centre began to take hold. Giorgio Mammoliti, once sworn enemy of Rob Ford and a fair-weather friend if ever there was one. Nobody else can do an about-face political pirouette like he can. I’d put Karen Stintz in a similar camp. Gloria Lindsay Luby has already opposed the mayor on an amendment during the TCHC debate. As has Frank Di Giorgio on occasion. Denzil Minnan-Wong and Paul Ainslie both smack of opportunists. Councillors John Parker, Michael Thompson, David Shiner and Norm Kelly seem like they’re capable of independent thought and/or can’t be considered hard core ideologues. Think about the sweet revenge, Councillor Peter Milczyn, if you helped make the mayor irrelevant after he tried to unseat you in October.

The fact is, Mayor Ford is irrelevant when we’re talking about finding middle ground. He doesn’t know how and wouldn’t be interested if he did. As Lorinc pointed out in his Spacing piece, the man voted against amendments to the TCHC motion despite them being right up his alley in terms of oversight simply, it seems, because he didn’t like who brought them forth, Councillors Shelley Carroll and Adam Vaughan which, if true, is nothing but spiteful, partisan politics. You can’t find a middle way with that.

In order for this council to find a moderate, middle-of-the-road consensus, Mayor Ford will have to be sidelined. While I realize that is easier said than done as he holds a lot of high cards, it is worth remembering that despite his claims to having a mandate, nearly 53% of Torontonians didn’t give him one. It is those folks you should be afraid of not the mayor.

moderately submitted by Cityslikr

Buckle Up! It’s Budget Debate Time.

February 23, 2011

So today begins 4 days of debate, bluster, posturing, finger pointing and maneuvering before the 2011 operating and capital budgets are voted on and put into action. After being fast tracked through weeks of committees, public deputations and PR battles, the day of reckoning is nigh. The expedited budget, Mayor Rob Ford’s first born, is prepped and ready to go.

To be sure, this budget will be passed, pretty well intact. I’m betting the final vote won’t be that close. Even councillors not aligned with the mayor, sitting nearer the mushy middle than the far right, will go along with the budget especially those representing the more suburban wards. They can’t ignore the big fat goose egg of a property tax increase their constituents will hold tightly onto as proof City Hall is finally listening to what they want. The increase in user fees and various ‘minor’ cuts will take some time to poke holes and deflate the belief bubble many voters insist on living within, convinced that yes, you can get something for nothing.

What will be interesting to watch are the votes that occur when various motions and amendments emerge. Again, the mayor will have his way almost certainly 100% of the time. But some of the votes will be much closer than the final yea or nay on the budget. While Mayor Ford has been on the kind of winning streak at council one expects from someone newly minted into the office, there have been times when his team has had to whip enough councillors in place to secure 1 vote victories. Expect to see some of those in the lead up to Monday’s big vote.

Also expect to see the mayor relatively quiet and sanguine throughout the whole process. Aside from the odd moment when his former boisterous councillor self has turned red-faced and threatened to erupt, he’s been congenial, amiable and seemingly happy to oblige. His brother, Doug, will probably bubble over in exasperation once during the course of the 4 days at all the lefties who simply refuse to understand that government’s just lousy with waste.

Deputy Mayor Holyday will riff on that theme as well, more regularly than Councillor Ford. Taking his glasses off, he’ll chide council to be more serious about taking up the challenge of fiscal responsibility. He may not start a statement with an ‘In my day…’ but that’s just what it’ll feel like. Every time he opens his mouth.

Budget Chief Mike Del Grande will grumpily inform every councillor who thinks the cuts in the budget are too draconian that We. Just. Can’t. Afford. anything. And Everything. Is. On. The. Table. He will also remind everyone that he’s got a thankless, dirty job but someone’s got to do it.

Speak Nunziata won’t be able to mask her contempt for those she disagrees with and will rule them out of order even if they aren’t and brush aside the city clerk who tells her she’s not following protocol. Protocol and procedures are not the Speaker’s strong suits. How many she ignores, steamrolls and/or disregards is anybody’s guess but the over/under currently is 11.

