Civic Inaction

June 4, 2014

Listening to the new CEO of the Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance, Sevaun Palvetzian, on Metro Morning yesterday,listeningtotheradio the thought crossed my mind just as host Matt Galloway articulated it. “What has that got us?” That, being the type of advocacy and public discourse generating the GTCAA undertakes. The harnessing ‘the wisdom of the crowds”, as Ms. Palvetzian stated.

The GTCAA has been on the forefront of the region’s congestion question during the past couple years or so. Its Your32 campaign sought to bring home the total cost of congestion to each individual living in the GTHA, not just in terms of money but time lost as well. What would you do with the extra 32 minutes you’d gain if we all weren’t bogged down in traffic and under-serviced by public transit?

Get building more transit, the group chimed in. Fund it. Build it. Push on with The Big Move. Now.

A great discussion to be having but where’s the action, Civic Action Alliance? doitdoitdoitThe follow through? The results?

That’s probably too harsh. New transit is being built. The University-Spadina subway extension. The Eglinton LRT crosstown.

But there’s a shitload more to do and lots of questions about project priorities and where to get the money to fund them. Questions the GTCAA participated in asking and promoting to a wider audience for a broader discussion. The group helped create a real sense of urgency on the transit file.

And then, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum of decision making.

John Tory, the former GTCAA chair, and the former CEO Mitzi Hunter, both left the organization to pursue political positions. civicactionallianceMs. Hunter won a seat in the provincial legislature for the Liberal government in a Scarborough by-election last summer and is running for re-election in the current general election. Mr. Tory is seeking the job of mayor of Toronto.

I think it’s safe to say that neither candidate has pursued the transit issue with the same zeal they had back in their GTCAA days. Hunter, mysteriously, became the Scarborough Subway Champion as part of the Liberal’s backroom politicization of the transit file in order to retain the seat, backing the more expensive and less expansive subway plan over the original Big Move LRT extension of the Bloor-Danforth line eastward. A switch Tory also favours as part of his mayoral campaign. We’re hearing little from either one of them about any sort of funding tools beyond the dedicated property tax increase for the Scarborough subway. coginthemachineRather than agents of change, they’ve settled into the role of obstructionists.

Writing this, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that politics is where bold ideas go to die. Give a listen to the Metro Morning segment following the interview with Ms. Palvetzian. Three party appointed talking heads spouting talking points ahead of the provincial leaders’ debate last night. Oh, that leaders’ debate last night! The boldest vision based on a monumental lie and the other two just carefully calculated poses.

We can talk all we want, hash out plans, harness the wisdom of crowds, but if those we elect to implement such wisdom shrug off the responsibility of doing so, what’s it matter? Do we just accept the role of demanding big change while settling for incremental?

This is where political apathy sets in. “Where has that got us?” as Matt Galloway asked. What’s it matter? talkingheadsOur political leaders are listening to someone but it sure as hell ain’t us.

And I have to tell you, news that the Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance had named Rod Phillips as its new chair of the board brought me no great comfort either. Searching through his bio, nothing jumped out at me that screamed civic-minded. Maybe I’m missing something but this is someone who until just recently was the head of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming, a provincial government Crown corporation that spearheaded the push for a casino on the city’s waterfront. Civic-minded? Really?

Perhaps we need to stop looking for outside help in solving our problems. Reading Marcus Gee’s 2009 article about the Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance’s (originally known as the Toronto City Summit Alliance) founder, the late David Pecaut, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe he had it wrong.

“The message of his [Pecaut] life is that you don’t need to beat City Hall,” Gee wrote. “You can go around it. straightlinefromAtoBRather than wait for the creaking cogs of official machinery to turn, he learned to build networks of interested parties, private and public, that could forge ahead on their own.”

Maybe instead of trying to go around City Hall or Queen’s Park, we should expend our energy going through them. I think it borders on the delusional to think the major issues of our time – congestion, inequality, climate change – can be addressed without government signing on.  “Let’s just go out and do it, and tell City Hall when we’re done,” Mr. Pecaut is quoted as saying. How about we cut out the middle man, and just go out and take control of City Hall?

If we’re really fed up with politics, with the inaction we’re seeing on almost every front, the conversation shouldn’t be about whether or not to vote or what the proper way to decline a ballot is. It’s long past that. getinvolved1We should all be looking for and demanding to see candidates on the ballot who reflect our values and aspirations. Rarely, in my experience, has that not been the case.

