Mar 12

After Ford rejects compromise, Karen Stintz moves to dissolve TTC board

The Globe & Mail’s Kelly Grant, on the issue that’s going to keep this week’s council meeting from being boring:

The embattled Toronto Transit Commission is about to undergo a major shakeup with chair Karen Stintz and her allies moving to dissolve the Ford-friendly board and replace it with councillors who support light-rail transit and private citizens.

Ms. Stintz will be putting her own job on the line Monday when she moves a motion to fire all nine current commissioners.

via Stintz readies motion to fire Ford-friendly transit commission | Globe & Mail.

This is shaping up to be yet another significant loss for Rob Ford. By a combination of law and custom, he’s supposed to be the one who sets the composition of boards and committees. Should council have the votes to do this – and every indication is that they do – the mayor of Toronto will have lost influence over the city’s biggest budget item. Major transit decisions will go forward without input from his office.

Some will attempt to spin this as the actions of a bitter and spiteful council that seeks to undermine the mandate of a democratically elected mayor. But that’s crap. What we’ll see this week is no less than Karen Stintz’s last resort after attempts at compromise were roundly rejected or undermined by the mayor and his friends.

There have been at least two major compromise attempts between Stintz and the mayor’s office since this whole transit battle took hold back in January. Both could have seen an outcome where Ford walked away looking like the winner. Instead, he rejected everything.

The First Compromise

The first major compromise is the more obvious one, since it played out in public. With this olive branch, Ford could have agreed to bring the eastern section of the Eglinton LRT above ground, build a two-stop extension of his beloved Sheppard Subway and deliver improved transit to Finch with a new busway project.

Ford probably could have played hardball with this deal, asking for further guarantee that the surface LRT wouldn’t impact traffic. During talks with the province after he took office, Ford was given an offer that would have seen Eglinton widened to ensure traffic flow wasn’t impeded.

This would have been an easy thing to spin as a victory. Ford gets his subway, along with a trumped up guarantee that the surface LRT wouldn’t impact traffic. And Finch gets some fancy buses. Everybody wins. Mostly.

The mayor could then spend the next several months talking up Gordon Chong’s report as the magic key that will allow for further construction on Sheppard.

But that’s not what happened, despite Stintz getting an initial assurance from Doug Ford that the mayor was open to the deal. Instead, the mayor flatly rejected the offer, sat through an awkward council meeting where he was overruled – he called it irrelevant – and then proceeded to call his hand-picked TTC chair a back-stabber.

The Second Compromise

This one is murkier, with most of it happening outside of the media.

Shortly after the TTC board fired Gary Webster, the impression I was given by several people is that council would quickly move to remove Ford-allied councillors from the TTC and replace them with people more amenable to council’s approved direction on transit. Also: there was a desire to ensure that the TTC board wouldn’t continue to fire long-time employees for spiteful and/or vindictive reasons.

But things soon changed. As of the middle of last week, stories started to emerge that Stintz and Ford had reached a compromise on the composition of the board. Having already agreed to allow for citizen representation, the two agreed that they would support a board of six councillors and five citizens, with the chair being chosen from the councillors. More importantly, the deal seemed to imply that the current TTC board would stay in place until June.

That was the deal on Wednesday. And still on Thursday. But on Friday, things changed: Stintz announced that she would be making a motion at this week’s council meeting that would call for an immediate change to the make-up of the board, removing all existing members and seeking replacements. Seven councillors will join the board immediately, with four citizens to join later on this summer following an appointment process.

What happened between Wednesday and Friday is anyone’s guess, but a late night Twitter posting by Stintz sheds some light on the situation: “My attempts at compromise with the Mayor were again undermined by Doug Ford & Nick Kouvalis,” she wrote. “The situation became untenable.”

The details of the announcement also point to this being a snap decision following some sort of renewed strife between the mayor and Stintz. Initially, Councillor Josh Matlow told the Globe that there would be a predetermined slate of councillors chosen to replace Ford’s allies on the TTC board. But Stintz quickly backed away from that story, and said it would be an open nomination process. (In the confusion, Matlow was unfairly criticized for what looked like a premature leak – it seems clear now that things were just happening really fast.)

The obvious speculation is that Stintz was hoping to find common ground with the mayor that would have seen him cease his efforts to invalidate council’s February decision on LRT. A compromise may have even included broad support for a Sheppard Subway extension, contingent on the mayor actually presenting a viable plan to pay for it.

Coincidentally, late on Thursday, Doug Ford took part in an extended media scrum in which he rejected the idea of all taxes and tolls as a way to pay for new transit. He called them evil. He also accused Ontario Minister of Transportation Bob Chiarelli of being biased toward LRT and made further claims that the Eglinton LRT plan was similar to the right-of-way project on St. Clair Ave.

What no compromise means

There’s lots to worry about going into this week’s meeting. Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan cautions against a worst-case scenario in which half of council puts their name forward for a seat on the new TTC board, leading to a procedural circus and dozens of votes. I’m hopeful that there’s more organization in the works and that there is a chosen bloc of councillors with broad support ready to step in as commissioners.

