Thursday, 29 September 2011

Snapshot of a Council in Flux

Peter Power / GLOBE AND MAIL

Tuesday featured a rash of Council votes on the Core Service Review which cumulatively cut (or set the stage to cut) about $27.6 million in annual spending. The merits of these cuts have been discussed fairly extensively and will continue to be so, but yesterday’s votes provide a detailed snapshot of the political state of Council.

Looking at yesterday’s votes that state can best be described as murky. I know, not the most satisfying conclusion to draw, but let’s look at the evidence.

Matt Elliott did his thing again and tallied all of the motions yesterday in this Google Spreadsheet, which I urge you to check out. I think he’ll also have some analysis at his site later on, so just keep on punching F5 there.  

First, a quick summary. Team Ford lost 11 votes, and some in dramatic fashion (39-6 on comparing how other municipalities have responded to downloading, 37-8 on reporting on full list of revenue options at budget launch). Others were much closer- half of the opposition wins had 23-25 votes (23 are needed for a majority). Some of these votes will only have a small impact on the process but others- particularly the vote to not privatize the Toronto Parking Authority- quietly have a big impact.

More importantly, seven of the mayor’s whipped votes lost. This suggests that the mayor’s once firm grip on councillors is slowly growing weaker on individual issues. It’s very difficult to regain that strength—once councillors have a sense of independence it’s hard to bring them back in the fold. Council even overruled Speaker Frances Nunziata three times over the course of the two day session.  

Looking at which councillors broke from the mayor’s agenda can give us an idea of what’s to come. Chief among these councillors is Etobicoke’s Gloria Lindsay Luby, who is perhaps most famous for being referred to by then-councillor Rob Ford as a ‘waste of skin’. Going into this Council debate she had an 87.5% Ford rating on important Council votes. Of the 11 votes Ford lost Tuesday, she only voted with him on one. Executive committee member Jaye Robinson voted against Ford whipped votes eight times and North York conservative James Pasternak did so seven times.

There were good signs for Ford though. TTC Chair Karen Stintz, who not too long ago appeared to be on the outs with Team Ford, voted with the Mayor on whipped votes all but two times. Granted, one of those times was on the Toronto Parking Authority, but she has been a good soldier for the team lately.

Despite the ‘wins’ by the left, most items were cut. All told, $27.6 million out of $30 million or so was cut. From a Ford perspective, this is a win. Yet there were around $100 million in cuts on the table just a few weeks ago, most of which will wind up being deferred into bureaucratic black holes. Put another way, the budget cuts from Tuesday represent a $30 car registration fee or 0.3% of the overall budget, or $10 from every Toronto resident.

It’s hard to argue that cutting $27.6 million from the budget is what is going to ensure structural sustainability. Every little bit helps, but it comes at a price in terms of both livability for Torontonians and politically for Team Ford. After all, it’s a hard sell to say you’re thoughtfully looking out for the welfare of Torontonians when you’re cutting the Hardship Fund that subsidizes medicine for low-income seniors and cutting the Christmas bureau that coordinates donated gifts for needy children.

This was not the gravy you were looking for. Unfortunately for Ford, the choices only get harder from here as they'll impact a wider variety of people.

As Council goes through an uncertain period with alignment and policies in flux the question will be who can best frame those decisions. Did the Mayor and his allies get 90% of his their cuts or 27% of them? Did Team Ford make the tough decisions to balance the budget or are they making the easy choices on the backs of the poor and marginalized? Was the Mayor’s team able to win an impressive number of votes (40 of 52) or lose an impressive amount (it’s unusual to lose 12 votes in a day)?

Granted, it will be tough for Ford to frame the debate in a positive light when he’s talking about tough cuts. Doing so would be impressive, especially considering the fact that he’s used the same rhetoric since he started to run for mayor. An updated narrative is needed as councillors and constituents demand more about how these cuts will impact their lives.  

Just like the budget, the optics and direction of council is in an indeterminate position. The challenge for both sides is to best frame those choices as new information arises so people can buy into their vision of the city. 


  1. It's simply very sad that Stintz voted against the Hardship Fund. Obviously, she's not intending to run again in Ward 16 (where that vote would not go down well). And, only because Ford still needs her, she didn't yet lose her TTC job after recently indicating (libraries) her desire to be mayor herself one day.

  2. Nothing quite says "I'm not interested in running again" like cutting poverty support in ward 16. Good on ya, David. I'm not so sure Ford can recapture the narrative at this point. That he still uses his election story suggests he doesn't really have the capacity to do so within his office. Given kouvalis's involvement in framing it, it will be tough for Ford to justify spending public money on a consultant that will help him get rid if public money. Mind you, they could go with private Ford money, but that would look just a little unseemly, and open a whole different can of worms.