Monday, 30 January 2012

Ford's Defensive Line

Rob Ford riding the rails
During the 2010 mayoral race, Rob Ford remarkably controlled the narrative for essentially the entire race as  the other contenders sniped at him from behind. Even when news broke about his arrest in Florida or offering to procure drugs for Dieter Doneit-Henderson he changed the story and controlled the story. 

The first year or so of his mayoralty was a continuation of this as Ford effectively used his aggressive style and the bully pulpit of the mayor to advance his agenda. However, this style only goes so far. Due to changing events, new information and a City Council that finally seems to respect itself in the wake of the budget, Ford is consistently on the defensive for the first time. Consider the weekend roundup of news:
  • Joe Mihevc solicited a legal opinion that Ford did not have the legal authority to unilaterally cancel Transit City. 
  • Adam Vaughan contends selling TCHC standalone housing units won't raise the cash for repairs. Of course, Team Ford didn't have the votes for this and so punted on it at last week's Executive Committee meeting. 
  • Even though he is waiting for Gordon Chong's report to comment (a telling sign), Denzil Minnan-Wong weighed in on Twitter, claiming Council never voted to approve Transit City. He was quickly pointed to this Steve Munro blog post
  • Also on Twitter, old Ford friend Nick Kouvalis tweets close to 50 times yesterday in defense of the Ford plan. Most of his defenses include some variation of claiming Karen Stintz has been duped by council's left or the Ontario Liberal Party. 
  • In addition to Ford's ongoing audit request, his bad lieutenant Giorgio Mammoliti joined him in that respect on Friday (in contrast to Ford, Mammoliti will not appeal). 
In response to consistently bad press, Team Ford has tried to respond with some pretty out-there reasoning. Mike del Grande mounted a defense of underground LRTs as not needing any drivers. Which is technically true, but never done in practice. 

Ford bizarrely argued that underground rail is cheaper in the long-term because it's not exposed to the weather. (This ignores the positive experience with the LRT system in Calgary and Minneapolis and the cost to build and maintain stations underground). Matt Elliott nicely debunks this and other transit myths in that note over at Ford for Toronto. 

In politics, when you're on the defensive you're losing- just ask super-historian Newt Gingrich. It's a look that doesn't suit anyone, but least of all Ford. This is a guy who thrives on the bully pulpit and controlling his surroundings, and sadly it's all he knows how to do. 

Monday, 23 January 2012

Your January 2012 Executive Committee Preview

Rob Ford at an Executive Committee meeting, presumably telling a deputant to live long and prosper. 
So Tuesday brings us another Executive Committee meeting and there's several items on the agenda that will generate interest. There's also one item that will be introduced at the meeting, as Michelle Berardinetti will put forward a motion to encourage local businesses to apply proceeds from the five cent plastic bag fee  towards protecting Toronto's tree canopy. 

The item that will generate the most interest is on selling TCHC homes, and there are also motions on Dave Meslin's Fourth Wall and Occupy Toronto that are of note. 

TCHC Motion:

The TCHC motion to sell 675 standalone homes will begin at 1:30pm and will be the most contentious of the day. 

The administration argues that there is a backlog of capital repairs ($650M) to be done on TCHC housing and the standalone homes are the worst of the lot. These homes are also relatively high-value (they're right around the city averarge for home values in the mid-$400,000s). City staff figure that selling 675 homes would generate somewhere in the neighbourhood of $330M after fees. 

But there are significant downsides to the plan. While a number of the existing houses are in dire need of repair, some are perfectly fine and so amount to a decrease (or cash-in) of the existing housing supply. 

This comes at a particularly bad time. There are currently 81,000+ on the waitlist for housing and this grows each year. Over the past three years the number of new tenants coming into TCHC housing has declined from 4,266 to 3,733 to 3,300, indicating that lower turnover will cause the waitlist to grow longer. The reduction of the proposed sale units (as current tenants will be relocated) will further exacerbate this problem. 

Moreover, there are questions as to how much such a big sale will actually help. The proposal at hand suggests using the $330M as an endowment of sorts to be invested in a a safe investment like an annuity that would protect the principal. The interest earned would then be used for capital repairs, but this is paltry next to the city's claim of $650M needed for repairs.

The assumed discount rate of 5% from an annuity would generate an estimated extra cashflow of $12M, hardly the big dent in $650M that is needed. 

$12M is a decidedly optimistic number, even if the document refers to the 5% discount rate as 'conservative' (the Bank of Canada currently has the 30-year bond yield at 4%, which is a big difference). The sale proposes a phased approach to sell homes (which makes sense) but assumes the real estate market will remain as robust as it currently is. Given that Toronto is the hottest market in North America, it might be prudent to price in a correction as well. On the other hand, if you ever wanted to sell fixer-upper homes, then doing so at the top of the market makes most sense.

