Nov 11

Calling 911 three times because there was a sketch comic in your driveway

I generally try to stay away from the sideshow parts of this mayoralty and focus on policy and council dynamics, but, hell, no blog that purports to cover the day-to-day at Rob Ford’s City Hall would be complete without a mention of this. So here goes.

Rob Ford called 911 three times because there was a sketch comedian and camera crew in his driveway. This was widely regarded as a bad idea.

I thought Ed Keenan at The Grid and Ivor Tossell at The Toronto Standard had great takes on the calls, the fall-out, and all the twists and turns, including the bit where CBC reported that the mayor, over the course of his calls, said something along the lines of “You bitches, don’t you know who I am? I’m Rob Fucking Ford. The mayor of this city.” And then the part where Police Chief Bill Blair came to the mayor’s public defence, assuring us that he had hard the call, and that there was no use of the word “bitches.”

Looking back, the goal posts sure moved a lot over those five days. The mayor started the week thinking he’d get to celebrate a council victory with the contracting out of garbage collection west of Yonge. He ended it by finding vindication in the police chief’s confirmation that he did not, in fact, call a woman a bitch. (Though, admittedly, he did use a bit of profanity with her.)

There was some sputtering from would-be defenders of the mayor. They said this whole incident was because employees at the Toronto Police Service are biased against Rob Ford. They expressed great moral outrage that someone would approach a politician on their driveway in an attempt to get an interview. They suddenly had grave concerns about the length of time 911 takes to respond to calls. They did that thing where they referred to CBC and “my tax dollars” and flew into a rage.

And in all that, there were good points (a public figure’s right to privacy; 911 response times) and bad ones (any notion that bias against Ford played a role in this) but I just can’t get beyond this: if the mayor had just spent two minutes talking to the woman with the camera crew, giving her a few token comments, none of this would have happened. If he had, instead, retreated to his house, waited for the crew to leave, and then gone about his day, none of this would have happened.

In all the alternate-universe takes on this chain of events, the only one that comes out worse for the mayor is the one where he backs over Marg Delahunty with his mini-van.

Why this never mattered

The narrative of Rob Ford’s dwindling public support goes like this: a lot of people bought into the notion that there was a ton of waste at City Hall and Rob Ford was the guy to fight it. Once that story got bulldozed under the plodding reality of consultants and slow-burn service cuts, they started jumping ship. Hence, he’s the second most unpopular mayor of a major city in Canada.

An incident like this is never really going to move the needle. Either you’re a voter who has shown themselves willing to look beyond the mayor’s quirks of character — if it’s fair to call getting drunk at a hockey game and telling a woman she should get raped and shot ‘quirky’ — and support Rob Ford, or you’re not. The CBC’s original account of the situation — the one with the “bitches” — spread so far and so fast not just because it was salacious (and funny) but because it was believable. It fit the established Rob Ford we know.

The CBC’s screw-up

Much has been made of the CBC running with this story despite apparently having not heard the 911 tapes. Today at Torontoist, Mark Bourrie argues that the whole incident reflects so badly on the public broadcaster that it could contribute to a future push to reduce or eliminate funding. I think that might be overstating things.

But the CBC definitely made a mistake here, and I think it comes down to running unconfirmed quotes from the supposed 911 calls. I’m not sure who made that call, but it was the wrong one. Had CBC led off with a news story that reported only that the mayor had made repeated 911 calls, used profanity, and been rude toward the operators, that likely would have held up to scrutiny and still driven the page views.

Oct 11

Police Budget 2012: How Bill Blair beat Rob Ford

2012 Police Budget: Requested vs. Delivered

Are you ready for some totally ridiculous math?

Check this out: The mayor has rather famously asked all departments to cut 10% from their operating budgets for 2012. This is a neat trick that, I guess, is supposed to let him deflect some of the blame for the inevitable service cuts that come from such a huge target. The request has made a lot of people unhappy.

For the police services — with a budget approaching a billion dollars per year — this request worked out to about $90 million in cost reductions. We know this is the case, because a report, the 2011 Environmental Scan, presented at this week’s police board meeting — the very same meeting at which the budget was passed — included this unambiguous sentence: “The city recommended 2012 operating budget target for the Toronto Police Service reflected an overall decrease of $84 million, about 10%, from the total 2011 approved budget.” (See Agenda Item 5; a straight-up 10% reduction totals $93 million, but the city probably accounted for some — but clearly not all — mitigating factors in its original request, to knock that down to $84 million.)

Okay, so the mayor wanted the chief to cut 10%. But the chief said he couldn’t do it. And of course he couldn’t: it was only a few months back that the mayor approved a giant pay increase for officers in this city. The police budget is more than 80% labour. You’re not going to make a  dent in that without taking cops off the street.

Here’s where things get ridiculous: at this week’s meeting, the chief came forward with a budget request for $936 million. This is $5.9 million more than the 2011 budget, a 0.6% increase year-over-year. There is no reasonable way to present this as any kind of reduction, let alone 10%.

And yet, as the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale tells us:

The 2011 police budget was $930 million. Blair’s “starting budget” added the $23 million in salary increases produced by this year’s collective agreement with officers, then added $26 million in other “pressures identified during 2011,” for a total of $979 million.

Using this figure, two Ford allies on the board, Thompson and council speaker Frances Nunziata, joined Blair in arguing that his $936 million budget request amounts to a $43 million cut — about 4.6 percentage points of the requested 10.

