Another Thought on Toronto’s Governance

September 18, 2010

Just in case anyone thinks it’s Cityslikr who does all the heavy lifting/seminar going around this office, I too was in attendance at Tuesday’s Rethinking Toronto’s Governance session at U of T’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance. Simply because he doesn’t have a life and rushes home to immediately put fingertips to keyboard, doesn’t mean he’s the only one who has thoughts on the event. Some like to allow time for percolation and reflection before popping off. Coffee and thinking. Coffee and thinking.

One interesting angle from the session which my colleague did not touch upon was a statement Paul Bedford made about a visiting urban thinker to Toronto. (I don’t take notes. Check the IMFG website when the webcast is posted for exact details.) After a walk throughout the city, this particular individual told Mr. Bedford (and I’m paraphrasing here) that while Toronto was most definitely a city of neighbourhoods, there was no overall cohesive whole.

What?! But that’s the kind of city we are! A city of neighbourhoods. Please don’t call our identity into question.

It’s an interesting observation even if perhaps apocryphal, given how well it aligned with the gist of Mr. Bedford’s talk especially when taken with Kyle Rae’s view that council remains ward-centric and many citizens refuse to let go of ‘old’ Toronto (and Etobiocoke and North York et al) and embrace the amalgamated entirety. How do you build one city from six? Is it possible to unite around a place called Toronto when many of its components (Etobicoke and North York et al) resent and dislike the very name of it unless it precedes the words `Maple Leafs’?

The Board of Trade’s Richard Joy was pessimistic that it could be done. Saying that it was strictly his opinion and not that of the TOB and refusing to use the word ‘de-amalgamation’ (there are precedents for that sort of thing, ie Montreal), he did wonder if the megacity was a failed experiment. In a peculiar twist from that thought, he expressed more interest in a region wide approach to governance. 416 and 905. Big and small. Small and big.

These are interesting times, here in Toronto. Living in a city that isn’t comfortable in its own skin. Factional about urban planning. Jealous like siblings over how our resources are spent. And now preyed upon and exploited by mayoral candidates who campaign within the fault lines while vowing to lead us, followed, of course, by a disingenuously heart-felt I Love My City coda.

This divide we’re dealing with is, like the supposed red state-blue state division expounded upon endlessly in the U.S., what I think is called a heuristic technique. (At least I hope so because the other word that comes to mind is `hirsute’ and that puts a different spin on the matter, entirely.) I’m quoting E. Barbara Phillips here, heuristic: “a model, assumption or device that is not necessarily scientifically true but is a useful tool to aid in the discovery of new relationships.”

Or perhaps in the case of our mayoral campaign, a model, assumption or device not necessarily scientifically true but useful to divide and conquer.

Are there differences between the downtown core and the inner suburbs? No doubt. Some are desirable; the unique cogs that make up this thing we call diversity. But what about those differences that are less positive? Can they be overcome? Well, that’s the 11.6 billion dollar question. They certainly can’t be if whatever inequities and imbalances do exist aren’t addressed directly by those wanting to be our next mayor instead of being used as a wedge to drive the two solitudes further apart merely for electoral gain.

If we can’t outgrow this largely mental divide — that there’s a war on cars, that downtown elites are dining on caviar harvested from the sweat of toil of hardworking suburban regular Joes, that Scarberians only want to be left alone to sit in their underwear eating BBQ on their John Deeres – we should just call it a day, cut our losses and go our separate ways. After asking permission from the province, of course. It isn’t possible to coalesce into a more unified entity when our fledgling leaders endeavour to lead by promoting disharmony.

That’s what we call a lack of vision, and the absolute last thing Toronto can endure at this juncture in its existence. We need to see what it is that makes us one city. Those commonalities unique to this place that differentiates us not from each other but from other places, other cities, other regions. The civic glue holding Toronto together in good times and bad.

Is there any aside from following professional sports teams that suck? If not, well then, these municipal elections amount to little more than futile exercises that occur every four years, serving only to get everyone’s hackles up before we all retreat back into our 44 little enclaves, telling each other to stay the hell off our lawn.

neighbourly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Rethinking Toronto’s Governance

September 15, 2010

There’s a curious cross-current of municipal political… thinking, let’s call it, at work during our present election campaign. One, which is why I hesitated to use the word ‘thinking’, is the actual campaign. Not so much a struggle of ideas as it is a monkey like flinging of feces to see what sticks to both walls and opponents. The other, conducted off-site and largely away from the glare of the hepped-up media spotlight, occurs under the auspices of academics, former politicos and private citizens involved in the generic field of city building. The pointy-heads and fat cats, to use the vernacular of Rob Ford and Rocco Rossi.

