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22
Aug 11

Layton

The Grid’s Edward Keenan:

People will say—I know they are already are saying—that he was a man who was in politics “for the right reasons.” Unlike many, I think that is true of most polticians, however effective they may or may not be, and no matter how distracted they may become. But the interesting thing about Layton is that the wrong reasons appear not to have ever occurred to him. He coupled that with boundless energy and an inability to see anything as impossible or to interpret anything as a setback.

Contra Yeats, he was a man of great conviction who was full of passionate intensity. Our country, his party and our politics are lessened by his loss.

Long may the spirit of his relentless smile live on.

via Jack Layton: may his spirit smile on | The Grid TO.

Jack Layton died today. It sucks.

I feel dumb. Knowing I’d be off at a meeting all day and away from the computer, I scheduled a few posts  to run automatically on this blog. When I heard the Layton news on the 501 streetcar this morning, I had no time to alter or reschedule those posts. So, as planned last night, they went up over the course of the day.

I feel, as the guy who both writes and edits and promotes this blog, that the ideal thing to do would have been to postpone those posts, to spend the day linking to articles about Jack Layton, to try to — on this terrible occasion — find a way to celebrate his life and his contribution to Toronto and to Canada.

I regret the error.

Still, though, I suppose there are worse ways to honour the man than with political arguments. Calling out a conservative bluff, championing community activism and involvement and working toward a fair, dignified strategy to eliminate poverty — these are some of the things that Jack Layton stood up for. Their subjects typify just a few of the political battles he fought and a measure of the legacy he leaves.

The memory of this sad day will soon fade and what we’ll be left with is that legacy. A legacy that informs all of us who have passion for where we live. And while Layton is tinged with the colours of the party that he led and took so far — and could have taken farther — what he leaves us is not a spirit of partisanship or ideology. Instead, it’s about a driving desire to make the places we live in better than they are now. It’s about building collaborative and vibrant places where all things are possible to all peoples and creating cities and countries that continuously improve. That always endure. That last.

Toronto was lucky to have Jack Layton as a resident, a leader and a champion. His work in this city and for this city continues to impact us every day. Let’s hold onto all he gave us, and let it guide us forward. Toward something better. Something that lasts.


22
Aug 11

29 year council veteran Holyday expresses total ignorance on critical budget matters

The Toronto Star’s David Rider, in an article discussing the shrinking possibility that Mayor Rob Ford will be able to eliminate the land transfer tax during this term of office:

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday said he can’t imagine the tax disappearing next year and wouldn’t speculate on when it will be scrapped, adding, “that money has already worked its way into the system to pay for spending increases and new employees.

“Who knew during the election we were $774 million in the hole? I didn’t know.”

The gap between spending and revenue at the start of the budget cycle in 2010, Miller’s last year in office, was $443 million. In 2009 it was $679 million.

via Toronto News: Ford mum on vow to scrap land sales tax, as budget shortfall looms – thestar.com. [Emphasis added.]

Rider’s being a good reporter, so he only hints at what I’ll just say outright: either Holyday is admitting that he hasn’t read a city budget document in years or he is being completely disingenuous with his claim that this year’s budget gap is a surprise.

For David Miller’s last budget, the opening pressure was actually $821 million, larger than this year’s shortfall. It only got down to $443 million after cost cutting, user fee hikes and other measures. Holyday was there. He read the budget. Opening pressures in the same ballpark have been dealt with by council essentially every year since amalgamation. Holyday was there for every single one of them.

Beyond that, the deputy mayor is seemingly making the claim that the city’s financial problems were not a known quantity during an election campaign that was largely fought-and-won over the issue of the city’s financial problems.

Ridiculous.


17
Aug 11

You always seemed so sure / that one day we’d be fighting / a suburban war

Philip Preville’s got an article in this month’s Toronto Life (alas, not yet online) that advances the premise that moving out of the city and into the suburbs — or the exurbs, or small town Ontario, or whatever you want to call it — is a totally awesome thing to do.

This has caused quite a bit of reaction. My pal John Michael McGrath has a nice summary of viewpoints over at TorontoLife.com. (Which is a site that I, in the interest of full disclosure, also sometimes contribute to.) I’ll add to that pile this just-published piece by Holly Bacchus, which is interesting if only because it’s the only thing I’ve read so far that actually defends Preville’s thesis.

