A Question Really Worth Asking

July 26, 2011

For some masochistic fun and long overdue penance, I put on my figurative hair shirt and subjected myself to re-watching Mayor Ford’s CP24 interview with Stephen LeDrew from last Friday. Its staggering shortcomings have been analyzed to death so I won’t bother with anything further along those lines except to say that it came across as less a piece of television journalism and more of an infomercial pitch. Not an in-depth interview; a Johnny Carson-Ed McMahon routine. (Yes, I am that old.)

Aside from his self-satisfied certainty and shocking inability to articulate anything that isn’t printed out in front of him or committed to memory, what jumped out at me most about the mayor’s performance was his constant rhetorical refrain of, ‘Should the city be in the business of… ?’ Rhetorical because we all know what the mayor’s answer to that question is unless you fill in the blanks with ‘policing’ or ‘keeping streets clean’. No. No, no, no, no. Absolutely not!

We need to change that question ever so slightly, so he’s unable to provide an easy Yes or No answer. So instead, we frame the question as Why Shouldn’t The City Be In The Business Of… ? The one word answer, Because, will not be accepted nor will its slightly extended version of Because It Costs Too Much And The Private Sector Can Do It Cheaper unless accompanied by actual evidence proving the claim that doesn’t just make use of numbers entirely pulled from your ass/hat.

Now I know the idea might get the likes of Stephen LeDrew’s bow tie a-spinning as he’d actually have to occasionally challenge the mayor but I think it might be an adult conversation worth having as we move toward this fall’s budget discussions. Take any service the city now provides and ask not, should the city be in the business of… ? but, why shouldn’t the city be in the business of… ?

Why shouldn’t the city be in the business of maintaining parks? Why shouldn’t the city be in the business of providing affordable daycare to low income families? Why shouldn’t the city be in the business of handing out cultural funds that both enhance city life as well as provide economic spin-offs that usually dwarf the initial cash outlay? Why shouldn’t the city be in the business of… ?

If the mayor is choosing to opt out of established programs, then the onus is on him to explain why. And saying we simply can’t afford it doesn’t cut it. At least not without facts and figures to back it up. The moment he resorts to his standard mantra of receiving 100s of calls a day, 70% of whom approve of what he’s doing, you know the actual answer is we can afford to fund these programs but we are simply choosing not to.

At least let’s force Mayor Ford to be honest about the choices he’s making. (Why now? Why not 12 months ago?) During last week’s infomercial with Stephen LeDrew, the mayor claimed that the people want just three things in return for the taxes they pay. Safe streets. Smooth, freshly paved streets. Clean streets.

According to the mayor’s self-selected numbers, the citizens taxpayers of Toronto have no or little interest in libraries, public spaces, public transit, visual arts, street festivals, smart planning and development or anything else that doesn’t make the drive time from home to work and back again easier. If they are, the private sector can provide them more efficiently and cheaply. Unless of course, you actually use them. Then hey, you’re on your own.

We often joke here how the mayor and his cadre of regressives possess a 1950s, Mayberry urban view. No traffic except the easy purr of car engines. Aunt Bea knowing her place at home, taking care of all the domestic chores. Happy town drunks. Creepy barbers.

But we’re off. Way off. In truth, Mayor Ford and his ilk maintain a medieval village mentality. A gathering of huts, together solely for commercial exchange, each paying a tithe to the local strong man who offers them protection from the scary notions roaming the nearby woods and builds a smooth(ish) road for them to conduct their business. Ties only extend as far as family. Everything else is just transactional interaction. Should the city be in the business of being a city? For Mayor Ford, the answer is resoundingly to the negative.

inquiringly submitted by Cityslikr


Left Out In The Cold

September 11, 2010

I write this as quietly as possible, typing noiselessly at the keyboard as my colleague, Cityslikr, has finally collapsed into an aggrieved slumber/stupor/blackout onto a nearby couch after a tumultuous 48 hours. Not sure what drug it was that finally did the trick. Whatever it was, just hoping it doesn’t prove lethal. We’re regularly employing the breath-on-the-mirror method to see that he’s alive although wouldn’t have the slightest clue what to do if he isn’t. We’re not even sure he’s given either of us the password to this site.

It all started (cue flashback squigglies) Wednesday night at the MaRS mayoral debate. Cityslikr had finally convinced me to attend one with him, assuring me that from here on in there could be substance to them, some meat on the bones. “This here dog just might start to hunt,” he said, affecting a southern drawl that usually means he’s got nothing left to say but can’t stop talking immediately.

If nothing else, I thought, I’d get to take a peek inside the MaRS building on College Street that brings a smile to my face every time I pass it.

Things started to unravel almost as soon as we sat down. Cityslikr couldn’t get any cell reception and therefore unable to tap into the Twitter account. “A blessing in disguise?” I suggested. Now he might actually listen to what was going on up on stage rather than sitting, coiled and ready to rip off snappy rejoinders. This was met with a chilly silence.

I was instructed to take notes as my Twitter-less companion found himself too jittery to even hold a pen. Good God, man! You can’t be that indentured to the new technology, can you? Get ahold of yourself! (Grabs him by the lapels and slaps him several times across the face. A few more times than necessary.)

At least, that’s how it played out in my mind as I waited for the debate to commence. Which it did, eventually, with the Board of Trade’s Carol Wilding moderating and handful of media types parked beside her to ask questions of the 5 candidates. Yep. The 5 candidates. It seems the organizers of Toronto Debates 2010 (along with the Board of Trade, Toronto City Summit Alliance, United Way, Toronto Community Foundation, Toronto Star and 680 News) have decided to dispense with the niceties of inviting any of the 33 or so other mayoral candidates including Rocco Achampong who’d been making the occasional appearances at other debates going on around town. Setting aside suspicions that the good folks behind Toronto Debates 2010 were simply trying to limit the scope of the debate, we decided their reasoning was more along the lines of making it easier to manage things with just five candidates on stage. Ain’t that right, Stephen LeDrew.

Judging by how civil the proceedings were it would be difficult to argue with that thinking. No shoutfest. No ugly personal exchanges. Just straight up answers given to questions that weren’t asked.

To be fair, the candidates may have been thrown off their game a bit as the tone of the debate was a more positive one than I’d been told to expect. The moderator and questioners weren’t operating from the premise of everything in the city having gone to shit and what were the candidates going to do about it. It was more to do with building upon or developing existing aspects that could be doing better in order to encourage prosperity equality and promote economic growth. More or less.

Because let’s face it. The whole developed world has just endured a shit storm of an economic downturn and the recovery is still very tenuous. So yeah, things aren’t great but they could’ve been a whole lot worse.

Councillor Pantalone embraced the tenor best and caught our attention right off the bat with his reference to the ‘myth of the broken city’. What was that you say, Joe? Do go on. Pantalone was fighting mad, telling the audience that the city was nowhere near in as bad a shape as his opponents claimed. A debt? Sure. What government wasn’t carrying a debt right now? I think he might be the first of the candidates in this race to even mention the word ‘recession’. Yes, Toronto’s debt sounds large ($3 billion) but was it? I don’t know. But let’s have the conversation instead of just repeating the number over and over again.

The timing was right for Pantalone to start battling back and staking out his ground centre-left. All his opponents were tripping over themselves to get to the furthest right with their talk of freezing taxes, cutting council numbers, selling assets, outsourcing city services. And the leader of this pack, Rob Ford, had just laid one large stinky turd of a transit plan that was so bad that even his paper of record, the Toronto Sun, dismissed it out of hand. Come on, Joe. Your time to shine.

But slowly, regular Joe re-assumed control, doling out half measures; qualified successes of the past 7 years and highlighting missteps. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? The one issue where Pantalone had no doubts? That he was a consensus builder unlike the others up on stage with him. He’s proven he can work with anyone. David Miller. Mel Lastman. Alan Tonks. Left. Right. Centre. NDP. Conservative. Liberal. By the time he was wrapping up with his final statement, old Joe was back, flying in the face of the anti-incumbency movement afoot, warning the audience that the mayor of Toronto is no place to experiment with unknowns. Go with what you know. And you know Joe Pantalone.

As usual, the performance wasn’t bad but it could’ve/should’ve been so much better. At least it was a start, we thought as we left the auditorium, Cityslikr desperately trying to find a signal somewhere, anywhere. Better late than never.

And then came the next day. Sitting together at a table in a Chinese restaurant on Spadina, waiting to hear Joe’s big announcement. MP Olivia Chow had already endorsed Joe. That certainly couldn’t be it. We’d already been unsurprised by Jack Layton’s endorsement of the Pantalone campaign a week or so ago. But wait, they weren’t finished. What’s that he just said, Cityslikr asked me.

“He said, if elected mayor, he’d freeze property taxes for 40 000 lower income senior citizens.”

“What?”

“Yeah. A tax freeze.”

“That can’t be right. Are you sure?”

“Yep. Wait. He just said something else.”

“What? What did he say now?”

“Huh.”

“What? What?!”

“I’m pretty sure Joe Pantalone just said as mayor, he’d cut the vehicle registration tax for seniors as the first step to phasing it out altogether over the course of the next 4 years.”

“What? A tax cut??”

And the rest, as they say is history, bringing us to our current situation, Cityslikr asleep on the couch after a Don Draper two day bender minus the girls. He stumbled disconsolately from the restaurant, pocketing dumplings and spring rolls as he went, mumbling words like ‘betrayal’, ‘Judas’ and something about his upper thigh burning from the hot oil oozing from the spring rolls. Fortunately he’d left before Pantalone tried justifying himself to the Globe and Mail’s Kelly Grant who’d politely inquired about the sudden about face on the vehicle registration tax.

As Deputy Mayor, Pantalone had fought hard for the VRT. It was a modest use of the new taxation powers granted in the City of Toronto Act and now, just a couple years in and he was calling it a ‘mistake’ with no ‘moral authority’ since the people of Toronto ‘unanimously’ hated it. How’s that for consensus building? Hoping aboard the anti-gravy train and riding it to join the throng at the right end of the political spectrum. Neoliberalville, where all taxes are bad and have no moral authority within the city limits.

Not everyone here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke have turned their backs on you, Joe, like you did us. You’re just lucky we’re not all as quick to indignation as our unconscious leader, snoring over there on the couch is. We do feel like you’re taking our votes for granted as if we have no where else to turn. That’s hardly the firestarter you’re campaign desperately needs at the moment.

You have, though, most definitely lost one supporter who was willing to follow you into battle against the forces of darkness. If only you’d picked that fight instead of settling for the mushy middle that the loudmouth Rob Ford keeps moving further in his direction. And if that strategy doesn’t work for you, don’t be blaming the likes of our Cityslikr for abandoning you. You left him first.

And to you over there, my troubled, bereft friend, pleasant dreams. You are still breathing, aren’t you?

hawk watchingly submitted by Urban Sophisticat