Saturday 31 December 2011

A City Council Year in Review

It's the last day of a very eventful year in Toronto politics, and I would be remiss if I didn't take this chance to collect some of the stories and moments that caught our Twitter-addled attention. In particular, there's a number of stories and moments that make you sit back and think, 'Wow, that did happen. How could I forget?' 

The answer: easily. The non-stop rush of stories, quotes and proposals was like a permanent diet of sugar with lots of highs and lows but little substance. So yeah, you can forget things in that state, just like I'm sure I missed lots of great moments in my summary (leave comments to fill in the gaps). 

But I would like to thank everyone who checked in at this website in 2011, gave it a chance and added their support. I hope to work on it more in 2012 than I did in 2011 and that you'll continue to read.  

Top words of 2011:

  • windrow 
  • depute
  • uncompetent
  • cuts efficiencies
  • liberry

Celebrity cameos: 

  • Margaret Atwood 
  • Woody Harrelson
  • Marg Delahunty
  • Yelly Granny

Headscratching moments from Giorgio Mammoliti:

  • Proposes to turn island into red light district 
  • Videotapes Dyke March
  • Rails against alleged opium dens
  • Creates pro-Ford Facebook page and pledges to weed out 'communists' 
  • Claims Janet Davis bullies him 

Best memes:

  • Rob Ford Metro Bowl kickoff 
  • #matlowmurdermystery 
  • Ford Math

Fake numbers of the year:

  • 774 million 
  • 35% property tax increase
  •  4.6% police budget reduction

Quotes of the Year:

"It's pretty hard to hide 300 pounds of fun." -Rob Ford responds to questions on transparency and accountability. 

"[The questionnaire is] not statistically valid" -Denzil Minnan-Wong on the city-crafted KPMG citizen survey, which didn't produce his desired results. 

"It's not backroom planning, it's called backroom vision" -Doug Ford on his surprising Port Lands proposal

"One thing we realized when we got to City Hall was that the bureaucrats...are working hard: 12, 15, 16 hours a day. Joe Pennachetti is working hard. So there's not a lot of 'gravy' at City Hall, per se." -Nick Kouvalis on waste

"We're going to be outsourcing everything that's not nailed down." -Doug Ford

"That really happened?" Moments:

  • Karen Stintz argues that the Jarvis bike lanes prevent a constituent from getting home in time to feed her family
  • Doug Ford talks about Tim Horton's, Margaret Atwood and libraries
  • Doug Ford is super charming at Budget Committee
  • Denzil Minnan-Wong rides a bike 
  • Doug Holyday proposes road tolls
  • Frances Nunziata reads the Pride Proclamation
  • Doug Ford writes a $1000 cheque 
  • A flying shark in council

Council's best votes:

Neglected issues:

A potential 2014 Ford sign, graciously designed by Matt Fucking Elliott
  • The report on citizen committees which was supposed to be delivered in July (still undelivered)
  • The terrible Astral 'info pillars,' given a pass until it was too late
  • The potential sale of TO Hydro- a huge financial decision which receives limited attention because it's complicated and there are limited numbers for public consumption
  • The various civic and board appointments made, which were largely political and lacked diversity. 
Disappointing Votes:
  • Gloria Lindsay Luby votes against looking into studying waste outsourcing west of Yonge St. further, arguing that it won't change anyone's mind. A couple of weeks later we learn that Green for Life, which won the contract, bought out Turtle Island, which services Luby's Etobicoke. From this, Etobicoke's garbage collection is now unionized and Luby was upset. 
  • Josh Colle had promised to support keeping the Jarvis bike lanes in e-mails to constituents. But when the Mayor placed a hold on a Lawrence Heights Development Project vote, Colle got the message and changed his mind. 
  • Jaye Robinson, arguably the most important swing vote, purposefully sits out a key vote on civic appointments at the side of the chamber. The vote is a tie, giving the Mayor a key victory that day. 
Neville Park tells Twitter to channel its anger

Best articles:
  • Ivor Tossell goes on an extended riff on Fordian uncompetence in the Toronto Standard, and it's pure gold. 
  • Trish Hennessy does important and startling research on Rob Ford voters in this post on her blog Framed in Canada.
  • The morning after the most exciting day in 2011 Toronto politics, Edward Keenan manages to keep his eyes open to write about the deputation slumber party and the smell of democracy in the morning. His Ford fact checks were also must-reads. 
  • Cityslikr is at his passionately indignant best in this post on how all you need are 23 councillors.
  • You could choose any number of articles from Matt Elliott's Ford For Toronto, but let's go with this one on the false budget choices the Mayor proposes. 
  • Other excellent writing in 2011 came from Openfile's John McGrath, Torontoist's Hamutal Dotan, the Globe's John Lorinc, and the Toronto Star's Daniel Dale. In fact, one of the great things to come out of 2011 from Toronto politics was the great writing that appeared (I'm neglecting a bunch), a lot of which appeared online.  
Issues for 2012:
  • Budget
  • Collective Bargaining / Lockout
  • Ford's Transit Proposal
  • A proposal to cancel the five cent bag fee 
  • 25% reduction in Land Transfer Tax
  • A prolonged discussion on whether Ford will go to Pride and lots of guessing even though no one will really know anything, including Ford's inner circle. 
  • Port Lands follow up in June
  • TO Hydro sale in January
  • Whether any Ford allies will defect 

This unicorn chaser from Neville Park summarizes the Sheppard plan

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Save Transit City: The Website

Between reducing service while increasing fares, assuming at least a $65 million charge for canceling Transit City while dismissing the number as 'fictitious', making the TTC an essential service at what might cost another $25 million a year and canceling the Finch LRT to plan a fanciful unicorn subway line along Sheppard, transit is screwed up in Toronto. 

It's something that Matt Elliott writes about in detail over at his blog today, and is a sentiment that has had an increased crescendo in recent weeks as more news comes out on the transit file. 

Following up on this is Joe Drew, a Firefox developer who put together the website I sent Drew some questions by e-mail to further explain his website and where the conversation on transit needs to go:

Why is needed, and why now?
Transit City—and LRT in general—is the lowest-cost way of extending real rapid transit to the parts of Toronto that aren't served by the subway or the Scarborough RT. It's clear that Mayor Ford currently doesn't have any interest in reconsidering his cancellation of Transit City, but if there's one thing we can count on, it's that Mr. Ford listens to his constituents. 

We have to spread the word that the province had already paid for three full lines of rapid transit. The people who are left out of Mayor Ford's new plan—like those watching full buses pass them by on Finch West—are the people we need writing to (and calling) Mr. Ford. Spending three transit lines' worth of money on burying a single transit line makes no financial sense. 

And why now? I think the political and populous will is there now. $65 million, the price Mayor Ford imposed on Toronto by cancelling work already under way, is an awfully good motivator. I wish I'd started months ago, but I'm glad I started it now, because I think we can get real change now.

You announced your soft launch last night. What kind of response have you received?People are excited and very supportive. There are a lot of people who wanted to participate in the sort of action that I'm organizing. It takes a first mover to get something started, but once people start seeing flyers and posters around the city, I expect it to snowball.

There's been a lot of great feedback, too, and I'm going to implement most of that before going wider with my campaign. 

Why do you think Transit City failed to gain traction originally and how does this site fill that gap?
Transit City actually did have traction. The province had fully funded the construction of three lines, and in fact City Council voted in favour of Transit City three times, including (then-Councillor) Rob Ford.

I believe the current opposition stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Transit City as being "just streetcars" and somehow related to the St. Clair West reconstruction project. I hope that Save Transit City clears up both of these misunderstandings as it develops. 

For the average person who won't see transit websites, how can they get connected with this information? 
This is one of the most important parts of Save Transit City. I'm creating (and helping and encouraging others to create) posters and flyers to be distributed around the city. They'll inform and engage; I 
want people waiting in the cold to know that there was going to be a better way before Transit City was cancelled. 

I want those who think Mayor Ford only helps the city's budget to know that he wasted $65 
million without even bringing it to council for a vote.

These posters and flyers, and the awareness they bring, will get the citizens of Toronto to contact their Councillor and Mayor Ford demanding that Transit City be reinstated.

Is the original transit city plan politically viable? Is a compromise plan needed? 
Today's City Council is not fundamentally different from the City Council who voted in favour of Transit City. We have to tell our Councillors that we want solutions soon. 

Everyone wants a subway near 
their home, but it will take billions more dollars and many decades to build subways everywhere, and the first phase of Transit City would have been completed before 2020. (Sheppard East would have opened in 2014!) Subways also require a significantly denser population to justify their increased cost, and outside of Toronto's core, that population density just isn't there.