Sure, many have been longshots and no-hopers. As long as we stay on the sidelines or remain content to hold our nose and vote for the least worst option, that’ll continue to be the case. Our time and energy would be better spent trying to change that dynamic rather than passively accept it and trying to work around it.

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The Not Rob Ford

March 1, 2014

It probably seemed really easy in theory.

Just separate yourself from Rob Ford, the man, the human train wreck, but embrace the policies he’s pursued as mayor. wipeyourhandscleanThat’s what everybody’s telling us, aren’t they? Love the low taxes, increases in (non-car related) user fees, cutbacks in services and programs. All good. If we could roll back on a little of the crack news and police chief baiting, however, everything would be roses.

The wisdom of the latter portion of that analysis of the electorate’s pulse will be put to the test as the mayoral campaign unfolds especially once a left of centre candidate joins the race… an actual left of centre candidate is going to join the race, I trust. We shall see just how enthusiastic the folks have embraced what have been essentially austerity budgets at the municipal level for the past 3 years, and an alternative approach is truly championed. When the snow and ice have receded… the snow and the ice will eventually recede, I trust, and the city strains to keep up with all the pothole fixing and road re-paving. whatdidhejustsayNever mind the water main breaks and basement flooding.

But even the simple aspect of the presumption, the whole distinguishing yourself from Rob Ford, has not been a swift clean break. At least not right out of the blocks. At least not for either Karen Stintz or John Tory.

“We thought we were getting a responsible leader,” Councillor Karen Stintz told the crowd gathered at Tuesday’s Toronto and Region Board of Trade lunch time kick off to her campaign.

OK, look.

You might’ve agreed with the thrust of the Rob Ford’s 2010 campaign. That the city was sitting on a fiscal cliff. That there wasn’t a revenue problem. There was a spending problem. That it was time to Stop the Gravy Train, blah, blah, blah.

Fine. I think posterity, such as it is only 4 years on, has proven that thesis woefully incorrect. But not my point here.shiva

My point is, nobody in their right mind saw Rob Ford as a ‘responsible leader’. There would be no way to come to that conclusion, looking back over his 10 years as a councillor. Perhaps too many of us failed to see just how irresponsible he’d become but Rob Ford never represented responsible leadership.

What he was, and what his ardent supporters wanted him to be, was a radical break with past municipal governance in this city. Not just his immediate predecessor, David Miller, but even the more loveable, incorrigible, softer conservatism of Mel Lastman. Where Lastman wanted smaller government, Rob Ford and his brand of conservatism just outright hated government.

Rob Ford, Etobian Shiva, politico of destruction. His job was to level the place. He didn’t do a whole lot to disguise that fact. If you signed on, you signed up for that. Otherwise, you signed on blind.

So it’s a bit awkward now if you’re John Tory and news breaks during the first few days of your official candidacy that back in 2010, you donated to both Rob’s mayoral campaign as well as brother-Doug’s councillor race. More awkward still, you invite Rob Ford’s former campaign director and first mayoral chief of staff, Nick Kouvalis, on to your campaign team. imwithstupid2The distinction between you and the guy you’re trying not to be gets a little blurry.

Toss in the fact that on his bully pulpit of talk radio, John Tory could hardly be considered the mayor’s harshest critic. Even as a widely acknowledged civic leader as CEO of the Greater TorontoCivic Alliance, where rational public transit policy was promoted, Tory didn’t really push back hard on the grievous assault the mayor inflicted on the city’s transit plans. It’s all well and good to tsk, tsk Rob Ford’s appalling “extra”-curricular behaviour but I’d argue Toronto’s suffering more from the blows inflicted by his malignant policy pushes that Mr. Tory isn’t trying as hard to distance himself from.

At least, Tory’s got some actual, you know, distance between he and the mayor to try and play with. He was never part of the official Team Ford down at City Hall like, say, Councillor Karen Stintz. The mayor’s TTC chair until just a couple weeks ago, responsible for the regular fare hikes and service roll backs. She once wrestled the transit file from him, only to, in perhaps the weirdest twist of crass political pandering imaginable, pretty much hand it right back to him with the Scarborough subway he always wanted. Not exactly in the spot he originally intended but enough in the general vicinity to permit him to triumphantly pound his chest and bellow victory, regardless of how misguided.sunflowerskarenstintz

The twists and contortions Councillor Stintz is currently performing in order to be Not Rob Ford are equally astounding. It’s as if she’s trying to wipe our minds clean of the past 4 years with the soothing sounds of banality. “A better tomorrow does not rely on yesterday’s politics and old-fashioned thinking,” came one tweet. “We need to get past the dysfunction at City Hall and build a better place to live,” intoned another. “Let’s leave the battles behind us. Let’s leave yesterday’s attitudes behind. Moving forward,” sang one in an almost Andy Williams lyrical style.