Such an event was yesterday’s Rethinking Toronto’s Governance sponsored by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Held just prior to the Jane Jacobs Prize presentations, it consisted of a talk by former Toronto Chief Planner, Paul Bedford, on ideas for changing the structure of the city’s electoral map. Ward numbers and boundaries, community council size and numbers, were all put out on the table for examination by Mr. Bedford. This was followed by responses to the proposals from Councillor Kyle Rae and Richard Joy of the Toronto Board of Trade.

I’ll spare you the details but highly encourage everyone to check out the IMFG website over the next couple days when they post the webcast of the session.

In a nutshell, however, I’ll sum up Mr. Bedford’s presentation like this: a dozen years into it and Toronto remains amalgamated on paper only; there’s still precious little real citizen participation and the tools for addressing these issues are within the city’s control both with the City of Toronto act as well as legislative powers it already possessed. The last point is of particular interest to us here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke as we have constantly railed about the intrusion of the province in Toronto’s business. Maybe too much at the expense of letting our municipal politicians off the hook, although we did find this an interesting read this morning.

Mr. Rae’s response to this was very revealing. The outgoing councillor for Ward 27, he’s been at it for 19 years now and has become the focus of the campaign as a symbol for all that is wrong with City Hall and its wasteful spending ways, what with his $12 000 retirement bash. While very enthusiastic about many of the ideas being tossed around the room, he expressed some serious reservations about implementing them. Some of it came across as self-serving and little more than a justification for inaction on the part of council. He seemed beaten down by the process after nearly two decades of contending with it and his stance may be the best argument for the idea of term limits. Governing is a war between competing interests and no one should be at war for too long.

However, Mr. Rae delivered a couple key points. City council is still a ward-centric, parochial body that often undercuts city wide planning and vision for the sake of local sensibilities. Not only are the councillors guilty of this, in Rae’s view, but many citizens hold on tightly to their pre-amalgamated view of the ‘old’ Toronto. They are resistant to and suspicious of change regardless of the merits and possible contribution to city-wide progress.

This is coupled with a municipal bureaucracy also allergic to change or innovation according to Mr. Rae. Nothing new to that complaint from an elected official, and one that is being trumpeted out on the campaign trail. But here’s the thing. Like it or not, the bureaucracy is an integral part of any successful public entity. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. A necessary evil, if that’s the particular angle you want to take. The thing is, belittling the bureaucracy, taking it to task or threatening it with dire consequences if it doesn’t bend to your almighty will seems petulant, patronizing and, most importantly, counterproductive.

A bureaucracy consists of people. Like most people, it reacts best to positive reinforcement, to be considered part of the process and integral to the building of a better organization, a better city. It needs direction and a reason to carry out change not to resist it. That can only come from bringing it a forward looking vision, an affirmative and invigorating mission statement for you more business oriented types.

None of this have we seen from the pool of candidates we are being told will spit forth our next mayor. So it’s tough to imagine how we will build a stronger, more unified city in the future with any of those we are threatening to elect to lead us. It just seems, regardless of what is being touted on the campaign trail, we will have more of the same ol’, same ol’.

thoughtfully submitted by Cityslikr


Smitherman’s Desperate Ploy

July 24, 2010

First, mayoral candidate George Smitherman flit over to China to attend a meeting of mayors although he had yet to be duly elected as such. Now he’s decided the time has come for a one-on-one debate with Rob Ford without outside distractions like, well, the 30+ other registered candidates in the running. It seems that George Smitherman will stop at nothing to become the next mayor of Toronto short of actually campaigning effectively for the office.

Presumption aside, it proves beyond the shadow of a doubt just how much of a bully Smitherman is. I mean, who wouldn’t want to debate Rob Ford one-on-one? It’s like picking on the slowest, dumbest kid in the schoolyard. Yes, some polls have him as the front runner right now but that’s only because no one else – including George Smitherman – has stepped up and delivered a compelling reason to vote for them. Ford is simply filling the vacuum with his focused rage at all the neo-conservative shibboleths that resonate with underthinkers. Overtaxed! Out of control spending! Bureaucrats!