Councillor Mammoliti will rise often and patronizingly tell dissenting councillors that he understands where they’re coming from (he doesn’t) and implore them to just trust him and his newest, bestest friend, the mayor. Councillor Thompson will talk and talk and talk, sounding as if he’s not totally in the mayor’s corner but will invariably vote with him every time. Fingers crossed that councillors Palacio and DiGiorgio aren’t inclined to try and match councillors Mammoliti and Thompson verbosity for verbosity as, well, actually, let them talk. We’ll need time for the occasional pee break. Councillor Milczyn will counter every criticism of the budget with examples of atrocities committed under the Miller regime.

Councillors Vaughan and Perks (ably assisted by newcomer Josh Matlow) will all bug Speaker Nunziata, Deputy Mayor Holyday, the budget chief, councillors Ford, Shiner and Milczyn to no end. Perks and Vaughan will be the ones bringing forth motions and amendments that will send Team Ford scrambling to beat back. If anyone is denied a point of order or not voted an extension to speak, it’ll be either Councillor Vaughan or Perks. Someone will inevitably call one of them a Left Wing Kook which will leave things wide open for councillors Carroll and Davis to seem more than reasonable in pointing out the unreasonableness of much of the budget and its proponents.

Oh yes, it’s going to be 4 days of fun and games, made all the more circus-like because of the inevitability of the ultimate outcome. A budget vote with a safety net. Ironic since it will be the first step toward a more sweeping attempt by the administration to dismantle the safety net the city has carefully stitched together over the last 7 years, beginning with an entire budget review process that will start up almost immediately upon passage of this budget. So enjoy the frivolity, folks, because for here on in it just might get loud.

prognosticatingly submitted by Cityslikr

Problems With Governing

February 18, 2011

We have to stop overreacting to every mumbled declaration coming out of the mayor’s office. We really do.

And I don’t say this, casting aspersions. I am the worst culprit. Whether the mayor (or his official mouthpiece and brother) pronounces Transit City dead or calls for an NFL team to make the city world class or sketches out half-baked subway plans or demands dictatorial mayoral powers, I trend outrage. Can you believe the shit coming out of their mouths?! What are they up to? My god, the sky is falling!!

It’s understandable, this reaction. The boys ran a near flawless election campaign, playing both to their candidate’s strengths and expertly exploiting the gaping weaknesses of his opponents, and installed a stratospherically improbable outsider into the position of mayor. Geniuses of the darkest kind.

So naturally we assume Ford & Co. are bringing that A-game to City Hall. We see machinations with every maneuver, political scheming at the heart of everything that comes out of their mouths. Earnest vigilance must be maintained as we comb through the nuances, trying to read the tea leaves of what is surely a diabolical plan to destroy Toronto as we know it.

I’m beginning to think that as much as we underestimated their power to elect Rob Ford, we’re now overestimating the team’s ability to run City Hall. Having convinced themselves (and enough voters) that the solution to our woes was as easy as fiscal restraint, they have run face-first into the complex.. y glass of actual governance. And the degree of outlandishness in the statements issued from the Ford brain trust is directly proportional to the confusion and scattered thinking going on behind the scenes.

It’s a thought that came to me as I spent a day watching the Executive Committee in action. As ideologically and geographically rigid as it is, the mayor’s cabinet is not functioning like a well oiled machine. Not surprisingly as these are early days yet and this is their first budget process, made all the more manic by the expedited time frame that all signed on to. That some of the team now rail about the lack of quick answers, decisions and reports coming from staff and other committees is indicative of the lack of foresight running through the group. You cut the budget time in half, there are going to be hiccups and stumbles. To expect otherwise is simply admitting you don’t really know how things work.

Many members of the Executive Committee have been out of power positions for a long time if not always, so they’re just getting their sea legs. It also doesn’t help that those councillors who signed on to join Team Ford share, to varying degrees, the mayor’s simplistic view of governing. Stopping The Gravy Train, and all that. So, they aren’t the sharpest tacks in the carpet.

