Feb 12

Why are some councillors set to vote against transit in their wards?

Councillors Against Transit: How are councillors voting on projects set to pass through their wards?

Councillors Against Transit? Some councillors are set to vote against transit projects that would run through their wards. (The Sheppard East LRT will also skirt the wards of Councillors Del Grande & Moeser.)

Updated Feb 7 2012: The voting chart at the bottom of this post has been updated based on new information. Councillors Moeser and Lindsay Luby are both likely to miss the meeting. Frances Nunziata confirmed which was she was leaning when she called Karen Stintz a ‘traitor’ at council yesterday. And Mark Grimes is Mark Grimes. Jaye Robinson remains the only undecided, and I could see her going either way.

It’s official. As reported by Inside Toronto’s David Nickle:

Toronto Transit Commission Chair Karen Stintz and 22 other city councillors have demanded a special Toronto City Council meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 8, to consider whether to bury the Scarborough-Eglinton Crosstown LRT through Scarborough.

Stintz, who represents Eglinton-Lawrence on council, presented the petition to the city clerk prior to the start of the city’s regular council meeting Monday, Feb. 6.

via TTC chair Stintz calls for special council meeting on Transit City | InsideToronto.com.

Twenty-four councillors signed Stintz’s petition, with James Pasternak and Gloria Lindsay Luby standing as the difference-makers. I expected to see John Parker’s name on the list — he’s been vocal throughout this debate — but he seems to have opted to play it safe. Still, there’s a good chance he’ll vote in favour of the agenda item on Wednesday.

With the majority in place, our attention now turns to the motley crew of councillors who have decided to stick with the Fords even in the face of almost-certain defeat. For some, the motive is easy to understand. Scarborough councillors like Michael Thompson and Michelle Berardinetti have nothing to lose by supporting gold-plated underground transit through Scarborough, even if that support means that other projects lose out. And councillors like Peter Milczyn and Cesar Palacio are so far removed from the projects on the table that they might as well protect their political position and side with the mayor.

But for other councillors, motive is harder to pin down.

Take the councillors in the table above. All of them represent wards that lost out on transit when Rob Ford made his unilateral decision to cancel the Finch West and Sheppard East LRT projects. And yet, even knowing what’s at stake, three of them seem likely to double down on their support for the mayor and vote against bringing improved transit to their constituents on Wednesday.

You can almost excuse Norman Kelly and Giorgio Mammoliti. They’re council veterans unlikely to face electoral consequence no matter what they do. Kelly also has the spectre of a Sheppard Subway to point at. And no one expects Mammoliti make rational decisions.

But for Councillor Vincent Crisanti — still a quiet council newbie with a near-perfect record of Ford support — his vote on Wednesday could easily be seen as a slight against the neighbourhoods he represents in Ward 1. He’s got to know that any talk of underground transit into northwest Etobicoke is pure fantasy. Even the biggest optimist would be hard-pressed to include a Finch subway project in a fifty-year timeframe. He also knows well that the Finch bus route is one of the most crowded and uncomfortable in the city. And he knows that Humber College — a major driver of economic activity in his area — has long advocated for improved transit connections to their campus, something the LRT was set to provide.

Last February, the President of Humber College expressed regret over the mayor’s decision to kill the Finch West LRT project, telling the campus newspaper, “We had a plan in terms of the previous government. Now we don’t have a plan, and we have yet to see one.”

Crisanti has a chance to play a role in bringing that plan to Humber College this week. He’s got a chance to improve transit for the community that elected him. It’s a shame he’s going to pass on it.

Continue reading →

Jul 11

A gentle reminder of City Council’s recent commitment to cultural funding

Given that some of the chatter surrounding the big Pride/Mammoliti/QuAIA story has bled into general debates about the city’s funding for cultural events, with some asking why Pride can’t be self-sufficient and operate without an annual city grant, I though it worth a second to refer back to a council vote that took place on May 18, 2011. With unanimous support — including from Mayor Rob Ford — council approved a report titled “Creative Capital Gains: An Action Plan for Toronto.”

Here’s an excerpt:

The City’s investment achieves greater leverage when the City provides support that would otherwise go wanting. The City is in the best position to understand, evaluate, and facilitate support for a myriad of events and organizations across the entire city. The City’s investment can also be the initiator for a whole stream of additional funding from a wide variety of other sources. Often, the City’s support can come via in-kind services or the waiving of fees or other charges. Although highly leveraged by funding from other sources, the City’s investment in culture is tremendously important. To maintain and build significant competitive advantage, the City needs to bring its commitment to culture to be more in line with that of other global creative capitals.

We recommend that the City keep pace with international competitors by making a firm commitment to sustain Toronto’s cultural sector and to position Toronto as a leading, globally competitive Creative Capital.

