Deputations And Disregard

January 20, 2011

Let it be a given that annual public consultations on City Hall’s proposed budget are, always have been and always will be an exercise in, if not futility, let’s call it pretense. The people talk. City councillors (at least, those with a hand in crafting the budget) pretend to listen. A show trial of democracy without all the messiness of executions afterward.

So I hesitate to suggest that the consultations currently underway for budget 2011 are any more of a façade than previous ones but some councillors and the mayor seem to be jettisoning even the pretense of pretending. After hearing overwhelmingly from deputants telling him that they’d prefer no service cuts to tax cuts, Mayor Ford claimed that, “Obviously people want a zero-percent tax increase. I’ve heard it from all over.” Someone get the mayor a Q-Tip. Clearly he has some waxy build-up.

And after a particularly fractious and protracted process in East York, Budget Chief Mike Del Grande reportedly quipped that he “heard lots of numbers but at end of the day, I’m not sure it’s reflective.” Not reflective of what, Councillor Del Grande? The opinion of a vast majority of people who took the time to come out and have their voices heard? Or just not reflective of the opinions of those you agree with?

But, to be fair to the Budget Chief, he had endured what sounded like a grueling quarter of a day or so, defending the proposed budget out in East York. Me? I chose to attend the meeting up in North York as it was much easier to get to from downtown. I’m all about getting involved in the democratic process as long as it doesn’t put me out too much.

The proceedings in the council chambers at the North York Civic Centre were more placid than those, it appears, in East York. One might even call them somnolent. Presided over by a congenial even folksy Councillor Ford, deputants came and went, almost exclusively decrying the budget’s proposed cuts to both services and taxes without raising much of a stir from the other members of the budget committee. Councillors Milczyn, Parker, Shiner, Di Giorgio and Deputy Mayor Holyday rarely interacted with anyone other than themselves, asking few questions of the deputants or providing little to no feedback. Only when those stepping forward to speak heaped praise upon the proposed budget (I counted 4 of the 40 or so deputations doing so) did any of these councillors snap to attention or show even a lick of interest.

In fact, the four hours of deputations could’ve been completed in half the time if it hadn’t been for Councillor Shelley Carroll and, to a lesser extent, Anthony Perruzza. They, along with Councillor Ford, appeared to be the only ones from the council perspective who came to actually listen and react to deputations. Carroll did much more than that. Ask questions, tweet pictures, head up into the crowd to assist deputants who were having trouble figuring out the process. It was the Shelley Show, and when she finished up in North York, she made her way over to the East York location to pitch in there.

To be honest, these deputations are in many ways as much about Carroll’s time as budget chief as they are about the 2011 budget. While the proposed document sets out Mayor Ford’s plan for Toronto, it is also a complete repudiation of the previous administration. Tax and spend. A spending problem not a revenue problem. (Dis)respect For The Taxpayers. That which made The Gravy Train run. All of it (or at least the last 4 years) under Carroll’s fiscal watch.

She is the remaining face of the Miller administration’s power group. The mayor retired voluntarily. His Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone, Speaker Sandra Bussin, protégé Adam Giambrone, likewise all gone, less voluntarily. Carroll is the last one standing. She is doing so boldly and unwaveringly.

Carroll was at her best last night when she tangled with the few speakers who heaped praise on the budget for its attacks on spending and taxes but offered little in the way of helpful suggestions about which fat to trim. This includes the Board of Trade’s Carol Wilding who categorically refused to go on the record to say which services she would recommend cutting in order for the city to achieve a budgetary balance. Distancing herself from the dirty business of fiscal belt-tightening, all she would say when asked about cuts was that it was all in the presentation she’d handed out to the councillors.

It was especially invigorating to witness Councillor Carroll verbally pick up the representative from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses by the scruff of the neck and point that, for all his squawking about tax relief for businesses, he had failed to inform his membership and the public at large about the special program the Miller administration had established to help smaller businesses offset property tax increases. Much blubbering and backtracking ensued from Mr. CFIB and no attempted assistance from Councillor Di Giorgio could rescue him. At least, I think it was assistance Di Giorgio was offering. It was never clear exactly what he was up to on the rare occasions he opened his mouth.

Councillor Carroll is emerging as the voice of sanity at City Hall in the face of the Ford juggernaut. She has been relentless in not only defending the spirit of the Miller administration but in insisting on reasonable debate and discussion, conducted in the proper manner using established protocol. She is standing firm in front of the bulldozer Ford and his boys want to take to our municipal government.

