Back In The Game

March 13, 2011

Not all that long ago, as recently as the waning days of 2009 in fact, I was happily living my life as a self-identified political apathete. Cocooned in a warm, fuzzy coating of ‘They’re all the same’, I voted when I had to and with very little enthusiasm. Calling myself a Red Tory to anyone who asked, I failed to recognize I’d become a species near the brink of extinction and that almost the entire right side of the spectrum had been slowly consumed by what can only be described as a brand of radical conservatism.

Then I went and did something stupid like sign on to All Fired Up in the Big Smoke and become involved, active and aware during last year’s municipal election campaign. I honestly believed I could bring a dispassionate, rational voice to the site but as things progressed… or maybe that should be, regressed… out on the hustings, it was a stance that became more and more untenable. Disregard grew into disbelief that morphed into shock, anger, fear until, ultimately, at the race’s conclusion, a little bit of my soul died.

“This is why you shouldn’t put yourself out there,” I thought to myself afterwards. “It can all turn out so horribly, horribly badly… bad? Badly?” Don’t like the sound of ‘badly’ in that context but ‘bad’ is in all likelihood incorrect.

So, I fled. In hopes of rediscovering my old self. My old, disinterested, apolitical self.

I took to the seas. I took to the bottle. I took to my knees to pray that it had all just been one bad dream. All to no avail. I was hooked. I’d become a junkie of the worst kind. The political kind. I can’t quit you, Toronto municipal politics!

Once having acknowledged and accepted that fact, I found myself face-to-face with a dilemma. By the time I turned my attention back to City Hall, it had become something of a partisan hellhole. Serious battle lines drawn. Whatever divisions that had manifested themselves during the election were, by the time Mayor Ford was sworn into office, deep to the point of moat-like. While my colleague Cityslikr seems to be quite content wallowing in such a nest of vipers, the thought of joining him struck me as wholly unappealing. Surely there was a way to make a more positive, satisfying contribution.

And there is. Voting/electoral/ballot reform.

If you hadn’t noticed, things are horribly out of whack on that front here in Toronto. In a couple great posts back in January, John Michael McGrath dug into the grisly details of highly disproportionate wards where some councillors are buried deep in constituent work while others have a lighter workload and have additional time to offer help, sometimes unasked, in other wards and do regular radio spots. It is a situation that seriously undermines the notion of one person, one vote that we like to believe sits at the heart of our democratic system.

While adjusting boundaries to more equitably distribute numbers throughout the city’s wards, there’s also a deeper fundamental change that needs exploring. Since amalgamation and the elimination of Metro Council, Toronto has suffered under a lack of city wide vision. Only the mayor is elected by voters throughout the city. So he (and it’s only been a ‘he’ since we became the megacity) sets an agenda for the entire city and must contend with the views and opinions of 44 councillors whose priorities for their constituents oftentimes sit in direct opposition to a broader view. For example? We all know that increased density is a must for our future well being. Yet where do we start developing? As the battle at Lawrence Heights shows, communities may see the need for more density but they don’t necessarily want it near them.

At the same time, there’s also a growing demand for a strengthening of local input into decisions being made at City Hall. This suggests we should look at giving more powers to our community councils. Not only would this foster an increase in citizen participation but it would also relieve the burden on city council to spend their time debating and voting on such hyper-local issues as extending liquor license hours to Paddy McMuldoon’s Irish Emporium Pub for St. Patrick’s Day or if a tree needs to be cut down in Ward Wherever.

All of which points to not only such electoral reform issues as at-large councilors and the like but actual improvements in voting. Yes, I’m talking about the bogeyman of proportional representation and changing how we cast our ballots. It is long overdue and we need to stop ignoring the claims of over-complexity that inevitably arise from the political class that has benefited from our current, first-past-the-post system. Arguably, this is something we could do most easily at the municipal level, owing to the fact we are officially party-less. Time is of the essence and new rules have to be in place soon in order that the can come into effect for the next municipal election.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Not only do reform-minded people have to contend with entrenched status quoers but there is a divide within the ranks of the reform movement itself. It’s a clash of ideas that was captured nicely last month by Jake Tobin Garrett over at Spacing and, unfortunately one that can be used by opponents to argue for doing nothing.

But that really isn’t an option. Voters continue to be disengaged from the process and campaigns at every level are rarely fought over issues. The first-past-the-post system seems to encourage negative, I’m-not-as-bad-as-the-other-guys races and a clawing for a mere simple majority usually leads to more voters casting ballots against the ultimate winner. And as we can see by watching recent events in Ottawa as well as City Hall here in Toronto, negative campaigning moves directly into negative governing.

So I begin the initial steps of understanding alternative ways of electing our representatives. What I do feel strongly about right now is that Mayor Ford’s campaign pledge of cutting council in half is a non-starter. It will only increase our democratic deficit and his argument that since we only have 22 MPs and MPPs we only need 22 councillors displays a monumental ignorance about the difference between the services delivered to the public by their councillors and by their representatives at Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill.

Secondly, what we need to demand right now is the ability to elect our municipal officials by a ranked ballot. For a primer on what exactly that is, I highly encourage you to read over what the folks have to say over at RaBIT. I know this wades right into the controversy over alternative voting versus true proportional representation (about which you should also read at Fair Vote Canada) but 21 of the 45 people making decisions for us at City Hall were elected with less than an absolute majority of votes. In fact, 5 of our councillors had less than a third of their ward voters actually cast a ballot for them. So we have the ludicrous scenario of someone like Councillor James Pasternak standing up at council, claiming to speak for his ward when, in fact, less than 1 in 5 of the voters in Ward 10 who chose to cast a ballot, voted for Mr. Pasternak.