Rapid transit doesn't just mean subways, and LRT provides great rapid transit at a fraction of the cost of subways. Transit City is the right plan for Toronto, and it's time for Torontonians to start demanding our 
representatives put Transit City back on track.

Monday 12 December 2011

Library Board Meeting, December 12, 2011: Storify

The Port Lands consultation wasn't the only major city event happening at the Reference Library tonight as the Library Board discussed cutting 19,400 library hours, 300,000 items from collections, bookmobiles and literacy programs. 

Like the Port Lands meeting, I was unable to attend this due to illness but put together a Storify to track the meeting for posterity's sake. Pay special attention to Stephen Dulmage, who has emerged as one of the most hilarious secondary characters in the City Hall circus. 

Special credit goes to Patrick White (@nut_graf), David Nickle (@davidnickle) and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler (@adamcf) for their diligent reporting. 

Port Lands Consultation: Storify

Remember way back when, three months ago, when the city was caught up in its absurdist Port Lands drama? Yeah, crazy times. 

Part of the consensus agreement was to hold public consultations on the plan for the Port Lands, with special attention to 'accelerating' it. This will result in a report in June, and tonight was the first meeting. 

What continues to amaze is the depth of public understanding and enthusiasm for this issue. I'll let the Storify below tell the rest (may take 15 seconds to load):

Quick thoughts on deputations and attacks

Over at the Posted Panel, Goldsbie and Chris Selley discuss the nature of deputations and at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke Lucas Costello guest posts on how to make an effective deputation within the narrow constraints provided. I thought I'd pile on because I feel the deputation process is a telling site to understand the current administration and the engaged public's (mostly Ford critics) relationship to it. 

 During the budget committee meeting last week Doug Ford commented that this administration has 'conducted more public consultation than any administration in history.' Which may well be true for Toronto, but is a very different thing from listening to what the deputants have to say. 

 We know what to expect from these deputations now. Some are passionate and heartfelt, others informed and nuanced and there are some that are neither here nor there. Instead of the deputations being a place to understand where people are coming from, what their priorities are and how to make better policy decisions, it's about politicking. 

 But for Team Ford the politicking isn't just between them and the likes of Gord Perks, Shelley Carroll and Janet Davis. Instead this is extended to the general public that feels compelled to show up to share their views. 

This was on full display on Thursday morning, when Team Ford sent in Frances Nunziata and Giorgio Mammoliti to aggressively question and undermine the deputants. This tactic was borne out of a sense that the Mayor's team lost the message of the day before (they did) and would assertively take it back. It was a very Parliamentary dialogue in its worst sense, filled with ardent and weak attacks. 

Nunziata asked whether deputants would be willing to voluntarily pay more taxes on an individual basis, thus betraying her lack of understanding for what taxes really are. Mammoliti asked where deputants were from so as to dismiss their opinions if they happen to live downtown. Doug Ford offered commentary that essentially none of the deputants offered solutions, although what he really meant was that few offered solutions he personally agrees with. 

 This approach is a real shame too. The deputation process is in principle an excellent idea, but the fact that the administration sees the people who use it as part of the official opposition (and thus fair game for attack) is another sign of the cyncicism and means-to-an-end approach that underlies Team Ford. 

 On the other hand, the fact that 350 people sign up multiple times in spite of the fact they know they won't be listened to (in fact, actively undermined) speaks to the public valuing the deputation process much more than some politicians do, and it's heartening that there's that energy to protect it.

Thursday 8 December 2011

#topoliday in pictures

So a bunch of people came out yesterday for #topoliday, the city council gift exchange (see details in this post). Thanks to everyone who came out and all the thoughtful gifts people put time into. Here's an overview in pictures:
(@neville_park's photo) Some of the presents under the traditional #topoliday poinsetta. Exciting!

Mark and Erin, participating as a couple,  received Local Motion from @elcostello. It's a nice coincidence, because I think Mark has had his eye on the book for a while. Other books received for the book learnin' crowd included Animal Farm (trough feeders!), Crap at my Parents' House (waste!) and Napier's Bones (with math!) 
There was also lots of great creativity. @chaicube provided this framed sketch of his worship, complete with fridge magnet and business card for those pesky emergencies. 
Apparently #topolidayers recognize the need to wean off teatsucking, and thus provided each other with drinking implements. The one above (or one like it) was a nice 'stay the course' reference, while a slick looking CBC rainbow mug and thermos were also given. You know what goes along well with those mugs? Tim Horton's shirts, which were also gifted.
#topoliday was open invitation, so anyone could participate. Shelley Carroll joined us and baked these cookies for a lucky recipient. 
Don't know who Shelley Carroll is? Then you might find my humble contribution educational. If you liked the childhood game Guess Who and you like city council, then it's for you. (It will be available for play during today's deputations in Committee Room 2).

