Re-Imagining Toronto

March 4, 2013

[On Thursday, March 7th, Idil Burale and I will be hosting a discussion forum at the Academy of the Impossible called, Reimagining Toronto: Understanding the framework of urban/suburban politics. So this week at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke, we’ll be looking at some of the issues that make up the divide of such urban/suburban politics.]

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Last week after wiggling off another over sight hook at the Compliance Audit Committee meeting, Mayor Ford took some time to talk to the media. The Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Church reported an interesting little tidbit the mayor passed along. “The suburbs, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough,” Mayor Ford said, “these people are obviously right of centre.”

It is a wholly unsurprising view coming from a right of centre politician who doesn’t do nuance. A world that can simply be broken down into two camps, right/left, suburb/downtown. letatcestmoiThe suburbs, c’est moi.

The statement is worth further scrutiny. Certainly the federal Conservatives made inroads onto Toronto’s electoral map last election, winning 8 of the city’s 22 ridings, all of them in the inner suburbs. But their counterparts at Queen’s Park were shut out both in the suburbs and downtown in the provincial election that followed less than half a year later. Twenty-two seats. Zero representation.

So I think it’s more accurate to say that ‘these people’ in the inner suburbs of the former municipalities Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, York will vote conservative but it depends entirely on the situation. In the 2010 municipal election, they embraced Rob Ford’s conservatism. In the spring 2011 federal election, they were warm to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. In the fall 2011 provincial election, they gave Tim Hudak’s PCs the cold shoulder.

At the municipal level, while the inner suburbs loved both Mel Lastman and Rob Ford, they weren’t vehemently opposed to David Miller. In the 2003 election, Miller won wards in York, Etobicoke and Scarborough. mayoral2006When he was re-elected in 2006, the only wards he didn’t win in the city were the two in Don Valley West.

Despite Mayor Ford’s hope masking as a claim, there are no hard and fast political divisions in drawn along party lines in the city. Tendencies? Sure. But by their very nature, tendencies tend to be fluid, fluctuating on a case by case basis.

The key to Ford’s election success in 2010 had less to do with uniting Toronto’s conservatives under his banner than it did corralling the former suburban municipalities back into the fold. Four years earlier they had all supported David Miller and the Ford campaign artfully convinced them they were the worse off for it. Out of control spending all directed to the downtown. $12,000 of tax payers’ hard earned money spent on a retirement party for some councillor from downtown. resentmentTime to stop that gravy train, folks.

It was an appeal to geographic tribalism. Suburbanites unite! Put an end to the profligacy the downtown elite have been showering upon themselves for the past seven years.

Look at two of the key members of the mayor’s administration, Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday and Speaker Frances Nunziata. Fiscal conservatives for sure but also the last mayors of their respective cities before amalgamation, Etobicoke and York. These are two politicians steeped in the history of big ticket items like transit, police and emergency services being looked after by a second, city-wide tier of local government. A time also when senior levels of government were not absent on other issues like social housing.

City government for the likes of Doug Holyday and Frances Nunziata was about keeping property taxes low and programs provided on a pay-as-you go model. There was no need for all that spending they then witnessed as amalgamated councillors. What was good for their days in Etobicoke/York/North York/Scaroborough was good enough for the megacity of Toronto.

It is the gasping of the past unwilling to come to terms with the present reality. A city of 2.7 million people does not, cannot be run like cities a fraction of that size. Economies of scale give way to a critical mass. Big city. Big numbers. metropolisandmayberryAttempting to roll those back is not some act of civic heroism but simply a dereliction of duty.

Councillors Holyday and Nunziata, along with the mayor and his brother and a few remaining hardcore loyalists remain convinced the amalgamated city of Toronto can operate in the frugal manner the former inner suburban municipalities did. Notwithstanding the glaring holes in the social fabric this approach brought about – high priority needs neighbourhoods, a lack of public transit, aging, malfunctioning infrastructure – this method of governance threatens the well-being of the entire city now. Rather than moving in a direction that brings issues of mobility and liveability up to higher service levels, the Ford administration is attempting to reduce them the barest of bones.

Conservative or not, I don’t believe that’s what voters signed up for when they backed Rob Ford in 2010. While urban-suburban differences may be many, I think on fundamental questions of fairness (no, subways are not about fairness) and good government, reasonable Torontonians, regardless of political stripe, can agree on the fact the Ford administration is delivering neither. That’s something a majority of this city should be able to unite around.

texaschainsawmassacre

submitted by Cityslikr


On A Need To Know Basis

January 14, 2013

I don’t think it much hyperbole to suggest that budgeting is the most important aspect of governance, especially so at the municipal level. alookatthebudgetIt pretty much determines a city’s quality of life. The number of police and firefighters on the street. The state of good repair for important pieces of infrastructure. How many people will die on the streets in any given year.

The budgets here in Toronto are complex and complicated, no question. It just sort of comes with the territory when the annual operating budget comes in and around $10 billion and the capital at roughly $1.5 billion. That’s a lot of moolah that needs to be found and services that need to be funded adequately.

So it’s curious to me when councillors fail to reach out to their constituents in any meaningful way during the lead up to the council budget debate and vote. Hey, everyone. Here’s what’s happening. Here’s how I’m going to vote. Any questions? Concerns? Opinions as to what you think is and isn’t important?

Running down the list compiled earlier this month by Social Planning Toronto shows that less than half of our councillors organized any sort of budget forum for their constituents although that may’ve changed in the last few days. (We are happy to be corrected and updated to any omissions we make.) publicconsultationsAm I over-reacting to think there’s something wrong and neglectful about that?

By my estimation, some twenty of the councillors I’d expect to vote along the fiscal lines of Mayor Ford (yes, I’m including Councillor Karen Stintz in that group) had no public consultation on the budget process. There were six councillors on the other side of the political fence who didn’t although I’ll give Councillor Joe Mihevc a pass on his ‘maybe’ as he doesn’t seem averse to public consultations. And I’ve thrown Councillor Raymond Cho into the latter category despite having no idea where he’s going to come down on budget votes since seeking the provincial Progressive Conservative nomination in the next election.

Now, I could rush to the ideological conclusion that right wing politicians, once in office, don’t care to fraternize with the hoi polloi. Don’t bug me in between elections, folks. We’ll talk again in 2014.

But I won’t. Let’s just chalk that discrepancy up to the nature of being in power versus not. This is Mayor Ford and his supporters’ budget. They don’t need to consult the public’s opinions or fully inform them because a ‘mandate’ is why. shhhI’m sure the roles were reversed back in the day David Miller was in power.

But what I will note is the urban-suburban, geographic divide.

In Scarborough, only Councillor Chin Lee held a budget town hall. Councillor Gary Crawford was planning on attending one while also offering to meet up with groups at City Hall. Up in North York, 4 councillors either held formal sessions or met in for smaller budget get-togethers. In York, Ward 13 councillor Sarah Doucette was alone in holding a public meeting. None of the elected representatives in Etobicoke deigned to put together a budget town hall for their constituents.

In fact, in Ward 6, Councillor Mark Grimes declined to attend last week’s community organized budget session. Why? Your guess is as good as mine if you read through a statement he issued.

patronizing“Every year the capital and operating Budget seems to be the most contentious issue we deal with at City Hall,” he said.

“It’s difficult to comment on any one item without looking at its context as part of the whole. I’ve been gathering feedback from around the ward, meeting with city staff and I’m looking forward to the (budget) meeting. There is going to have to be a give and take from all sides of the debate, but I think at the end of the day we’ll find ourselves with a budget everyone can be proud of.”

It seems Councillor Grimes believes the budget’s too ‘contentious’ to be discussed in a public forum outside of a city council meeting. Leave the ‘give and take’ up to the councillors, folks. That’s what they’re elected to do. You can’t possibly expect a councillor to give any sort of budgetary context in just two or three hours, am I right? Next thing you know, people’ll be standing up on chairs and the like.

