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