Posts Tagged: denzil minnan-wong

Jun 11

Does vote on public health nurses reveal the real Rob Ford?

The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has more on Monday’s totally baffling Executive Committee decision to defer indefinitely a recommendation that the city accept, at no cost, two additional public health nurses, courtesy of the provincial government:

Council’s budget committee had recommended that the city accommodate the nurses by increasing the health budget by $170,000, all of which would come from the province. At Monday’s executive committee meeting, Ford asked, “How are we going to pay for these two public health nurses on an ongoing basis?”

Told by a health official that the provincial funding would continue on an ongoing basis, Ford said only, “I just want to defer this indefinitely, then.”

via Health minister criticizes Ford’s rejection of nurses –

Ontario Minister of Health Deb Matthews criticized the decision, noting that Toronto is the only municipality thus far to reject the province’s offer for more public health funding.

Despite sticking to a promise to record every vote made at City Council — including routine motions to provide extensions on speaking time — votes at Executive Committee are not recorded. So far, and to their credit, it’s been reported that Councillors Denzil Minnan-Wong, Mike Del Grande, Norm Kelly and Peter Milczyn voted against the mayor’s deferral motion.

Since Ford’s taken office, there’s been an effort to soften his image, portraying him less as a curmudgeon with extreme libertarian tendencies and more as a curmudgeon who, sure, is conservative but who also loves this city and if council would just join hands and work with the mayor maybe we’d all be better off.

But what if this vote — and his similar negative vote on a motion that saw the city accept $100,000 of provincial money for STI screening — reveals the real Rob Ford? Did voters really elect this mayor in the hopes that he would reject needed funds for things like public health, all in the name of ideology?

Jun 11

Bike Plan to Nowhere: Three ways the new bike plan report falls short

Staff released their report (PDF) on Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s much-ballyhooed bike plan last week. It’ll be debated this Wednesday at the meeting of the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee, after which it will, if approved, go on to City Council for final consideration.

The Toronto Cyclists Union has served as a somewhat unlikely ally to Minnan-Wong as he’s talked up his plan for a network of four separated bike lanes across the downtown core. They’ve even visited with neighbourhood groups across the downtown to build support for the idea of protected bike lanes.

The release of the staff report appeared to throw cold water on that budding friendship, however.

The union’s response:

This report was released today and the Toronto Cyclists Union, representing over 1,100 members, is disappointed with the lack of progress in the report. It is not bold enough to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of Torontonians who ride bicycles. In fact, several of the recommendations outlined in the report set the City back on cycling progress.

via Statement on 2011 Bikeway Network Report | Toronto Cyclists Union.

To Minnan-Wong’s credit, he told the Toronto Star’s David Rider that he “wishes staff had taken a ‘bolder’ approach” in their report.

So why does the report — let’s just say it — kind of suck? Let’s count the ways.

Reason One: It’s a bike plan that eliminates bike lanes

First, it’s a bike plan that actually floats the idea of eliminating established bike lanes in Scarborough and previously approved — but not installed — lanes on Bloor West.

Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, one of the Team Ford members that sometimes breaks ranks, pushed for removal of the two Scarborough lanes — one’s on Birchmount Road while the other is on Pharmacy Avenue — as part of her election platform (PDF).

Though staff report that the two lanes “do not have a significant adverse effect on the traffic operations and parking situation” on the two roadways, and advise that removal of the lanes will cost more than $200,000, Berardinetti told the Toronto Sun that she would continue to support their removal because “[this] is what the residents want.”

It’s populist thinking like that that make me wonder why we don’t just replace our elected officials with a series of online polls.

Here’s a nifty video showing a cyclist riding the Pharmacy Ave. lane during rush hour. While hardly the definitive word on this sort of thing, it does not, to me, resemble traffic chaos.

Reason Two: It’s a bike plan that barely recommends new bike lanes

The authors of the report essentially hedge their bets on every major recommendation. The only protected lane they recommend without further study is a small installation over the Bloor Viaduct. They’re also a little bullish on protected lanes on Sherbourne and Wellsley, recommending them for 2012.

The other proposed lanes in Minnan-Wong’s network, including a lane or Richmond or Adelaide — which the report notes “would have the greatest benefit for cyclists” –, are pushed off into the future, noting that more studies must be done.

