Jul 11

The 22½ hour budget meeting: nothing changed, except maybe everything

Minutes before 8 a.m. this morning, Mayor Rob Ford hastily wished everyone around him a good weekend and thus put an end to the longest municipal government meeting in the City of Toronto’s history. Attended by Ford’s hand-picked executive committee, plus a gaggle of “visiting councillors” — most of them representing the opposition — and a crowd of hundreds of people, the meeting agenda was all about the ongoing Core Service Review process and the recent KPMG reports which have been the subject of much media attention over the past couple of weeks.

After Ford publicly invited taxpayers to attend the meeting during his interview with CP24’s Stephen LeDrew last week, over 300 individuals signed up to give deputations to the committee on the various budget considerations contained in the KPMG reports. This set the scene for an epic-legth meeting, something that the mayor had previously welcomed. “I don’t care if we have to sit there for three days,” he told LeDrew, citing his need to hear from people as to “what business [they] think the city should be in.”

So there you have it: the vision of a multi-day process involving significant public consultation that will be taken into account as councillors go forward with the Core Service Review process and begin building the 2012 budget.

That was the thought, anyway. Here’s what actually happened:

1. The illusion of consultation proved more important than actual consultation

Just as this administration paid for and circulated an in-depth Core Service Review survey only to immediately dismiss the results once they were tallied up, the events of the past 22½ hours seem to be all about creating the perception that consultations are happening without actually valuing the consultations themselves. The most flagrant insult to those who intended to depute was the decision to continue the meeting overnight and into the morning, taking only short breaks for lunch and dinner.

This had the immediate effect of putting deputants in a very tough spot. Given the variable speed at which the meeting moved forward, the only way people who intended to speak could be sure they’d be in the Committee Room when Rob Ford called their name was to  stay put for hours on end. No one had any idea if they’d be called at midnight, 4 a.m., or even noon the next day. Even worse, the Mayor made only a token effort to give suitable time for those in the building to approach the microphone. At times he barrelled through the speaker list so fast that those who were unfortunate to be visiting the overflow committee room — set up so those who couldn’t fit in the packed main room could still follow the meeting — would miss their chance.

While an impressive number did stick things out and make their deputation, 176 of the 344 people who had signed up missed their spot. And even those who did make it to the microphone — all 168 of them — were forced to deal with an abbreviated speaking time, something the committee voted to adopt early on Thursday.

2. The Core Service Review process remained woefully inadequate and self-serving

One of the more interesting things to see when you watch the Executive Committee in action is that there is a clear division between hard-line true-believer types that will always rally around the mayor and those that, while still supportive of the mayor’s fiscal responsibility mandate, express subtle reservations about certain parts of his agenda. The former group includes councillors like Giorgio Mammoliti, David Shiner and Doug Holyday while the latter includes, amongst others, Peter Milczyn, Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson.

In this case, the more cautious group seems sincere in their belief that council is embarking on a legitimate service review process that will help us make tough decisions and balance the 2012 budget. This is in contrast to the mayor and his inner circle, who seemingly already have a broad set of program cuts and reductions mapped out and are now just looking to produce a set of reports that justify what they’ve already decided they want to do.

3. We may have seen a grassroots political game-changer

Procedurally, this meeting isn’t notable for much. Things wrapped up with a series of motions from Councillor Paul Ainslie that essentially left all options on the table and punted major decisions to September.

But beyond that, something definitely changed last night. Somewhere in between the moment when 60-year-old deputant Marilyn Wilcoxen triumphantly held up a $50 cheque and a $5 bill — to pay for a voluntary property tax increase and her monthly instalment of the vehicle registration tax — and the heartbreaking scene at 2 a.m. wherein 14-year-old Anika Tabovaradan tried to defend the importance of her local library branch while crying her eyes out, Toronto came into focus again as a city with real people with real values.

And those people? Those values? They’re great.

You can call the sentiment overly schmaltzy or optimistic or — probably rightly — altogether too soon to judge, but the general feeling, watching person after person head to the microphone after waiting ten, 15 or 20 hours for their chance to speak for three minutes, was one of a renewed hope. It was as if, all of the sudden, the more progressive side of Toronto got its voice back. After seven years of living in complacency with a mayor that was never terrible but also rarely came close to the potential voters saw in him, and after coasting through a dour election where no one came close to inspirational, Toronto’s left was finally speaking again last night.

And their collective voice was almost exclusively passionate, creative, endearing and — most critically — diametrically opposed to the idea of Rob Ford’s Toronto.

Which brings me to the other notable part of last night: Ford supporters were a no-show. Only three of the 168 deputants advocated service cuts and, of those, only one seemed to hold views at all congruous to the so-called “Ford Nation.”

This marks twice now where Rob Ford has made a direct appeal to supporters to attend a consultation session, and both times very few in attendance ended up showing themselves as members of the Rob Ford crowd. The defence in social media circles is that Ford Nation represents a “silent majority” of important business types that don’t have time nor the inclination to attend consultations or fill out surveys.

And I guess that’s fair enough — for any government, it’s easier to draw out protestors than it is supporters — , but you’d think that with an open process like last night’s it would be reasonable to expect a 5% or so minority of Ford supporters to make an appearance and support his policies. Instead, almost no one showed. Considering that Ford’s electoral win was primarily due to grassroots populism, it seems conspicuous that the mayor can’t even rustle up a half-dozen members of Ford Nation to wave the flag and talk about their continued desire to stop the gravy train.

May 11

Ford Nation, Assemble!

Shortly after the city launched its new website dedicated to the comprehensive service review taking place this summer, Rob Ford put out the call to Ford Nation.

