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.

Jun 11

Candidate Rob Ford versus Mayor Rob Ford, on city’s revenue problem

From then-councillor Rob Ford’s address to supporters at the Toronto Congress Centre on March 26, 2010. This is the speech where he officially kicked off his mayoral campaign:

I’ve said it a million times. Toronto doesn’t have a funding problem.

Toronto has a spending problem.

City Hall is addicted to wasteful spending.

via RobFordForMayor.ca (PDF).

Yesterday, in an article by the Globe & Mail’s Elizabeth Church regarding the potential sale of more than 900 city-owned TCHC houses, as recommended by outgoing board chair Case Ootes.:

“I agree. Let’s sell these homes. Let’s take that revenue,” [Rob Ford] said. “Obviously, we need the money to fund next year’s budget.”

via Ford plans to sell social housing stock to close budget deficit – The Globe and Mail.

In defence of Case Ootes, he was suggesting the sale of the homes to fund necessarily capital repairs at other TCHC properties. Ford’s desire to immediately plow revenue from asset sales into this year’s operating budget is disturbing.

Apr 11

Replacing the gravy train with a crazy train

Earlier this week, in response to news that board-of-one Case Ootes would approve the sale of 22 TCHC properties, the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat quoted Mike Layton. “What’s the rush now?” asked the rookie councillor.

It’s a question you could ask about a lot of news coming out of City Hall. If there’s a single unifying characteristic for the first four months of Rob Ford’s administration, rushing would be it. If you buy the mayor’s claim that the previous council was some kind of “gravy train,” this council is a train of another sort, rumbling forward at a million miles per hour, taking no care on the curves. This train moves forward even at the expense of planning, consultation or process.

The mayor rushed through the budget process, and attempted to make cuts to TTC bus routes without public consultation. Every effort has been made to avoid debate on transit planning issues, though that may change next week. We were told it was imperative that every member of the TCHC board be immediately removed, even recently-appointed councillors and elected tenant representatives.

For a recent example, take the Sheppard Subway plan. This week we learned that former councillor Gordon Chong was hired as President of CEO of Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd, the agency revived a month ago to oversee the early stages of the project. As John Lorinc with the Globe points out today, Chong was essentially “sole-sourced” into the position, bypassing the TTC’s normal process for recruiting senior executive positions.

Chong will be paid the equivalent of a $100,000 per year salary. Lorinc points out that he is “the third high-profile member of Mr. Ford’s transition team to find paid positions in the mayor’s administration.”

This kind of behaviour — rewarding supporters with well-paying positions; avoiding due process –, while it doesn’t appear to break any rules, seems surprising, given the mayor’s history. Ford once publicly accused Adam Vaughan of having a serious conflict of interest because a person who donated $250 to Vaughan’s campaign ended up appointed to a city committee. (Ford was later forced to apologize, then there was a party.)

Giving the mayor his deserved credit, I do believe that any characterization of Ford as even a little bit corrupt is nonsense. I think what drives the mayor is a casual ineptitude when it comes to rules and process, coupled with a general lack of patience.  You can see echoes of this in the stories (also by Lorinc) about irregularities in Ford’s campaign expenses. I doubt very much that the Fords attempted to game the system — it seems more likely that they simply barrelled forward, unencumbered by complicated campaign finance rules, taking the easiest path towards getting things done. Rush rush rush.

There’s an upside to the rushing. People often complain about the general lethargy of government. How nothing changes and nothing gets done. This administration certainly takes a different approach, and up until now it’s been largely effective in the broad-strokes. But a train moving this fast, and with so little regard for the rules of operation, runs the real risk of going off the rails.

Apr 11

Public housing isn’t just about dollars and cents

One more quick hit on the TCHC story from this week: The Star’s Robyn Doolittle scored a nice win when she reported Monday that a 79-year-old widow would be displaced by Case Ootes’ move to sell-off housing. This got the attention of the ombudsman’s office — who doesn’t get along well with this administration —  and the widow’s house was saved.

During the controversy, voice-of-the-mayor Doug Ford said this, as reported by Natalie Alcoba:

“Nothing is fair. It’s not fair to the taxpayers that she’s living in a million home, too. I feel sorry for her, my heart goes out to her, but I could take that million dollars and build four other homes and house four other families,” said Councillor Ford.

via TCHC could net $13M from 22-house sale | Posted Toronto | National Post.

This is a variation of a conservative argument that’s been making the rounds today. See also Sue-Ann Levy’s column “Sell! Sell! Sell!” where she ever-so-cautiously tiptoes around the idea of selling housing.

Three things to keep in mind in response to this:

First, it is somewhat challenging and will only get more so to find a single family home in good condition anywhere in Toronto that isn’t valued at more than half a million dollars. Some terribly designed real estate website tells me that the current average price of a detached home in the 416 is $719,843. Semi-detached is $533,039.

If we want to promote mixed-income neighbourhoods and avoid lurching toward an all-Starbucks gentrification across the Old City of Toronto, we’re necessarily going to have to devote some potentially valuable property to low-income housing. This isn’t a big deal: we also devote potentially valuable property to all kinds of social services, like transit facilities and highway off-ramps and fire stations.

Second, the argument that we can house more people for less money if we sell-off single family homes seems to creep toward mid-century thinking that saw efficient housing built vertically as blocks of towers, clustered together in concentrated areas. This was a less-than-succesful strategy.

Third, and not directed at any one thing, the idea that you might be able to ‘motivate’ a person out of poverty by making their life suck just a little bit more doesn’t seem to hold true. Just saying.

