Ford For Toronto Year One: A Look Back at 2011

The scene, as captured in the video above at a special council meeting held this past September: Councillor Joe Mihevc gets up to question the mayor on the results of the vaunted Core Service Review, the thing that’s supposed to lead the city to budgetary peace. To help make his point, Mihevc puts the chart from this post — a chart I cobbled together from city budget data — on the big screen in council chambers. Rob Ford, prompted by a hurried note from his policy advisor Mark Towhey, responds by pointing out that the chart — my chart — is not from a staff report.

Okay, admits Mihevc. “But is it wrong?”

It’s been a weird year. When I started this oddly-named blog a year ago, I had no real idea what I was doing. I just wanted to write some things about a mayor who both fascinated me and made me nervous.  I never could have imagined that well over 100,000 people would visit this site in 2011 or that I’d receive such an overwhelming response from such a great collection of people.

To all of you who read: thank you.

2011: The Year That Was

January: We kicked off 2011 with boasts and confidence. Rob Ford told the Toronto Sun he might be the best mayor of all time. Ford’s first budget was largely a forgettable affair — turns out financing a city is easy when the previous administration leaves a giant surplus — but we still dealt with a there-and-then-gone TTC fare increase, a library closure at Metro Hall and a reduction in bus service. The 2011 budget’s biggest impact, however, came from Ford’s seemingly innocuous property tax freeze. Torontonians will end up paying for that freeze with starkly reduced services in 2012. Also, Toronto was briefly ready for some football.

February: The shortest month of the year began with minor fireworks, as firebrand Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis wrapped up his tenure in the mayor’s office. Don’t worry, though: we still heard a lot from him over the rest of the year. In his wake, we started to hear rumours about a scheme to privately fund a Sheppard Subway extension. Though tiny magic unicorns were not specifically mentioned as part of the plan, it seemed like a safe assumption. And the kicker: less than three months in to his brother’s first term, Doug Ford started to show concern that maybe the mayor would have trouble retaining enough votes on council to push his agenda forward.

March: Like mana from heaven came the big TCHC spending scandal. Ford slipped perfectly into his role as angry mayor who demands accountability, culminating in a bizarre decision to remove the entire TCHC Board of Directors (including just-appointed councillors, elected tenant representatives and alternate reps who had never served on the board) before the Audit Committee had a chance to fully investigate the scandal. Amidst the breaking brouhaha, a poll put Ford’s approval rating at 60% and the mayor promised to unleash “Ford Nation” against Dalton McGuinty if his demands for extra provincial funding weren’t met.

April: We began the month with confirmation that Transit City was mostly dead, replaced with an all-underground scheme for Eglinton Avenue and magic beans on Sheppard. Plus more than $50 million in penalties. Not a great trade. We also got first hint that Doug Ford had grand plans for Toronto’s waterfront — plans that would cut Waterfront Toronto out of the process.

In the same vein, council decided that maybe the problem was too much citizen engagement, and moved to shut down several advisory committees. And the city began the process toward contracting out waste collection in part of the city, initially flirting with the idea of approving a contract without council approval.

The month ended with a last-minute mayoral endorsement for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who would go on to win a majority government, buoyed by several victories in the 416. The federal election would be the last we’d see of Ford Nation in Toronto.

May: Though the 2012 budget was still months away, an ominous tone was set when Ford signed off on a rich new contract for the Toronto Police Service. The Core Service Review process began with the mayor encouraging his supporters to fill out an online questionnaire on city services. Ford later dismissed the results of the questionnaire — filled out by some 13,000 people — as irrelevant.

In a widely decried move that would set a nasty tone, the Fort York Bridge was killed in a sneak attack by Ford allies. The bridge was later brought back to life in one of the few positive council stories of 2011, but bad taste and mistrust lingers.

June: Warm weather brought new tidings, as the mayor’s approval rating fell to 57%. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong earned some unlikely kudos as he presented a new bike plan for downtown streets, but it all fell apart when — whoops — it turned out his plan called for the elimination of established bike lanes downtown and in Scarborough. In a move that would later be overturned, the mayor decided on a whim to reject provincially-funded public health nurses. He never says why.

And in probably the biggest Rob Ford story of the year, the mayor refused to march in the Pride Parade. He also skipped every event related to Pride Week. Even diehard Ford supporters struggled to find ways to avoid using the word ‘homophobe.’

July: The council debate on the future of the Jarvis Street bike lane sparked war. Council eventually approved spending money to remove the recently installed lanes, but only after some politician gamesmanship that concluded with several councillors leaving the chamber in protest. In other news, the first reports on the Core Service Review were released, prompting some uproar when they ask council to consider killing everything from childcare programs to night bus service to street cleaning. In addition, we started to hear a lot about a fishy-sounding figure of $774 million.

The month ended with another turning point: a marathon meeting in which Toronto Spoke.

August: I was on the radio! Very briefly. Council mostly took the month off, so we had time to take a quick look at the looming 2012 budget and the mayor’s disaster of a transit plan. Our month of peace was interrupted, however, once we finally learned what the Fords had planned for Toronto’s waterfront.

September: All-out war as citizens fought to maintain the existing plan for the waterfront. And, remarkably, the citizens won. (Mostly.) More recommendations were released stemming from the Core Service Review process, which prompted a lot of concern that these cuts are fuelled by ideology, not necessity. In the midst, a new poll put the mayor’s popularity at 42%.

The hits kept coming for Ford with yet another marathon meeting in which everyone told him his policies are bad, followed by a council meeting that saw him lose several votes.

October: The budget process begins in earnest as Police Chief Bill Blair publicly — and successfully — rejected the mayor’s demand for budget cuts, and instead won an increase for 2012. Ford’s office spins the increase as a reduction anyway. As we started hearing about cuts to library hours, the mayor’s popularity fell further, with an opinion poll putting him at 37%. And Ford proved to be a total non-factor in the provincial election, as the Liberals retained power — and didn’t cede any 416 seats to the Conservatives.

It wasn’t all bad news for the mayor, however, as he did manage to successfully contract out garbage in part of the city, despite a winning bid that smelled funny.

November: The revisionist history wagon trundled on, as Ford allies attempted to convince us that the mayor always said there might be service cuts. Budget news was briefly overshadowed by His Worship’s penchant for calling 911 all the time. We learned that Ford’s transit plan could be threatened by the existence of a 12,000-year-old river. And the 2012 budget was officially launched to predictable scorn.

December: People asked a lot of tough questions about the 2012 budget. Most notably: why the hell would you cut the TTC’s operating subsidy? Any remaining Holiday cheer was dashed by the depressing state of Toronto’s transit expansion plans. And 2011 ended with no one really knowing where Toronto will go next year.

Thank You

After all that, I’d like to thank a bunch of people for their kind words and support over the last year. This blog wouldn’t be here without the encouragement I received from Jonathan Goldsbie, John Michael McGrath, David Topping, Hamutal Dotan, Andrew Wallace, Ivor Tossell, Michal Hay, Daren Foster, Ed Keenan, David Hains, Sol Chrom, Laurence Lui, the CodeBlueTO team and so many others. You’re all the best.

And now: another year of Rob Ford.

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