I’m being critical of the report’s authors, but I should note that their timidness to recommend lanes is grounded in reality, considering the views the mayor and Minnan-Wong have expressed in the past.The report includes a lengthy section in the summary that serves as a kind of disclaimer for councillors who once fought hard against bike infrastructure:

It is important to understand, however, that the implementation of other separated bicycle lanes will, in most instances, result in a reduction of vehicle traffic or parking capacity. It is with this understanding that this report seeks authority to undertake further in-depth assessment, including a comprehensive consultation and design process, to evaluate the different design options for this separated bicycle lane network, and to identify impacts and recommend potential mitigating measures

In other words: We really don’t want to spend a zillion hours producing a bunch of reports for bike lanes on Richmond Street if you’re going to inevitably dismiss any bike lane that might impact the free movement of cars.

Reason Three: It’s a bike plan that works against, rather than with, the cycling community

In addition to floating the idea of removing lanes in Scarborough, the report also calls for the cancelling a previously-funded environmental assessment that would “develop an innovative design and implementation plan for developing a bikeway along the Bloor-Danforth corridor, and identify short and long-term design options, including evaluating the feasibility of physically separated bicycle lanes.”

Minnan-Wong justifies the cancellation by saying “we only have so much money and we only have so much staff” and pointing to better uses of the funds set aside from the EA. The cycling community, apparently, would disagree:

Hundreds of cyclists hit Bloor St. Saturday for the annual Bells on Bloor ride with the simple message ringing out — build bike lanes from one end of Toronto to the other across the major artery.

via Cyclists pedal hard for bike lane | Toronto Sun.

The disconnect between what the plan actually proposes and what the cycling community is asking for is disappointing. I guess it should be noted that another term for cycling community is taxpayer community.

For those playing along at home, the best way to rapidly expand cycling infrastructure in this city is to aggressively design and approve pilot projects, in the style of New York City’s Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Minnan-Wong’s stated desire to take a “bolder” approach is the one thing that gives me hope out of this disappointing report. Bold is what cyclists should get. Bold is what this city deserves.

Jun 11

‘Construction chaos’ is chance for new administration to prove effectiveness

Councillor Ana Bailão made the rounds this week for the latest “Oh no! Road Construction!” story, this time focused on Dundas West. I’m not always sympathetic to those who immediately complain about so-called construction chaos. It happens sometimes, and we must persevere. Still, though, it seems undeniable at this point that the city has a real problem when it comes to the coordination of utility work, to the point where construction delays are far more common than they should be.

Soon after the media jumped on Bailão’s story, Public Works Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong joined the party.

The Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle:

Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the public works committee, said this is yet another example of shoddy planning that leads to over-budget spending, lengthy delays and city roads being ripped up, rebuilt and ripped up again across the city.

“We are told time and time again, over and over again, that things are coordinated and then we find out after the fact, when things go wrong, that they weren’t,” he said.

via Fed up with sidewalks being ripped up everywhere? So is the city –

This an area where the new administration has a real chance to prove their effectiveness. It’s an identifiable problem, and has been for years. It might even be a case where a more stereotypically conservative approach — involving yelling and threats — is kind of appropriate.

It’s not a simple problem, however, and there’s a great danger in oversimplifying. This isn’t about lazy unions or inept city staff. It’s about a bunch of agencies — some private and some public — trying to coordinate communication and requirements to one another across a very large and very busy city.

Jun 11

Minnan-Wong’s work on bike lanes: pragmatic & inclusionary

The Toronto Star’s Catherine Porter went on an apparently quite scary bike ride with Chair of Public Works Denzil Minnan-Wong the other day. While riding — and falling, then falling again — the councillor talked about his plan for installing protected bike lanes on Richmond, Sherbourne, St. George/Beverley, Simcoe and Wellesley/Harbord:

“I see it as a pragmatic solution,” said Minnan-Wong, the public works chair, who will introduce his plan to the committee later this month. From there, it will go in July to council, where he figures he has the votes.

“The mayor has three principles when it comes to bike lanes: safety, community support and where they make sense. This downtown network, where we don’t have parks and ravines, meets those criteria,” he said.

via Porter: City’s new bike champion is on the right path –

Denzil Minnan-Wong is following the political track that Rob Ford, as mayor, really should be on as well. Now that he and council’s right-wing are in power, he’s throwing his support behind an initiative that even his most steadfast detractors will find appealing. Whereas Ford continues to stand up in council and rant about the socialists, Minnan-Wong would seem to be, at the very least, attempting to heal some of the divisiveness that badly marked the last election.

How genuine Minnan-Wong is with his overtures toward the cycling community is a matter of opinion — that he’s advocating for these lanes while not too long ago he was yelling about Jarvis gives me a ton of pause — , but politically I have to give him credit. That this kind of thing could nicely set him up for a mayoral run is, for him, a fringe benefit.