I don’t want to waste keyboard taps reiterating points others have made so well, but I will add two things to the discussion.

The first is simple: arguing about the relative merits of suburban and urban living is mostly just a giant waste of time. You might as well debate whether it’s better to live in Switzerland or New Zealand. Where people choose to make their homes is such an intensely personal, expensive and permanent decision that of course the natural response to any criticism is passionate defence.

That spirit of defensiveness and spirited rationalization runs through Preville’s piece. And I get why: his family has just uprooted from one place to another, shifting a half-million dollars around in the process. It’s natural to want to feel good — to feel justified; to feel centred; to feel home — after such a move, and so you get the kinds of emotional declarations Preville applies both to himself and to his interview subjects: they’re happier now; they’re better people now; they appreciate life so much more.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that there’s an inherent inclination to want to feel good about your own sense of place, especially when you’ve made things permanent through the signing-of-mortgage papers and the having-of-children. The alternative is to be a miserable person filled with regret, and most of us tend to tend to shy away from that.

The second thing, and I think this is what intrigued me and also disappointed me about the Toronto Life piece: there is a really good article still to be written about the significant financial hurdles associated with middle-income people with kids buying homes and establishing affordable lives in the downtown core. Preville’s feature, tied up with platitudes and anecdotes, isn’t it.

Here’s what I want to hear more about: We are quietly facing a mounting situation — primarily in the Old City of Toronto but it extends outwards as well — where freehold houses, even in so-called up-and-coming neighbourhoods, are priced too high for your average dual-income couple. At the same time, almost all of the new residential units that have come onto the market over the last decade are one-bedroom or one-bedroom-plus-den units in condominiums. The result is a potential “housing gap” for people with growing families who want more space for their kids but can’t afford the exorbitant prices for semi-detached homes in urban neighbourhoods.

As others have noted, Councillor Adam Vaughan has been working to address this in his ward with a push for more three-bedroom condo units. He’s faced resistance from developers due to a simple problem of economics: developers can make more money off smaller units. That’s where the demand is.

I’m not sure what the solution to the issue is, but I’m very much interested in knowing more. An old-fashioned suburban-versus-urban war-of-words is great fun to follow, but there’s more substance in these details. How can we make urban living work for everyone who wants it?


12
Aug 11

It’s always Sunny in Toronto: three questionable ideas to “improve” our city

The venerable Toronto Sun — now sadly down a relatively sensible voice — has been going full bore all week, writing article after article on their three ideas that they say will improve Toronto. Reporter Don Peat kicked things off with an article published on Sunday:

But despite the looming budget, Ford could tackle three things in the last four months of his first year that would make Toronto a better place.

Pushing city council to ban panhandling on city streets, moving forward on a cyclist licensing system and scrapping the bag tax are improvements many would welcome.

While the budget is still the big beast facing city council, there are other issues that stick in the craw of many Torontonians.

It’s time for Ford to deal with them.

via How Rob Ford could improve T.O. | Toronto Sun.

So there you have it — city building as envisioned by the Toronto Sun: free plastic bags, a bike licensing bureaucracy and making poverty less visible. Let’s take these one-by-one.

The five-cent plastic bag fee is a proven success. It’s resulted in a reported 70% to 89% drop in the number of plastic bags distributed by grocery stores in Toronto. Even if you discount the environmental benefits of fewer bags littering our parks and assorted bodies of water, this policy still remains a significant money-saver for the city, as over the course of the year the solid waste department is undoubtedly now processing far fewer plastic bags at recycling centres and landfills.

And here’s the secret, which should be spoken about only in a whisper as it might be spoiled if too many small-scale retailers catch on: no one has been charged for distributing free plastic bags since the bylaw came into effect in 2009. If the city were to further reduce their level of enforcement — from the minimal level it seems to be at now to, well, none — we’d continue to derive the economic and environmental benefits that come from reduced plastic bag use while not spending money on administrative and enforcement overhead. It would appear to be a win-win policy for the city.

A splashy political fight over repealing the fee would — assuming the item passes — assuredly lead to more plastic bag use, especially at convenience stores as some consumers would again feel entitled to free plastic bags. Any spotlight given to this issue will have immediate negative environmental impacts. And for what? For a nickel?