We care deeply about the future of our city. We recognize that in a time of necessary fiscal restraint, the City must think carefully about its investments in order to ensure they are working for the good of all taxpayers. This report details how targeted investments in the cultural economy can generate significant returns for the people who live and work here, and come to visit our great city. Toronto can create jobs and wealth, attract and retain talent, build stronger neighbourhoods, and build a prosperous city through culture. We have an opportunity to capitalize on our strong economic position relative to many of our competitors by recognizing that culture is the fundamental driver of Toronto’s future prosperity. The stage is set. The curtain has gone up. We must act now.

via Creative Capital Gains: An Action Plan for Toronto | PDF Report.

So if any councillor starts making noises about why should the city fund cultural events, point them to this report. They probably voted for it.

Jun 11

Mammoliti, other councillors face serious audit requests

After making waves with a pretty-damn-serious request for an audit of Mayor Rob Ford’s campaign expenses, Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler turned up the dial last week, debuting a new advocacy group — Fair Elections Toronto — and launching eight additional requests for campaign audits against several councillors and defeated council candidates.

Steve Kupferman with Torontoist:

A group calling itself Fair Elections Toronto is asking for audits of four sitting councillors, whom they accuse of having violated campaign finance laws during the 2010 municipal election.

Comprised of about 25 members and led by activist and Toronto Public Library Board vice-chair Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, Fair Elections Toronto alleges that Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West), James Pasternak (Ward 10, York Centre), Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre), and Doug Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North) all improperly classified expenses incurred during their campaigns as being for “fundraising functions,” in amounts ranging from $4,000 to $17,000.

via Doug Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti, and Other Councillors Facing Calls for Campaign Audits – Torontoist.

The most serious allegations fall against Mammoliti, who is accused of exceeding spending limits by more than 50%. If, over the course of the audit process, it is determined that the Mammoliti campaigning knowingly overspent — listing non-fundraising expenses as fundraising expenses, which are exempt from the limit — he could very well be removed from office.

Knowingly overspending in an election campaign isn’t just a minor administrative error. It’s tantamount to cheating.

The Star’s Daniel Dale has more on the Mammoliti situation:

“When you file an audited financial statement without a name and a date or a title for each one of the expenses claimed, it really stretches my willingness to believe it was a good-faith error,” Chaleff-Freudenthaler said.

Mammoliti said he had done “everything according to the law.” And he lashed out at Chaleff-Freudenthaler and his colleagues.

“We’ve got no concerns at all,” Mammoliti said, “except the fact that we think this is a bit of a conspiracy going on with a few individuals wanting to get to the right-leaning councillors. That’s not really what this structure was put together for. So we’re looking at actually suing the individuals that are doing this.”

via Mammoliti alleges ‘conspiracy’ over audit requests – thestar.com.

When your first line of defence against an allegation is to claim that there’s a conspiracy against you, you know you’re in deep trouble. (A much better line of defence for Mammoliti would have been to produce details, including a date and location, of the fundraising event in question. But maybe that would just be playing into the conspiracists’ hands.)

Fair Elections Toronto’s biggest challenge through this process will be to convince skeptics that their actions are not politically-motivated. That all the sitting councillors targeted for audit happen to be allied with the mayor is difficult to ignore.

But either way, these allegations are serious regardless of motivation. Municipal elections are tooth-and-nail, grassroots efforts, where every dollar spent and every vote cast matters. Allegations that Councillor James Pasternak overspent by a mere $2,500 may seem trivial, for example, until you consider that he won Ward 10 by only 382 votes, garnering less than 20% of the popular vote. A hundred fewer signs or flyers and that race could have easily gone a different way.

Those claiming that these allegations are politically-motivated also have to contend with the fact that Fair Elections Toronto seems sincerely devoted to the idea of reforming the Municipal Elections Act. The Reform page on their site outlines four changes to the Act that would improve accountability and fairness, and justifies the necessity of the current round of audit requests:

Litigating complaints against candidates who, we allege, broke election laws is only the first step in bringing fair elections to Toronto. Fundamental changes need to be made to the Municipal Elections Act to increase accountability and transparency, eliminate the gray areas that candidates systemically exploit, and better reflect the realities of big city elections. As the City of Toronto’s Auditor General reported following the 2006 election, 29 of 45 councillors broke election laws in one way or another. While we have only filed audit requests on the four councillors we believe gained a material advantage from Municipal Elections Act violations, we believe that the culture of non-compliance that was identified in 2006 remains today.

via Reform | Fair Elections Toronto.

Regardless of outcome, the audit process and legal proceedings are expected to drag out for quite some time.

Jun 11

City ends 2010 with $88m surplus, but no one’s finding fault

Let’s play compare and contrast.

Here’s the Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney, on a recently discovered surplus found on the city’s 2010 books:

The final tally of the city’s books shows there’s an extra $88 million available to reduce next year’s budget gap.

The year-end report for 2010 shows higher revenues and lower costs than had been projected in September.

City finance staff are recommending that the $88 million be used to reduce the $774 million hole in the 2012 operating budget rather than put the money into capital repairs.

via City ended 2010 with $88M surplus – thestar.com.