She brought bags of sunflower seeds to her Board of Trade speech, bearing the title ‘Grow a strong tomorrow’.

AARRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

westworldYou can almost hear the gears grinding, smell the oily smoke generated from the calculated effort to be Not Rob Ford. Pick me. I don’t smoke crack. Pick me. I’m congenial not combative. Pick me. I’m just like you.

Team Stintz seems so determined to present a fresh, smiling face of non- belligerence and confrontation that it is scrubbing its candidate clean of anything resembling personality. A computer generated rendering of a perfectly polished aspirant to the mayor’s office, free of controversy or conflict. She is the veritable calm after the storm.

I am not Rob Ford. I am [fill in the blank]. I am whoever you want me to be, bringing subways and change for a better future, free from the nasty pastiness of the past. Vote for me. You will hardly even know I’m here.

blankly submitted by Cityslikr


Evading A Solution

December 13, 2013

It should be easy. At least, it should be easier. There is a problem. The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area has become bogged down in congestion. easyAs it stands now, the region’s public transit network is not up to the task of helping alleviate the situation.

So… ?

Build more transit. Pretty straightforward. It won’t be cheap, in the short term. In the long run, however, the savings will manifest themselves with a general increase in productivity that comes from increased mobility.

Besides, investing in major infrastructure isn’t exclusively about saving money. It’s about paying it forward. Investing in the future, in your children’s future, your grandchildren’s future. Playing your part in posterity like previous generation did with the roads you now use, the subway tunnels that get many of us around from point A to point B.

The details will always be prickly. The wheres and the hows will inevitably be politically loaded. (At times like these, it’s good to go back and re-read Jamie Bradburn’s great Historicist piece in Torontoist, Opposing the Subway.) Paying for shit we need is never a slam dunk case to make.

But it gets done because common sense and fair-mindedness prevail. Nobody loves paying taxes. giveandtakeThey’re just grudging necessities if we don’t all want to live in hovels in the hills.

Unfortunately, we have been living in an era where common sense and fair-mindedness are in short supply. This is how we’ve arrived at the state we’re in. Everybody hates paying taxes. They’re no longer grudging necessities but rather, egregious burdens on our lifestyles. All taxes are evil, as one of our local representatives has informed us.

In the face of such ill-will, our politicians have grown cowardly. With yesterday’s arrival of the funding report from the provincially appointed Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel – appointed by the province to undercut put distance between counter-balance the revenue generation report from another provincial government body, Metrolinx – the general consensus is, no political party is going to push ahead into a very likely election year with a platform of tax increases. Electoral suicide!

While it’s easy to blame them for such displays of cravenness, this is really nobody’s fault but our own. For a generation now we’ve swallowed the notion of low taxes and small governments as a path to prosperity. taxesareevilNot coincidentally, the very same generation where we’ve invested comparatively little in the public sphere. We sit behind the wheel of our cars, stuck in traffic, and wonder why. We wait half an hour for a bus before squeezing onto the crammed vehicle when it finally arrives, and wonder why. Bridges and overpasses crumble, and we wonder why.

This is the urban definition of the tragedy of the commons. We want and need something of a public service – i.e. transit – but think somebody else should pay for it. Gone is any sense of the greater good. Don’t look at me, jack. I already gave at the office.

There is little doubt that the ruling Liberals at Queen’s Park have for 7 years now, since the inception of Metrolinx, been doing their damndest to avoid the issue of funding public transit expansion in the GTHA. It was very much the very last piece of the puzzle they sought. When it came time to finally have the discussion, they desperately searched for partners to participate in what would definitely be tough talk.

And everybody blinked, looked the other way, made like it wasn’t their problem to help solve.

Toronto city council demurred to put in their two cents, choosing instead to draw up a list of we’d prefer nots.passthebuck

The provincial NDP said the revenue should be generated solely from the corporate sector. Details to follow.