Additionally, many of these homes are in clusters (like wards 30 and 32, which combine for more than 200 of the 675). This creates further problems in selling as there is limited demand in any given area which will cause prices to drop in the area, and not just for TCHC homes.  

Lastly, the $12M number is derived by mixing operating and capital budgets together (sound familiar?), as seen in the table below:
A hat tip to reader Rowan Caister for pointing out question marks here. 
The problem with mixing up operating and capital in this case is that the capital expenses (like capital repairs) are declining and terminal while the assets like rental income from the property are ongoing and growing (within limits). This has the effect of further exaggerating the net value of the cash flow in the table in addition to the above points. 

If the annual income derived from selling 675 homes is in the neighbourhood of $8-12M (to be conservative), then legitimate questions do arise about whether the sale is really a remedy for repairs or a way to decrease housing in the spirit of 'smaller government,' as the City Hall letterhead says.

There are structural problems in TCHC homes, but moreso there are structural problems in the relationship the city has with funding housing (both with the province and tenants). Having an extra amount of money on hand sounds enticing, but it's not the detailed blueprint the TCHC needs to build a better foundation for public housing in Toronto.

When I covered the Scarborough budget town hall a couple of weeks ago for The Grid, I was surprised at the turnout to oppose the proposed 10% privatization of TO Hydro. 

Scarborough receives a disproportionate amount of brownouts and residents were concerned these would increase if a private company would focus on profits more than people. 

TO Hydro is in a tough spot. The Ontario Energy Board recently ruled that they could not raise their prices in response to what TO Hydro felt were growing fiscal challenges (TO Hydro has since asked them to reconsider). To reduce costs TO Hydro has fired hundreds of contractors, as they need the money to invest in infrastructure. 

However, this motion does not propose that the proceeds fund TO Hydro. Instead, any money from a sale would go to the Capital Financing Reserve Fund to offset future debt issuance. In other words, it's taking money from one area that needs it now to save it for a rainy day. 

Knowing what kind of return TO Hydro would generate is difficult. The Committee doesn't discuss that kind of financial information in public, but utility companies have relatively low and stable price to earnings ratios and are comparable to bonds in some respects (a steady stream of reliable income). However given TO Hydro's state its discount rate would be lower than usual. 

A number of councillors- including centrists- have expressed reservations about selling 10% of TO Hydro, so it could be a hard sell at Council. There's also the legitimate concern that without investment in the organization TO Hydro's dividend will freeze (which has been budgeted for) or even fall (which rarely happens at companies and is a sign of big trouble). 

Josh Colle, with his newfound superhero status, background as an energy executive and board position on TO Hydro, could play an interesting role in this. 

Dave Meslin's Fourth Wall/Civic Proposals:
I'm planning on writing more about this later, but this is a motion that is heartening. For the past couple of months activist extraordinaire Dave Meslin has hosted a collection of proposals at 401 Richmond to promote civic engagement. They run the gamut from ranked balloting to voting on weekends to wifi in Council (already achieved, woot!) 

Meslin's motions are being forwarded by Paul Ainslie, who visited the Fourth Wall exhibit (several other councillors have too). I tend to deride Ainslie a bit as being too much of a follower and not enough of a leader, but on this he deserves credit. It's easy to say you think an idea is interesting but it's harder to attach your name to it, and he followed through. 

Of course credit goes to Mez too, who continues to work within and outside of institutions to great effect. This motion will study a variety of the proposals without a commitment to them, but it's still an example of the political process working. 

Plastic Bag Fee Motion:
Michelle Berardinetti has been looking for additional revenue sources and she will add this item to the agenda tomorrow. The item is to encourage businesses to direct the five cent bag fee toward the city fund to protect the tree canopy. 

The five cent fee has been a pet peeve of the Toronto Sun for some time, and they've done favourable reporting on Berardinetti's idea.

No business could be forced to comply due to the fee's legal structure, so this would just be a case of moral suasion. That's a good enough tool to use when you need to although it's pretty difficult to pull off too. 

After all, companies either like to keep the money or donate it to existing charities that fit in with their existing branding. 

So the challenge for Berardinetti's idea to be successful would be to package the branding of directing money towards the city's tree canopy as something that's appealing and noticeable for company's to take part in. Whether this is leveraging the idea of supporting local goods and the environment or connecting the idea of trees and healthy living, there's some room to work with there but it's not an easy task. At council, the challenge for Berardinetti will be to frame it in a way that all sides will like, something like, 'We need to give the private sector the opportunity to contribute to the public good.' 

Additionally, the five cent bag fee is something that Rob Ford mentioned in year end interviews he might like to get rid of. So if there's little take-up on Berardinetti's idea it could be used as a further argument to cancel the fee by saying, 'See, companies just want to keep the money.'

It's worth mentioning that the fee has been incredibly effective for its purpose of reducing plastic bag use. Reports have bag use at 70% less than before the fee, as this Toronto Star editorial points out.   

Motions that will Likely Fail
There's also two motions that were referred to the Executive from Council, and so they will die here. Those are Gloria Lindsay Luby's motion to declare EMS an essential service (currently in lockout or strike situations only 15% can be off the job at a time, but this hurts response times). 

Another motion is to 'endorse the peaceful protests of Occupy Toronto.' It might make for some interesting deputations and responses from the Executive but will go nowhere. 

And lastly, there's a motion from Kristyn Wong-Tam and Glenn de Baeremaeker to exempt Toronto from the implications of Canada-EU trade talks. It won't pass, but de Baeremaeker outdid himself on an awesome prop once again, this time a gift left outside City Hall:

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

2012 Budget: The Day After

Photo: Deborah Baic/Globe and Mail
Yesterday the budget happened and it's tempting to paint it with all kinds of significance. It's the kind of day that creates an easy narrative of absolute heroes and villains, but it's important not to get too caught up in the moment and lose context; the budget is part of a greater process that represents evolution, not revolution. 

First of all, how it happened. Rookie Councillor Josh Colle introduced an omnibus cuts bill two hours into the proceedings that protects: the school based child care rent subsidy, child care centre programming, priority centre youth programs, ice rink funding, pool funding, CPIP community grants, funding to shelters, reverses user fees on children's, youth and older adult programming in priority centres, adds $5M to the TTC to limit route cuts and also protects mechanized leaf collection.  

The $15M worth of cuts this motion protects was most of the $19M council's opposition won in the end, and Colle was painted as a hero for his work. Much of this is deserved in part for his willingness to stand up and advocate for the motion in the face of strong opposition from Ford allies. Giorgio Mammoliti accused him of engineering the motion for 'pet projects,' (even though there was little of anything in his ward), Speaker Nunziata editorialized comments about Colle's Dad Mike, the MPP for Eglinton-Lawrence, John Parker accused him of not answering questions directly (which is true), and Doug Holyday lost his cool and accused him of horse-trading.

Colle, who has been an infrequent speaker in Council (which many have surmised is because of the Mayor's opposition to the Lawrence Heights project, just passed in November) handled his own quite admirably which only seemed to cause further frustration on the Mayor's team. 

While this moment surprised many City Hall watchers, myself included, it was in the works for a while, as David Rider reports in this excellent piece. From this piece it seems the left wing of the newbies in the mushy middle (McMahon, Bailao, Colle and Matlow) grew sick and tired of the budget process in December and sought to find ways to protect services. Working with the stalwarts on Council's left, they knew they would have to get two of Jaye Robinson, Michelle Berardinetti, Gary Crawford, Gloria Lindsay Luby and James Pasternak (in addition to the increasingly frustrated Chin Lee). 

It was the latter two who took the plunge. For Luby, mechanized leaf collection was a dealbreaker for her in Etobicoke and protecting it was necessary for her support. From Inside Toronto:

"'(Leaf collection), for me, was absolutely important. Some of the other services (included in the motion) were not, but, you know, if I get support for leaf collection, I have to support them," she said. "It is what it is, but we definitely did a good thing for the City of Toronto...I had one chap write and say 'you rock.' I don't often get that'

Pasternak was likely a tougher sell, as there were a series of less prominent cuts that had an impact on his ward. According to Rider's article, Robinson and Berardinetti were lobbying for Pasternak's support right until the end and even the mayor confronted him. Various staffers mentioned that the amount of pressure the likes of Pasternak were under from the Ford administration was unprecedented in their experience.   

While Colle was the public face of Council's middle to protect the cuts, Pasternak took the biggest leap behind the scenes to make that happen.

For Luby and Pasternak, it raises some interesting questions. On the one hand, they'll gain some credibility among their constituents for protecting services, which a CUPE poll released yesterday showed was the public will. On the other hand, the Ford administration has shown a spiteful streak that targets specific councillors (like Wong-Tam or Layton on the Jarvis bike lanes or Fort York bridge). Pasternak is now that much less likely (read: not at all) to get a plum mid-term appointment or library funds in his ward that he has sought and Luby could be given a tough time on routine requests for her ward at Etobicoke Community Council. The Ford Team will likely want to serve notice in some way that this kind of opposition is not appreciated. 

Politics is a zero sum game of power and leverage, and so while yesterday was empowering for Council (and the middle in particular), it is disempowering for the Mayor's office. As Royson James notes in his reaction to the budget, if this budget vote occurred at Queen's Park or Parliament, it would be a vote of no confidence. 

The Ford team has their spin, and there's a grain of truth in it. It is true that this is a mostly conservative budget. It has a property tax increase lower than the rate of inflation, so it's a decrease in real terms, it has less spending than last year (although more taxes and fees) and it puts away more than $100M for reserves, which is good. 

But everything in politics is relative to expectations and the parameters for the given situation, and in this respect the Ford Team was clobbered. Their body language and general loutishness showed it too, and Mayor Ford reverted to an animal analogy to describe council's opposition as dogs salivating at budget money (animal comparisons have not served him well in the past, as Giorgio Mammoliti could tell you). 

Ford has thus far used the mayor's bully pulpit effectively to demand deference from council and forward his agenda, but this will likely decrease. Already councillors have been questioning whether the Ford-proposed 10% sale of Toronto Hydro has the votes to go forward and now that Pasternak has untied himself from the Ford administration, his critical vote on any transit plan will be pursued in greater earnest. 

As Josh Colle told me (for The Grid) after the vote last night, this vote wasn't a palace coup. But the budget was something that shaped all sorts of relationships, from citizens responding to City Hall, to the diminished authority of the Mayor's office, to Colle becoming the subject of headline news to Pasternak being the unlikely hero of this sprawling epic.

For council's opposition, the budget was about preserving services they value. But more than preservation, the budget changed relationships, an understanding of the city and levels of trust in City Hall. So in that way, the budget changed the city in small ways, but the most important ones weren't contained within the document.  

Further Reading:
Matt Elliott at Ford For Toronto breaks down the votes like the mensch he is.

Edward Keenan provides his typically excellent analysis at The Grid. 

Neville Park provides a really nice personal response and round up of the day. Added bonus: excellent use of a meme. 

John McGrath does his thing at Openfile, which is his typically good thing.

Torontoist had a bunch of coverage as you would expect, and kudos to Hamutal Dotan for making that happen. 

Marcus Gee provides a different view on the meeting for the Globe, one which I disagree with. Sue-Ann Levy has similar arguments for the Sun, but doesn't argue as effectively (or reasonably), so don't bother there.  

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

City Budget in Microcosm: Alexandra Park

As Marwa Eldardiry walks through her Alexandra Park neighbourhood, she points to areas that gave shape to how she grew up, "This was where we used to play red ass, and over here we would play soccer or baseball." 

Eldardiry, a 24-year-old who recently graduated from Ryerson with a degree in planning, points to a small quadrant of nooks and crannies in Alex Park when she refers to her childhood sports. She goes on to explain how it's a self-sufficient community that makes the most of what it has. 

"In the summer the basketball courts are packed, and older kids help out the younger ones. It's a tight-knit community."  

Alex Park is tight-knit by virtue of its geography in addition to its inhabitants. Bordered by Bathurst on the west, Queen to the south, Spadina to the east and Dundas to the north, the dense neighbourhood has just under 5,000 residents. Many people live in public housing established in a 1960s project similar to Regent Park. Like Regent, it' s a low-income neighbourhood, with average income the second lowest in Toronto at $19,687 (2006 census).  

Yet Eldardiry speaks of a sense of pride in the community. "I don't know the stats, but everyone says that Alex Park has the best graduation rates of any public housing neighbourhood in Canada. People do well here." 

Local Councillor Adam Vaughan notes this too as he discusses the area's relatively low drug use that Public Health can attest to and strong outcomes for well-being. He adds that there are challenges that come with this success although it's encouraged, "The neighbourhood has a great degree of turnover that's tied to the educational capacity, the community. Because they are getting their kids educated and their credentials upgraded people have the ability to move to where work is when that work becomes available to them. You have a lot of kids in university, a lot of parents with foreign degrees and a strong emphasis on education and those values feed off each other in a positive way."  

Because there is a certain degree of turnover from this educational capacity, outside groups like the Atkinson Foundation have focused on retaining youth leaders like Eldardiry on community boards to provide direction, leadership and a sense of history to younger individuals.  

The latter is particularly important as history provides a sense of and context for the community. In 2007, beloved teenager Yonathon Musse (who was also a drug dealer) was murdered and it rocked the community. For many people it provided a wake up call to be vigilant about their choices and options. 

Next to the two basketball courts, a mural of the teenager adorns the brick wall. Other newly-installed art projects spruce up the area, including planters for area homes made by teens and a mural of a tree. These are the kind of small projects that build skills and confidence in youth and provide a creative outlet to connect with the area. They're also funded through grants.  

Asked about Rob Ford's general opposition to grants, Eldardiry is puzzled by the stance, "With grants, they're fishing rods. We know how to fish, we just need the tool to get it going."  

Services and programs are vital to how the community functions too. There are three nearby community centres, a community pool, a park and parkettes and a recently converted convent that is now a shelter for vulnerable women. Eldardiry is surprised these are the kinds of programs that Ford proposes to cut across the city, "I thought he promised no cuts, but then he does this." 

She adds that these are the kind of programs that made growing up in Alex Park special for her and are an important part of its proposed revitalization. 

Yet the budget process didn't examine the unique characteristics of areas like Alexandra Park and its nooks and crannies. According to Eldardiry, the process should be about social inclusion and integrating communities. 

But the lines on the Ford budget are looked at individually rather than responding to the city's needs with a vision for how it can improve. And so Alexandra Park, the labrynthine microcosm of Toronto's budgeting process, carries on with or without the help of the 2012 budget. 

Monday, 16 January 2012

How to Follow the Budget Meeting

At the first City Council meeting of 1911, they got by without Twitter. 
So you want to follow the wild world to Toronto City Council but don't know where to start? Or you just want all of your links in one place? Then this is the post for you. 

How City Hall Works (or doesn't):
For starters, you might want to check out this post (an excerpt from Local Motion) that Dave Meslin wrote about how city council ideally works. He also wrote an updated, more cynical version which I would say is slightly more accurate (in practice, not in theory). 

The Meeting:
You'll also want to follow along with the meeting. Each City Council meeting is broadcast on Rogers 10 in its entirety, so if you're in front of a TV that can work. If you are computer-bound you can follow along on the Rogers livestream

When you're in front of your computer, you also have the meeting agenda at hand, which is very useful. 

Added bonus is that they archive previous council meetings on the Rogers site and you can follow Twitter too. 

Which brings us to the next area. Follow Twitter. This really isn't an option for following along with City Council; it's a must. The best bets are to follow the #topoli hashtag and various Twitter lists like this one from Goldsbie. Note: If you're looking for a pro-Ford cheering section, there's limited selection on Twitter. 

Of course, all of this coverage doesn't mean too much if you don't understand the context. A good starting point is to check out where various councillors stand on the issues with Matt Elliott's Ford Scorecard. This will give you a general idea of where councillors stand on the issues although some are specific (Crawford supports the arts or Thompson the Christmas Bureau, for instance). 

Of particular importance will be this Ford Scorecard from September, when Council had many votes in principle of what to cut. It should provide a good guidepost of who the councillors to watch on specific issues are.

Hard Numbers: 
Of course, if you want to do the budget number crunching for yourself, you have a few options. You can check out the Toronto Opendata website, which posts the Operating and Capital budget as well as lots of other useful stats and documents (warning: big Excel files). 

There's also the official city site, the most valuable of which is the analyst notes. This should allow you to follow issue by issue. 

Contact Info:
City Hall watcher (and former Rocco Rossi campaign staffer) Justin Kozuch has also put together a really useful spreadsheet of contact info for various councillors and trustees (e-mail, twitter, facebook, youtube etc...). So when that one councillor makes a really offensive or stupid statement, you'll be ready to ping their Blackberry to let him or her know it was an offensive or stupid statement. 

Media Outlets:
The best media coverage of City Hall tends to come online, and I expect these next three days to be no different. With big events like this, sometimes Torontoist does a liveblog and they do a good job. I expect Openfile's John McGrath will be updating their site with frequent posts on the goings-on and I'm sure other outlets will have special coverage, so watch out for that. 

If you're there in person you should know that Council Chambers will have wifi available for the first time (the committee room has for the new year). There will be a sign posted near the entrance with the user/password and make sure to take advantage of it. There's only a handful of plugs to charge your phone or laptop in when the battery goes kaput, but you can find them beneath the first row of the audience risers (on the outside, near the floor). 

Also, make sure to use jazz hands. If you don't then Frances Nunziata will be so stressed she'll need to take a smoke break. 

Team Ford and Working with Others

Deer Park Pool was slated for closure in 2009, but not this time. Photo: The Star. 
While this budget is not quite the radical conservative budget as portrayed by Council's left (see Matt Elliott, Daniel Dale and Edward Keenan for that argument) it is still a failure of good governance. 

In many ways, the budget has been a learning opportunity not just for citizens and their relationship to city services but for how the Ford administration will operate for the balance of its tenure. Given how the city budget was cobbled together, it seems the preference will be for the administration to stick to its core group of supporters without delegating tasks to centrists and opponents. 

Ironically, this is the approach David Miller took in his second term that was roundly criticized by the likes of Rob Ford, Denzil Minnan-Wong and Doug Holyday. It also stands in contrast to Miller's first term and particularly the latter stages of Mel Lastman's mayoralty, when people like Jack Layton and Olivia Chow were given roles that valued and used their experience working on homelessness and youth services. This model harnesses the strengths of various councillors and their diverse backgrounds so they can contribute to solutions. It has the added effect of taking their energy away from criticizing the administration. 

But the 2012 budget doesn't achieve this. Take a look at school pools, for instance. There are three rookie councillors who worked closely on school pools as trustees with the TDSB (Crawford, Matlow and Pasternak) and five pools are scheduled to close (Frankland, Gordon A. Brown, Hillcrest, Runnymede, and SH Armstrong) for a savings of $683,000. The Mayor's supporters contend the responsibility of the pools should lie with the school board, but it is cash-strapped so the pools would close.  

It's an issue that means a lot to Matlow, who has said his work on it as a trustee was a big motivator for him to run for Council. He suggests getting back to the table with former Mayor David Crombie and Karen Petrie of the Aquatics Working Group to put together a long-term strategy for funding and accountability of the issue, "[In the past] no one has wanted to put their hand up," Matlow says about the province, city and school board playing hot potato in an interview. But efforts to bring them together have been successful in some cases, "[Crombie and Petrie] have been successful in dozens of cases in finding funds and working with community groups. I believe we can continue to find funding... Since when can the city just shirk any purview?"    

But this strategy of incorporating people who are raising their hands like Crombie and Petrie has not been pursued by the Mayor's office. One veteran councillor speaking on background stated that the efforts from the Mayor's office to incorporate newer councillors's ideas on issues such as pools have not been there at all, adding that it is shameful for the Mayor's office and frustrating for the councillors. 

Asked if the Mayor's office has sought his advice on the issue, Matlow said flatly that it hasn't. 

Meanwhile, the approach of the Mayor's office continues to balkanize council, even the most willing to work collaboratively to find solutions. It's an approach that, like the pools issue, leads to standoffs between stakeholders and a decreased ability to find sustainable answers for the problems the city faces.      

Monday, 9 January 2012

It's a frequent refrain that politics would be better if only politicians, media and citizens alike would just focus on policy. However, we're human and more Captain Kirk than Spock on our best days. And that's OK. 

In fact, it's a great deal of the reason why Rob Ford won the curious case of the 2010 mayoral election. 

Trish Hennessy, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives analyst who conducted the Rob Ford voter focus groups in September summarizes her findings on Ford's appeal as:
...the personal connection [from voters to Ford] was owing largely to their perception that Rob Ford was far too unvarnished a politician to be anything but himself. They understood he might be a little rough around the edges, but he struck them as sincere and he stood for something, and that held some appeal at the time.
Ford's voters were largely drawn to him by his authentic personality, not policy chops. He was perceived as an 'everyman' with the fortitude to stand up for his beliefs against near-universal opposition. In an election in which the electorate was angry against the status quo- waste that was real or perceived, the outside workers strike and the politicians that enable both- Rob Ford was attractive for his uncompromising and aggressive stance on the issues.  

But campaigning is different from governing. Where compromise and nuance are anathema to effective campaigning, they're the stuff of effective public policy, and voters have to be careful what they wish for.  

The Ford administration, to be sure, is an extension of Rob's personality. Like Don Cherry's invocation, it is brash and flouts the opposition, tends to entrench itself in the face of opposition (Pride Week), acts on whims (turning down the initial 2 public nurses) and denies the obvious (declining popularity, broken promises).  

These are characteristics of ineffective governance, one that is reactionary and close-minded. Yet in the next two months the city will face three challenges that require a change in mindset for good decisions. In late January the Council will come to a final decision on Ford's budget proposal, the City will continue its labour negotiations with the strong chance of a lockout and in February a proposal will come forward on the viability of the Sheppard subway plan.  

Each of these plans are untenable in their current arrangement and will require understanding and discussions to modify them. That appears unlikely to happen in meaningful ways. 

The current budget is informed by the pet peeves and whims of Ford like cuts to grants and social programs, while ensuring an arbitrary property tax number that is below inflation. The city cannot afford that kind of budget to pass but moreover it can't afford that governance to rule the day with items like city workers and transit. 