But even if not, this is the only play Stintz has left. With every compromise rejected, a recomposition of the TTC board is imperative. Without it, the city goes forward with a situation where the guys controlling the majority votes on the TTC are actively against the council-approved plans for transit expansion. Given the sheer number of items related to these plans that are set to become before the commission, it’d be way too easy for the mayor to use his influence to alter or delay progress, creating procedural snags that would continually require council’s intervention.

That’s no way to build a railroad.

Jan 12

Council builds a new transit plan: the pros and cons

Toronto Star: Proposed New Transit Plan

That happened quickly. We got word last night that TTC Chair Karen Stintz’s musings about an above ground Eglinton LRT have given way to a full-blown alternative transit plan. One that’s significantly different from the scheme Rob Ford and Metrolinx have been pushing for the last year.

The Globe & Mail’s Elizabeth Church:

A compromise is in the works to relieve Toronto’s transit headache for the new Eglinton light rail line and fulfill the mayor’s election pledge for a Sheppard subway extension.

A group of Toronto city councillors that includes TTC chair Karen Stintz is proposing that the eastern leg of the new Eglinton Crosstown line run at street level as first planned with the money that saves used to extend the Sheppard subway two stops to Victoria Park. The proposal also would use some of the money to improve TTC service on Finch Avenue West with a dedicated transit corridor.

via Compromise would bring leg of Eglinton LRT back to street level | Globe & Mail.

The Toronto Star’s version of the story includes a helpful map, though it leaves out the coming Spadina subway extension for some reason. I’ve included their graphic at the top of this post.

So: Surface LRT on Eglinton East. A stubby extension to the already stubby Sheppard Subway. And a long Bus Rapid Transit line on Finch. Details are light, but — like with anything — there are some notable pros and cons to this plan.

PRO: This is a plan that’s actually sensible and realistic. It’s a design that serves riders, not the whims of a man with an irrational bias against transit he can see while he’s driving.

CON: Ignoring the fact that it was thrown in as an offering to the mayor, there doesn’t seem to be a strong business case for the one- or two-stop Sheppard extension included in the plan. The Star’s David Rider and Tess Kalinowski peg the cost of that extension at $1 billion, which seems like a high estimate considering that was the cost of the entire Sheppard East LRT, a 14 kilometre route.

PRO: The LRT, as planned as part of Transit City, would have required a similar underground connection to Victoria Park, because there’s a highway interchange standing in the way. In terms of design, a subway extension doesn’t greatly differ from what we would have seen under the original plan, and still leaves the door open to a future LRT line on Sheppard East from Victoria Park to the zoo….

CON: …or ANOTHER subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre. Without a firm long-term plan for transit in this corridor, Toronto risks spending another twenty years endlessly debating what to do on Sheppard. Meanwhile, other parts of the city that are crying out for transit infrastructure go neglected.

PRO: Finch finally gets some love. One of the most horrifically overcrowded transit corridors in the city, Finch needs something — anything — that can help provide higher order service.

CON: The ‘busway’ concept planned for Finch seems rather poorly defined. Rider and Kalinowski peg the cost at about $400 million, for a route that looks to be more than double the length of the 11km Finch West LRT. That LRT line was to cost about $1.2 billion, three times as much. The low cost-per-kilometre makes me wonder how much we’re sacrificing: is this ‘BRT’ just going to be some painted lines on the road or is the plan to build something robust enough that it can be easily converted to light rail in the future? More details are desperately needed here.

PRO: A return to the surface alignment on the eastern section of Eglinton opens the door to further on-street extensions of the line westward toward Pearson Airport. Over time, we may just get the kind of comprehensive network of LRT routes once envisioned with Transit City.

CON: On-street operation on Eglinton East means that the TTC and the City’s transportation department desperately need to get their act together when it comes to route management and transit signal priority. Staff tend to come up with an endless list of excuses for why the streetcars on Spadina and St. Clair continue to bunch up. But we don’t need excuses on Eglinton — we need a transit line that runs well.

PRO: With support from councillors like Karen Stintz, Josh Matlow and John Parker, this alternative transit plan will most assuredly sail through council. Both Dalton McGuinty and reps from Metrolinx have said they’re on board with exploring a new plan. Given growing political support for switching up Toronto’s transit plans, the mayor would have to be completely out of his mind to stand in opposition.

CON: The National Post’s Natalie Alcoba reports that Mark Towhey, Ford’s Director of Policy, has indicated that the mayor does not support any changes. “Residents don’t want trains running down the middle of the street,” he said. Right.

PRO: Despite the questions and concerns on the table, this rethink is very welcome. Blowing $8 billion on a single transit line is the kind of bonehead decision that haunts a city for decades, similar to building an escalator to nowhere or the world’s largest magnifying glass. Going forward, the thing to watch is that we don’t jump from one half-baked plan to another. Council has to make sure that what they’re proposing is realistic, cost-effective and timely.