She is being assisted certainly by the likes of Councillors Vaughan, Perks, Davis and McConnell. The difference is, the mayor’s supporters will all dismiss these as downtown, pinko, left wing, elitist kooks. That’s a smear they can’t use on Carroll. Despite her high rank in the Miller administration, she has serious big L liberal pedigree (which we don’t hold against her) and represents a suburban ward, deep up in Ford Country. She should be one of them. She’s not. This makes her a formidable foe of the mayor which we should remember and hold onto when things begin to look bleak.

And there will be times over the course of the next 4 years when things will look bleak.

fan boyishly submitted by Cityslikr


Better Ballots Town Hall

April 14, 2010

You know, even without any delays it is a long subway ride up the Yonge Street line to North York Centre. I was aroused from my reading material somewhere between Lawrence and York Mills, wondering if I’d read through a stop. You go really fast for a long time which, if my understanding of the physics of motion is solid (and it probably isn’t), means that you are traveling great distances.

Why would you be doing that, you might rightly ask. Heading up to the first Better Ballots Town Hall meeting, I will inform you, held in committee room #3 of the North York Civic Centre, home of the former city hall of the former city of North York. Its empty early evening halls steeped in the history where colossi of the political scene like Mel Lastman once strutted and fretted. The air remains pungent of past power, reeking of… shoe polish. Or maybe it’s the cleaning agent that’s being applied to a floor off down one of the corridors.

Better Ballots, if you don’t know and you should, is an organization committed to increasing voter turnout at the municipal level. The website can give you much better presentation of their mission but in a nutshell: less than 40% of eligible voters voted in the last municipal election in Toronto; 14 of the 44 councillors were elected with less than 50% of ballots cast; only 1 incumbent councillor was defeated while another won his ward with just 20% of the vote; the council make-up is wildly unreflective of the city’s diversity that it claims to represent. Better Ballots wants to change all that.

Local political impresario, Dave Meslin, is the Better Ballots project coordinator and has been toiling away in the margins of election reform for much of the past decade including 2006’s City Idol where 4 candidates were chosen to run for council seats in that year’s election. He chaired last night’s town hall in an amiable but focused manner, promoting inclusiveness with the 25 or so of us there while not allowing things to careen too far off topic. Like any good promoter of a cause, Meslin made sure to surround himself with other smart, articulate advocates.

There was Desmond Cole, one of the winners of the City Idol project, and now an organizer with iVote Toronto. Another Better Ballots representative, Rob Newman, talked about campaign finance reform. Julia Deads from the Toronto City Summit Alliance moderated the town hall portion of the meeting, gently but with the necessary firmness to keep the proceedings flowing. If I had any claim to being an actual journalist, there were a couple other members of the panel whose names I would’ve made note of but didn’t. One was from Fair Vote Canada, a group promoting more proportional representation at all levels of government. I want to say Jeff Peck but, maybe somebody out there who attended the meeting with much better powers of observation could correct me on that. [It was Mark Greenan not Jeff Peck from Fair Vote Canada who were referring to. Thank you to mayoral candidate Sonny Yeung for clearing that up for us. — ed.]

The intent of this town hall meeting (and the 3 others planned at various city locations throughout April) was twofold. The first was to present 14 proposals for discussion about possible reform. These included such things as extending the vote to permanent residents and lowering the voting age to 16, the pros and cons of municipal parties and term limits, several options on ballot structures and districting and the above mentioned campaign finance reforms.

Along with providing information, these town hall gatherings are also about promoting advocacy. Ideas are all well and good but they die on the vine without a movement to take them to a wider audience. The second aim of the meetings is to initiate a grassroots movement to begin pushing for the reform options that garner the most interest from those who attend the meetings and vote on the ballot provided.

Despite what you might think, grassroot movement making ain’t pretty. It’s not all Julia Roberts’ Erin Brockoviches and Meryl Streep’s Karen Silkwoods but rather a long, tough slog through outsider-ville. For every smart, dedicated activist and proponent, there are those who wear their exclusion from the mainstream loudly and proudly, sometimes hijacking the proceedings to grind an axe or to just simply have their voices heard. This manifested itself last night when a handful of mayoral and council candidates took the floor to speak their minds. More campaigning than listening, they mostly took up time and space rather than contributed to the discussion.

Still, the dialogue was far more informative and exciting than any of the claptrap and bullshit that has passed for debate and deliberation so far in campaign 2K10®©. These people truly want to change how things are done in Toronto and to explore the ideas that will ultimately translate into electing those who best represent the widest community views at City Hall. It was time well spent on the subway hearing them talk about it firsthand.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr