The Kids Are Alright

Next time you get all hot under the collar at what you perceive to be shenanigans, childish antics or just a general sense of out-of-control behaviour by our municipal politicians, you really need to take a deep breath and a long look at André Côté’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance report, kidsarealrightThe Fault Lines at City Hall: Reflection on Toronto’s Local Government. Given the constraints and competing interests at work, it’s really remarkable anything gets done at all. And despite what you might be hearing around Toronto these days, quite a bit gets done, starting with ten billion dollars or so worth of operating and capital budgets just approved last week.

Could things run more smoothly? Of course they could. That’s true at both Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill as well. Probably every place of government the world over.

Two points in Mr. Côté’s report jumped out at me as legitimate causes of both the institutional as well as current struggles politicians face at City Hall. One is entirely external and, as it stands now, almost entirely out of our local politicians’ hands. The second is very specific to our present situation.

Another factor that clouds political accountability at City Hall is the degree of provincial control over municipal affairs. The Province sets election dates and service standards, limits the use of taxes, requires approval for certain asset sales, and uses conditional funding arrangements to force compliance in important policy areas. The result is that the City’s field of action is constrained. The reliance on fiscal transfers also breaches a basic principle of public finance: accountability is blurred when the level of government making the spending decisions is different from the one that raises the revenues.” [page 5]

Everything municipal governments do in this province can be undone or undermined by their provincial overlords. We are their ‘creatures’, according to a 19th-century document written when this was an agrarian country and not properly challenged in nearly 150 years. eviloverlordUltimate accountability lies almost exclusively in the hands of politicians not necessarily elected to mind municipal level issues. In most cases, we should refer to them as absentee landlords.

Take Toronto, for example. (Please, the rest of the province chimes in.)

Against our collective will, we six municipalities, were messily forced into one by an antagonistic Queen’s Park government. ‘Efficientized’ to use Lucas Costello’s term; a lean, mean level of government meant to shed its fat and reap a certain windfall of streamlined bounty. Never mind that none of that happened because it was never intended to in the first place. It was all part of a downloading scheme almost entirely for the purpose of lightening the fiscal load on the provincial coffers.

Toronto was never given the appropriate powers commensurate with the much larger entity it had become. In fact, it was stripped of a level of governing that oversaw some of the more contentious, citywide services like policing and transit. Gone was Metro council, leaving only one politician at City Hall representing the interests of the city as a whole. The mayor.

Now figures as disparate as academic Richard Florida and councillor-brother Doug Ford have publicly mused about countering this problem by instituting a stronger mayoral system like they have in the U.S. Frankly, I find that notion to be a fucking nightmare scenario. strongmayorAll well and good if you like the policies and directions of a Mayors Bloomberg or Miller or Ford but what if you don’t?

Let me run a hypothetical by you that we can all be appalled at.

A Mayor Giorgio Mammoliti in a strong mayor system?

One might argue if we had such a thing, we’d be more careful with who we elect mayor. And if we aren’t?

My suggestion is rather than seek to beef up our municipal governance by bestowing more power upon one person, we look to increase it for the 2.6 million residents who live here. How? Well, that’s another post entirely and probably by someone with much stronger public policy credentials than I possess. (Paging John McGrath. Call me!)

This does take us the second important point brought up by Andre Côté in his report.

Reformers should also bear in mind that, under the existing system, Mayors Rob Ford and David Miller have had notable successes in advancing their policy agendas. Both academic literature and recent history suggest that a combination of public profile, political acuity, and a willingness to use the softer skills of persuasion and consensus-building can result in successful and effective lead­ership at City Hall, even without a strong mayor system.” [page 7]

Pre-amalgamation, mayors in their respective cities had fewer councillor cats to herd and the issues were largely more specifically localized. liontaming(Many that weren’t were dealt with at the Metro level.) So they didn’t need more powers to push their agenda or items forward.

Such is not the case in post-amalgamation Toronto. Yet both Mel Lastman and David Miller managed for most of their terms in office to get `er done. Rob Ford too in his first year or so as mayor. Then he didn’t. Ultimately, he has no one else to blame but himself for that.

That’s not quite right.

We the voters are to blame as well because a plurality of us voted for a candidate who possessed few of the traits necessary to be an effective mayor in Toronto. ‘Political acuity’? As a campaigner perhaps but certainly not as mayor. ‘…a willingness to use the softer skills of persuasion and consensus-building…’. Never ever during his time at City Hall did Rob Ford display that particular trait. In fact, he revelled in being the exact opposite, the outsider, the lone wolf.

We elected him mayor despite all that and somehow seemed surprised how badly it’s all worked out.