Jan 12

“Radical” Rob Ford’s Sinking Budget

The City issued a press release this morning touting the budget committee’s decision to approve the 2012 capital and operating budget yesterdays. It’s about what you’d expect:

“It has been Council’s policy since 2004 to use surplus funds to pay for capital costs. We immediately need a good portion of the $154 million surplus to go towards funding buses, streetcars and subways,” said Budget Committee Chair Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt). “The City’s efforts in permanently reducing $355 million from its annual expenditures coupled with additional efforts to introduce $700 million in non-debt financing for the capital budget and plan has allowed us to reduce the City’s reliance on one-time surplus revenues from $346 million to $77 million. This is a major breakthrough in bringing the City’s expenses more in line with its revenue.”

“This is simply best practices in financial management,” said City Manager Joe Pennachetti.” With the uncertain global economic outlook, we need to safeguard and restore City reserves to respond to the needs of Toronto residents and withstand the greater occurrence of extreme weather events.”

via City of Toronto on track to build a sustainable, affordable and well-managed city | City of Toronto Press Release.

The whole thing is just an echo of what we heard again and again at yesterday’s budget committee meeting: futile attempts to justify budgetary decisions that are, at this point, almost purely ideological. After spending a year telling us about doom scenarios  — $774 million! 34% property tax increases! Becoming GREECE! — we’ve ended up at a place where the city’s fiscal situation justifies virtually none of the major cuts on the table.

With the surplus figures we’re looking at, the city has enough money to maintain services, keep property taxes low and still set aside significant cash for capital projects and reserve funds. Absent a compelling financial need to cut programs, all we’re left with is the impression that the group of councillors running the city are cutting mostly because they just really like cutting.

Austerity-as-ideology, not austerity-as-necessity.

But don’t take my word for it: just look to the actions of the budget committee yesterday. With the stroke of a pen, they took several items off the chopping block: child nutrition programs, school-based community centres and two pools conveniently located in the wards of executive committee members. There’s no doubt that other programs — like, say, Bellwoods House or the 17% cut to the Toronto Environmental Office — could be reversed the same way.

What’s missing is not the money. It’s the will.

“Radical Conservative Agenda”

Sometime over the holidays, a bunch of left-leaning councillors decided to make use of the phrase “radical conservative” to describe the budget and pretty well everything the mayor does. As cloying and simplistic as this type of repetition can feel to people who actually spend their time nerding about politics, this kind of message discipline isn’t rare and it tends to be more effective than people think. (“Gravy Train” sure worked pretty well.)

Still, let’s ask the question: is there really truth behind the messaging here? Are the mayor and his council supporters behaving in  a way that’s, you know, radical?

Yes and no.

Yes, because there’s definitely an undercurrent where the mayor is cutting simply because he wants to cut. The 2012 budget was seemingly designed with two key mayoral priorities in mind, neither of which seem particularly relevant to people who actually rely on city services: first, that its gross total be less than the previous year’s and, second, that the property tax increase be kept to 2.5%.

That the 2012 budget may be a touch smaller in gross terms than the 2011 budget is totally irrelevant. It’s a stat that only appeals to those who get all excited by right-wing boilerplate. Ford was elected to spend money in a less wasteful way, not to just spend less money. (Anyway: there’s a good chance Ford will lose his ability to claim the gross budget shrunk year-to-year after councillors propose amendments next week.)

The 2.5% figure is similarly arbitrary — it doesn’t seem any analysis was done to show why 2.5% is a more desirable figure that, say, 2% or 3% or even higher.

These type of arbitrary financial decisions — made to fit an ideology that just believes government should be smaller and do less, full stop —  do seem a bit radical. Or, at the very least, kind of radically dumb.

But on the other hand, this is kind of a milquetoast budget. It contains a series of compromises and half-measures to the point where it looks little like the kind of city budget Rob Ford would have approved of when he was a councillor. Perennial Ford targets seem mostly untouched. And every indication that even more cuts will be reversed at council.

There’s no doubt that Ford and his team had their sights set on a budget more radical than the one we ended up with. If the intent was radical conservative budgeting, the outcome isn’t.

Quick Hits: Budget Edition

Library Must Cut More: The big news coming out of the budget committee yesterday was a further request that the library committee cut another $7 million from their operating budget in order to meet the arbitrary 10% target. It’s worth noting that several other departments and boards failed to meet the 10% target but only the library has been asked to go back and cut more. The decision came after a weird speech from the Budget Chief in which he expressed the view that some libraries may be duplicating the services provided by schools and community centres and so there’s room for cuts. Okay.

Ford’s Arts Cuts Will Hurt: Quick Quiz! Guess which councillor said this: “If the cuts go through, things could go into a tailspin.” It was Ford-ally Gary Crawford, who has been a pretty steadfast supporter of the mayor’s agenda thus far. The arts cuts in this budget — like a lot of things — are kind of stealth cuts, as they’re hidden in general 10% reductions to various budgets. In any case, any cuts to the arts fly in the face of the Creative Capital Gains report council unanimously endorsed this spring.