Minnan-Wong’s been careful to position his bicycle network plan as the mayor’s plan, but so far there’s been little in the way of comment from the mayor’s office on this issue. (“Not a priority,” they said, when Minnan-Wong first started floating the idea.)

I doubt very much the mayor or his loyal band of councillors would take issue with improving existing bike lanes, but I am very interested to see how council responds to the idea of a protected lane on Richmond. The removal of a lane of traffic on what some would dub a major arterial (for cars) seems contrary to the mayor’s beliefs.

May 11

Rob Ford’s next target: Jarvis Street bike lanes?

The Toronto Sun’s Don Peat reports that Public Works Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong is looking at removing the bike lanes on Jarvis Street:

Public works chairman Denzil Minnan-Wong said he thinks there is an appetite on council to revisit the controversial bike lanes.

“I’ve heard from many councillors that they would like to revisit this issue,” Minnan-Wong said.

He is proposing a separated bike lane plan in the downtown core but the network doesn’t call for such lanes on Jarvis St. because it is a primary north-south route.

via Jarvis St. bike lanes will be re-examined | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

For the record, the Jarvis street lanes were a low-cost item. Despite rapturous concerns that they would lead to traffic chaos, they’ve caused minimal delays. Aside from a lingering desire to give the finger to their political opponents, there is no reason for Minnan-Wong, Ford or any member of council to support this change.

And yet here we are.

The cycling community, including the Toronto Cyclists Union, has generally been supportive of Minnan-Wong’s plan for a network of four protected bike lanes downtown. This news should give them pause.

May 11

Trash of the Titans

Councillor Josh Matlow held a debate on the merits of garbage privatization last night, pitting Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong against economist Hugh MacKenzie. I liked both John Michael McGrath’s coverage at Toronto Life and Carly Conway’s piece praising moderator Steve Paikin above everything else at Torontoist.

The truth of the matter — and this is the reason I think the event was only lightly attended — is that council will essentially be considering two items related to garbage privatization next week: outcome and process. The question of outcome is boring. I suspect most councillors believe that their constituents favour the outsourcing of trash collection. That’ll be enough to push them toward supporting the idea.

The process, on the other hand, is the far more interesting — and complicated — question. Councillors need to really dig deep and consider whether city council should authorize staff to approve the winning bid without oversight. Should Toronto really award a very very rich private sector contract with no input from elected officials?

It seems, at least, that even privatization-booster Minnan-Wong isn’t so sure the staff-recommended process is a good one. From the Toronto Star’s David Rider:

Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) also revealed that he’s “struggling” with a staff recommendation that council approve the bidding process but then let a staff committee award the final contract potentially worth $150 million.

He voted, along with three other public works members, in favour of that recommendation plus others put forward in a privatization report by senior works staff.

But asked about the clause, amid news that the manager who authored the report is moving to a private-sector firm expected to bid on the contract, Minnan-Wong voiced reservations.

Staff said the delay caused by taking the recommended bid to council will cost the city millions in possible savings, he noted, adding: “I’m struggling with this.”

The issue will be hashed out on the floor of council, he said.

via Gender rights a new wrinkle in trash debate –

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out during the council meeting next week.

Apr 11

Road to privatized garbage skips past council

With much fanfare — the National Post’s Peter Kuitenbrouwer reports that there was a new! podium! sign! — Chair of Public Works Denzil Minnan-Wong revealed a staff report outlining the proposed process for the privatization of solid waste collection west of Yonge Street.

Solid waste collection is not a big-ticket item. The cost is mostly recovered through user fees. While I am sure some will spin this as a great step forward toward our glorious low-tax utopia, the impact this will have on the city’s overall financial position will be minimal. As a comparison, the $10 million dollars per year the city was to bring in from billboard tax revenues is more substantial.

This is not primarily a financial move. It’s not about customer service, either, as the report concludes (page 9) no difference in customer satisfaction levels between privatized Etobicoke and the rest of the city. This is about punishing the unions and preventing future strikes. And despite some introspective ideological push-back, I’m okay with that, to be honest: if there’s one thing Ford has a legitimate mandate from the people to do, it’s this. I just wish it would be presented more truthfully.

More troubling than the intent behind this is the proposed process. In an effort to have a signed contract in place before the union’s contract expires at the end of this year, the staff report recommends that council delegate approval of the contract to the City’s Bid Committee.

Council will get to debate and approve the overall process for garbage privatization, but they will not — without an amendment to this report — get to debate and approve the final contract itself. The report lays out several reasons why this should be the case, but only one of them makes real sense (page 12):

To ensure that the contracts are awarded and executed in advance of the expiration of existing Collective Agreements. The current Collective Agreements with the TCEU(s) expire December 31, 2011.

Rushing through this process to avoid the spectre of another work stoppage is short-sighted and could cost the city significant amounts of money over the long-term. As the report indicates that the city will sell off some of its equipment (trucks, etc. — the report suggests the city will secure $1.5m in one-time revenue on page 6), this process will be essentially irreversible.

Once we go forward, we can’t go back. This is a critical and high-impact decision-making process that demands more oversight from our elected officials than has been suggested in today’s report.

Apr 11

The mayor wants to sell the waterfront

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On Friday, in a scrum following another community clean-up photo op, the mayor confirmed that the city was looking at pulling out of Waterfront Toronto. “I have a problem with the money we’re spending and the results we’re getting from them,” he said.

Here’s the short version of what I believe is going on with this story: there is an attempt to ignite a debate about the speed and relative quality of Waterfront Toronto projects. The hope is that this debate will inspire a populist desire for reform which will, in turn, lead to an opportunity to sell off city-owned assets and use the proceeds to balance the city’s operating budget.

How else to explain the all-out assault we’ve seen toward Waterfront Toronto this week from the mayor, his brother, and their assorted hangers-on? Why did Denzil Minnan-Wong take to his Twitter account (seen above) to publicly bash communications staff at Waterfront Toronto for having the gall to defend their work?

The narrative we’re starting to see here is actually very similar to the one that marked the TCHC story: demonize an agency as wasteful, whip up populist support for reform — without actually conducting an investigation or working through the necessary processes — and, finally, enact policy that makes it easier to sell-off or privatize things.

The difference, of course, is that the TCHC narrative began with an actual scandal.

Doug Ford’s conversation with the Globe & Mail’s Marcus Gee about his “vision” for the waterfront is worth reading, as it’s completely off-the-wall ridiculous:

Doug Ford has a vision: a football stadium on the waterfront. He says the NFL stadium might be built on the site of the abandoned Hearn generating plant in the underdeveloped Portlands.

The stadium would be the anchor for a massive redevelopment of the Portlands that would “turn this dump site into a wow factor.” It would include dramatically designed residential buildings and high-end retailers such as Macy’s department store. A monorail elevated transit system would link it to downtown.

via Doug Ford sees stadium in waterfront’s future – The Globe and Mail.

He also proposes a giant Ferris wheel. Because how better to define our city on the world stage than to steal that thing that London has?

Any discussion of the relative quality or progress of Waterfront Toronto’s projects only serves to distract from the real intent. If the Fords wanted to put their own stamp on the future of these projects, they would have at least attempted to meet with Waterfront Toronto. To talk about their issues with timeline and scope. Instead, Rob Ford has missed every meeting the agency has held.

Worse, the conversations we’ve had this week have spooked the private sector developers who are involved.

The big not-so-secret about development in areas currently controlled by Waterfront Toronto is that these are former industrial sites, in many cases built on landfill. The soil is contaminated. Flooding is hugely problematic. Engineering and construction work are challenging in the best of cases.

Without public sector involvement and support, the private sector is not going to build the kinds of things we’d like to see in these areas.

Anyone who looks at the history of these sites knows as much. In the 1980s, the provincial government had a plan to take the land they owned in the West Don Lands — a very similar area to the Port Lands — and build an affordable housing neighbourhood modelled after the successful one in the St. Lawrence area. They called it Ataratiri, because vowels are great. The money required to clean up the area never materialized. The Bob Rae government put the land up for sale to the private sector. (For about 30 million — a far cry from the hundreds of millions we’ve heard the private sector would pay.) No buyers materialized; no one wanted to take on the responsibility of cleaning up the land and making it developable.

In 1997, the Mike Harris government got desperate and did find a buyer. Without any consultation, negotiations began to sell the land to a developer who would use it for a horse racing track. Only after a wave of opposition was this sale halted.

This is the kind of thing the private sector is willing to do if we sell this land on the open market: build cheap, achievable projects that can turn a quick profit. We can help them do that, or we can continue on the sensible track we’re on, which is already beginning to pay dividends. Using public investment to make these lands more appropriate for neighbourhood development and working with the private sector to design and build world-class projects will see a return on investment that could define this city for decades to come.

The alternative, I suppose, is to go with the private sector and bet it all on the horses.