Bicycling licensing is a complete non-starter. The City of Toronto actually maintains a page on its website documenting the three past occasions the City has explored — and rejected — the idea of a system for licensing bikes and riders. The cost of the bureaucracy needed to manage such a program would mean an annual fee daunting enough that a percentage of cyclists would simply opt not to bother. They’d put the idea of a bike out of their minds and return to their cars or public transit.

But ultimately that seems to be what this is about: despite the fact that every person commuting via a bicycle results in a net savings for the city, some would rather there were fewer bikes on the road.

Lastly, banning panhandling. It’s hard to understand how some people can spend hours attacking the efficacy and competence of governments and then turn around and propose that those same governments could be limitlessly effective at eliminating something they don’t like. If we’re going to pretend like we can, with simple law and order policy, ban a symptom of poverty, why not just go whole hog and ban poverty itself? Let’s ban not having money and a job. Let’s outlaw being poor.

What any so-called plan to ban panhandling would really do is result in a wave of antagonistic police behaviour toward the homeless and the destitute downtown, which would serve to push these people away from Bay Street and into already marginalized neighbourhoods. If you’re not working to eliminate poverty, you’re just working to move it.


9
Aug 11

Ford For Toronto on NewsTalk 1010

Councillor Josh Matlow’s debuted his new radio show “The City” on Sunday, airing right in the middle of your dial on NewsTalk 1010. He was gracious enough to ask me to stop by for a quick segment to discuss my City Council Scorecard. These four minutes — which I shared with Matlow, Giorgio Mammoliti and Shelley Carroll — mark my radio debut. I think it went okay.

Matt Elliott on “The City” "Matt Elliott on “The City”"

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Matlow’s show is certainly worth a listen. He plans to have two councillors on with him every week, discussing a mix of city-wide issues and local stories. Next week’s show will see budget chief Mike Del Grande on with Sarah Doucette. “The City” airs live every Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m., or you can download the podcast.


8
Aug 11

The Pride is Back: once again, it’s about more than just a parade

McGuinty and Christy Clark both skipped pride parades. Media didn't say a word. Can you say "double standard"? #TOCouncil #CDNPoli
@macdonaldfraser
Fraser Macdonald

Noted impressionist and former member of the Rob Ford for Mayor campaign Fraser Macdonald asked a question via his Twitter account last week. “[Ontario Premier Dalton] McGuinty and [BC Premier] Christy Clark both skipped Pride parades. Media didn’t say a word,” he wrote. “Can you say ‘double standard?'”

I can, in fact, say “double standard” but I won’t in this instance. First, starting with the easy one, Christy Clark. Not only has the new BC Premier apparently marched in the parade before, her conspicuous absence this year was reported in dozens of media articles as per Google News. Next.

Dalton McGuinty didn’t attend Pride this year either, but has appeared often enough in the past that no one took that as a particular slight. His government has maintained their annual investment in Pride Toronto. Earlier this year, the premier told reporters that “we take Pride in investing in Pride.” Here’s a YouTube video of Dalton McGuinty presenting a lifetime achievement award at a Pride gala.

So there. Two politicians who, though they skipped their most recent pride parades, have at least made past appearances and been outspoken and demonstrative with their support for the community. And then there’s Rob Ford.

We’re continuing to see these kinds of disingenuous attempts to pretend like the gay community and their allies simply overreacted after the Mayor of Toronto opted to attend his cottage rather than go to the Pride parade. This is, quite frankly, total revisionism. The issue is not that Ford didn’t attend the parade but rather that he didn’t do as much as wave from his office window at the people assembled to raise the Pride flag at Nathan Phillips Square. He spent most of the week while Pride was in town outright ignoring a major tourist and cultural event, and snubbing an entire community.


4
Aug 11

Budgeting and the art of distraction

Those opposed to service cuts as part the City of Toronto’s 2012 operating budget were reasonably happy when they heard that Councillor James Pasternak, a fairly consistent ally of the Fords, had come out publicly in general opposition to library branch closures. They were even happier when, soon after, heretofore stalwart Ford supporter & TTC Chair Karen Stintz voiced the same opinion. But when Councillor Frances Nunziata jumped on the I-oppose-library-cuts bandwagon yesterday, things started to feel a little contrived. With all these Friends-of-Ford making headlines with their valiant support for Toronto’s libraries, the question has to be asked: were library branch closures ever really on the table at all?

Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan thinks all these “Save Our Libraries” shenanigans may add up to little more than a big distraction:

So where does this leave us? The library system is just one item in the giant inventory of City services (a.k.a. “savings opportunities”) that the municipal government might cut in anticipation of the 2012 budget. And the public’s strong defence of the library system, heartwarming and essential though it has been, has had one unfortunate side-effect: distracting attention from other services that have less vocal or less organized supporters, are less politically favoured, and are much more likely to actually be cut, even though they too are much beloved and much relied-upon by a broad community of users.

via “Look Over Here, Guys!” (Or, How Libraries May Be Safe but Other Services Aren’t) | Torontoist.

This isn’t really a conspiracy theory, despite appearances. The Ford administration’s only strategic move throughout this whole budget consultation has been to hold all cards to the chest and offer little comment on what might get cut. This enables them to wave off passionate defence of services as premature and paranoid, while at the same time continuing to advance the idea that all programs and services are on the table for potential cuts. The consequence of this vague and inexact approach is that engaged citizens have to play their politics like a game of Twister, attempting to cover all the spots on the board they care about.

At linebreaks.com, Mike Smith explores this notion further:

The Fords likely never had any realistic intention of closing libraries. I have little doubt they would if they could. But by trundling it out as a possibility, they make more generalized cuts — staff, hours, community programming, circulation — feel less severe, like a concession. They may even potentially neutralize a certain amount of activism by making people see victory in “reducing” cuts to the ones that had been planned all along.

Well, alright. To be honest, I don’t know if they actually plan it that way. For all I know, blinkered prejudice and bumbling contempt just happen to have the same effect in the end as keenly enacted right-wing strategy. But it’s the effect that matters, and the effect is twofold: expand the boundaries of the possible for yourself, while limiting the same for your opponents.

via So, Rob Ford and Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci walk in to a library… | linebreaks.com.

If I had to speculate, I’d bet that the vaunted 2012 budget shortfall is made up for with some combination of the following: Some 250+ million in unused surpluses from prior years combined with other revenues; a property tax hike at two or three percent; further cuts to TTC bus routes (this may be accompanied by a fare freeze as a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down); steep hike to user fees for city-run recreational programs; the elimination of some or all of the Community Partnership & Investment Program (CPIP) grants; a reduction in hiring for Police and Fire Services; reduction in hours at community centres and libraries; and probably some asset sales, including city-owned old age homes. They’ll also knock a few million off the top through continued administrative efficiencies, continuing a trend started several budgets ago.

CPIP is the one sure-thing in the list. It’s the mayor’s go-to example for waste at City Hall and the cover provided by this year’s convenient budget crisis makes for the perfect opportunity to take a knife to it.


2
Aug 11

Manufacturing Toronto’s Budget Crisis

The Toronto Star’s David Rider put on his columnist hat this weekend and delivered a hell of a piece on the farcical budget process going on at City Hall:

After hearing thousands of words, and seeing some tears, the 13 executive members voted with lightning speed to refer all of KPMG’s suggested cuts to their Sept. 19 meeting. Ford and his policy chief Mark Towhey are weighing what and how much they can cut. The plan will be predetermined.

The challenge for them isn’t erasing the deficit, but convincing councillors and the public they need to keep slicing after it’s gone.

As the Star pointed out, the budget surplus from 2010 and other monies, including an expected 10-cent TTC hike, bring the 2012 operating deficit from $774 million to $443 million. In addition, the administration is looking at forgoing a traditional annual transfer of $200 million from the operating budget to capital. Efficiencies will be found, user fees hiked.

via Toronto News: Shrinking government, not deficit, drives Ford – thestar.com.

About a month into his term of office, Rob Ford changed the boilerplate language that goes out on the bottom of all city-issued press releases. His staff struck out the phrase “Toronto’s government is dedicated to prosperity, opportunity and liveability for all its residents” and replaced it with Toronto’s government is dedicated to delivering customer service excellence, creating a transparent and accountable government, reducing the size and cost of government and building a transportation city.” (Emphasis added.)

For those who doubt that this budget process is driven by anything but a sincere need to balance city services with fiscal realities, take note: the mayor’s agenda to prioritize cuts to government over public services isn’t hidden away somewhere. It’s plainly stated on every city press release.