Ford The Program Saver: As Ford has backed off some of the cuts he presented with the budget in November, he’s developed a strategy in which he points to city staff as the ones who wanted cuts to things like nutrition programs. With this narrative, Ford becomes the guy who “saved” these programs from the budget axe. Councillor Josh Matlow summed the whole thing up pretty well, when he tweeted this:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/JoshMatlow/status/155433596939812864″]

Credit Where Credit Is Due: In his weekly Facebook update, Ford also took some credit for the city’s mounting surplus. In his weekly Facebook message, he wrote, “much of the surplus is a direct result of smart management, as City staff implemented millions of dollars in efficiencies this year.” Which is a true statement, I guess, as long as you indicate that the smart management must have emerged way back in the David Miler era. The city has enjoyed big surpluses for years and Ford’s 2011 budget — which essentially held the line on David Miller’s 2010 budget — didn’t do anything that would directly lead to this year’s surplus.

Cuts On The Table: For those looking to make sense of what’s being cut and what’s been saved, the Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney has a great rundown.

Dec 11

Notes on Rob Ford’s budget, written as it starts to fall apart

The Toronto Star’s Royson James:

The budget committee meets Tuesday to vote on motions aimed at avoiding a showdown on kids’ programs. Will the torrent of complaints from Toronto residents derail the so-called “gravy train”? And is Ford on a course correction?

His council opponents are in a holding pattern. Both Gord Perks and Adam Vaughan said Monday they won’t table any budget changes until the mayor plays his hand and outlines his fixes.

“There’s no need to start making deals yet. We need the third-quarter report (on the surplus, assessment growth and investment incomes, for example), we need to see the changes from the budget committee and the executive committee,” Perks said.

When the budget deals are negotiated, expect a big push to save TTC routes earmarked for service reductions, and protection of the Wheel-Trans service for ambulatory dialysis patients.

“It’s the mayor’s budget. He doesn’t have the votes. He will have to fix it,” said Vaughan.

via James: Councillors push back against flawed budget | Toronto Star.

Rob Ford’s first real budget as mayor is gradually falling to pieces. Every indication is that the budget passed by council in February will look very different from the one Rob Ford first presented a few weeks back.

This will be a significant shift from the way things have traditionally been done. While there has always been a bit of public give-and-take with city budgets — a tweak here, a shift there — never before has a post-amalgamation mayor faced such strong opposition from council. Just as Ford has blazed a new trail by being a mayor who routinely and sometimes overwhelmingly loses council votes, this mayor will also break new ground should he prove to be a mayor who loses complete control of the budget narrative in February.

This is, of course, mostly a good thing, especially because the other alternative is going down a road where important programs get cut for essentially no reason. But there’s a ring of sadness around it. Because this is a time in Toronto where political energy and engaged residents should be focused on the way forward. On building and growing and making things great.

But instead, we’re actually having public arguments about whether the city should continue putting $600,000 per year toward cost-shared programs that provide breakfast for kids who need it. It’s hard not to feel like this whole process is, in the long-term, a big waste of our collective civic time.

We can’t solve systemic capital budget issues by nickel-and-diming the operating budget

Most of the rationale we’re hearing from the mayor and his allies surrounding the 2012 budget is overly-simplistic: we need to cut the budget because the budget is too big. But beyond that, I have heard a slightly more compelling narrative from the budget chief and former chief-of-staff Nick Kouvalis, who hung around for the last hour of this week’s episode of The City with Josh Matlow and expressed this view repeatedly.

To paraphrase, the rationale goes like this: we have to drastically cut the operating budget to increase our debt payments so we can then pay for capital projects and eliminate all our debt and then, I guess, enjoy a happy fiscally-conservative utopia.

There is, at least, some sense to this. Our debt payments have been mounting. We’ll spend $400 million of property tax revenues on debt payments and interest alone in 2012. Our capital obligations total a ridiculously huge number going forward,and very little of that total is nice-to-have items like new parks and arenas. Most of it is the cost of simply keeping things from falling over.

But, ultimately, trying to work our way out of a capital budget crunch by pruning the operating budget is a losing battle. It’s like trying to dig your way out of a deep hole with a spoon. Our capital budget problems aren’t self-made. Despite what some on council will try to tell you, David Miller didn’t push for that new streetcar order because he loved spending money: he did it because the only alternatives were an expensive and risky rebuild of the current streetcar fleet to extend their lives, or a move away from streetcars toward buses, which probably would have cost more in the long-term. (And rightly pissed off a lot of people, who still remember the last time the government tried to kill streetcars.)

In fact, the bulk of necessary spending over the next decade relates to costs associated with maintaining and (ever so slightly) expanding the TTC. We’re facing these problems entirely because the province shirked its responsibilities and has been slow to come back to them.

And to those who will say provincial funding is impossible because the Ontario government is facing its own significant debt and deficit crisis, you’re letting them off the hook too easily. The province has budgeting techniques and revenue tools at its disposal that the city can only dream of. And transit is not one of those things that the province gets to defund when the economy goes bad. Because transit is a critical part of that economy.