This is one of the drawbacks of the stronger (but not as strong as Doug Ford would like) mayoral system that was ushered in with the City of Toronto Act in 2006. Given the power to now pick an Executive Committee (as opposed to having it emerge from the elected chairs of the standing committees as was previously done), it’s all about buying into and running with the mayor’s vision, let’s call it. This is not unique to Mayor Ford. David Miller did the exact same thing in his 2nd term. The wider geographic and ideological representation of the Miller Executive Committee probably reflected a wider political view in the mayor rather than a less ironclad grip.

While purer, Mayor Ford’s committee is not without divergence. There are the star/power magnets. None more so than Giorgio Mammoliti whose slavish deference to the mayor is exceedingly creepy especially given the often times antagonistic relationship that existed between the two when they were both just lowly councillors. Mammoliti’s devotion, however, is in all likelihood about an inch deep and predicated almost solely on how popular the mayor remains. Ditto Denzel Minnan-Wong.

Increasing their respective profiles also might explain the presence of councillors Ainslie, Berardinetti, Robinson and Thompson. None seem to be hardcore ideologues. Peter Milczyn is the administration’s apologist, countering every criticism of his crew with examples of how bad David Miller et al were. His list of grievances against them is as long as the councillor is short.

Then there’s the ineffability of Norm Kelly and Cesar Palacio. Who knows what’s going on with those two? One’s practically mute and the other, well, he asks questions that baffle more than they clarify. It’s not a language issue. Councillor Palacio seems genuinely confused and out of his depth much of the time on the Executive Committee.

The hardcore believers are Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday and Budget Chief Mike Del Grande. These two are Fordites through and through, believing whole-heartedly that all this city needs is some tough love and fiscal discipline to straighten it out. It’s almost endearing, in a doddering, grandfatherly way in the deputy mayor whose inevitable outburst at the table is always followed by a little nap.

The budget chief is the one to watch, however, as much as he claims to be out of the loop sometimes. Proudly bearing the badge of Michael Del Grande, Chartered Accountant, he appears convinced that he can vanquish the budgetary beast with the simple math one uses in running a household. Don’t spend more than you earn. Anything else is simply an extravagance which We. Can’t. Afford. As he so tells anyone who thinks otherwise. Government’s just like a business. It’s. As. Simple. As. That.

The outlier on the Executive Committee is the disagreeable David Shiner. He seems much more aware of the reality than any of his compatriots. At least twice yesterday, he plaintively bemoaned the lack of provincial funding for the operating budget of the TTC. What’s that you say, apostate? Surely you don’t mean to suggest that the city actually has a revenue problem! Take that back and chant along with the mayor: the city has a spending problem. Combine that with the proposed plans from the city’s finance department to ask the province for a piece of the HST and things at the committee were beginning to sound downright Millerite.

Which could go to explaining at least some of the motivation behind Councillor Doug Ford’s outburst in the Globe yesterday about the mayor needing increased powers to run roughshod over the council. It may be borne of frustration and a growing realization that running City Hall is nothing like running a business. Not even close. Instead of seeing ulterior motives in such assertions, we should see admissions of, if not failure, than recognition on the part of the administration that this isn’t going to be as easy as they’d originally thought. Slogans drive campaigns. Slogans get slaughtered in the halls of power.

That is not to suggest we let slide the crazy notions that get floated from the mayor’s office. Let’s just stop immediately assuming that they’re part of some devious, Machiavellian plot. Chances are, they’re signs of commotion, disquiet and desperation in the ranks as they come to terms with the possibility that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew and are severely under-equipped to deal with the enormous task at hand. Accepting that, we can than adjust our response accordingly.

calmly submitted by Cityslikr

The Mayor’s True Colours

December 9, 2010

If you’re one of those people who think our city councillors are underworked and overpaid, I highly recommend that you attend a council meeting or two to disabuse you of such inaccurate notions. While just the tip of the iceberg of what their job description, meetings are grinds with as much, if not more, going on behind the scenes as what we see performed out in the open. Yes, you can point to the laggards, those not actively engaged and who would receive failing grades for class participation. I’d be willing to bet that for many of those, the parry and thrust of debate simply is not their forte. They excel in the multitude of other duties councillors are responsible for. And then there’s Cesar Palacio. I kid. I kid. I’m sure every council needs an invisible non-entity taking up space.