The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale explains:

Mayor Rob Ford has asked campaign supporters to help him by attending the public consultation meetings the city is holding to learn which services residents believe should be preserved and which should be cut.

The message comes after the vast majority of people who attended consultation meetings on the 2011 budget were opposed to Ford’s plans.

The email sent to people who signed up for Ford’s campaign updates is titled “Mayor Ford needs your help!”

via Ford summons ‘nation’ to public meetings – thestar.com.

This feels like a divisive move, essentially pitting the ‘Ford Nation’ of voters against an other — call them downtown elites or lefty pinkos or whatever. One of the moves you’d expect a politician to make after winning such a heated election is to “reach across the aisle” and attempt to find common ground with opponents. Ford has made almost zero effort to do that.

I find it hard to condemn the message whole-heartedly, though, as it feels like this kind of thing happens a lot. Recall the recent attempt to pack council chambers with pro-housing types during the TCHC debate, for example. It led to jazz hands.

If you’re a regular reader of this site, I urge you to take a look at the Service Review website, and fill out the questionnaire. The questions are obviously geared toward facilitating service cuts, but it’s fairly even-handed overall. If you’re like me, you’ll find that there are very few city-delivered services that have the potential to be contracted out. My major criticisms: I’d like there to have been a distinction made between contracting out to a private, for-profit agency and contracting to a not-for-profit or other community agency, and also it would have been useful for there to be more questions about the role of other levels of government in providing city services.

Apr 11

One Ford silent on election issues as other canvasses for Tories

The mayor actually spoke to reporters on Friday. About issues beyond graffiti removal! He didn’t say much, but I thought his response on the federal election question was interesting:

He continued to stay away from the federal election. He is not endorsing any party, but will help out Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty, a long-time family friend. Asked what parties could do to woo Toronto voters, Mr. Ford was reticent. “I’m not going to pass the buck. I’m responsible for our city and I’m not going to blame the provincial or federal government. Whatever they can do, whatever they think is the appropriate measure, I appreciate it.”

via Ford takes questions on Gordon Chong, councillor expenses | Posted Toronto | National Post.

He’s not going to blame the provincial government. But just over a month ago he did blame the provincial government. He asked them for more money for city programs. Then he threatened to unleash ‘Ford Nation’ if they didn’t give him what he wanted. Does he not remember that?

To be fair, he has been very consistent in giving the federal government a pass when it comes to city issues. He voted against condemning federal cuts to immigration services. He’s remained silent despite this current election atmosphere being a great time for municipal leaders to make their case for urban issues. And today he voted against receiving Adam Vaughan’s motion that the city ask the federal government to clarify compensation rules for shop owners who suffered damage during the G20 summit last summer.

While Ford isn’t getting actively involved in the election, his brother is. Both Nick Kouvalis and Rocco Rossi tweeted about Doug Ford canvassing for the Conservative Party in Toronto ridings this past weekend.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with councillors supporting and campaigning for federal and provincial candidates, but Doug Ford’s incredibly close relationship with the mayor’s office works to betray his younger brother’s attempt to remain neutral.

Mar 11

“Just do what Rob Ford wants and no one gets hurt”

Chris Selley, in this week’s Posted Toronto Political Panel breaks down why the concept of a ‘Tea Party North’, building on the momentum of the ‘Ford Nation’, is more than a little ridiculous:

But lest we forget, we’re talking about “Ford Nation” these days because Rob “One Taxpayer” Ford, having cut taxes to his own constituents, asked the province for more taxpayer money, didn’t get it, and immediately started issuing threats. What’s the motto of this principled new organization? “Just do what Rob Ford wants and no one gets hurt”?

via Posted Toronto Political Panel: Can Ford Nation be Canada’s Tea Party? | Posted Toronto | National Post.

Jonathan Goldsbie makes a good point as well, writing that any ‘Tea Party North’-type organization will just become “a redundant clone of the already-well-established Canadian Taxpayers Federation.” The CTF, if you aren’t aware, is a boring organization led by Kevin Gaudet. Whenever a journalist needs a “Taxes are bad!” quote, they go to Gaudet.

Matt Gurney was also part of this week’s Posted Toronto Political Panel.

Mar 11

Ford For Canada

Robyn Doolittle:

For months, members of Ford’s former campaign staff have been quietly drawing up plans to form a right-wing advocacy group. The intention is to monetize and organize this huge ideological voting base, essentially forming a quasi Tea Party North.

It would means millions of dollars for the conservative movement, high-profile publicity for Tory-friendly issues and an energized right-wing base.

“But it won’t be called Ford Nation. It’s going to be an advocacy group for the taxpayers of Toronto. It will be something like: Respect for Taxpayers Action Group,” said Nick Kouvalis, the mayor’s former chief of staff and deputy campaign manager.

via Building Ford Nation – thestar.com.

Ah, so it’s going to be like Tea Parties without the religious, racist and homophobic parts? So you’re just going to talk about tax policy? That sounds boring.

There’s an idea. The best these guys could hope for is to become the Eastern Canada version of the Reform party, spending a decade getting nowhere until eventually withdrawing back into mainstream conservatism.

People talk about Rob Ford like he represents some kind of right-wing revolution but I have trouble seeing it. He did’t take out an incumbent mayor. The candidates he DID beat all had major problems, to the point where it was hard to find vociferous supporters who didn’t work for the Smitherman or Pantalone campaigns. And while his win was comfortable, he did not see a majority of the vote. As we learned earlier this week, his approval rating isn’t setting records either.

Unlike mainstream liberalism or conservatism, which are more flexible ideologies, you can’t push Ford’s brand of populist politics forever. Eventually people will realize that you really can’t cut taxes while simultaneously improving services. The centre isn’t going to hold on that one.