But, still, maybe you’re cynical enough to believe that the provincial government will never understand that, and never come to the table. Even then, we’re still facing an issue that cannot be solved by shaving dollars off the operating budget and plowing the savings into capital. We can’t  fund the long-term capital needs of one of North America’s largest transit systems solely on a property tax base that brings in about 4 billion a year. It doesn’t work and it will never work. If the province won’t play ball, then we need to start looking at new revenues — road tolls and sales taxes — that can pay for the kind of transit Toronto needs.

Nov 11

Everyone has fundamental beliefs: Janet Davis, Josh Colle & Josh Matlow on ideology and good governance

Josh Matlow’s radio show on NewsTalk 1010 seems to be flying under the radar of a lot of council-watchers these days, but it’s been very solid in providing a ton of good insight into the minds of councillors and how they approach various issues. The past three or four weeks especially have been very good, as the show has moved past some of the Giorgio Mammoliti theatrics and gimmicky stuff that marked its early days and brought on some councillors who tend not the very vocal in the press. If they’d stop taking calls from people who seem barely informed about the issues, I’d have few complaints.

The show hit an all-time high this past Sunday, when Councillors Janet Davis and Josh Colle were in studio with Matlow. The last quarter-hour of the episode was devoted entirely to a very frank — sometimes heated — discussion on ideology, centrist politics, and how good governance works. Some of the discussion was reminiscent of the debate surrounding Dave Meslin’s initial optimism regarding the Ford administration earlier this year, before that all went to hell.

Because I’m nothing if not an incredible nerd — and because this may prove to be a good reference for later on — I’ve transcribed the entirety of the discussion Matlow, Davis and Colle had on air. As with any transcription, I’ve made small edits to clarify crosstalk and eliminate the ums and uhs that, you know, plague our speech. Any errors are my own. To get a real feel for the tone of the conversation, I highly recommend you listen to the segment yourself. It starts at about the 31 minute mark of this mp3.

Thanks to City Hall journalist Jonathan Goldsbie for bringing this segment to my attention.

The Transcript

Josh Matlow: By the way, one thing I wanted to mention: I, sometimes — like Josh, and Mary-Margaret and Ana Bailão and a few of us — we’re regarded as, well, we like saying the Mighty Middle others will call us the Mushy Middle. Certainly I’ve heard the term fence-sitter. I just want to clear that one up too.

Josh Colle: That could hurt.

Janet Davis: You don’t sit on fences, you straddle them?

Matlow: I don’t know if I’ve ever sat on a fence. I’ve jumped over them at times, but I’ve never actually sat on one. So factually that’s not true. I have not sat on a fence. Second: every month — unlike those on Twitter and others that might mention the term ‘fence-sitter’ including Sue-Ann [Levy] — I vote very publicly in a recorded way on every issue that we’re debating and take very public stands on all those issues.

Where I think this [‘fence-sitter’ talk] comes from is that when one is on the radical left or the radical right, those of us in the centre will not always meet your needs. We will not always come down on the side you’re hoping us to do.

Davis: You know, unfortunately, this whole characterization of there being such a polarization is perpetuated by the media. But also I think, Josh, you perpetuate this.

Matlow: Why’s that?

Davis: You often characterize the people who take certain positions — as you have just done — as the “radical left.” I don’t think that’s necessary. You know what I’d rather do, Josh —

Matlow: You don’t think there’s a radical left in Toronto?

Davis: Do you know what I’d rather do, Josh? Let’s move on and talk about the important issues that are before council this week. We’ve got budgets on water and solid waste coming before us —

Matlow: I want to go there in one moment. But do you not believe, though — you heard Nick Kouvalis [earlier on the show], would you not say he’s further to the right than somebody like John Tory?

Davis: I don’t think it’s helpful to have a preface in front of everyone: left-leaning, mayor’s ally, middle-of-the-right/mushy middle. I don’t think it’s useful. And I don’t think that  when people continue to characterize it that way… and you do. You often talk about “the people on the left” and “the people on the right” and the virtuous middle. And it’s not helpful. It’s not.

Matlow: (Laughing) Josh Colle, what do you think?

Colle: (Joking) The virtuous independents? You know —

Davis: You know, you’re branding yourself as much to your benefit to try and create the belief that there are those out there who are ideologically driven and then there’s you, in the middle, who votes purely on the merit of “thoughtful debate.” And, you know, all of us participate in thoughtful debate — I do too.

Matlow: Hold on, you believe that every councillor…[“participates in thoughtful debate?”]

Davis: Okay. I take that back. Not every councillor. [pause] But I certainly do.

Colle: I understand that [the polarization of council] is a fun, easy story. Especially because we got a press gallery that’s encamped there and they need something to write about and everybody loves kind of plunking people on teams and doing the math on votes. But at the same time, I know when I arrived at City Hall — and I have no problem retelling this story — that I was told by people that I had to pick a team. And I was told this — and I won’t mention the names now — both by people we would describe as “the right” and “the left.” They sat me down in the chambers and said, “Okay, this is nice. You got to pick a team.” So while we don’t want that to be there — and we shouldn’t focus on it, I agree — there are some of our colleagues who are focused on it, and kind of see our chamber through that lens.

