Trash Talk

May 12, 2011

Let’s talk some trash. Trash collection, that is. And that’ll be the last recycled pun (except for that one) we’ll use on the issue.As we hurdle toward the westward-ho garbage privatization debate set for city council next week, wouldn’t it be nice to have some solid facts and figures on the table in order for those who will ultimately make the decision to do so logically and with well grounded reasons for proceeding. Councillor Josh Matlow attempted to accomplish such a task on Tuesday night hosting a town hall meeting moderated by the ever moderate Steve Paikin of TVO fame. On one side was pro-privatization advocate and Public Works and Infrastructure Committee Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong. Hugh MacKenzie, economist and research associate at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, represented the anti-side of the equation.

Reading through accounts of the evening, it’s clear that no real consensus emerged. “Last night’s trash talk offered no clear answer on the garbage privatization debate, but one very popular moderator,” Carly Conway of the Torontoist tweeted yesterday. Hey. Maybe if we contract out trash collection to Steve Paikin, everyone might be happy! “It answered some questions for me and, frankly, left me with more questions than I came in here with,” Councillor Matlow told the Torontoist after the town hall.

It seems inconceivable to me that such an important issue that deals with not only a lot of money but peoples’ livelihoods couldn’t be a little more clear cut. Evidence must exist out there from towns and cities that have unloaded trash collection onto the private sector. Case studies, analysis, comparisons of before (privatization) and after, of places that have maintained public service. Metaviews, I guess, is what I’m thinking.

If I were an actual journalist or one of those people who aggregate and research such things, perhaps it might all become obvious which way to go. I’m not but I’m perfectly willing to read the work of someone who has done it. So far, however, such documents are few and far between, lost in a sea of studies all that can be easily shrugged off by opponents as tainted by self-interest or ideology. Unions will weigh in against privatization but they’re just looking after their own jobs, right? Try reading this instead from the National Solid Wastes Management Association, a ‘trade association that represents the private sector solid waste and recycling industry.’ Yeah, so they have no dog in this particular hunt, do they.

The field is awash in solid anecdotal evidence, frankly. For every Etobicoke that loves its privatized trash collection, there’s an Ottawa that has brought at least some of it back in-house after a brief private dalliance. (Interestingly, if I understand correctly, Ottawa re-publicked collection in the older downtown area of the city which is more analogous to the core of Toronto than Etobicoke is.) Like Tuesday’s townhall, neither side is able to deliver the knock-out blow that will sway a crowd to fully embracing its position.

Running with that boxing analogy, shouldn’t the advocates for garbage privatization have to win decisively like any challenger seeking to dislodge the established champion? If we’re going to take a leap of change purely for the possibility of saving money and improved service, the case for it needs to be nearly irrefutable. Yes, we’re going to save this much money. Yes, you’re going to be happier with the service. Guaranteed, to use the mayor’s TV pitchmen promise.

As the privatization pointman, Councillor Minnan-Wong has done nothing of the sort. His constant referencing to Etobicoke as an example for why the rest of the city should privatize is both unconvincing and, possibly, inapplicable. He assured the audience at Tuesday’s town hall that Etobicoke receives no more complaints about trash collection than the unprivatized parts of Toronto. No more complaints, Councillor? Shouldn’t we be aiming for fewer? He was unable to answer some important questions from the audience including gender equity hiring by private firms. When all else failed, the councillor claimed his job was not about social engineering.

Moreover, the savings he (and the rest of the pro-privatization crowd) talks about Etobicoke receiving may not work out in the rest of the city that is laid out in a far less orderly pattern. As we’ve discovered over and over again here in post-amalgamated Toronto, what’s good for Etobicoke may not be good for East York. Money saved in one former city may not be possible in another.

And the ever changing amount of savings should also serve as a yellow flag of caution. All throughout last year’s municipal campaign, pro-privatization candidates trumpeted the $49 million Toronto would save going private with their garbage collection as reported by the C.D. Howe Institute. Under closer scrutiny, that report’s methodology was called into question. Now we’re hearing $8 million/year west of Yonge. Or maybe $6 million. $2 million isn’t being ruled out. What’s next? Well actually, we’re not going to save any money doing this…

And frankly, if the likes of Councillor Doug Ford can blow off $7.8 million or the city pays to police officers for paid duty overseeing construction sites and the like (“Keep in mind [paid-duty costs represent] one-half of 1 per cent of the construction projects that we have to pay for,” the councillor said), where’s the reasoning for undertaking such a massive change of operation in collecting our garbage? What will his response be at next week’s council meeting when a fellow councillor points out that an $8 million saved privatizing garbage collection amounts to about 1% of the near $800 million shortfall the city’s facing? Blustery dismissiveness, I’m guessing.

With no firm or substantive savings to tout and the only improved customer service to point to is the assurance that privatization will mean no more garbage strikes like we saw in the summer of 2009, it’s hard to see this as anything but ideological. According to the Toronto Star’s David Rider, at Tuesday’s town hall meeting “Minnan-Wong said the contract would have ‘continuation of service’ provisions to ensure that, even if the contractors’ workers went on strike, the trash would get picked up in the privatized district.” In other words, in contracting out garbage collection, the city would insist that the winning bid include a provision that would bring in scabs to cross a picket line in the case of a strike, thereby rendering the power of collective bargaining null and void.

Huzzah! Questions linger about what if any savings taxpayers will see. We can’t say for sure if they’ll notice any difference in how their trash is collected. As continued innovation in recycling? Like Councillor Minnan-Wong has said, social engineering isn’t really our job. But we do know one thing. Privatization is going to stick it to the union. Guaranteed.Spite based policy making. In tough times, is there anything more satisfying?

stinkily submitted by Cityslikr


St. Clair’s Long, Strange Journey

April 10, 2011

(In case you missed the post in the Torontoist earlier this week. With more pictures!)

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What journey doesn’t begin with a killer prologue? The Canterbury Tales. Caxton’s ‘The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy’. Shakespeare’s Hank Cinq: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention…” The Coen Bros. Raising Arizona.

Here’s ours. Imagine it spoken by someone with a silky smooth BBC accent and wearing tights or Nicholas Cage as H.I. McDunnough (or any other role pre-Leaving Las Vegas.)

The St. Clair right of way streetcar is not Light Rail Transit (LRT) which is the technology at the heart of the Transit City plan. While the two can share many similarities, the most important being dedicated lanes that are physically separated from vehicular traffic that allow for unencumbered flow, LRT is faster with more capacity. Light Rail Transit comes touting transformative power on the neighbourhoods it serves especially the street level type which makes all the hoopla about burying more of the Eglinton LRT more than a little curious.

And before you utter the phrase “We don’t want another St. Clair on our hands” in a pejorative way in order to demean street level rail transit, you must first pass a test proving that you read Getting It Right. (Or if you’re not up to the 14 pages or so, try the quick summary over at Environmental Law and Litigation.) A report commissioned by the TTC last year assessing the problems that emerged with the construction of the St. Clair right of way. Yes, the city was not free of blame for the cost overruns and delays but they were hardly alone. Many of the most vital recommendations, if implemented on future projects, will go along way to alleviating the headaches residents, businesses and commuters experienced along St. Clair.

Just as importantly, Getting It Right questions the implied condemnation in the ‘No More St. Clairs’ chant — with its flipside, Yes To Subways — that somehow all the problems were due to it being street level transit. As if, had it all gone underground, everything would’ve been hunky dory. Subway supporters exhibit a curious view, it seems, as to how subways are built. Do they really believe that because it’s below ground, there’s going to be no discernible affect on the traffic above? How do these people think subways are built?

Such thoughts established, on to our expedition.

On a dreary Monday morning (“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote”) we ventured up to do a loop of the St. Clair ROW streetcar. Heading east toward Yonge Street from Bathurst, what first caught my attention was the utter lack of congestion. Isn’t this the specter being dangled before us by those bent on burying our public transit? Streetcars getting in the way, snarling traffic? Certainly on this particular morning commute, both streetcars and private vehicles flowed seamlessly. From Bathurst to St. Clair station at Yonge Street, a brisk 10 minutes.

The time for the entire one-way trip on the St. Clair streetcar from its eastern point at Yonge Street to its western terminus at Gunn’s Loop, just west of Keele/Weston Street, on a non-rush hour Monday, was 29 minutes. It is a fascinating tour from the northern reaches of the downtown urban core to the outskirts of the western inner suburbs. A sequence missed if traveled underground; a lost connection between people and communities.

Much has been made, justifiably, of the havoc wreaked on businesses during the ROW construction. Some 200 apparently closed because of it. It is a situation not uncommon to any area of a city that undergoes substantial redevelopment (hello, Roncesvalles) and there are no easy answers. That’s not entirely true. The easiest answer would be to never change anything, maintain the status quo. But that doesn’t seem to be a healthy option to positive future growth and development.

Now, more than a year into the new St. Clair streetcar’s run, it looks to a guy riding along observing the scenery the decimation did not take hold. While there are certainly empty storefronts and For Lease signs in windows along the way, no more so than the same trip taken along Bloor Street, say. Like everywhere else that is seen as a going concern, there’s a growing presence of chain outlets like Starbucks, Second Cup and Tim Hortons along St. Clair vying for the consumers’ dollars with the olde thyme European places. Trendy cafés and bistros are popping up beside more homespun eateries that themselves are expanding beyond the traditional Italian, Portuguese and Caribbean flavours. Within less than a 10 minute streetcar ride, one could find Brazilian, Peruvian and Colombian restaurants.

This kind of variety only promises to mushroom (funghi, hongo, seta, callampa, cogumelo) as the area sees further densification. Between and around the two subway stops on St. Clair along the Yonge-University line, condo developments have sprung up including an interesting one in the old Imperial Oil building just east of Avenue Road. Towers are even spreading west from this more traditional location, now out past Bathurst Street into what was considered purely low and medium rise territory. Yes, proximity to a subway has much to do with that but the fact that this is happening now would suggest that the St. Clair right of way has enhanced rather than diminished the desirability of the area.

Is it too much to suggest that St. Clair Avenue is undergoing a renaissance? My scant two hours spent traversing it tells me no, there is something of a rebirth going on there. Even on a rainy Monday morning, people were out, going about their business. Traffic moved — traffic moved, it is worth repeating – smoothly with very few aggressive flare ups and accompanying blaring of horns. And on the streetcar, getting from point A to point B was painless. No. Joyous? Maybe a little overkill. A very pleasant journey, shall we say.

The epilogue to this tale?

Before falling in line behind our mayor’s misguided, bull-headed, ill-advised march to rid our streets of everything but cars, trucks and buses, we all need to pay a visit to St. Clair Street. Sit our asses down on the streetcar and take in the view. Hop off, have a drink and a bite to eat. Watch some soccer or buy some shoes. Not only is such an outing now easier for transit users and car drivers alike, it is more enjoyable. The exact opposite of what Mayor Ford would have you believe.

darenly submitted by Cityslikr


Breakdown of An Executive Committee Breakdown

March 27, 2011

(In case you missed it earlier this week, we posted a piece over at Torontoist. Out of sheer laziness, we’re re-posting a truncated version of it here today. If you’re feeling equally as lazy, this one’s for you.)

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If you’ve spent any time lately at city council and found yourself uninspired by the lack of substantive debate and partisan chest-beating (or bleating, depending on your view), may I suggest you take a pass on attending any Executive Committee meetings. At least watching the entire council at work in the chambers, Team Ford is diluted somewhat, usually triumphant in the end but at least put through its paces, challenged on almost equal footing by the opposition. But in committee room #1? The Executive is let off the leash, barely touched by ‘visiting’ councillors or deputants who hope to make any sort of impression upon them.

Made up of the mayor’s handpicked standing committee chairs, the executive committee acts as the official brain trust of an administration; the public face of Mayor Ford’s unofficial brain trust consisting of his councillor brother and staff. The Executive Committee basically preps the mayor’s agenda that will be presented at and bludgeoned through the next city council meeting. At Executive Committee motions are gussied up, some lipstick and rouge slapped on them in the form of minor amendments to make them look all pur-dy. Or sometimes, motions go there to die, killed by an indefinite referral.

This isn’t entirely surprising since the Executive Committee is essentially chosen by the mayor as his on field team. No one expects serious splits, divisions or close votes. That’s for council. This is how the mayor marshals his forces to try and advance his agenda.

But I don’t think I have seen a less incurious, less thoughtful or less intellectually rigorous group outside of a church. No one cared about input from those who took the time to attend the meeting and express their views. This administration seems to believe that the “people” spoke last October 25th and all this is now just an annoying distraction from the work that has to be done. They couldn’t even muster the pretense of listening. Twice as the meeting wound down, they had to stop after it was pointed out there wasn’t a quorum – 7 committee members – present. Once, during a discussion about how they were going to proceed with their Core Service Review! The nuts and bolts of governing. You know, the very essence of what a municipal government does.

Which should come as little surprise since the driving force of Mayor Ford’s Executive Committee seems to be the dismantling of the activist government of their immediate predecessor. A fancy way of saying, Stop the Gravy Train.

There are two reasons for that, I believe. One is pure ideology. Like the mayor himself, the active members of the Executive Committee, the ones who contribute more than simply casting a vote when they’re told, are hard core, tried and true, anti-government neo-conservatives. Barely 10 minutes would pass during the meeting when somebody wasn’t yammering on with trite bromides like ‘learning to live within our means’, ‘governments are just like households’ and respect for the taxpayer.

The second and equally applicable reason for the Ford administration’s anti-Miller sentiment is much more personal. It’s pure, bitter resentment at having been excluded and sidelined for the past 8 years or so. When various members of the Executive Committee aren’t talking of finding efficiencies and waste, they let it be known how badly they were treated by the Millerites, excluded or kicked off that board, ignored or ridiculed at that committee meeting. It’s like revenge of the nerds but in real life.

If true, I’m sure some of it was along partisan lines. Councillor David Shiner pointed out that he’d been turfed from the board of Toronto Hydro because he wasn’t supportive enough of green initiatives. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that.

But I’d also suggest that, with the possible exception of Councillors Shiner and Michael Thompson, the more I see of the Executive Committee, the more I’m convinced that most of them along with the chair of the committee, Mayor Ford, are lightweights. They bring very little to the table in terms of original ideas or well-developed thoughts. Those that do bother to express an opinion, rarely do so in any sort of rational or compelling manner. They’re too busy checking off the list of grievances at previous slights.

None embody this bubbling cauldron of spiteful, inchoate animosity better than the Budget Chief, Mike Del Grande. Hectoring and disagreeable, the councillor from Scarborough is equal parts know-it-all and I-told-you-so. He lectures rather than asks questions. Berates not debates. He re-configures his opponents’ arguments into ones better suited for him to deride and dismiss. At one point of time during Monday’s meetiong, the councillor told a skin-crawlingly personal story of paying the way for his university aged daughter and how under his roof it was his rules and he who holds the purse strings… Oh my god, the poor woman!

The truly galling aspect of this, though, is Councillor Del Grande’s temerity to lecture others about the value of money. Here’s a guy, always boasting of his chartered accountant credentials and how he understands that you can’t spend more than you have, revenues must match expenditures, and yet he was all onboard cutting the VRT and freezing property taxes thereby denying the city millions and millions of dollars? With a straight face he demands our respect for him as a sound fiscal manager?

This Executive Committee is the ugly manifestation of the Ford Nation. Like a jilted lover, it has seized control, determined to prove its worth. It brooks no dissent and counters any disagreement or outside opinion with vitriol and contempt. Retribution not reconciliation is its agenda. This is the heart of an administration that has more interest in getting even than it does in governing.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr


I Hadn’t Forgotten

March 22, 2011

Just in case you were checking in, saw nothing new and thought we’d taken the day off, no, no we hadn’t. Actually we’ve been quite busy, attending yesterday’s Executive Committee meeting and writing up a little something about it.

Where is it, you ask. Well, we’re guest posting over at the Toronotist. The what? Why don’t you click the link and check it out and read all the grisly details there.

Don’t worry, though. We haven’t abandoned you. We’ll be back in our regular spot tomorrow.

Until then…


Notes On A Budget Debate From The Peanut Gallery

February 25, 2011

Well, it’s done. Mayor Ford got his first budget passed thoroughly, decisively and, gleaning from the post-meeting rhubarb and chatter, in near record time. We are now fully living in a Rob Ford Toronto. And yes, the sun did rise, the snow did fall and a vehicle registration tax rebate showed up in the mail. Delivered to the wrong address as I haven’t owned a car for years now.

There were few close votes, no losses that ultimately mattered but the mayor did not emerge unscathed. On day 1 of the budget, he made the mistake of getting up to speak, ostensibly to let council know which way he was voting on a handful of amendments and get his ducks in a row. This opened him up to 3 minutes of questioning from any and every councillor who so chose. That he (and his team) didn’t realize this would happen speaks volumes. After 10 years on council, the mayor remains oblivious to how the place works and/or he thinks that as mayor, normal rules don’t apply.

Whatever the thinking, Mayor Ford got caught in the headlights. Nothing Speaker Nunziata did — herself, no wizard when it comes to council protocol, and another staggering example of ignorance from someone who’s spent decades in municipal governance — could save the mayor from a spectacular car crash of a performance. Captured here by the Torontoist in all its glory, it may be the last time we ever see the mayor attempt this stunt again. Certainly by day 2, his team had resorted to quiet note passing in order to lean on the councillors they needed to get votes passed.

Even in silence, the mayor managed to further embarrass himself. When a motion was brought forth to accept $100,000 from the province for HIV awareness and education, the mayor was on his own voting against it, 44-1, summoning up images from his days as a councillor. This, even after an amendment was attached to make sure it didn’t become an annual program that the province mandated and funded less and less. Just another addition to the Gravy Train. Still, no go for the mayor who simply proved himself to be a confirmed homophobe, and no amount of post-vote talk of looking after the taxpayers of Ontario could overturn the fact Mayor Ford simply has a problem with teh gays.

More ominously still for the mayor, despite drumming up overwhelming support for his budget, the items included in the operating budget passed on average of a 31-14 vote, he made no new friends in the process. He used all the powers of the bully pulpit that come with the office of mayor, trumpeting his overwhelming mandate from the voters of Toronto that was echoed throughout the press, giving him seeming powers of edict. All of which is most certainly his prerogative. He’s not the first to have done that.

What he did not do, though, was build a consensus. There was no coalition of the willing. Only those councillors who believe and are counting on the fact that Mayor Ford represents the will of a majority of Torontonians. While dubious, at this point of time, it seems like a safe bet.

And will continue to be so as long as the mayor pulls off what no other fiscally conservative politician has done in 30 years. If he can turn a surplus into a deficit with tax cuts and then balance the books, pay off the debt without ever raising taxes again or cutting services, Mayor Ford will have his way at City Hall for as long as he wants. He won’t need friends. Just allies.

But if, as history has shown, this economic theory isn’t nearly as solid in practice as it on the chalkboard, and taxes have to rise, valuable assets put up on the auction block and taxpayers of Toronto start seeing all those ‘reallocations’ and ‘readjustments’ as nothing more than major service cuts when their regular bus doesn’t arrive or if it does, it costs more to ride or their library branch is no long open on Sundays or their classes and courses at community centres cost more, Mayor Ford will see his council support dry up. Fair-weather friends like Councillors Mammoliti and Stintz will bail at the first sign of trouble. New councillors now sitting on the fence, won’t be nearly as compliant.

Think I’m just engaging in wishful thinking? Maybe. But I witnessed a telling moment yesterday. Josh Colle, one of the freshman councillors and political moderates, voted with the mayor on every budget item save for the Parks and Forestry and Library budgets. That’s not blind adherence but pretty solid support. In turn, when Councillor Colle’s motion came to a vote, a motion, let me add, that bore no financial impact on the budget, it just asked for a report on front yard parking fees and was shepherded through with the help of Councillor Cesar Palacio, a councillor plucked out of well-deserved obscurity owing solely to his slavish devotion to the mayor, it lost by one. You know who voted against it? Mayor Ford.

When the results were announced, catcalls could be heard directed at Councillor Colle. “They’re not your friends, Josh!” Through either neglect, political expediency or (and I’m unwilling to tar the mayor with this yet) pure spite for not toeing the line absolutely, Mayor Ford hung the new councillor out to dry. If one were the suspicious type, one might even suspect Palacio’s motivation for not stepping up and fronting the motion himself and risk drawing the mayor’s ire.

“They’re not your friends, Josh.”

Even in absolute victory, Mayor Ford sowed the seeds of future discontent although, given his focus purely on the here and now, he’s probably losing very little sleep over that fact. It’ll be interesting to see how he navigates more choppy waters when the political winds change (and they always change) and contentious matters like garbage privatization or transit matters come to council. When the mayor finds the atmosphere a little less friendly.

nuttily submitted by Cityslikr