So, what just happened? …and what’s to be done about it?
The conventional saying is that a week is a long time in politics. The last few days of July are some of the longest political days I’ve ever experienced in Toronto politics. My advice is pace yourself; there is more to come. It’s also clear that if you love this city, the time to engage is now.
Local democracy matters. It should surprise no one that as a long-time activist and someone who has had the privilege to serve on City Council and to represent Toronto in Parliament, I believe this city is worth fighting for. This is not a defense of the status quo, but it is a defense of the civic good. I will always defend the right of the people of Toronto to create a city that meets the needs of the people that live here.
Cutting council, fixing election laws in the middle of an election, and doing it in a reckless and vindictive way is not good government. It is not responsible government. It is anti-democratic. It also sets a very precarious precedent and clearly paves the way for even more disruptive and potentially harmful changes to civic life. People from all over the province—let alone the country—now seem to know what’s best for Toronto. Torontonians will have to defend what we love about our city. This is our fight.
When Queen’s Park took aim at Toronto last month, a clear message was sent. The stability, respect and independence of Toronto does not matter to the new provincial government. While our challenges and priorities may be gun violence, building transit or fixing housing, this isn’t a shared vision with those who command a majority in the legislature of the province. It’s no secret that certain politicians outside Toronto score more points with their local voters by taking a shot at our city than by helping it.
The Conservatives from across the province are now running Ontario, and in their mind that means Toronto belongs to them. They’ll decide what’s what. It is Ford’s world, we just live in it.
Under constitutional rules written in 1867, Section 92(8) of the British North America Act (1867) states that Provincial Legislatures may exclusively make Laws in relation to Municipal Institutions in the Province. The same BNA Act gave votes to property owners in a city even if they didn’t live there, but not to women or Indigenous people. In other words, just because a provincial government has Rights, it doesn’t necessarily follow that what it does with those “Rights” is right. It should be equally obvious to all that a lot has changed since 1867.
The province has the right to act in an arbitrary manner and legislate without consultation, but that is not how responsible governments act. It is not the way our city has ever been treated by any previous Provincial Government. The tone is more vindictive than it is thoughtful and aims to break Toronto more than it tries to build a stronger city.
This impulsive and destructive move of the Conservatives must be fought, the rationale must be challenged, and the government of Toronto and citizens of Toronto have a right to expect this city’s elected officials from all orders of Government to take a stand. As a Member of Parliament, I will.
The Conservatives have called City Council dysfunctional. It’s not. Ford says the move will save money. It won’t. The Province has decided council is too big. It’s not. And they blame the decisions of council on its structure. This is ridiculous.
If all you need is one City Councillor for every MPP or MP, then how does Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark account for leaving his riding of Leeds-Grenville so over-represented? In his district there are 13 large towns, each with a mayor, and some like Brockville with as many as 8 councillors or Prescott with 7 including the mayor. His riding has a population of around 100,000 people and has dozens of local councillors and mayors.
By Comparison, in Toronto the riding of York South-Weston has about 16,000 more people than Leeds-Grenville, but under this plan will have only one city councillor to represent everyone. In fact, if you took two of Minister Clark’s riding’s biggest towns, Leeds and Prescott, out of the riding, Leeds-Grenville would still have substantially more city councillors than York South-Weston.
I’m sure Clark knows that what his leader is proposing to do to Toronto would spark a municipal revolt in his corner of the province, and that’s why there will be no search for efficiency in Eastern Ontario during this round of municipal elections. Most MPP’s have never been to Toronto City Hall let alone attended a council meeting, but it’s amazing how many people outside of Toronto worry about how City Hall works.
The only evidence the Conservatives produce to support their radical restructuring of Toronto is the City of Los Angeles. Really? Los Angeles, they say, is governed by a mayor and 15 councillors. It’s not. There is a lower tier of government composed of 97 mostly elected neighbourhood councils, and there is also an upper tier known as the County of Los Angeles. It also has directly elected officials who oversee the delivery of municipal services in the city and region. The list includes water service, schools, park boards and County Commissioners. The bottom line, L.A. doesn’t dodge elections and has a proud history of local democracy.