Council meetings can also be extraordinarily engrossing to witness. They’re like visual variations on the Pixies song structure. slowslowFASTFASTslowslowFASTslowFASTslowslow. Nothing happens. Nothing happens. Languor and stultifying boredom. Interminable talk about meal breaks. And then, the proposed schedule comes up for a vote and the seemingly innocuous ‘expedited budget process’ lying there within, suddenly mayhem breaks loose. Amendments start flying. Staff is summoned. Councillors scramble to and fro. Points of order demanded. Points of privilege taken. Rhubarb-rhubarb-rhuarb. Rhubarb-rhubarb-rhuarb. And then… calm. Repeat as many times as necessary. Vote. Adjourn.

Now it’s entirely possible that yesterday’s meeting was something of an anomaly. Uncharacteristically fraught with political machinations, the first skirmishes of a new council that has undergone a radical shift from centre-left to far right. Like a couple boxers in the early rounds of a fight, feeling each other out with jabs and some fancy footwork to find weaknesses and vulnerabilities in their opponents.

Opponents? you say. The election is over. City council should be a place where there is a coming together. A meeting of minds to hash out and seek to solve the problems of the city. Leave your partisanship at the door, buckos. Time to roll up your sleeves and get down to the business of building a better Toronto.

Well, no. While City Hall has never been free of politics (especially since amalgamation), this session is shaping up to take the discord to a whole new level. Starting with the executive committee and working down, senior posts in the Ford Administration are exclusively occupied by right wing councillors. More importantly, they are also almost entirely from the suburbs, meaning that on vital, big ticket matters like the police service and budget, there are no voices from downtown at the committee level. No geographic input for voters who didn’t hop aboard the anti-gravy train train.

And no, before you even try blurting it out, David Miller did not do the same thing (exhibit A: his 1st budget chief was a Scarborough councillor from the right of centre who supported Miller’s rival, John Tory in the 2003 election.) Neither did Mel Lastman so nakedly and insecurely pack his committees with such slavish loyalty for that matter.

On day 1, it worked for Mayor Ford. As he crowed to the Globe’s Kelly Grant, “We got everything we wanted.” Yep. Everything came up Ford on Thursday but not without some surprisingly strong pushback from a group of councillors led by Adam Vaughan, Gord Perks and Janet Davis over the ‘expedited budget process’ that the mayor is pushing, hidden within the council schedule proposal. When amendments were offered to give more time for council to sort through budget matters between scheduled meetings and to hear from the public, Team Ford scrambled hard to get just enough votes to send the amendments to the Executive Committee where they will in all likelihood die an ignominious death. A couple squeakers should give pause to the mayor’s machine that it just might not be as invincible as it thinks it is. Although, judging by the 5 hours or so I sat in council chambers, the mayor hasn’t surrounded himself with many of the reflective types.

No, the mayor’s team in council seems to consist of bitter ideologues more interested in exacting revenge for their exclusion from power during the Miller years than they are dealing with the problems of the city. In fact, a noticeable waft of anti-democracy hangs about them. During the debate over public input on the city budget, the Deputy Mayor, Doug Holyday, opined that deputations were largely for those wanting to get their face on cable television. Giorgio Mammoliti chided those councillors fighting for proper and extended public input for representing wards where their constituents were little more than public organizers. “The trouble with processes with lots of time in them, is that they allow people to organize,” the councillor griped. What?! The people organized! Well, that just won’t do.

All of which flies in the face of Mayor Ford’s open and transparent City Hall promise on the campaign trail. His ‘expedited budget process’ seems dodgy and unnecessary. Their claim of merely seeking to eventually shift it to a January 1st-December 31st timeline has as many minuses as it does pluses. The haste in wanting to get the budget wrapped up by the end of February (rather than the usual April) appears to be driven more by stealth than any sort of respect for the taxpayers.