Meanwhile downtown, in the former cities of Toronto and East York, only the above mentioned Councillor Joe Mihevc and Councillor Paula Fletcher didn’t hold public budget sessions (again, all this is subject to updates and corrections). Setting aside the left-right politics for the moment, it shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice the wildly divergent degrees of engagement based on location. letmefinishThe broad strokes suggest politicians in the core engage with their constituents. Those in the suburbs don’t.

Which leads me to ask one very pertinent question.

When we talk of political alienation as a part of the rise of what we once referred to as Ford Nation – suburbanites being left out of the conversation, neglected, ignored – should we really be pointing the finger at out-of-touch, downtown elitists? Overwhelmingly it seems councillors from the suburbs failed to consult their own constituents on such an integral matter as the budget. Perhaps political disengagement begins much closer to home.

inquiringly submitted by Cityslikr


Scarborough Unfair

January 14, 2012

(A reposting of a piece we wrote for the Torontoist this week about our field trip to the wilds of Scarborough.)

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By any measure in the rather narrow definition of today’s common currency I am a downtown elite. That means I live downtown and I’m not onboard with Mayor Rob Ford’s agenda. Full stop.

This place I thought of as my home and the lifestyle that came with it, the ease of mobility, the array of opportunity, had come under fire by the antiest of anti-urban municipal governments this city has seen in some time. This was an administration that threatened the very things I viewed as vital to what makes my home so special to me. I was growing increasingly aggressive in my defence of it.

And then I went to Scarborough last Tuesday night. Three and a half hours later I realized I don’t know anger. I don’t know outrage. I don’t know such fiercely loyal pride of place.

The ten councillors representing the former east side municipality met at the Scarborough Civic Centre to present the proposed 2012 city budget and listen to feedback from their residents. Man oh man, did they get a collective earful. Sixty-seven folks had signed up to give a deputation although, by my count, only about forty or so made it down to the microphone. Of that number, two spoke in favour of the course the mayor and his team were currently charting.

Now, I already heard chatter about the alleged ‘usual suspects’, CUPE backed and prepared speakers, special interests, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie. The same old same old whenever the deputation process so overwhelmingly speaks out against the mayor. Your basic case of shooting the messenger.

I readily accept the argument that those who come out to have their voices heard aren’t necessarily fully representative of the population as a whole. (Although I’m not sure exactly how those in favour of the Mayor Ford’s budget would even know to come out and voice their support. I could only find notification of Tuesday night’s event through what we’ll cal ‘opposition’ websites. Neither the mayor nor any of the councillors from Scarborough seemed to have given residents a heads-up about the event as far as I could tell.) People don’t tend to take time out of their schedules to cheer on issues, to express a favourable opinion of them. This, I think, is especially true with the budget proposal put in front of us. Yeah! Cut more! Pump up the user fees! Further reduce the role of government! That side is more of a Tim Horton’s nod and stay the course interaction.

But even measured against other deputations I have witnessed throughout the city, last night’s was high-pitched, angry, outraged and very, very personal. One deputant, in summing up this year’s budget said, “Thanks, Mr. Mayor. Scarborough’s screwed again.”

That’s not simply a where’s mine parochial attitude. In all the divisive downtown-suburb hubbub over whose money and how much goes where that’s been a part of the post-amalgamation discourse, it’s become pretty clear that Scarborough has consistently got the short end of the stick. Not just versus downtown but in comparison to other former municipalities like Etobicoke and North York. Their anger at City Hall is justified.

Which was one of the reasons Scarborough went so overwhelmingly pro-Rob Ford in the 2010 election. He promised to change all that. He would cut the boatloads of gravy and the sense of downtown entitlement that was so pervasive at City Hall and redirect all the savings back to where it was really needed like in Scarborough. They’d get better transit. They’d get better service. And they wouldn’t have to pay more for it.

Jump cut two budgets later to 2012.

Scarborough is looking at reduced service on 26 of its bus routes. Their subway? Still a figment of Mayor Ford’s imagination. Eleven of their libraries are threatened with reduced hours as are ten of their arenas. Shelters are being closed. Recreation programs cut and higher user fees implemented.