Sure, character matters, but it's not the start and end point for policy discussions. And in this administration, where there's little substantive policy to have any room for discussion, that's too bad.  

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Is 'radical conservative' the new 'gravy train'?

Yesterday was the first day that City Hall was back in high gear after its winter holidays, and it was complete with a a Public Works meeting and budget town hall jointly held in council by Adam Vaughan, Kristyn Wong-Tam and Pam McConnell.  

Aside from the general criticism of Ford's policies, the two meetings were linked by the use of the phrase 'radical conservative'. Gord Perks and Vaughan used the phrase a few times each at the Public Works meeting and then Vaughan mentioned it five times at the public consultation.  

Of course, this can all be a coincidence. But if it's a co-ordinated and conscious effort to re-brand the administration it's not a bad idea for the Council opposition. As much as simplistic phrases like 'gravy train' provide a shallow discourse, they resonate. Additionally, there's a better case to be made for 'radical conservative' than 'gravy train,' the latter of which Nick Kouvalis told Toronto Life there was little to none of.  

In a way, it's surprising that co-ordinated language to create a meme of the Ford administration has taken so long. Language is a powerful tool; it shapes the way we think and provides the structure of meaning to the issues at hand. 

The phrase 'radical conservative' in particular brands Team Ford as conservatives rather than populists, positions them outside the mainstream and conjures up the likes of Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, hardly the stuff of Toronto the good. 

Whether the phrase gains traction remains to be seen but if it is picked up like 'gravy train' was for Ford then it could go a long way to altering the perception of City Hall by passive observers. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

What to look forward to at Council

It's going to be a busy time over the next two weeks with budget negotiations. Right now is the calm before the storm where the left is waiting for the next piece of information (say, a more accurate surplus) to base their strategy on and force Team Ford to react and explain their insistence on using all of the surplus for reserves. 

That's a tough position for Team Ford to be in if it gets there- budget strategies are pretty esoteric, particularly in contrast to the more concrete alternatives that it could fund like a bus route or student nutrition programs. 

For now, here is your schedule to look forward to. 

Over the next week and a half various councillors are holding town halls in their ward (or nearby ones). It's a chance for people to have their voice heard and ask questions about the budget. Quite a few have already had town halls or consultations, but the table below shows upcoming ones. Kudos to John Parker for holding two in his ward, particularly when he'll be in the position of defending most cuts. 
Councillors will use these sessions as feedback on where to stand on some of the more contentious issues, especially middle councillors Josh Colle and Josh Matlow. 

In the midst of these will the budget wrap-up for the Budget Committee on Monday January 9. There might be a couple of amendments here from Chin Lee which should give a good idea as to where the point of compromise is on various issues. These will likely be voted down handily by the Ford-dominated committee, but also pay attention to how Michelle Berardinetti and Frank di Giorgio vote. These two are more or less necessary votes for Team Ford to win on many issues, and where they deviate could mean the failure of a proposed cut or an amendment down the road.

Once the Budget Committee makes its approval, it will get sent to Executive on Thursday January 12 where there will be lots of media attention and little substance. Behind the scenes it's likely that Jaye Robinson and Michelle Berardinetti will be arguing for the value of various programs or floating different fundraising proposals. Little to nothing will change at this stage except for a couple of smaller cuts that will be saved. Look for these (for instance, a solution to student nutrition funding) to be announced early in the day to start with a good news story, much like preserving windrow clearing and no library closures were pre-emptively announced in previous meetings. Team Ford knows that the budget battle is largely about optics, and managing the news with mayoral announcements is one advantage they have. 

Between the Executive meeting and Tuesday January 17, there will be a lot of horse trading and pressure applied to various councillors as they debate in Council for three days. Matt Elliott's Ford For Toronto Council Scorecard will probably see an uptick in pageviews from City Hall computers too. 

For Council's opposition to win their issues, they'll need a three of Chin Lee, Jaye Robinson, Gloria Lindsay Luby, James Pasternak and Ron Moeser plus everyone to their left (including Colle, Matlow, McMahon and Bailao). Of course other councillors could join them on certain issues, like Frank di Giorgio, Michelle Berardinetti or Gary Crawford, but that works both ways. 

At the very least, there will be plenty to blog about. 

We're Cutting What Now?: Hardship Fund, Christmas Bureau and Child Care Edition

Over the next two weeks there's going to be a lot of talk about which programs and services to cut and which should avoid the chopping block. But you also get the sense that not enough is known about each of these programs, what they do and how much they each cost. 

Over the next week or so I'll do a series here at the Clamshell going through the various programs in a summary format so that when something comes up it's easy to look up information or explain a program to someone else. 

