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

Budget Proposal Goes Public

March 3, 2010

Hey-ho! Off to City Hall we went for day 2 of public deputations for the council’s budget committee’s proposed 2010 operating budget. Hopefully the sparks will fly like they did the previous evening when councilor Paula Fletcher got into it with one of the deputationees and a heckler from the gallery. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!!

Unfortunately upon our arrival, a subdued air hangs over the council chamber. Budget chief Shelley Carroll who is chairing the meeting reads a letter of apology from Councilor Fletcher and then lays down the law to the other councilor’s present about their comportment. This seems to have a chilling effect on the proceedings as the first few deputations come and go with nary a question posed by council.

First up, a representative of a branch of CUPE civic workers with serious questions about transparency. The budget proposal has been drawn up absent public scrutiny and, according to CUPE, contains confidential documents about cuts to staff and services that won’t be released until after the budget has been passed by council in April. For CUPE, this is not participation. It is rear-guard reaction to a done deal.

It’s hard to argue with this point as the afternoon unfolds. What kind of impact will a string of 5 minute presentations before the 7 members of the budget committee and a smattering of other councilors have on the final budget? A cynic might call it little more than an exercise in political theatre. Yet compared to the federal budget coming down at us this week that’s been drawn up in the darkness of a prorogued parliament, these public deputations represent the height of inclusive and participatory democracy.

The comparison is even more apt given what we witnessed during the course of our stay in the chamber’s peanut gallery. Our impression of the proceedings was one of a city council desperately trying to hold together the fraying fabric of the social safety net shredded to pieces by big ticket decisions made at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa. It was no longer a question of attempting to save everyone at risk from falling through the cracks but simply minimizing the number who do.

Child care advocates were out in full force, alarmed by the budget committee’s proposal to end council’s coverage of the rent for child care spaces in Toronto District School Board properties. This would be catastrophic for many low income households, we are told, while also deepening the city’s budget crisis as it would send parents back out of the workforce and onto social welfare rolls. Budget chief Shelley Carroll and councilor Janet Davis tried explaining that their computations were such that only full pay parents would be forced to pay more for their childcare and only then some $2+ per child per day.

Oddly enough (or maybe not) the male councilors present kept silent, asking no questions nor offering any answers on the childcare matter. Or maybe they were still a little gun shy about over-stepping decorum with the budget chief’s instructions still fresh in their minds because they were none too interactive with the other deputations either. Youth at risk programs. Social housing and homelessness. Children’s Aid. Marginalized communities and groups all facing even more dire straits with the inevitable belt tightening that’s in the offing with the proposed budget.

It was unfortunate that we didn’t catch sight of either George Smitherman or Rocco Rossi present while we were there. (Although we will give a shout out to Sonny Yeung, All Fired Up in the Big Smoke’s first Meet A Mayoral Candidate profile, who was dutifully in attendance.) It might’ve been instructive for Mssrs. Smitherman and Rossi to hear firsthand the possible results of their fervent dedication in finding “efficiencies” at City Hall. But this afternoon, clearly, council chamber was not filled with their crowd.

Those folks were out at Monday night’s meeting. Overburdened taxpayers, business owners and radio show host John Tory (doing his schtick from the City Hall rotunda) listeners gave their own deputations, imploring the city to reign in out of control spending or else face capital flight and economic collapse. This was the too much group. Too much was being asked of them to keep the city running. Tuesday afternoon was the too little group. The city was providing too little for them to survive.

This is the balancing act city council’s now attempting to pull off. Appeasing the solid middle and upper classes may lay waste to the growing number of have-nots we share the city with. Caving into the special interests of the less fortunate will send home owners and businesses heading to the hills of more tax friendly jurisdictions. Depending on what tipping point you think we’re poised upon (and every year come budget time, we seem poised on a tipping point) will determine the deputation you want to deliver even if it’s all just for show.

deputationally submitted by Cityslikr