Davis: Well, there’s a reality of the 23 votes that have got to be found on every single vote. And there’s no doubt when the mayor came in and his staff came in and I can actually say that Nick Kouvalis came in to me and said, “These are the things we want your vote on.” And he — and other staff in the office, Mark Towhey and others — went and visited councillors and said, “Here’s our agenda. You’re either with us or against us.” And that’s not the way they should have entered into this new administration. They polarized people. There is no representation geographically from the whole Toronto & East York area on all of the key committees. And, yes, there is polarization.

Matlow: To sound like the personification of a centrist right now —

Colle: You fence-sitter, you.

Matlow: …I would submit honestly that there is no one perspective that is completely more virtuous than the other. For example, I know that my colleague Gord Perks comes from a leftist perspective on most issues. And, you know what? He’s honest and sincere and backs up his points and genuinely believes that that’s the way the world should be. Just as, when I hear from a colleague on the right who believes that, you know, unions are getting too much or whatever but they honestly believe it. They sincerely believe it. And that is virtuous because they are sincere in their argument. Now, the way that Josh Colle and I operate — and a few others — is that we don’t look at the world from one ideology or another. We really struggle and consider and deliberate over everything in front of us.

Davis: Everyone has fundamental beliefs, Josh. And you must have some. They must be there somewhere.

Matlow: I do. But I put good governance and evidence before anything else.

Davis: I agree. And I believe I do my best to represent the interests of my community and the interests of the city as a whole. I gather the information as much as I can, taking into consideration professional advice. And obviously I overlay on it some of what’s in my gut — my fundamental beliefs. And we’re always struggling with how you do that and do it well.

Matlow: Even if I personally believe something — I can tell you this right now — if I see evidence in front of me, and this is the problem with narrow ideology —

Davis: Are you saying I have narrow ideology?

Matlow: I wasn’t referring to you.

Davis: Well, then who are you referring to?

Matlow: I’m not referring —

Davis: Who are you referring to?

Matlow: Well I wouldn’t want to —

Davis: On the left?

Matlow: On the left or the right, no matter who you are —

Colle: We shouldn’t get to naming names here. I mean this is…

Davis: No really, I mean it’s a bit of an airy-fairy argument you make.

Matlow: Airy fairy? You don’t believe that you have an ideology? Do you not believe that Rob Ford has an ideology?

Davis: I can’t believe that you don’t.

Matlow: I wouldn’t call it ideology.

Davis: Well, you have some fundamental beliefs, I trust.

Matlow: I do. And I come into any conversation with my fundamental beliefs. But I am completely open to looking at evidence that may contradict what I came into the conversation initially believing. And if that evidence is strong, if that argument has merit that demonstrates that I was wrong, then I will admit it. I will accept it. And I think that that is the way to provide good governance. You shouldn’t just say, “This is the way I want the world to be. And, you know, darn any evidence in front of me. I’m not going to actively listen to other people’s positions. I’m just going to make the world the way I believe it should be.” I think sometimes the world isn’t that simple. It often isn’t. And I don’t believe that the average Torontonian running a household budget thinks about running a budget based on what is left-wing or right-wing. They just go: what’s my reality? What are the difficult decisions I’ve got to make and where do I need to go?

Discussion Questions

1) Josh Matlow does get a particularly hard time from a lot of us — “those on Twitter” — online. I feel a bit guilty about that, particularly because I much prefer Matlow’s openness and constant communication to the fly-under-the-radar tactics other councillors use. Are we sometimes too hard on the guy?

2) Where does one draw the line between being non-partisan, which some would say is a good thing, and being unprincipled, which is most certainly a bad thing? It’s easy to see how blurry that line can get, isn’t it?

3) Do people like political parties at the provincial and federal level because: a) they make it easy for low-information voters to determine who to vote for; b) they instill a certain sense of security in the values of the candidate on the ballot; c) people love to root for teams; or d) some sort of mixture of all the above plus other things and, hey, it’s complicated so shut-up?

4) Is it really all that ideological or partisan to admit publicly that Rob Ford is not the right guy to be mayor of this city? To take that as truth, and build your opinions regarding policy from that perspective?

Nov 11

Nothing noble about paying for your own office expenses

“Rob Ford buys golden business cards from family firm” is a tempting headline, but I’m going to be the model of restraint and come at this from a slightly different angle.

Let’s start here: third quarter office expenses for councillors and the mayor were posted this past Friday. Office expenses are mostly boring — all toner and Blackberrys — but there’s always a story or two that emerges after they get released. For this round, that story was this: Rob Ford bought some business cards.

On the surface, this shouldn’t be a big deal. Ford loves business cards. Handing out his card is the first thing he does when he meets someone. It’s like his super awkward version of the fist bump. And it even makes sense that he’d look to an outside printer for his stock of cards, as the city’s in-house business cards are kind of cheap looking.