Of course, that seems absolutely preposterous. Rob Ford campaigned on a platform of looking out for the little guy. Surely, his objective now that he’s in office wouldn’t be to exclude them from such an important civic matter as the budget. Because that would mean that within less than one council meeting, he’s already broken one of his main election platforms. Clearly, I must be jumping the gun.

stealthily submitted by Cityslikr

No More More Of The Same

September 5, 2010

Earlier this week as the mayoral candidates prepared for another series of debates, some questions popped up about the inclusion of 6th placer, Rocco Achampong. Why now? Why not months ago? Nobody ever listened to what former candidate Giorgio Mammoliti said about anything else when he was campaigning. So how come they took him up on including Achampong in the debates?

The most salient argument against including newcomers to the proceedings at this relatively late stage of the game is that now is the time to start winnowing down not opening up. We need to focus in on the front running campaigns, one of which will produce Toronto’s next mayor. To throw the doors open will simply muddy the waters, cause voter disarray and make post-Labour Day clarity and decision making near impossible.

My response to that would be, have the candidates earned such a free pass? Months and months into this, with countless debates already under their belts and exclusive media access, and no one’s yet broken through. So what’s just more of the same going to accomplish?

Of course, that’s not entirely true. Rob Ford has more than broken through. He is the one candidate that has run what must be considered a near flawless campaign so far. How else to explain his turning a mindlessly pea-brained platform that can be re-uttered by even the densest voter – Stop The Gravy Train! – into a 1st place standing? Ford should be the joke of this race and yet the only one to even so much as land a punch on him is, well, Ford himself.

Take this past week for example. Ford bumbled, stumbled and fumbled through 3 debates, two of which, to be fair, were not his strong suit, city heritage and the environment. But what’s the news grabbing the headlines over the weekend? George Smitherman telling a Rocco Rossi campaign staffer to either fuck or screw off after they tried handing him some pamphlet apparently critical of his candidacy.

(To give George some props on this issue, I’ve encountered the Rossi Red Army at a number of debates. Their aggressive chair saving and Pavlovian cheering at their candidate’s increasingly loud, shrill empty rhetoric have made me inclined to want to tell a few of them to fuck off on occasion as well. So that’s a point for Smitherman in my books.)

If anything, this suggests that the mayoral debates need some new blood not a closing of ranks. Achampong has not embarrassed himself even if he hasn’t distinguished himself either. Part of the problem as I see it is that he’s singing from the same fiscal conservative, social liberal songbook as Smitherman, Rossi and Thomson. So it’s difficult to differentiate his views from the rest of the pack. Still, he’s proving that there are other credible candidates out there we should be hearing from.

My first choice would be HiMY SYeD. (Don’t worry, potential debate moderators. The name’s much easier to pronounce than it looks. Simpler than ‘Achampong’ which seems to be giving everyone verbal fits.) Following SYeD out on the hustings largely through his almost superhuman Twitter output, he appears to have more knowledge and ideas about civic governance than any of the leading candidates outside of Joe Pantalone. Let’s see how he fares up under the debate spotlights. He’s earned it.

That’s seven. How be we make it an even number? I’d nominate George Babula or Sonny Yeung. Give them a crack at the big time. Hell, let’s see what Keith Cole is up too as the campaign kicks into high gear. He acquitted himself well at the Better Ballots debate back in June. No reason he wouldn’t again if given another shot.

While much noise is being made over this final summer long weekend about how people’s attention will start to hone in on the municipal campaign as it heads toward the October 25th conclusion, I’m not sure how delivering them the same dog-and-pony show will accomplish anything other than having more people feeling as discouraged and disenchanted as those who’ve been following from the beginning. To borrow an inane phrase Rocco Rossi’s been touting over and over again, isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result? What this campaign doesn’t need is more of the same. It needs a shake-up that can only come with bringing in new voices and new ideas.

still hopeful(ly) submitted by Cityslikr