That ain’t democracy, folks. It’s time for a real change. And that’s what I intend to dedicate my time to, back here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke.

submitted by Urban Sophisticat


One Councillor And One Mayor Are Not Enough

September 28, 2010

Early on at last night’s Ward 19 council debate, it became clear to me that Toronto’s post-amalgamated governance structure is woefully lacking in delivering us the representation we need and deserve. As the questions piled up (both prepared from business and residents association as well as the audience’s more free form stylings), most expressed concerns about purely local issues. The moratorium on restaurants and bars on Ossington Street. Park upkeep and organization at Trinity-Bellwoods. Traffic congestion in Liberty Village and parking at the CNE.

Undoubtedly, some of these have city wide implications concerning matters like density and park management, but it still felt awfully parochial, if I can use that term non-derogatorily. The debate was held in a parish, after all. So why not `parochial’?

Local matters should be the main duty of those seeking a council seat. To look out for the interests of their constituents. Councillors represent the peoples’ voice at City Hall.

But this leaves the city wide view in the hands of the mayor and the mayor only. Councillors sit on various committees that oversee municipal aspects for the entire city like transit, police, planning but they remain councillors first and committee members second. Leaving us with one voice in the face of 44 who must straddle the line between city building and ward defending. Sometimes these two roles not only don’t jibe but are in direct opposition to one another.

Which may explain some of the palpable anger and discontent at the debate last night toward outgoing councillor for ward 19 and mayoral candidate, Joe Pantalone. He was accused by many of non-responsiveness and unilateral decision making. Perhaps this was always the case but I can’t help thinking that as a high ranking official in the Miller administration, Pantalone stopped looking out for the concerns of those who had elected him while he was concentrating on the bigger picture of Toronto as a whole.

A city of this size and diversity cannot be properly represented by one official and a handful of councillors who are secure enough in their ward positions that they can attend to wider city matters. We need another municipal level of government (yes, I said another level of government) whose sole purpose is for the greater good of the city and to coordinate its place within the entire GTA region. A Board of Control, say, elected from the ashes of the former cities of Toronto, York, East York, North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke. Call it, oh I don’t know, Metro Council. But this thing with a mayor and 44 fiefdoms doesn’t really seem to be fully functioning.

It’s a dilemma I’ll be facing when it comes to deciding where to cast my vote for ward 19 councillor. On one hand, there’s Karen Sun. From her, I get a sense of someone looking to contribute to the building of a better city. That’s not to say she won’t stand tall for the people of this ward. She just seems to have a bigger vision. One that goes beyond the Trinity Spadina border.

On the other hand, there’s David Footman. Having just encountered him last night, it would be presumptuous of me to make sweeping generalizations about his campaign but what I saw at the debate (and read from his campaign literature) is a bull terrier in defense of ward 19 and the people living here. Mr. Footman very likely possesses thoughts about the city in its entirety. Upon first impression however, his strengths seemed to be very much local, on the ground.

Toronto voters should not have to make such a choice. Or rather, there should be a second option. To vote for someone like David Footman whose primary job is to look after our neighbourhood needs. And to vote for Karen Sun as our representative for matters encompassing the entire city. Such a system was in place back before we were all one city. Nothing about amalgamation has ameliorated the situation to the point where we don’t require a similar set up again.

undecidedly submitted by Cityslikr


Oath Of Allegiance

March 31, 2010

Reading where councillor Adam Vaughan may’ve fallen afoul of the code of conduct demanded from members of the Police Services Board when he issued a newsletter to his constituents briefing them with some details about the security and anti-terrorism plans for the upcoming G20 summit this summer. He received a reprimand for breeching the board’s oath of confidentiality but seemed less than contrite in the face of it. His response was quite telling.

“There is no higher calling at city hall than to be an elected representative in a city ward, Vaughan said. “The residents of my ward will get my full and undivided loyalty.”

Here lies the beating heart of the dysfunction that passes for the democratic process at Toronto’s City Hall.

Council consists of 44 councillors and one mayor. Only the mayor is elected city wide and, therefore, only the mayor speaks for all of Toronto. That must compete with 44 individual voices, like Adam Vaughan’s who are concerned first and foremost with their respective wards. It’s like medieval Europe with one king surrounded by rival and feuding duchies. Gridlock prevails and nothing short of all out war will bring about any meaningful solutions.

This is why single tier municipal governments are ultimately ineffective and detrimental to the smooth running of a city especially one the size of Toronto. Outside of the mayor and that one single vote, there is no one unified vision for matters that involve the entire city like transit or new development density. NIMBYism will often rear up and bite well intentioned projects in the ass. Like the construction of the St. Clair LRT, for example, that was disrupted and derided by orchestrated community groups that deemed their convenience to be paramount to a highly functioning transit line.

As much as it pains this true believer in streamlined forms of government to say, another administrative level is needed in Toronto as an advocate for long term planning on a city wide scale. Much like we had back in the pre-amalgamation days with the Metro Council. It was not perfect, no, but it was a voice for the whole of Toronto and wasn’t driven purely by local interests. Right now, the city lurches and convulses to discordant parochial rhythms.

And maybe if the loyalty of councillors like Adam Vaughan is fully and undividedly given to the residents of his ward, he should think about not sitting on the Police Services Board or the Planning and Growth Committee. These duties require a wider overview beyond the interests of just one ward, Vaughan’s ward in this case. His divided sense of loyalty smacks of a conflict of interest to those of us outside his ward and causes us to wonder just how effective his contributions are for the entire city of Toronto.

And shouldn’t a better, stronger city be the ultimate goal of all our elected municipal officials?

admonishingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat