The 22½ hour budget meeting: nothing changed, except maybe everything

Minutes before 8 a.m. this morning, Mayor Rob Ford hastily wished everyone around him a good weekend and thus put an end to the longest municipal government meeting in the City of Toronto’s history. Attended by Ford’s hand-picked executive committee, plus a gaggle of “visiting councillors” — most of them representing the opposition — and a crowd of hundreds of people, the meeting agenda was all about the ongoing Core Service Review process and the recent KPMG reports which have been the subject of much media attention over the past couple of weeks.

After Ford publicly invited taxpayers to attend the meeting during his interview with CP24’s Stephen LeDrew last week, over 300 individuals signed up to give deputations to the committee on the various budget considerations contained in the KPMG reports. This set the scene for an epic-legth meeting, something that the mayor had previously welcomed. “I don’t care if we have to sit there for three days,” he told LeDrew, citing his need to hear from people as to “what business [they] think the city should be in.”

So there you have it: the vision of a multi-day process involving significant public consultation that will be taken into account as councillors go forward with the Core Service Review process and begin building the 2012 budget.

That was the thought, anyway. Here’s what actually happened:

1. The illusion of consultation proved more important than actual consultation

Just as this administration paid for and circulated an in-depth Core Service Review survey only to immediately dismiss the results once they were tallied up, the events of the past 22½ hours seem to be all about creating the perception that consultations are happening without actually valuing the consultations themselves. The most flagrant insult to those who intended to depute was the decision to continue the meeting overnight and into the morning, taking only short breaks for lunch and dinner.

This had the immediate effect of putting deputants in a very tough spot. Given the variable speed at which the meeting moved forward, the only way people who intended to speak could be sure they’d be in the Committee Room when Rob Ford called their name was to  stay put for hours on end. No one had any idea if they’d be called at midnight, 4 a.m., or even noon the next day. Even worse, the Mayor made only a token effort to give suitable time for those in the building to approach the microphone. At times he barrelled through the speaker list so fast that those who were unfortunate to be visiting the overflow committee room — set up so those who couldn’t fit in the packed main room could still follow the meeting — would miss their chance.

While an impressive number did stick things out and make their deputation, 176 of the 344 people who had signed up missed their spot. And even those who did make it to the microphone — all 168 of them — were forced to deal with an abbreviated speaking time, something the committee voted to adopt early on Thursday.

2. The Core Service Review process remained woefully inadequate and self-serving

One of the more interesting things to see when you watch the Executive Committee in action is that there is a clear division between hard-line true-believer types that will always rally around the mayor and those that, while still supportive of the mayor’s fiscal responsibility mandate, express subtle reservations about certain parts of his agenda. The former group includes councillors like Giorgio Mammoliti, David Shiner and Doug Holyday while the latter includes, amongst others, Peter Milczyn, Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson.

In this case, the more cautious group seems sincere in their belief that council is embarking on a legitimate service review process that will help us make tough decisions and balance the 2012 budget. This is in contrast to the mayor and his inner circle, who seemingly already have a broad set of program cuts and reductions mapped out and are now just looking to produce a set of reports that justify what they’ve already decided they want to do.

3. We may have seen a grassroots political game-changer

Procedurally, this meeting isn’t notable for much. Things wrapped up with a series of motions from Councillor Paul Ainslie that essentially left all options on the table and punted major decisions to September.

But beyond that, something definitely changed last night. Somewhere in between the moment when 60-year-old deputant Marilyn Wilcoxen triumphantly held up a $50 cheque and a $5 bill — to pay for a voluntary property tax increase and her monthly instalment of the vehicle registration tax — and the heartbreaking scene at 2 a.m. wherein 14-year-old Anika Tabovaradan tried to defend the importance of her local library branch while crying her eyes out, Toronto came into focus again as a city with real people with real values.

And those people? Those values? They’re great.

You can call the sentiment overly schmaltzy or optimistic or — probably rightly — altogether too soon to judge, but the general feeling, watching person after person head to the microphone after waiting ten, 15 or 20 hours for their chance to speak for three minutes, was one of a renewed hope. It was as if, all of the sudden, the more progressive side of Toronto got its voice back. After seven years of living in complacency with a mayor that was never terrible but also rarely came close to the potential voters saw in him, and after coasting through a dour election where no one came close to inspirational, Toronto’s left was finally speaking again last night.

And their collective voice was almost exclusively passionate, creative, endearing and — most critically — diametrically opposed to the idea of Rob Ford’s Toronto.

Which brings me to the other notable part of last night: Ford supporters were a no-show. Only three of the 168 deputants advocated service cuts and, of those, only one seemed to hold views at all congruous to the so-called “Ford Nation.”

This marks twice now where Rob Ford has made a direct appeal to supporters to attend a consultation session, and both times very few in attendance ended up showing themselves as members of the Rob Ford crowd. The defence in social media circles is that Ford Nation represents a “silent majority” of important business types that don’t have time nor the inclination to attend consultations or fill out surveys.

And I guess that’s fair enough — for any government, it’s easier to draw out protestors than it is supporters — , but you’d think that with an open process like last night’s it would be reasonable to expect a 5% or so minority of Ford supporters to make an appearance and support his policies. Instead, almost no one showed. Considering that Ford’s electoral win was primarily due to grassroots populism, it seems conspicuous that the mayor can’t even rustle up a half-dozen members of Ford Nation to wave the flag and talk about their continued desire to stop the gravy train.

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