But here’s the problem: When Rob Ford went to buy his business cards, he decided to buy them from Deco Labels. Deco Labels is the printing business started by his father. The mayor still has a title there, and when elected he said he would still be doing some work for the firm. A released version of his schedule from earlier this year showed him devoting full days to work at the company. So by buying these cards — a premium product with some nice gold embossing — Rob Ford essentially did business with himself.

That’s not a good idea.

Chris MacDonald at BusinessWeek dismissed Councillor Josh Matlow’s opinion that this incident amounts to a “perceived conflict of interest,” writing instead that, actually, it’s a “bona fide conflict of interest.” No bones about it: politicians should shy away from doing business with companies that they have a stake in.

Yesterday, of course, we got the requisite backtracking. Ford’s office told the Toronto Sun that the mayor will pony up the cash for the business cards out of his own pocket. And to really sweeten the deal, he’ll also pay for the newspaper subscriptions his office bought in April. (The mayor’s team gets them all, even the one whose reporters they won’t talk to.)

This is a ridiculous response that totally misses the point. There’s nothing noble about paying for office expenses out of your own pocket. All it demonstrates is that certain politicians are, in fact, rather wealthy and can afford to put their money forward for things that should rightly be provided by the organizations they work for. By holding this kind of thing up as virtuous, we’re aggrandizing personal wealth and turning it into a political tool.

Suddenly the candidate who inherited his father’s successful printing business is preferable to the other guy, who wasn’t so lucky. Because the first guy will be paying for his own damn staples while the second will be billing you, the taxpayer, for the cost.

This is, ultimately, a news item with a small price tag attached to it. A $1600 bill for mayoral business cards is not a thing that should be commanding our attention, especially when items like a broken transit plan and looming labour strife are bubbling under the surface, but there’s a troubling precedent here. Rob Ford may have respect for taxpayers, but how about respecting the rules in place to protect taxpayers from corruption and shady dealings?

Sep 11

City Council Scorecard: How to save the Port Lands

Let’s try to save the world with spreadsheets. Again. If the people of Toronto want to stop the mayor and his brother from seizing control of the Port Lands and pushing forward with a new vision controlled by private developers, we need five votes.

As with the Jarvis vote in July, the above is a best-guess breakdown of how councillors will vote on item EX9.6 when it comes before council on September 21. Again, it’s important to remember that this isn’t written in stone — some councillors could very well change their mind. Some councillors may even hit the wrong button when voting. It happens.

The first column above refers to item EX45.15, considered by council way back in the halcyon days of Mayor David Miller. It represents the only noted instance I can find in recent history of right-wing councillors attempting to slow or stop work by Waterfront Toronto. In this instance, which took place at the July 6, 2010 meeting of council, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong rose and asked for an amendment on an item related to the Don Mouth Naturalization and Waterfront Toronto’s plan for the Lower Don Lands, a parcel of land within what the larger Port Lands area.

Minnan-Wong’s amendment called for two things: first, that Waterfront Toronto “submit to Council, a Business and Implementation Plan for the Lower Don Lands with priority for Phase 1 (Don River Mouth), addressing capital costs, revenue and expenditures, funding, project phasing and land management.” That language is similar to what we saw in the report associated with the Port Lands item that came before Executive Committee yesterday. The second thing Minnan-Wong asked for was that “no further funding of consultants and studies be undertaken until the funding sources and Business and Implementation Plan are approved by Council.” I’ve included the voting results from the second part of his amendment in the chart above.

More notes on methodology: Councillors who are on the Executive Committee will all presumably vote with the mayor at the upcoming Council Session. The only exception could be Jaye Robinson, who was notably absent when the vote took place in Committee Room 1 yesterday. Watch her closely. Councillors close to or at 100% “Ford Nation” percentage are virtual locks to support this Ford-driven motion, though I’ve left Gary Crawford as a question mark as a long-shot hope. I’m working off the assumption that the traditional left-leaning bloc will all vote against the item, which seems pretty safe. Both Josh Matlow and Mary Margaret-McMahon have tweeted their support for Waterfront Toronto, the latter enthusiastically so.

So, what next? Email or call the councillors identified as undecided or potential swing votes. Their contact information is below. Your voice is especially important if you live in their ward. (But if you don’t, and happen to know someone who does, spend some time informing them of the issue and ask them to contact their councillor.) Consider contacting neighbourhood associations, ratepayer groups and local BIAs as well, and ask them how they feel about a new mall opening up in the Port Lands and the impact that will have on small-scale retail space in the city. CodeBlueTO has a great letter you can use as a starting point for your communications. If you get concrete word on how any councillor plans to vote, please let me know so I can update this chart.