A perfect mayor (if such a thing existed) will in no way paper over all the problematic governance realities this city faces. hogtheballIt would be foolhardy to think otherwise. But we shoot ourselves in the foot, and vote against our best interests when we throw our support behind a candidate based on a platform of sticking it to others at City Hall. Such an us-versus-them approach is destined to failure, not only for the candidate in question but the entire city as everything becomes a grind not a collaborative effort.

The city doesn’t have the power it needs but it has to stop squandering the power it does have. That starts with electing a mayor who is able to see past their own narrow focus and reach out to interests that are not their own.

co-operatively submitted by Cityslikr

If Mayors Ruled The World

While a contingent of Toronto city council watchers fret and wring their hands over the state of our local democracy, I find it tough to get too tied up in knots about what’s been happening here. You want messed up democracy? How about that stable majority government in Ottawa and the sledgehammer passing of C-38? Now, those people should be worried their state of democracy there. [Errrr… Aren’t we ‘those people’? – ed.]

In fact, I’d say in comparing Parliament Hill to our City Hall, we’re doing just fine, thank you very much. Checks and balances are in place. Blind party loyalty is non-existent to any detrimental extent. Councillor Doug Ford might be on his way out!

Even here in Toronto, municipal politics are where it’s at, where the rubber hits the road, according to New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. “We’re [municipalities] the level of government closest to the majority of the world’s people,” Mayor Bloomberg has said. “While nations talk, but too often drag their heels — cities act.”

So, What If Mayor’s Ruled The World?, asks political scientist Benjamin Barber in the above interview with Richard Florida and in a talk presented to The Long Now Foundation last week in San Francisco. The world might just be a better place, Barber thinks. More equitable. Further along the road toward sustainability. More democratic.

Barber sees cities as places ‘… governed by voluntary cooperation and shared consensus’. Cities are ‘…defined above all else as places of collaboration and pragmatism.’ “Mayors are the most pragmatic and effective of all political leaders because they have to get things done,” Barber writes. [La-di-da. And then there’s Toronto. – ed.]

Of course, it’s easy to be cynical these days in these parts. Getting things done translates into little more than attempting to roll back almost anything that happened from 2003-2010. Repeal this tax. Kill that transit plan. Not so much a situation of getting things done as it is seeing things undone. At all levels of government right now, that is the new conservative way.

Barber, quoting urban planner Bruce Katz, says, “If you love cities, you’re going to love the 21st-century.” Hold on to your horses, says our mayor and his team who haven’t yet come to terms with the last 30 years of the previous century. They like living in a permanent state of counter-urbanization as they would call it at Human’s Scribbles. Cars rule. Public transit is for the poor. Children ride bikes. Public space amounts to little more than shopping malls and your backyard when you invite friends over for a BBQ.

But think about this.

As much as we can blame Mayor Ford’s reversal of fortune on his own obstinate bumbling or the coalescing of the opposition into an organized group slowly shaping into a body capable of piecing together an agenda for the city, it also could be that he’s fighting an uphill battle against the march of history. Actual 21st-century urbanization is coming. Some of it’s already here. This isn’t a right-left issue. We’re talking the future versus the past. Our mayor came into office already yesterday’s man.

We really do need to stop comparing Mayor Ford to his predecessor, David Miller. Instead, let’s prop him up next to Miller’s true successor and urban heir, Mississauga’s 91 year-old mayor since 1978, Hazel McCallion. While Toronto’s mayor has made it a point to erase the city of any and all traces of Miller, McCallion has embraced much of Miller’s agenda, including the idea of LRTs and extra municipal taxing powers like the VRT. Mayor McCallion has been front and centre demanding a dedicated regional wide sales tax to building public transit. “…if you don’t want tax increases,” says McCallion, “you’re not going to get service, it’s as simple as that.”

Times, they are a-changing. Cities must change their ways of going about things in order to adapt and flourish in this, The Urban Age. Even the former Queen of Sprawl recognizes that fact.

And because of the nature of cities, the almost immediate relationship between by-law enacted and by-law in effect, change can happen like that. [Imagine a snapping of fingers. – ed.] Some find this unsettling, even some elected to serve the best interests of the city. That’s the other beauty of city life. We can ward off or mitigate their worst reactionary instincts. It’s happening right now.

That’s why Councillor Doug Ford calls it ‘dysfunctional’ and is thinking of jumping ship. Actual democracy tends to be messy. Autocrats don’t like to get their hands dirty.

“Democracy began in cities,” says Benjamin Barber, “and works best in cities.”