You can read this 2006 story from The Bulletin for a decent summation of the history of the West Don Lands and the provincial government’s attempt to sell the land to the private sector. Resident Cynthia Wilkey was one of the leaders in opposing the development, and it was her message to the Corktown Residents Google Group that partly inspired me to research and write this story.

Apr 11

The budget knives come out for waterfront development

Natalie Alcoba and Peter Kuitenbrouwer, in what I have to imagine is a story being pushed by someone  at City Hall:

Frustration with the pace and pricey bureaucracy of redeveloping Toronto’s port lands has got Mayor Rob Ford’s administration wondering if the city can sell off some of its own parcels separate from the agency that has been guiding transformation on the lake shore.

The federal, Ontario and city governments created Waterfront Toronto in 2001 as the “master planner and lead developer” on 52 hectares of prime real estate that had historically been the domain of industry. Of that land, Toronto owns 56%, the Toronto Port Authority 24%, and 20% is in the hands of the private sector.

via Waterfront Toronto is moving too slowly: critics | Posted Toronto | National Post.

Selling off parcels of land — removing them from the purview of Waterfront Toronto — is an insane suggestion, likely driven by a need to find saleable assets that can help bring down next year’s budget gap. While progress on the waterfront is not visible to those who don’t, you know, visit the waterfront, those who have actually gone down to look at the progress have to acknowledge that significant headway has been made.

Simply selling off land to the private sector without following an integrated plan for development will lead to the same mistakes that were made with the central and western waterfront — soulless condo towers with no neighbourhood feel.

In an interview with the Globe & Mail’s Lisa Rochon this weekend, architect Moshe Safdie was asked about the mistakes Toronto made with its initial waterfront development. He said:  “Back in the 1980s, Toronto’s waterfront was developed intensely and generated extraordinary taxes but it wasn’t invested into infrastructure that could make a difference.”

Someone in the mayor’s office must have only read as far as “extraordinary taxes” before stopping.

Damn near the entire cast of characters is quoted in the Post article. Peter Milczyn posits that selling off city-owned land will help to “accelerate” the project. Through magic. Denzil Minnan-Wong rages about “squandered money on consultants” and “sole-sourced” arrangements and projects. Which seems like a hell of an accusation to make unless you’ve got evidence to back it up.

Doug Holyday, meanwhile, is mad because too many of the planners who work on the project make more than $100,000 per year. Because if there’s one place you want to cheap out on talent, it’s the planning and execution of billion-dollar waterfront redevelopment. Just hire a bunch of students to do it!

Even the mayor’s press secretary, Adrienne Batra, piles on, showing just how big a target they’ve made these projects. “I think there is certainly a good opportunity for development in the area, and absolutely we want to see the private sector involved,” she says, presumably ignoring that private sector companies are already involved at many levels, including planning, architecture and construction.

The article notes that despite asking to retain a seat on the Waterfront Toronto board, Ford has skipped every meeting. During the election, Ford told the Post editorial board that the city could not afford to spend any money on Waterfront development.

This reads like the first shot in a concentrated attempt to vilify an organization before gutting their support and funding. Disgusting and sad.


Mar 11

Unspecified lessons to be learned

The Executive Committee today voted (of course) in favour of various reforms to the city’s boards, agencies and committees. I wrote a bit about this last week. This isn’t surprising, nor is it necessarily a good or bad thing. The real impacts of this move won’t be felt for a while.

My favourite part was the justifications members of the executive committee used when endorsing this move. The Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney had this great bit:

The reforms were endorsed Monday by the powerful executive committee, chaired by Ford, and go to the full city council next month for final approval.

The public supports a clampdown amid revelations about thousands of dollars being spent by the housing company on gifts, spas, manicures, Muskoka planning trips and Christmas parties for staff, said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong.

“There’s a lesson to be learned and applied through recent events such as the TCHC,” Minnan-Wong, a member of the executive committee, said in an interview.

via Ford moves to rein in agencies –

So these reforms are necessary because of the TCHC scandal. Except that council still hasn’t received the auditor general’s report on mismanagement at the TCHC, nor have they had an opportunity to question TCHC staff about the allegations. And in the case of the former board and CEO, there’s no longer any opportunity to ask questions, because they’ve all been fired.

There are probably literally hundreds of important lessons to be learned from the TCHC scandal. But thus far the mayor and his allies have seemed indifferent to actually figuring out what those lessons are. (John Lorinc has actually done a good job digging into the TCHC thing beyond the surface “my tax dollars” sheen.)

Fire everyone and hope things get better is a pretty lousy management strategy. Also lousy? Using the spectre of an unrelated spending scandal to justify reforms like these.