“Thanks, Mr. Mayor. Scarborough’s screwed again.”

More than anything, the palpable feeling at last night’s budget session was one of betrayal. Scarborough had put their faith in Rob Ford and the residents there were being repaid by, well, actually they weren’t being repaid at all. Scarborough was being gouged, bludgeoned by an austerity bat that many who spoke out saw as unnecessary and ideological. The mayor had turned on them and now they were turning on him.

Betrayal is something a politician, no matter how savvy, has a hard time getting past even two and a half years down the road. Voters may have short term memories about many things political but betrayal lingers. Candidate Rob Ford promised he’d be looking out for the little guy. Seventy-one percent of voters in Scarborough believed him, more than anywhere else in the city.

That’s a mighty big voting bloc to have turn against you. Lose even twenty percent of that, and a 2014 re-election suddenly becomes very, very iffy. Mayor Ford and the ten Scarborough councillors better hope the deputations in their backyard last night aren’t representative of the wider swath of Scarborough voters. If they are and this budget goes through next week as is? Their collective political futures should be considered very much in question.

Mike Myersly submitted by Cityslikr


Vast Wasteland Between The Ears

December 14, 2011

Councillor Adam Vaughan goofed up.

In a heated exchange with his council colleague, Doug Ford, during yesterday’s 2012 budget committee meeting, Vaughan referred to Councillor Ford’s Ward 2 as ‘an industrial park’. A little while later, Vaughan clarified that what he’d meant to say was Ward 2 was full of industrial parks and not as populated as many downtown wards. He apologized to those he offended.

But there it was on the morning news, highlighting Toronto’s brittle downtown-suburban divide. Smart alecky, champagne sipping elitist mocking the misunderstood, put upon hardworking, ordinary Joes of Etobicoke. The very broomstick Rob Ford rode into the mayor’s office on.

Now, those of us represented by the likes of Councillor Vaughan and his ilk are patiently awaiting our apology from Councillor Ford.

See, what started the Vaughan-Ford spat was the groundless diatribe Ford launched into about the seeming unfairness of wading pool allocation throughout Toronto. Some downtown wards had more than their share, according to Councillor Ford, proving his belief that suburban tax money had been flowing downtown over the course of the Miller years, building cushy wading pools, community centres, libraries etc., etc., while the suburbs got nothing in return. Zilch. Nada. Zip.

You can shout that from the rooftops as often and loud as you want, councillor, but it doesn’t make it true. As usual, the mayor’s brother was just concocting shit as he spoke, providing no evidence of this allegation and impugning downtowners’ reputations as he went. The rookie councillor may actually believe it himself and misses no opportunity to try and convince others that we more urban types want our socialist programs and nice to haves but don’t want to foot the bill from them. Suburbanites as our sugar daddies. Makes a great story and plays perfectly into the right wing love of their own victimhood.

Some have tried to actually back up this claim with facts and data including Scarborough councillor, Norm Kelly back in 2007. We’ve written about this before (here and here, for example) and yesterday John McGrath dug up the pre-election Toronto Star story about it complete with an easy to read graph. Turns out, things aren’t really that simple. It’s almost a wash, one might say. With residents in different parts of the amalgamated city receiving different amounts of city funding depending on the category. Yes, the former municipalities of Toronto and East York receive more for their libraries than Etobicoke/York, North York and Scarborough while those living in Etobicoke and North York get more money per capita on parks and recreation than elsewhere in the city.

The only conclusion one might come to reading through those stats is that Scarborough seems to be consistently on the short end of the stick of things and residents have plenty of reason to be unhappy or angry. Too bad the mayor they helped elect is doing little to right those wrongs. Any Scarborough councillor supporting Mayor Ford’s agenda should be held accountable for that fact.

What the wading pool battle represents isn’t anything to do with post-amalgamation unfairness or inequality. It’s about urban geography and competing pre-existing political philosophies toward governance. Our ongoing cramming of a round peg into a square whole that is the megacity of Toronto.