Despite appearances to the contrary, I think Toronto’s in pretty good hands right now since those who are adhering to that notion have assumed control of the place.

merrily submitted by Urban Sophisticat

Waterfront Waterloo

It’s far too early to write off the Ford administration. So early that I really, really wanted to write, It’s way too early to write off the Ford administration. But I really, really detest that adverbial use of the word. You sound like a teenager. Or sportscaster.

More formally, reports of the Ford administration’s death are greatly exaggerated. Premature ejection from the seat of power. I think what we’re witnessing is a wheel coming off their ride, maybe two. It’s broken, just not beyond repair.

For the first time probably since Rob Ford announced his intentions to run for mayor back in March of 2010, he has lost his ironclad grip on the narrative. Reality is no longer bending to his will. Facts pile up, making it increasingly difficult for Team Ford to frame the debate to their advantage. The story they’ve spun to great success so far is crumbling, the scaffolding upon which it was built, too flimsy to bear the weight. Thin air and pixie dust prove to be fickle, unstable elements.

This often times happens when a protest movement assumes the reins of power. As anyone who’s ever taken an improv class knows, the easier option is always to say no. It also leads to the least interesting outcome.

A protest movement coalescing around a faulty premise is especially prone to an early flame-out. The mayor campaigned against out of control spending, waste and gravy. Turns out he may’ve been exaggerating just a smidge. Even outside consultants, KPMG, couldn’t uncover much of the stuff. Certainly nowhere near the amount the mayor removed from the city’s revenue stream by axing the VRT and freezing property taxes.

So cuts became efficiencies became nice to haves. The plain speakin’, tells it like it is, looking out for the little guy persona that the mayor had expertly cultivated begins to lose its populist sheen. The more he tries to plug the holes in his story, the more he starts to sound like a seasoned insider. Macbeth like, he’s now knee deep in the blood from the corpses of lies he’s had to kill in a vain attempt to stop them from turning on him.

Oddly, it’s the waterfront, an issue the mayor barely expressed any interest in while campaigning that seems to have caught him most effectively with a shot to the chin. Perhaps he and his brother made their move too soon when Doug started calling Waterfront Toronto unflattering names back in the spring. It left ample time and space for its advocates and defenders to mount their defense. And these weren’t the usual suspects that Team Ford could easily dismiss. The downtown elite. The left wing kooks and unionists. The statistically invalid.

No, these were players. Urban planners. Respected academics. Richard Florida is set to break his silence about governance in his adopted home town in defence of Waterfront Toronto. David Crombie. David Fucking Crombie.

So strong has the pushback been, the barricades so robustly manned, that once mute and pliable allies are now emerging from their hovels to speak out against the mayor’s plan. Councillor Peter Milczyn did so meekly, referring to the Ford waterfront idea as ‘a visionary exercise’ that, unfortunately, ‘blew up in our faces’. Councillor Jaye Robinson was much more forceful, stating outright her confidence in Waterfront Toronto and that she would not be supporting the mayor when this item goes to council next week for a vote.

A close vote, Councillor Robinson predicts, but frankly, I don’t think it’s going to come to that. This is not the hill Mayor Ford is willing to die on nor will he want to see his brother hung out to dry on a losing end of an issue he was so front-and-centre on. No, before council gets to knock this one out of the park, it will be amended to the point of meaninglessness, tossed under the bus of further staff review and committee study where it will die a quiet, unnoticed death.

The mayor has bigger fish to fry and is now stepping into the fall of our growing discontent, the haunting spectre of budget battles looming, weakened by a terrible, terrible summer. But it is early still. Much political capital has been expended yet the mayor has powerful tools at his disposal. In fact, if he plays this right and can back off gracefully, be seen to concede and bow to the will of public support, it could ultimately help him continue to push his agenda through. See? I listened. I made concessions. I’m a reasonable guy. I can play along nicely with others. What are you going to do for me now?

It could happen although that doesn’t seem to be part of the mayor’s constitution, to admit he was wrong and to backtrack. Instead he will probably attempt to change the channel, lumber forward having learned almost nothing from this set back. This administration does not blink, we’ve been warned.

What the mayor’s opponents need to take away from this show of democratic muscle is that it’s not simply enough to stand up to the mayor and say no. There needs to be a plan in place to counter each and every one of his ill-advised proposals. Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Mayor Ford has succeeded in sucking all the air out of the room. It is now a race to fill it back up again. By virtue of the powers of his office, the mayor still has a leg up against his competition. The self-inflicted wound he’s just administered, though, has hobbled him and added a new bounce into his challengers’ step.

elbaly submitted by Cityslikr