If Ford wants to recreate Toronto’s city government in the image of Los Angeles, there are many in this city who might just agree. Besides the three tiers of elected officials, LA also has a city charter that limits state power. In particular, they run their own elections, set their own boundaries and have powers through referendums to raise a range of different taxes. In fact, the city recently supported a city-wide sales tax to build new transit. There is a lot more to Los Angeles’ city council than the number of councillors they elect. Maybe it’s time for new powers and a city charter for our Toronto.
There is no question City Council is a lot more dramatic than Queen’s Park, but drama is not chaos, nor is it necessarily dysfunctional. City Council, despite being the sixth largest government in Canada, can respond to complex issues quicker, more creatively and more dynamically than many of its provincial or federal counterparts.
Does it get everything right? No. Show me a government that does. Calling City Council dysfunctional just because it has long debates is sloppy cynicism. Wait until Ford has spent a few months in the provincial legislature. City Hall debates are a lot shorter.
Not convinced? Let me break it down. In this term of office, City Council has had 44 council meetings including budget meetings and special meetings. On average, each council meeting lasts about three days. It’s not unusual to have 300 items on the average agenda, sometimes it’s as high as 800. The budget is voted on line by line and new items can be added without notice by any councillor.
Only about 40 items actually get debated on the floor of council each meeting. The rest are passed by near unanimous consent. In other words close to 90% of all decisions are agreed to without an argument. Only the controversial ones are disputed. This is why all you see at council is heated debate and controversy. The constructive, reasoned discussions that incorporate a wide range of views and contesting interests are dealt with respectfully and rationally at committee by the city’s various Agencies, Boards, Commissions and Corporations—often referred to as the ABC’s. There are more than 130 ABC’s and almost all include elected officials. One of the reasons you need 45 or 47 elected officials in Toronto is to meet the statutory or legal requirements of having elected officials making decisions on these ABC’s. Many of these legal requirements are set out in provincial law. Ford is about to find this out the hard way as scores of provincial laws will now have to be changed.
These ABC’s do important work. They include the Library Board, the Police Services Board, the Toronto Transit Commission, the Regional Conservation Agency, Toronto Licensing, the Committee of Adjustment, to name a few of these ABC’s. Many also have citizens appointed to broaden local decision making and engage an even more diverse group of residents in the democratic decision making structure of the city. Some folks even get paid to participate and contribute because of the time and expertise required to support local democracy and attend meetings. It’s also important to note that some of the appointed citizens get paid more than city councillors—like the chair of the Police Services Board, for example. If you want good people, you have to pay them.
The reason so many items at council are not controversial or subject to heated debate is the committee process: with politicians and citizens engaged, the system itself creates a very functional consensus. Most of the time. Sometimes decisions need to be overruled or amended. That’s where council comes in. But the detailed work of conducting hearings and managing public reputations and cross examining experts and staff along with debating and voting on issues takes time, but bodies make decisions that are forwarded to council. The meetings are held in public and happen hundreds of times each month. It is democracy at its best. Council is the last tier of decision making, and on issues where there is no consensus, you get council debate. That’s when the drama and passion of City Hall kicks in. This is when hard core politics are on full display.
For the system to work, you need councillors to staff these committees, to be part of the process of consensus building right from the start, and to carry the debates forward to council with what has been learned as the issues evolve. Reducing council to 25 elected officials will undermine and under staff this process and create absolute confusion and dysfunction at City Council and throughout the ABC’s.