Contact information for councillors

Councillor James Pasternak (Ward 10 – York Centre)

Phone: 416-392-1371

Email: councillor_pasternak@toronto.ca

 Councillor Josh Colle (Ward 15 – Eglinton-Lawrence)

Phone: 416-392-4027

Email: councillor_colle@toronto.ca

Councillor Ana Baiḷo (Ward 18 РDavenport)

Phone: 416-392-7012

Email: councillor_bailao@toronto.ca

Councillor Jaye Robinson (Ward 25 – Don Valley West)

Phone: 416-395-6408

Email: councillor_robinson@toronto.ca

Councillor Gary Crawford (Ward 36 – Scarborough Southwest)

Phone: 416-392-4052

Email: councillor_crawford@toronto.ca

Councillor Chin Lee (Ward 41 – Scarborough-Rouge River)

Phone: 416-392-1375

Email: councillor_lee@toronto.ca

Councillor Ron Moeser (Ward 44 – Scarborough East)

Phone: 416-392-1373

Email: councillor_moeser@toronto.ca

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”"

Download MP3

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.

Jul 11

Toronto [heart] Partisan Politics

Councillor Josh Matlow, writing in his weekly column for the Toronto Star:

The once disenfranchised right now seem to relish their newfound ability to dismiss the left and overturn much of what was done during Mayor Miller’s tenure, and honestly believe that if they give the “opposition” any slack, Ford Nation’s “cultural revolution” might be impeded.

However, the right’s determination to fulfill their agenda, and their desire for revenge, only continues the hyper-partisan politics that Torontonians recently rejected. It reminds me of how many revolutionaries around the world have acted after overthrowing a dictator. They often become tyrants themselves.

via City Hall Diary: Councillors need to stop relishing revenge – thestar.com. (Emphasis added.)

Wait, hold on. When did Torontonians recently reject hyper-partisan politics? When they elected Rob Ford? The guy who whipped up populist anger against public sector unions, downtown elitists and opponents he described as gravy-peddlers? The guy who continues to stand up and call his colleagues tax-and-spend socialists?

I don’t think that narrative really holds together very well, Councillor.

Speaking of partisanship, though, there’s been some interesting movement amongst progressive voices within the city to develop strategies to more effectively combat the Ford hegemony at City Hall.

First, Daren Foster at local blog All Fired Up In the Big Smoke has announced “Project 23“, an effort to convince swing-vote Councillors or those allied with Ford who have shown signs of independence to ally themselves more firmly against the mayor. A group of 23 councillors who don’t take marching orders from the Mayor’s Office would immediately diminish the power Rob Ford wields over council decisions. The outcome might actually look more like the post-partisan wonderland councillors like Matlow often yearn for.

Second, former City Hall reporter Mike Smith contributes “The Long Game“, a good look at the ins-and-outs of City Council politics and what activists and concerned voters need to do if they want to be effective in opposing this administration.

Smith recommends that people stop with the goddamn “let’s all phone the mayor!” pile-ons, something I’d absolutely agree with:

Ford’s strategists have been good at (or lucky in) exploiting the corporate press’ reluctance to empower us with understanding of how government actually works — scary headlines about the next program the Mayor’s decided to kill do two things: make people think it’s a fait accompli, and, sometimes, rev up pointless campaigns to pressure the Mayor, who, by the time things are making their way to Council, is the hardest of the “hard” votes.

via The Long Game | linebreaks.com.

Hundreds — if not thousands — of cyclists called the mayor in advance of the vote to kill the Jarvis bike lanes. None of those calls were logged nor are they likely to have made any kind of impression in the mayor’s mind. Jarvis was always a longshot save for the Left, but a coordinated strategy to call individual members like the sometimes-wavering Councillor Jaye Robinson or even stalwarts that should know better, like the flip-flopping Peter Milczyn, would have made more of a difference.

Call it partisan politics or call it good strategy. Whatever. The alternative seems to be this thing where we pretend Torontonians rejected partisanship, ignore the existence of ideology and make continual appeals for everyone to vote with their conscience. It is not working out very well so far.

Jun 11

Transparent government locked down

Councillor Josh Matlow’s most recent weekly column for the Toronto Star looks at the issue of access and security at City Hall. Apparently some councillors have access cards that allow them to freely enter the mayor’s office while others, like Matlow, do not:

However, when I recently tried to enter the mayor’s office, my pass didn’t work. I might as well have been holding a Diners’ Club card.

In contrast, the mayor’s staff walks undeterred through every corridor of city hall and often makes unscheduled visits to councillors’ offices. At first, I didn’t think twice about Mr. Ford’s locked door, as I know he has a lot of requests for his time. And it’s his office, after all.

But then last week, I witnessed another councillor, who sits on the executive committee, receive a green light when he waved his pass. I began to wonder why Ford Nation granted visas to some councillors and not to others.

via City Hall Diary: A visit to the inner sanctum – thestar.com.

Via Twitter, City Hall Watcher and Day-of-Reckoner Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler notes that David Miller’s office was never locked during business hours.

Zealously controlling access to your office — and having staff that immediately get suspicious when visitors start taking photos — indicates a kind of paranoia that seems to undermine Ford’s goal to increase transparency and accountability at City Hall.

You can’t only be transparent and accountable to people who like you.