Despite becoming more of a target now that his rivals are taking his candidacy seriously, Ford thrives in the present debate format. Like a whack-a-mole, he pops up every now and then to spout off bits and pieces of his anti-government tirade usually in non sequitur format before going back underground to avoid his opponents’ flurry of mallets. Perfect scattershot delivery for the sound bite age.

What could Rob Ford possibly have to gain granting more open and undiluted access? Sure, he’d assume the mantle of the lone right wing standard bearer but doesn’t he have that already? The entire mayoral field save maybe Don Andrews has bestowed that honour on him. If he turns Smitherman down, he might be perceived by his followers as running scared, poking holes in his football coach bluster. How would it go over in Ford country if they started thinking he was afraid of some fruit?

But the downside dwarves these concerns. Just him, Smitherman and a host, say for an hour. How many times can Ford talk about Kyle Rae’s retirement party or cutting council in half or killing City Hall’s indoor plants before he starts sounding devoid of any meaningful ideas? George Smitherman: So far, Councillor Ford, you’ve cut $25 million from the annual operating budget at City Hall. Not even close to a single, solitary percent of it. Now what are you going to cut? Hmm? Hmmmm?? Rob Ford: [harrumph, harrumph, harrumph, turning redder and redder] Errrr.. errrr.. errrr.. eHealth scandal! Tax and spend Liberal!! You went to Kyle Rae’s retirement party on the taxpayers’ dime!!! Probably danced with him, too!!!!!Nope, there’s absolutely no reason for Rob Ford to agree to a one-on-one debate proposal. Not with Smitherman. Not with any other candidate. He’s the perceived front runner and it’s his prerogative to decline. Ford’s in the driver’s seat right now and a desperate George Smitherman is attempting to bait him out of his comfort zone.

Smitherman’s also displaying a disturbing anti-democratic streak with this maneuver. Caught in a dog fight with an unexpected opponent, he’s trying to end run the electoral process, using some spin and optics to give the impression of it being only a two man race. Ford’s got the far off centre right vote sewn up while Smitherman’s splitting the soft centre right with Rocco Rossi and Sarah Thomson. Unable to differentiate himself from those two with solid policies ideas and a vision of leadership, he’s now trying to bulldoze his way with little regard for an open, varied and democratic debate.

What exactly does this say about the prospects of a Mayor George Smitherman? All politics with no governance? He is clearly trying to win this thing by setting up a situation where people vote not for him but against the other guy, in this case, Rob Ford. If he’s successful, then what? With no particular agenda or mandate, the city just flounders on a choppy sea of posturing, politics and horse trading. Pretty much the same scenario as that of a lone wolf Rob Ford mayoralty. Four years of inane bickering and inaction.

Nothing good can come of this. So do us all a favour, Rob Ford, ignore George Smitherman’s throw down. It won’t help your chances and, more importantly, it won’t do Toronto any good either.

hopefully helpfully submitted by Cityslikr


An Open Letter To Rob Ford Supporters

July 14, 2010

Dear Supporters of Mayoral Candidate Rob Ford,

I’m writing to you not to mock or belittle you, or to denigrate your candidate of choice for mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford. I’ve participated in such easy activities in the past but now want to build a bridge between us. Your man just might win the election in October, so I want to understand how that could possibly happen and how you imagine a Mayor Ford administration is going to help make your lives better. Consider this a letter asking for some clarity from you.

In his column last week, the Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume suggested that Ford represents the suburban anger that has reached a boiling point more than a decade after the enforced amalgamation made us all one. Your concerns have been marginalized by downtowners such as myself, shrugged off while we’ve been busy eating our brie and sushi, sipping lattes and demanding bike lanes, increased transit in the core and conducting our War on Cars, your cars no less.

Fair enough, and undoubtedly true. None of us wanted to be part of the megacity and it seems that those of you living in the outer ring of it in places like Scarborough, North York and Rob Ford’s home turf of Etobicoke feel you got the raw end of the deal. You’ll get no arguments from us here about that. Amalgamation’s miracle of efficiency and money savings never really worked out as well as we were to told it would, especially for you folks out there on the fringes.