Doug Ford never did anything but the minimum when it came to committee work. He did not read the reports, did not understand the process, and never paid attention until issues got to council or came up on talk-radio. Then, the grandstanding would start. Truth is he was a part-time councillor at best, but because he voted against virtually everything, the media coverage made him look present and engaged. Because stories needed both sides of the story, the media always including his “no” vote as part of “balanced coverage.” Even when Ford was the only vote against an idea, it made headlines often because Ford’s outrageous and dysfunctional behaviour. It may have been a great media strategy but it was hardly an effective governing strategy.
With a large council, the other elected officials simply worked around Ford and his brand of clumsy obstructionism. A smaller council may have more trouble handling obstructionists in the future—especially when 2/3 votes are needed to make quick decisions.
The bottom line is that with fewer elected officials, either councillors will spend all of their time on committees, and less time in their ward, or some will choose to spend more of their time in the ward and skip out on committees. Neither is a good result, neither supports strong local democracy.
The number of elected officials needed is driven by the amount of work there is to do. Doug Ford isn’t interested in small government. He wants less government. And less government is also less effective, my next guess is that Ford will break City Hall and then claim it’s broken and try another stunt again only breaking it more. Nothing succeeds like failure. In the end, what citizens get is less public authority and more power for private interests.
Council may have had a few dysfunctional members over time, but the forum itself isn’t dysfunctional. Quite the contrary. It’s amazingly efficient and complex.
If amalgamation taught us anything, it’s that fewer politicians means more public servants and more paid appointees. Both of these labour pools and groups of experts come at a much higher cost than politicians. Politicians serve on the Library Board or the TTC for free. Citizen appointees to the TTC are paid extra, the Chair of the Board of Directors for Hydro gets a full time salary, the city councillor serves at no additional cost to taxpayers. It’s covered by the salary one receives for representing a ward at City Hall. Fewer politicians means new salaries—lots of them—and larger ones too. But the appointees are not elected, they are not accountable to taxpayers. Ford makes this point all the time. Look at the salary of the health-advisor Ford just hired as a case in point. The expert is being paid more than the Premier himself.
Fewer councillors with more constituents will also see office costs increase as bigger wards will need bigger staff complements to answer the phones. For politicians to attend more committee meetings, there will need to be more evening meetings. That will generate overtime for civil servants. There are only so many working days in a week and only so many hours in a day.
Neighbourhood consultations on local developments, patio licenses, speed bumps and community centre programs and design will need to be led by people with expertise. Either civil servants working overtime, or political staff from councillors’ offices will have to be present, perhaps both. Someone will have to report what was said back to councillors. Cost pressures will build here as well.
Right now politicians on base salary do all of this at no additional cost. Good ones do it a lot, bad ones lose elections. Dedicated City Councillors are hardworking politicians. You may disagree with their position on an issue, but that has little to do with work ethic. If politicians can’t hold these community meetings, rest assured someone else will, and they will be staff or they won’t happen.
The real cost, however, is the risk to the consent agenda. Not making decisions in a collaborative and efficient way can create costly delays for both government and the public.
Either decisions will be made without proper oversight, or items will be sent back for clarification because the agenda will stay the same size but politicians will not have been part of the process and there will be knowledge gaps.
Sending an item back to committee can push massive costs into a project. Making a decision without proper oversight creates risks too. Ford never cared. He opposed everything. It was easier than actually reading the reports.
As a councillor, all he really tried to do was blow things up. The few times he tried to build things he was a disaster and a complete failure. Whether it was Ferris wheels, subways or casinos—things fell apart when the Fords were in charge.
There is also another cost that no one is talking about but it is just as critical a consideration. The city manages dozens of very complex investment files every day. Residential and commercial development projects, university expansions, health facilities that need to be built, and a host of other private sector business related files. Investors need certainty. For developers, time is money. Federal and provincial infrastructure programs have deadlines. As a result of this sudden and chaotic act, for the next few months nobody really knows which project is in which ward, which body of council will handle which application, which tribunal will rule on which issue, or who is the right politician to talk to. The lack of certainty created by the rushed decision will carry a price. Provincial indifference on this element is astonishing. Private sector jobs are at risk. Ford could care less.