Today: The Hardship Fund, Christmas Bureau and three child care centres

Hardship Fund: This fund is designed to assist seniors, disabled people and the 'working poor' who live on their own and are not using any other kind of social program like ODSP with the purchase of needed prescription medication, wheelchairs, prosthetics, glasses and dental care. The idea behind the fund is to act as a care provider of last resort for people who fall through the cracks of other programs. 

The numbers: The Hardship Fund assists 1,300 people annually at a cost of $900,000. This works out to 60 cents on the average property tax bill. 

The case for it: Treating healthcare issues before they become worse saves much more money done the line. For instance, it's better to provide the needed prescription medication for an individual at home than wait for a chronic condition to escalate to the point where he or she needs critical care. But more than the hard costs, there's also the matter of respect and dignity both for the people in need and the city at large. After all, how can our city have respect and dignity for itself if it sells out those values for its seniors for 60 cents? 

The case against it: Not only does every little bit help, but the Hardship Fund is exactly the kind of thing the provincial government should cover. Toronto is not in the business of covering the province's social service costs. Cutting the Hardship Fund comes with a request for the province to do its share and fund the difference, and with this we can go towards the more fair and equitable relationship with the province that Toronto needs. 

The politics: In September, there was a 23-22 vote to cut the fund in principle. Jaye Robinson was in dissent while Gloria Lindsay Luby, James Pasternak and Ron Moeser voted to cancel it. 

Candidate Rob Ford: When I'm Mayor, the gravy train party will come to an end, ladies and gentleman, and more money will be spent on seniors. That's where money should be spent. -Rob Ford speaking at a midtown seniors mayoral forum in June 2010.  

Further reading: The Toronto Star did a good profile on a senior who used the fund to get a bed she needed that would not give her bed sores: 

The Wellesley Institute also did a report on the fund.

The city website

The Christmas Bureau: Since 1956, a bureau that is run in the last few months of the year to co-ordinate charitable donations from outside groups. The idea is that one central body that has access to identifying the people in need of Christmas gifts (through social services) can more efficiently allocate the gifts,leaving outside groups to fundraise and promote their cause, which they are better geared to do. 

The numbers: The Christmas Bureau assists 138,000 children and families at a cost of $151,000. This works out be ten cents on the average property tax bill. 

The case for it: If this program didn't exist, it would be exactly the kind of thing Rob Ford would want. The Christmas bureau is already an efficiency; it ensures that there's not a duplication of resources and that the best candidates for gifts are connected with the program. Additionally, it's exactly the kind of thing that that makes our city more livable and lends credence to 'Toronto the Good'. 

The case against it: The Christmas Bureau is a nice to have but not a must have. This is the kind of program that the city should let the non-profit sector to take over. 

The politics: In September, there was a 25-20 vote to cut the bureau in principle. Ford ally Michael Thompson was in dissent while Ana Bailao, Chin Lee, Gloria Lindsay Luby, Ron Moeser and Jaye Robinson supported cutting it. 

Mayor Rob Ford: It's our goal to make this holiday season a festive and memorable one for everyone in the city of Toronto - Ford at the launch of the City of Toronto toy drive 

Further Reading: Torontoist did an excellent summary of the Bureau a few weeks ago. 

The city website 

Child care: The budget proposes closing three child care centers: St. Mark's at Queen and Lansdowne, Belleview at College and Bathurst and Greenholme-Albion in Etobicoke. Meanwhile, existing child care fees could rise $500 per child

The numbers: There are currently 55 city-run daycares and closing these three would save around $1 million annually, or 65 cents on the average property tax bill. The three daycares provide 100 child care spots and there is currently a waiting list of 20,000 for the city's child care subsidies. 

The case for it: Judging by the waiting list, there's clearly not enough capacity for child care demand as it is, let alone cutting it. These programs ensure proper care for children and enable parents- particularly single moms and low-income earners- to stay off social assistance, work, progress in their careers and add to the tax base rather than taking away from it. 

The case against it: With the province providing all-day kindergarten, the need for child care will diminish. Besides, what are we doing in this business anyway? Can't the private sector do it better?

The politics: A September vote to not pursue child care cuts lost 25-20, with Jaye Robinson, Chin Lee, Gloria Lindsay Luby, James Pasternak and Ron Moeser voting against it. 

Candidate Rob Ford: Ford pledged to invest more in child care with the money found from city gravy, as seen in his Financial Plan Backgrounder below:

Further Reading: The Toronto Star did a piece on this issue a few weeks ago that provides a good outline of how the debate will proceed in Council. 

The city website.