Interestingly, Mr. Ford, the fighter for the little guy, takes every opportunity to evoke the memory of his beloved late father, Doug Ford who, as a backbench M.P.P. in the Mike Harris government, sat on his hands during the debate over amalgamation except to raise it in favour of the motion when it came to vote it into law. In direct defiance of over 70% of his constituents, Rob Ford’s father helped usher in an era of municipal governance his son and his supporters now rail against. Nothing more than an example of irony, I guess, but I do hope his father’s anti-democratic tendencies didn’t brush off on his son.

So let’s say your man becomes mayor and is able to muster a majority of the new council to support his way of thinking. (The second scenario much less likely than the first.) A frenzy of cutting taxes and slashing spending ensues. You wind up with a little more money in your pocket and fewer services at your disposal. Now what? How is it your lives are going to be improved because of that?

Transit City – a plan put into place to deliver better service to the areas of the city you live – will be gutted. Replaced by some mystical, magical building of subways your candidate insists the private sector will do for some strange reason that they have not yet thought of. That’s as detailed as his transit plan goes. Aside from making the TTC an essential service, the matter isn’t even referred to in the Issue section of his website. How is that going to get you from point A to B any faster or lessen the traffic congestion that is now part of your life?

I’m also mystified how cutting council numbers in half is going to increase Mr. Ford’s vaunted customer service agenda. I know you love to believe that every other councillor except Rob Ford simply sits around doing nothing more than counting ways they can steal your money except for when they’re partying with Kyle Rae but that is nothing more than an ideological fantasy. Fewer elected officials at City Hall (plus their respective staff) can only deliver better customer service if there’s less services to deliver. Maybe you’re content with that. Fair enough. That’s a different vision than making people’s lives better.

And all that money the city will supposedly save? Even taking Mr. Ford’s numbers at face value which is always an iffy proposition (take a moment to read Simon McNeil’s Writing and Tutoring blog post for an analysis of candidate Ford’s questionable numbers and spotty savings), he claims that eliminating 22 councillors and their staff will save the city $9 million a year in direct savings plus another $6 million due to some sort of nebulous “reduced burden on City Hall staff”. Reduced burden? Would someone please explain that one to me? Less demand on City Hall because it’s doing less?

Even giving Ford the dubious $15 million annual savings with cutting the council in half, what’s that going to do? In terms of a $9.2 billion budget it represents less than a percent. Much, much less. How much less? Let me write it out to 18 decimal points if it helps. 0.0016304347826086956. You know what $15 million will get you in terms of subways even factoring in the lowest estimated cost to build one subway stop? Half one percent of one. So with that cost savings, Rob Ford will be able to build one subway stop every 20, 000 years.* Oh right, I forgot. In Rob Ford’s world the private sector will step right up and build subways once governments get out of their way.

His candidacy just makes no sense to me, Rob Ford supporters, and it’s not like I won’t personally benefit if he becomes mayor. My taxes will go down (although user fees will very likely gobble up much of those gains.) I don’t depend on the city services that a Mayor Ford would attempt to cut. Oh sure, I’ll probably lose a bike lane or two but mostly my life down here in the core will be unaffected if your candidate wins in October. Except that, the city will feel a little more… vindictive.

Because that’s the vibe I get from your campaign. Vindictiveness. It doesn’t feel like what’s driving you is justified anger or outrage. It’s more of a temper tantrum. Rather than fighting to secure a better place for yourselves within the amalgamated city and thereby making the entire city a better place to live and work, you simply want everyone to be as pissed off as your are, as your candidate is.

It’s purely the politics of destruction and wherever it’s been tried before has never made anyone’s life better. How will it work this time around?

earnestly (and unironically) submitted by Urban Sophisticat

* Math may not be exact but it’s no more than one decimal point off. Either way, savings are going to miniscule.


The Unsoundness Of The Furey

June 21, 2010

We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke have sat pondering this post for the past couple days now, taking in a World Cup game or two and a handful of NXNE performances as we mulled over its composition. You see, we have rarely disagreed with much that comes across our desk from Jonathan Goldsbie. In fact, he as been anointed patron saint of this blog for his overwhelming support and constant promotion of it, to say nothing of his effusive praise for the work of my colleague, Cityslikr. But we’re writing today to take exception to Mr. Goldsbie’s description of Anthony Furey’s National Post piece from last week on Rob Ford as ‘insightful’.

