Archive for February 2012
First is Hamutal Dotan’s Torontoist post “Ontario to Toronto: Grow Up”.
Municipalities in Canada, Toronto foremost among them, are wont to complain, loudly and often, that they are the orphan stepchild of governance—”creatures of the province,” lacking robust taxation powers, in our case forced to deal with a strange beast called the OMB when it comes to simple development appeals. There is a great deal of truth here: Canada is now anchored by major urban centres and hasn’t adapted its governments to suit that relatively new reality. But here, at least, is a case of a provincial government handing us—the City of Toronto—leadership of an important issue on a silver platter. Ford’s response thus far: demur, deflect responsibility, diminish our own role by saying we can just provide advice but the province actually calls the shots.
As it turns out, Queen’s Park doesn’t want to call the shots. This isn’t, mind you, a sign of charity or altruism or some high-minded sense of duty to let Toronto chart its own course. The transit debate is a decades-old quagmire, and they’d like to keep as clear of the mud as they possibly can. It’s very hard to wade into Toronto transit planning and come out looking good; from the province’s point of view, they aren’t so much ceding power as passing the buck on a problem nobody’s been able to solve. They bungled, badly, when they let Ford rewrite the terms of their agreement and jettison a light rail network in favour of a buried Eglinton line, and they bungled again when they let a year go by before noticing that city council hadn’t ratified that decision. So they are washing their hands of things, and leaving us to our own devices.
Ford should take them up on it anyway. Transit planning is an utter mess, with a long and toxic history, and he has only made it worse. But there are compromises that could be struck: if council’s self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives are calling for a sales tax to pay for transit, and council’s centrists were willing to trade an at-grade LRT on Eglinton for Ford’s subway on Sheppard (as they were a few weeks ago, before the special council meeting on transit), there’s clearly room movement on both sides, if only Ford showed some willingness to embrace negotiation.
More importantly, there are precedents to be set. If Toronto, somehow, can get it together long enough to agree on a transit plan and make it stick, that’s the best possible case we can make that we are, in fact, a mature order of government that ought to have greater latitude to control our own affairs than we currently do. A majority of councillors have shown, and continue to show, that they are capable of this. They built a consensus around the waterfront. They built one around changes to Ford’s budget, around the light rail plan, and most recently around a more measured approach to the sell-off of TCHC property. Ford needs to stop throwing temper tantrums and realize that, though they may have their own cynical reasons for wanting to stay out of it, the province has given him the greatest gift a politician could ask for: the opportunity to rescue an important policy, and the ability to claim ownership of that victory.
If our mayor doesn’t want that chance, he should get out of the way of his colleagues on council who do.
In June 2011, Mayor Ford scored a big win with a 33-10 vote to sell-off 22 single-family Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) homes. This month, however, the mayor was in full retreat when he agreed to a Councillor Ana Bailao-engineered compromise to sell just 56 of the 675 TCHC homes he had planned to divest and create a Bailao-led task force to determine how best to manage the rest of the 675 homes. That compromise occurred at a noteworthy stage: before the issue had even been tabled at a committee of city council. This means the Mayor knew he wouldn’t have the votes at council to get his way, implicitly acknowledging the rise of the rainbow majority.
Institutionally, the only thing standing in the way of the rainbow majority from taking over as a governing coalition is committee and board assignments and structures. Agencies are governed by boards of directors that include in whole (TTC) or in part (Toronto Public Library, for example) city councillors that are appointed to their posts by city council (this was done at the very beginning of the term of council when Mayor Ford had a majority of councillors supporting his agenda). As we saw with the vote to oust Gary Webster on Tuesday, Mayor Ford’s allies — through their appointments to these boards — can push an agenda that does not have the support of city council.
Additionally, city council has a series of standing committees that are supposed to consider an issue before it gets to city council. Without a two-thirds vote, a new item of business is referred to a standing committee. It’s at these committees that the Ford administration can bury initiatives it doesn’t like.
The exception to requiring a two-thirds vote to avoid sending a matter to committee is for a special meeting of city council to be called by the mayor or a majority of councillors to discuss one or more specific issues. This was done recently to allow council to debate transit issues when Mayor Ford was preventing that from happening. But governing consistently by special meeting has considerable drawbacks, including the appearance of an unstable government and the inability to include formal opportunity for public input in decision-making processes.
Given that a coalition is unlikely to grow to the two-thirds of councillors (though Councillor Adam Vaughan is optimistic) required to change the structure of committees (for example, removing the mayor’s power to appoint committee chairs and thus the majority of Executive Committee), if the rainbow majority is serious about acting as a proactive, governing coalition it needs to begin to alter the composition of key committees and boards where possible, which only requires the support of a simple majority of councillors.