The PCs, now the fossilized remnants of the political movement that kick started the divestment in the public good, assure us we can totally pay for the transit we want by tightening our belts and dipping into the pools of unnecessary current expenditures to build capital infrastructure. Translation? Since Bill Davis, we are the party of could give a fuck about public transit.

There can be little doubt that the parties and their pollsters have delved deep into this issue and concluded beyond the shadow of a doubt that taxing (even dedicated taxing) and spending (even on something we should be spending on) remains a losing campaign platform. Nobody’s convinced Transit Champions will put their party over the top.

Before we tsk tsk our politicians for their unwillingness to nobly go down to defeat fighting for a good cause, maybe we should try and figure out how we can contribute to making it more of a winning atmosphere for pro-transit building proponents. rollingrockEfforts have started with organizations like the CivicAction Alliance, Toronto Board of Trade and the city’s Feeling Congested. But 30 years of conventional wisdom that’s told us governments are the problem isn’t effortlessly overturned. It’s difficult convincing people that their long held, self-centred, narrow focus is working at cross-purposes to their best interests.

It will seem as if we’re beating our heads against a brick wall because we, in fact, are. Eventually though, even the hardest stone breaks. You just have to keep pounding away at it.

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Birds Of A Feather

January 21, 2013

Suppose sometime over the course of the next couple weeks or so, Mayor Ford’s conflict of interest appeal is upheld and he’s officially tossed from office. Suppose not assume because, waiting2for me at least, my assumptions over the last 3 years have been woefully off the mark, starting with my early mirth about the improbable prospect of a ‘Mayor Rob Ford.’ Here, there be no more assumptions.

But let’s do suppose the courts toss him from office.

Much has been made of the Candidate from The Left who would best oppose him. Olivia Chow? Councillors Adam Vaughan and Shelley Carroll? All with the inevitable concern for vote splitting between them, allowing the mayor to slip up through the middle to another unlikely election win.

But recently, there’s been chatter about the right. bowlingsplitThis poses as equal if not greater threat to the mayor than any sort of alignment on the left, I think. A split on the right side of the spectrum would probably be fatal to his re-election chances unless somehow the left fragmented into tiny little pieces which, after 2010, I don’t see happening.

That’s assuming (ooops!) there’s a vote at all. Council could simply appoint a mayor instead of electing to have a by-election. Re-appointing Mayor Ford has been seriously floated by the likes of Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday. Like some real life Dallas re-do. It’s all just been a dream.

But why would council do that? More specifically, why would council conservatives do such a thing? Why would they allow Rob Ford to continue damaging their brand?

That speaks to a bigger picture, frankly. imwithstupidA response to my post yesterday, My Problem With Conservatives, summed it up in under 140 characters. “Have been curious for some time about why moderate conservatives have allowed, what were fringe radicals, to co-opt their parties.

We’ve seen it down in the States with the Republican Party and, to some degree, up here at the federal and provincial levels. These are not your daddies’ Progressive Conservative parties. Hell, in Ottawa they cut to the chase and dropped Progressive altogether.

And it’s meant a certain degree of electoral success. At least in the short term. The results of the 2012 U.S. election suggest right wing radicalism is, however, hurting the conservative cause now. Here in Ontario, after 2 terms of far-rightedness under the Common Sense Revolution, the P.C.’s have experienced trouble bringing voters back into the fold even in the face of discontent with the ruling Liberal party working in their favour.

And here in Toronto, well, Rob Ford.

It’s not like his type of right wing crank politician never existed before. But they just weren’t usually allowed to drive the bus. proppedupDriving it into a ditch.

I guess a cynical view might be that council conservatives with an eye on the mayor’s office could see fit to prop him up until next year at this time when the official 2014 campaign kicks off. Then, all bets are off. Whoever decided to run could take the 10 months to draw a distinction between their type of right of centre politics and the mayor’s. The right message delivered by the wrong messenger and all that.

That would be a calculated risk, I’d think. If Mayor Ford continues to blow up in such spectacular fashion, it might be difficult to continue keeping the fall out off of you. A smart, progressive campaign would tar all conservatives with the same brush.

Political calculations aside, surely to christ, moderate conservatives at the municipal level must now realize that the mayor’s conservatism is harming the greater good of the city more than anything either of his immediate predecessors did. citybuildingIn fact, if any moderate conservative can still say with a straight face Toronto is in better shape now than it was three years ago should not consider themselves a moderate conservative. They’re willfully blind ideologues.