To us, the only insight on offer is into the mind of Anthony Furey. His column reads like it emanated from the Ford camp itself. It is a pure piece of PR puffery, seeking to assuage the roiled nerves of the Fordians after their candidate hit the first speed bump on the campaign trail since he’d started polling as a serious contender in the mayoral race.

Rob Ford does not have his ear to the ground, as Mr. Furey suggests. What he has is his spleen dipped into the oozing wound of resentment that opens up during times of great economic uncertainty. My derision of the man as a candidate has nothing to do with him being a ‘dim-witted populist’ because Mr. Ford is mostly certainly not that. Rather, he is an exploitive demagogue (in the modern sense) who is attempting to channel the justifiable anger that is in the air and direct it away from where it ought to be aimed and toward more self-serving targets.

Rob Ford wants us to believe that the city is in such dire, apocalyptic straits (a scenario itself greatly exaggerated by all the candidates running on an anti-incumbent platform and the media looking for some juicy oomph to their coverage of local politics) due to the current administration’s out of control taxing and spending, unions and the fact that fellow councillor Kyle Rae spent $12K on a retirement party. All convenient objects of vilification for a politician bent on delivering up easy explanations to complex problems. Why the likes of Anthony Furey want to applaud Ford for that rather than castigate him is indeed, to borrow Mr. Goldsbie’s word, ‘insightful’ if somewhat perplexing.

Because an honest look at many of the problems Toronto faces right now reveals them to be, in large part, due to the result of policies and decisions made by short-sighted and parochial politicians. Funding shortfalls emerging from Mel Lastman’s campaign pledge not to raise residential property taxes during his first term. This, despite having no idea what the full costs of amalgamation would be to the city which turned out to be much larger than we were promised. A failure of nerve at both the provincial and municipal levels dating back to the Eggleton regime to pull the trigger on subway expansion that has left us with an underfunded and inadequate transit system. Traffic status quoists unwilling to imagine our city streets filled with anything other than cars.

These are the Knights who say Nay, rarely lifting a gaze past their ward boundaries. They appeal only to our worst instincts in the hopes of stunting any forward-thinking, inclusive vision. And Rob Ford is their 2010 campaign standard bearer.

Mr. Furey takes tepid exception to the Toronto Star’s comparison of Ford to Sarah Palin. On this we agree with Furey. The politician Ford should actually be compared to is George W. Bush. Both men are the products of inherited money and privilege who, adopting very different public personas, attempt to project a common folk sensibility. They also share a frightening lack of curiosity about the wider world around them. Combined with a rigid and narrow ideology, this makes for potentially destructive politics as we witnessed with W.’s reign. Our only consolation should Ford pull off an upset victory in October is that his power would be limited compared to that of the President of the United States.

Toward the end of his column, Mr. Furey brushes aside Rob Ford’s ‘slights to the gay community’, one of which, I imagine, is at the source of Ford’s current imbroglio. As we wrote in our post on Saturday, in arguing against a proposed $1.5 million funding of AIDS prevention, Ford said: If you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS probably, that’s bottom line. Now, if someone got up and said that back in, say, 1982, it might’ve been factually correct if grotesquely lacking in empathy and compassion. Ford bellowed it in 2006, showing himself to be not only callous, uncaring and unsympathetic but misinformed and a stranger to the truth.

He was wrong. Not just morally or from a politically correct standpoint. He got up in front of council and spread a lie about a life-and-death issue. That is not merely a ‘slight’, Mr. Furey. It is irresponsible. It is harmful. It is divisive. All trademarks of a demagogue.

And in our humble opinion, your column simply enables and encourages those reactionary traits that this city hardly needs in its next mayor. So yeah, in that way it was insightful. Into the mind of a member of the media who seems intent on cheering malignancy, obstreperousness and intolerance all the way into the mayor’s chair.

Sorry, Jonathan. We could not allow Anthony Furey’s column to go unremarked upon. Hopefully you won’t hold it against us.

supplicantly submitted by Urban Sophisticat