 


22
Jul 11

Ford looks to fire GM, kill streetcars in push toward ‘joke’ of transit plan

There’s more high drama and intrigue at the TTC these days as Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug seem bound and determined to stick to an election promise to fund and build an extension of the Sheppard Subway, even if it means firing General Manager Gary Webster and dismantling the City’s streetcar system. I can offer no explanation as to why they feel so strongly about keeping this promise while simultaneously breaking other, more important promises.

Nevertheless, The Toronto Star’s Tess Kalinowski has the story:

Gary Webster, the TTC’s top executive, is caught in the crosshairs of Mayor Rob Ford’s administration, prompting fears that Toronto transit could be headed on a disastrous course if he’s fired.

A 30-year TTC veteran, the 60-year-old chief general manager has drawn the ire of the Fords over his refusal to support the Sheppard subway extension the mayor wants to build, say Toronto Star sources.

Most transit experts, including former TTC boss David Gunn, consider the subway plan a joke.

via Ford plotting to oust TTC chief over subway extension | Toronto Star.

A joke! That’s great.

Kalinowski also confirms something I’ve heard in a few places: that TTC Chair Karen Stintz and the mayor are at odds over Webster’s future, with Stintz sticking up for her GM. That the Fords have apparently floated Case Ootes and Gordon Chong — are these their only allies? — as potential replacements can’t establish much confidence. No offence meant to either man, but careers as an oil company executive and a dentist, respectively, don’t exactly lend themselves to running the day-to-day operations of one of North America’s largest transit systems.

There’a also this, from the same article:

The plan to get rid of Webster “is in play now,” said former TTC vice-chair Joe Mihevc.

“(The Fords) are so committed to Sheppard they are actively contemplating getting rid of the entire streetcar system in Toronto,” he said, adding that the cost of the new streetcars could be applied to the subway.

“If Doug Ford bullies his way through on this, it truly will be the victory of extreme authoritarian ideology over good public transit policy and good business management,” Mihevc said.

Councillor Mihevc could be working off second-hand information, so it’s probably unfair to jump to immediate conclusions, but let’s go with this line of thinking as an exercise. Toronto’s streetcar system — including the right-of-way routes on St. Clair & Spadina — carries almost 275,000 riders per day. The Sheppard Subway, at its current abbreviated length, carries just under 50,000. (These are 2008 figures.) If this streetcars-for-Sheppard scheme is an attempt to win populist approval, it’s entirely backwards.

Transit advocate Steve Munro has the last word on this story:

In ten years, we would have a much reduced quality of transit service in the central city, we would choke streets with clouds of buses and limit the growth of major areas served by the present and proposed streetcar system.  In return, Sheppard Avenue would have its subway, and what started as Lastman’s folly and a Liberal campaign promise by former Premier David Peterson would become a full-blown monument to the stupidity of transit planning and politics in Toronto.

via Will Nobody Stop Fords’ Folly? | SteveMunro.ca.

A full-blown monument to the stupidity of transit planning and politics in Toronto. Nicely said.


11
Jul 11

On bike lanes, put up or shut up

At the Toronto Standard, Matthew Kupfer — who is doing some very good work on the City Hall beat — takes a look at the brief alliance between activist Dave Meslin and Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, which ended so spectacularly when Minnan-Wong endorsed a decision to remove the Jarvis bike lanes as part of his new bike plan.

Well worth reading. I wanted to note this part specifically, as it’s a line Minnan-Wong has been pushing to reporters repeatedly:

Minnan-Wong stands by the bike plan that is going to be voted on this week. He said it represents an investment in cycling infrastructure of nearly $43 million in five years—nearly double what Mayor Miller invested in his final term. As for the so-called war on the bike, he said those charges are trumped up.

via Tandem Troubles | Toronto Standard | News, Media, Art, Business, Technology, Fashion, Events.

I don’t think any cyclist in this city thinks the previous council did a great job installing bike lanes, but it should be noted the the previously adopted city-wide bike plan, written way back in 2001, actually called for $68.3 million in spending. Minnan-Wong should remember that. He voted for it.

I say this not because I’m happy about how the previous bike plan was — or, more accurately, wasn’t — implemented, but instead to point out that there’s a gigantic difference between money that’s been committed as part of a plan and money that’s actually been spent. In other words: put up or shut up.