“It’s a huge reduction,” Nunziata said.

via Blair wins: Ford poised to accept police budget hike | Toronto Star.

So, through the power of imagination — and uncompetent thinking — a 0.6% budgetary increase is now being touted as a 4.6% budgetary decrease.

I guess the lesson to be learned here for all city departments is to start high. Come in with a huge budgetary request for 2012. Then whittle it down a tad and claim mega savings. With imaginary money on the table, we can all be fiscal conservatives.

Why Blair’s strategy worked

Other departments are unlikely to get away with so blatantly side-stepping the mayor’s request for cost reductions, even though that request will undoubtedly mean major service cuts. Blair was able to pull this off because he put the mayor in a position where he would have to publicly endorse a reduction in the number of police officers in Toronto to achieve his target. There is no way that Ford was going to do that.

Still, it’s worth noting that this is a mayor who campaigned on adding one hundred officers but will likely end his term having taken many times that number off the streets through attrition and hiring freezes.

A caveat

There’s still a conversation that needs to be had about the cost of policing in this city relative to declining crime rates. There might be a better way forward. But that is not a conversation this administration seems capable of having.

Further reading

Over at The Clamshell, David Hains has a very nice analysis of the police budget and all the steps that got us here.

Oct 11

10% budget reductions, fewer cops on the streets, and reluctantly defending Bill Blair

From Rob Ford's "Financial Impact" platform document, his pledge to hire 100 more police officers. At present, it seems he will actually take hundreds off the streets through attrition to meet budget targets.

This week’s drama at City Hall: the police budget. The mayor wants all departments to cut their budgets by 10%, but Chief Bill Blair — whose budget is mostly labour costs — has refused, saying that he can’t do that without taking an unacceptable number of officers off the streets.

The Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle:

On Friday, the chief presented a scenario that would see a 1.5 per cent increase to the service’s $915 million operating budget, rather than the mandated 10 per cent cut.

Blair’s refusal to make concessions set [Councillor & Police Board Member Michael] Thompson off, who decided to publically question whether it was time to find a new chief if he won’t meet the budget target.

Ford made a near identical threat in January to force hiring concessions from Blair.

On Monday, in addition to his meeting with Ford, Blair set out on a daylong media offensive, giving a number of high-profile radio interviews where he spoke harshly of Thompson and defended his budget reductions.

via Toronto News: Chief Bill Blair tries to strike a budget deal with Rob Ford – thestar.com.

First: Let’s stop pretending that budgeting is easy. If running a government was as simple as pointing at budgets and demanding they be made smaller, anyone could do it. Hell, why stop at a 10% reduction? Why not 20%? Or 50%? All these blanket requests do is penalize the departments that have been run efficiently in recently years, forcing them to volunteer service cuts to meet their targets.

Second: A 10% reduction year-over-year is not an ‘efficiency’ target. It’s a number that requires service cuts to achieve. And that’s fine, I guess — some people like service cuts –, except that the mayor is attempting to have his cake and eat it too: claiming efficient victories while city departments scramble to gut services to meet his targets. In the case of the police service, the mayor’s request has a clear and direct outcome: he’s taking police officers off the streets. He can’t hide from that reality. There will be fewer police officers on Toronto’s streets this year and next year because of Rob Ford.

Third: Not that fewer police officers on the streets is necessarily a bad thing. Conventional wisdom is that Toronto spends too much on policing relative to its declining crime rate. Still, it has to be noted that Rob Ford campaigned on adding 100 police officers to the force, but instead has taken several times that many off the streets. It’s also fair to ask where the reductions in the force are coming from, because it sure would be a shame if, say, community policing in priority areas took a hit in favour of traffic enforcement.

Fourth: Bill Blair’s actions during the G20 are indefensible, which is why it’s challenging to write this: he shouldn’t resign. Setting aside that weekend where Toronto turned into a police state for no real reason — and I know, that’s hard — Bill Blair has been an effective leader of the Toronto Police Services, embracing a more liberal approach to public safety. If he goes, he’ll be replaced by the same guys who thought Julian Fantino was awesome at his job, and who seem to view allegations of corruption and excessive force as assets. It’s not worth going down that road.

Jun 11

Credit to Thompson for considering police layoffs

The Globe & Mail’s Patrick White:

In a move that introduces the unprecedented spectre of police layoffs in Toronto, the city has asked Chief Bill Blair to explore reducing the number of officers under his command by 10 per cent – down to levels not seen since Mel Lastman was in office.

At a Toronto Police Services Board on Monday, Councillor Michael Thompson asked the chief to look at how much money the city could save by dropping 500 uniformed officers and 300 civilian members of the Toronto Police Services, the country’s largest municipal force.

via Layoffs possible as city asks Blair to reduce police staff by 10 per cent – The Globe and Mail.

I have to give credit to Councillor Michael Thompson for at least floating the idea of downsizing the Toronto police force, even if it is both a) impossible; and b) politically unpopular. The reality is that if these guys at City Hall really want to get serious about reducing the size and cost of the city’s government, they can’t ignore their single largest budget line.

This won’t happen, of course. If for no other reason than because one of Rob Ford’s campaign promises was to do the opposite of this: to increase the number of officers on the streets. Ford’s platform called for a 0.1 per cent decrease in non-policing city spending to fund “100 additional frontline police officers.”