Apr 11

One-man board Case Ootes breaks his word

On March 14, days after the seven hour meeting that saw him installed as the lone director of the TCHC board, Case Ootes told the Toronto Star’s Royson James that “it wouldn’t be appropriate” for him to sell off city-owned housing. “That’s not on the agenda for me,” he said. “I do not believe that is something I’d do.”

Today, less than a month after making those comments, Ootes held a board meeting where he moved and approved a motion that would see the city sell 22 single-family homes owned by TCHC:

Acting as a one-man board, interim managing director Case Ootes has approved the sale of 22 single-family homes owned by the Toronto Community Housing Corp.

The issue will now go to city council. From there, approvals will be needed from the province before the properties can be put on the market.

“Past boards, for various reasons, have avoided the difficult decisions that need to be made. We can’t continue on the road where the capital repairs continue to escalate; we can’t keep up, we’re way behind. Something has to give.”

via One-man TCHC board approves sale of houses – thestar.com.

In the same article (by The Star’s Robyn Doolittle), Ootes claims that he’s “simply following through with a process initiated by the previous board.” But that would appear to be disingenuous.

Last year, Kris Scehuer of the My TownCrier outlet reported that the TCHC was selling several properties to a non-profit Aboriginal housing provider at below market value. Scheuer also reported that the TCHC board was looking at doing the same thing with other properties, including beachfront houses on Hubbard Boulevard.

The move was vocally opposed by then-councillor Case Ootes:

But there were voices of dissent on the plan, including Toronto-Danforth Councillor Case Ootes, who voted against the decision to sell to Wigwamen.

“I’m not convinced that handing off assets that belong to the city to an agency at less than market value makes sense,” he said. “The agency will provide social housing, but we’ve lost control of the asset.”


Councillor Ootes would like the city to sell those homes for market value, and use the revenue for rent subsidies.

“I don’t think people in social housing need to live in $800,000 houses or $500,000 houses,” he said. Instead, “Look at the option for a rent subsidy.”

via City Housing stock in Beach sold cheap – TownNEWS – MyTownCrier.ca.

The previous board was in favour of selling assets at below-market value to not-for-profit organizations that could offer housing services. This strategy allowed the city to continue to meet its provincially mandated quota for public housing while shifting ongoing maintenance costs to a third-party organization.

Ootes opposed this, as was his right as a city councillor.

That was then. No longer a member of council, Ootes has, in effect, used what we were told was a temporary ‘caretaker’ position on the TCHC board to attempt to effect a policy he was pushing in his previous role as a city politician.

Whatever your opinion on the merits of selling these properties, this comes off as dishonest.

Mar 11

Trust us: we’re not going to do what we’ve said we’d like to

Royson James’ latest column has a neat exchange with Doug Ford toward the end of end of it:

The mayor’s brother, Doug, also took great pains over the weekend to explain that Ootes’ job does not involve selling off public housing.

So, why has the mayor not made an unequivocal announcement to that effect — words that might stop the rumours that the city’s poorest tenants may soon be on the streets?

“You can trust me on that, take my word for it,” Doug Ford said in an interview. “Case is not being brought in to sell off public housing.”

Then why not issue a statement or news release saying the mayor expressly does not want Ootes selling tenants’ homes?

“We may have to do that (this) week,” he said.

via I’m not here to sell off housing: Ootes – thestar.com.

It’d be pretty funny if the mayor’s office actually released a statement assuring tenants that Case Ootes wasn’t going to sell off public housing. That would seem to serve as a strong indication that perhaps tenants weren’t clamouring for this move, and in fact the hundreds in attendance last week actually were a good representation, wouldn’t it?

And, again: maybe the first step toward reassuring people that you’re not going to privatize public housing should be NOT publicly musing about privatizing public housing. But what do I know.

The weird thing is that even I don’t believe Ootes was brought in as part of a Machiavellian scheme to sell off housing. I do believe — and I think this is reasonable — that the Mayor’s Office does have in mind a long-term goal to consolidate control over the TCHC board and eventually implement some degree of privatization. Given the mayor’s comments during his campaign and afterwards, plus the need to achieve significant cuts in the 2012 operating budget, I don’t think I’m being over-the-top.

All the drama that happened last week over Ootes is, I think, emblematic not of an immediate privatize-everything conspiracy but of an administration that is totally unwilling to compromise. Team Ford decided on the outcome before anyone got a chance to debate, and even the most reasonable of compromises were voted down.

Mar 11

Board out, Ootes in

Earlier today, a new agenda item was added for this week’s council meeting. The item, MM5.7, moved by Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday and (kind of interestingly) seconded by Mary-Margaret McMahon, calls for the TCHC Board of Directors to be dissolved and replaced with a Managing Director, who is not named.

Thanks to the Globe & Mail’s Kelly Grant, we now know that Managing Director will be Case Ootes, former councillor and the man who led Rob Ford’s transition team:

The former councillor who led Mayor Rob Ford’s transition team is the administration’s choice to temporarily replace the ousted board of Toronto’s embattled public housing agency, The Globe has learned.

Case Ootes is recommended as the managing director of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, according to a city hall source.

via Case Ootes recommended to be temporary TCHC director – The Globe and Mail.

A little digging shows that Ootes once called for the sale of all TCHC-owned single family homes (starting with three in his ward), proposing that profits from the sales go to rent subsidies and TCHC high-rise buildings. He did say at the time, though, that he was “all for not creating ghettos.” Which is, I guess, good news.