As visiting councillors pointed out to Councillor Ford during the brouhaha was that none of the wading pools in the inner core of the old city of Toronto and East York were built during the Miller years. They are a legacy of pre-amalgamation. Owing to various factors, some of which included density, income disparity and a basic consensus to use the tax base to build community infrastructure like wading pools and libraries.

It’s hardly surprising that when Councillor Vaughan lashed out at Ford, he invoked an industrial park. As John McGrath also pointed out yesterday — I really should be paying him for providing me with so much research. A Stiegl, it is. Maybe 2. — during his summer set-to with novelist Margaret Atwood, Councillor Ford noted he had a library in an industrial part of his ward that no one used. He expressed little compunction in shutting it down if it came to it. ‘In a heartbeat’, in fact.

That epitomizes the approach to governing that many in the outer suburbs bring to the table. Low taxes, the very basic of services and anything beyond that, the nice to haves, paid for by user fees. An emphasis on the individual over community, in part perhaps determined by a preponderance of single family homes and reliance on personal vehicles as the choice of transit.

It’s a political view I categorically disagree with but not one I just summarily dismiss. We’re locked in an ideological battle to be sure. I just wish Councillor Ford and his ilk would be honest and upfront about that. Come right out and say it instead of manufacturing scenarios based on conjecture, innuendo and flat out falsehoods, poisoning the possibility of having any meaningful discussion.

So, I’m here, waiting. You know how to contact me, Councillor Ford. It’s your turn to apologize.

demandingly submitted by Cityslikr


Shiner Light, Dimly

May 24, 2011

I like my magazines like I like my condiments. Just slightly out of date and not bland.

Reading through them a few months, half a year behind, it offers up immediate hindsight. An automatic retrospective that allows for quick judgment as to how well a writer grasped the subject at hand. Instant historical perspective.

So it was as I made my through the Spacing magazine’s Fall 2010 issue. One article in particular caught my attention, Deck the Allen by Jake Schabas. It offered an overview of the Allen Expressway and the various attempts that have been made since the early-70s to integrate what is, essentially, just a false start more fully and functionally into the neighbourhoods it so hideously slices through and divides.

A name jumped out at me as I read the article. Esther Shiner. First elected as North York alderman in 1972, and then the city’s Board of Control in 1976 which earned her a spot on Metro Council where she served until her death in 1987. During the 1980s she also served as Mel Lastman’s Deputy Mayor in North York.An early proponent of amalgamation way back in the 70s, her enduring claim to fame, however, appears to be her ardent support of the Spadina Expressway. So much so, she earned the nickname, ‘Spadiner Shiner’. When the project got bogged down after it made its initial way from the 401 to Lawrence Avenue, she fought successfully to push it further down to Eglinton where it remains today, known as the Allen Expressway. ‘Spadiner Shiner’ continued to press on with the project even after successive provincial governments and city councils had bowed to citizen pressure to halt it. According to Mr. Schabas, Shiner was also very instrumental in the ultimate auto-centric nature of the Expressway, helping to beat back plans (including one proposed by Buckminster Fuller. Buckminister Fuller, people!) that arose to make the Lawrence-Eglinton section part of a broader development that included parkland, public transit hub and residential and retail space.

Esther Shiner can also be credited with being the mother of current councillor, David. A former budget chief of Mel Lastman, Councillor Shiner was recently in the news for his spiking of the proposed Fort York Pedestrian and Cycling Bridge in late April as a member of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. ‘Too fancy’, he thought it, and his motion to deny the city giving final approval on the already approved project sent it back to the drawing board for a proper scaling down.The times have changed, it seems, but the results are about the same, laced though they may be with a lethal dose of irony. Esther Shiner was all in favour of plowing money into bulldozing and disfiguring downtown neighbourhoods to make way for a highway. Her son, David, withholds a miniscule amount of money to halt the building of a bridge that would’ve brought together neighbourhoods now divided by a highway.

Two generations of public service to Toronto, dedicated to draining life from the city one bad choice at a time.

belatedly submitted by Urban Sophisticat