Now here’s Royson James, writing for the same paper, in March 2010, criticizing Mayor David Miller for announcing that the city had discovered an approximately 100 million dollar surplus on the city’s 2009 books:

But it raises many questions about how the city manages our money – it seems able to “find” massive sums of cash, almost on demand, while crying poor.

Surpluses are obviously better than deficits – cities can’t run a deficit, by law – but budget integrity suggests you levy the amount of money you need to run city services. And if you took more than you needed, maybe you give it back, not continue to raise taxes.

via James: How did a city that’s broke find $100 million? – thestar.com.

Around the same time, the National Post’s Natalie Alcoba interviewed a number of Miller’s council opponents, who piled on the bandwagon that claimed a discovered budgetary surplus indicates poor fiscal management:

“I’m still trying to get my head around the whole notion of finding $100-million,” said Councillor Michael Thompson (Scarborough Centre).

“The credibility of the budget is worn fairly thin. I worry by the time it reaches council they will have found more money under the sofas and desks at City Hall,” said Councillor Brian Ashton (Scarborough Southwest).

via Analysis: The looming battle over David Miller’s $105-million surplus – Posted Toronto.

And the venerable Toronto Sun’s Antonella Artuso talked to the mayoral candidates, who at the time were mostly all pretending to be right-wing budget hawks — not yet understanding that the real key to success as a right-wing budget hawk candidate is repetitive slogans and yelling –, getting more of the same type of reaction:

“That means one of two things – that they overtaxed us or they’re incompetent and don’t understand how to do math,” candidate Rocco Rossi said of the shifting surplus.

“He will not be the mayor then… now he’s making next year’s budget on the back of an envelope, the same envelope that he’s used to figure out this year’s budget,” Smitherman said.

Councillor John Parker said it’s always nice to find money but he wondered why city finance officials didn’t know about it.

“I see that as nothing to be proud of,” he said.

via Miller playing budget games: Critics | Toronto Sun.

Of course anyone who takes a second to think about it understands why these surpluses happen. The city’s budget is, in many cases, little more than a collection of informed estimates. They estimate how many people will ride the TTC, how much fuel the city will use, what the cost of building materials will be, and so on. Plus, revenues from the land transfer tax are highly variable; the city has no way of accurately knowing how many homes will sell in the city in any given year. Essentially, they just guess.

The difference between this year and last year, of course, is that where Miller made a big show of announcing the surplus at a media event, Ford hasn’t gone on record with a comment about this year’s extra money. You have to assume this is largely because he can’t take credit for a 2010 budgetary surplus. This was forged before he was mayor.

Still, though, I wonder if the same critics will continue to throw barbs should this sort of thing continue into the coming budget year.

Related: Not all budgetary news is good. The TTC is facing a shortfall of at least $39 million. Steve Munro has an excellent analysis of the numbers. It would appear that we’re cruising toward a fare increase. And those promised increases in service we were promised following the recent route cuts? Don’t hold your breath.

Jun 11

Credit to Thompson for considering police layoffs

The Globe & Mail’s Patrick White:

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 11

Bless this mess

Earlier this week, OpenFile did the thing that media outlets do where you spend some time going through the public expense records of councillors trying to find things that look like wasteful spending. (I did it too.) They hit upon a good one with Councillor Michael Thompson, reporting that he spent $300 to have his office blessed Pastor Dr. Tai Adeboboye, who in addition to doing office blessings also owns a spectacularly great suit.

Anyway, a lot of shock and horror and reaction about this supposedly improper use of funds followed. It all led to this, as reported by David Rider:

Councillor Michael Thompson is refunding taxpayers the $300 he charged to his office budget to have his office blessed by a Baptist pastor.

“I will provide the city with a cheque for the $300 and at the same time ask the integrity commissioner to take a look at this and rule on it,” Thompson (Ward 37 Scarborough Centre) said in an interview Friday.

via Councillor Thompson refunds Baptist blessing expense – thestar.com.

This was a giant waste of everyone’s time.

The angle from the left is that Thompson is a hypocrite, supporting Ford’s stop-the-gravy-train message while at the same time dealing “gravy” himself in the form of office blessings for $300. The angle from the right is the same as it always is: the ideal councillor would work in a cave and never do anything that costs money. Respect for taxpayers.

Joe Mihevc actually did a nice job coming to Thompson’s defense in the original Star article. He said that this was “an ‘interesting and creative and dynamic’ way of making a community donation.”

If we want to debate anything about this, it should be that last part: should councillors be allowed to make donations to community groups like churches, charities, youth programs and neighbourhood associations out of their office budget? Some, like Doug Holyday, would like to see councillors banned from making community donations. He says they should pay those bills themselves. Which seems like a great way to encourage residents to vote for millionaire candidates who, if elected, will donate to the local sports team.

Some clarification on this is probably a good idea (particularly with regard to whether councillors should be able to publicize the donation), but it would be a shame to eliminate the practice altogether. Sometimes a couple of hundred bucks given to a group so they can hold a barbecue can have a significant impact on a community.

Mostly, though, I think people just need to stop losing their heads over this stuff.