To Doug Ford, the length of the debate was meaningless. What really got him angry was that he lost votes. It’s these lost votes that Ford sees as evidence of dysfunction. Ford could not get his way at council.
In the end, this is why Doug Ford and his brother became the Kings of “No”. Getting Council to say yes took too much time, you had to have facts, hold conversations, it took listening and sometimes you had to compromise. This is what frustrated them.
Opposition was easy. Breaking stuff is easy too. It is all he has ever done. After all these years of Ford Nation there really isn’t much to show for it. Not much was cut, not much was built. Now that he’s Premier, he’s exacting his revenge. Ford is breaking City Hall, and it’s going to come at a cost to us all.
THE FEDERAL ROLE
The constitution has already been discussed. There isn’t much that can, or should be done legally by a Federal Government. It’s bad enough that the Province can wreak havoc with the City. It wouldn’t be wise to create a pathway for more interference by another order of government. From a legal standpoint, the BNA Act is clear. The amalgamation fight has lessons for us. Provinces are very powerful and unless they want to consult, they don’t have to listen. That doesn’t mean the Federal Government can, or should, stand idly by and wait to see what happens next. Torontonians are Canadians too, and strong cities are clearly in the national interest. It’s why the current federal government has invested so heavily in municipalities with new spending on housing and transit. It’s why Prime Minister Trudeau attends the Federation of Canadian Municipalities meetings and the Big City Mayors Caucus. It’s why so many Federal Ministers meet Mayors in their offices all across Canada. It’s why the Toronto Federal Liberal Caucus holds meetings at City Hall.
I ran federally to make sure that the relationship between Toronto and Ottawa, in particular, but cities in general was stronger. As Parliamentary Secretary for Housing and Urban Affairs, I have supported work that makes sure a new relationship is developed. I’ve not only helped create a process that is more direct, but just as importantly, I’ve helped create an approach that respects local democratic decision making processes. It’s a tricky balance, but sometimes you have to take sides and support municipalities.
Our government will not abandon the people of Toronto or the local government they elect. Toronto is too important to the national economy, the social fabric and the cultural make-up of Canada. It will not be surrendered or relegated to uniquely provincial interests. Simply put: Our Canada includes Toronto. Your Federal Liberal team is ready to help Toronto. We will be here to protect the city and its services when we can, partner to build stronger communities where possible, and always do it by respecting and working with the Government of Toronto through City Hall and its democratic processes.
Virtually all of our cities major problems stem from two sources, and in this regard Toronto is not alone. Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and every other municipality in the country are facing similar challenges. That being said, few have them on the scale of Toronto. The first major problem: Canadian municipalities don’t have the resources they need to thrive. Not for transit, not on housing, not in terms of climate change adaptation, immigration, schools, guns and so many more issues. The list is long. Second: Cities don’t have the powers their counterparts do in other countries. Too much of what matters to cities is decided by another order of government. This is what frustrates us all as people who live in large cities.
While better is always possible, governance is not the key issue facing our city. Pretending it is will only create a dysfunctional response to a set of serious issues. We can’t let that happen. Legal battles, protest and legislative tactics are important, but at the same time as local leaders oppose the cuts to council and the attack on the electoral process, Ford is not yet done. There will be more cuts and more damage done to local institutions our city has built over generations. A compliant City Council could make matters worse. Trying to be nice to Mike Harris did not stop the attacks or the cuts 25 year ago. This is why the next election is critical to the future health of Toronto. The time to get involved is now. I encourage you to join the fight to save our city.
As a citizen, as an M.P., as an activist, as a neighbour, I will be doing everything I can to protect and build a stronger Toronto. If that means fighting the government at Queen’s Park, so be it. You can count on me.
– Adam Vaughan, Member of Parliament for Spadina-Fort York