Take for example John Tory. A seeming old school Red Tory. Too red certainly for the provincial Progressive Conservative party.

As chair of Toronto’s CivicAction Alliance, he is now the public face of a group advocating for greater investment in public transit infrastructure in the GTA. They along with conservative leaning interest groups like the Board of Trade recognize the negative impact congestion is having on the region and the only solution is to spend money bringing our public transit system into the 21st-century. That means considering new taxes. Road tolls.

Is John Tory prepared to stand idly by and let Mayor Ford continue to spout his subway nonsense, given the opportunity to replace him with someone more forward thinking? And I’m not talking about Tory running for mayor necessarily. birdsofafeatherWith the talk radio bully pulpit he has, is he going to pipe up in favour of the status quo, keeping a mayor in place whose closet counsel is his brother, a politician on record as saying all taxes are evil? The private sector will build us our subways, folks.

It won’t. John Tory must know that. TTC chair Karen Stintz too. How about Councillor Michael Thompson?

For the sake of keeping a conservative in power will they all be content to let Mayor Ford stand for the conservative banner? Reasonable people shouldn’t let blind loyalty to their ideology trump city building. It’s OK to state that Mayor Ford has been an unmitigated disaster and still be a conservative. Someone serious from the ranks should step forward soon and say as much. Otherwise, it’ll start to look like conservatives of every stripe are more interested in power rather than good governance.

helpfully submitted by Cityslikr


Time To Talk Transit Turkey

October 9, 2012

If Mayor Ford really wanted to turn the page on the nasty car accident that’s been his last year in office or so, he could do worse than to enthusiastically adopt the city CFO’s report on transit funding strategies at Executive Committee meeting today. Instead of spending his time and political capital trying to eradicate any and all evidence that David Miller was ever mayor of Toronto, he could now simply absorb what was his predecessor’s most cherished legacy. Out transit the one time Transit Mayor. You want transit? I’ll give you transit, folks.

Of course, no such thing is going to happen.

The initial response coming from the mayor’s office to Cam Weldon’s report is pretty much par for the course for an administration that’s only viewed the transit file as a potential wedge issue. Private sector this from Councillor Doug Ford, senior levels of government that from the mayor. Any talk of new sources of revenue dedicated to building transit is just a whole lot of tax-and-spending in disguise. Team Ford, no can do.

Instead, Mayor Ford seems intent on keeping to the tried and true path of obsessing and trying to exploit inconsequential matters in the hope of righting the ship. Over on Twitter last Friday, the mayor’s former campaign director and one of his ex-chiefs of staff, Nick Kouvalis suggested 70% of suburban Toronto was unhappy with the plastic bag ban and he predicted Mayor Ford could win re-election on that issue alone. Hyperbole aside (and noting Mr. Kouvalis doesn’t officially speak for the mayor at this juncture), it does point to some skewed priorities from those in the mayor’s corner. They seem unwilling, uninterested and/or unable to cope with the more pressing concerns the city faces.

So what happens when one of those pressing concerns comes before the mayor’s Executive Committee for its consideration?

I imagine Mayor Ford will try to bury the CFO’s report under procedural manoeuvrings. Out of sight, out of mind; defer it in order to keep it from council’s hands for a wider debate. The city’s got bigger fish to fry than contributing to a region wide debate on transit building. Those plastic bags aren’t going to unban themselves, people.

In other words, the mayor’s probably looking to excuse himself from the discussion and hoping to sideline the city along with him. Go on ahead without us. We’ll just stay here and roll up into a ball of irrelevancy.

How many members of his Executive Committee are willing to stick their heads in the sand along with the mayor? This isn’t just some left-right, downtown-suburban issue we’re talking about here. Toronto’s Board of Trade is pushing this discussion. The bigwigs of the region’s post-secondary school institutes are demanding action. John Tory’s Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance group will be rolling out their attempt to kick start the debate this week.

But the mayor of the largest city in the entire GTHA wants to take a pass on participating?

Enabling such a craven approach will not reflect well on those who do so. Transit is too important an item to continue playing politics with it. We’ve avoided having this conversation for at least a generation now. Any elected official once more endeavouring to push it off onto someone else’s plate needs to seriously question why it was they sought public office in the first place. And voters need to question why it was they supported them.

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