@elcostello looks slightly bewildered at receiving a children's board game. Photo by Hamutal Dotan/Torontoist 
Like the deputations for the day, the #topoliday gift exchange skewed to the left. So @neville_park thoughtfully gave this handmade "Lefty Pinko Toolkit", complete with union wages grabbed from taxpayers and a handcrafted Toronto Star notebook. Also, she has very nice writing. Photo by Goldsbie

Included in the Pinko Toolkit were those socialist Spacing buttons. They were a popular gift, with three different people receiving some, including Shelley Carroll who says her husband has been wanting them for a while. In other news, I hear Matt Blackett will  buy a hummer tomorrow. 
Of course, all of this #topoliday nonsense was made possible through Twitter, so it makes sense to have a Twitter-related gift.  @pcalith gave @lindsaysjunk winter gloves (different than shown) with conductive thread sewn into them. The special thread means that gloves will not have to be taken off when checking Twitter out in the cold. First world problem: solved. 
Also given: Toronto themed prints, candy and one or two things I'm forgetting.

In sum, people can be thoughtful, generous and awesome. Having those same people watching City Hall is pretty heartening, as they are qualities that make it a better place for everyone. 

Thanks to all who participated: @ivanvector, @madhattressto, @lindsaysjunk, @elcostello, @paisleyrae, @pcalith, @lifeonqueen, @electricland, @chaicube, @ddemchuk, @shelleycarroll, @davisvillehabit, @eldolmago, @shelleycarroll, @simonm223, @cityslikr, @leahbobet, @b_eaton and a special thanks to @neville_park, whose enthusiasm helped make this happen. If I'm forgetting anyone, my apologies. 

Monday 5 December 2011

The Budget Question and Answer Segment

So since this budget has been launched some people I run into have been asking me some general questions about it. It's easy to get details confused by hearing snippets in the news here and there, so if you need to catch up this question and answer segment with an imaginary Ford supporter is for you. 

So I heard about this budget and it doesn’t sound that bad. After all, with a few cuts the $774 million deficit is taken care of. That’s good right?
The $774 was never the real number, it was the opening budgetary pressure. As this Wellesely Institute chart shows, this opening pressure is similar to the number for each of the past five years. The difference is that the previous administration chose not to publicize the opening number because they didn’t want to alarm the public. This administration chose a different approach for strategic purposes.
From the Budget Committee via the Wellesley Institute Countdown to Zero Report

Well the Miller years used lots of scare tactics too, like threatening to mothball the Sheppard subway line.
OK, this ‘but Miller did it’ argument is pretty intellectually shallow. Weren’t those the tactics Ford decried in the campaign? Miller was wrong to use those tactics and so is Ford.  

But the point is, the Ford proposal balances the budget. We can all be proud of that.
I suppose. That’s a pretty low standard though; the city is legally required to balance its operating budget each year and has always done so.

OK, point taken. But the Mayor said he found $355 million in savings and efficiencies. That’s impressive.
It might be if it was true. The Mayor gets that number by adding up all his service cuts, layoffs, unfilled vacancies and projected budget adjustments. It’s the latter that is crucial. The ‘savings and efficiencies’- service cuts, really- total $88 million and the balance ($267 million) are adjustments to previous budget estimates.

That is, they aren’t real savings at all. They are either more accurate (downward) budget projections or service cuts.   

That sounds a bit different. But Ford inherited an awful mess and clearly he’s doing the best anyone can expect.
Rob Ford inherited a $346 million surplus from David Miller. As Edward Keenan explains nicely in this piece, Ford used the surplus last year to pass tax break goodies. He cancelled the $60 vehicle registration tax that generates $60 million, and froze property taxes and TTC fares. Since the latter two need to rise with inflation to have the same value, these were decreases in real terms. If those items rose with inflation and the VRT was kept, they would have generated $300 million over two budgets.

Not only that, but Ford is balancing this year’s budget with an extra $83 million leftover from last year’s surplus. What it adds up to is a healthy financial cushion that Miller had built up and Ford took advantage of in a one-time binge last year without planning for this year.

Put another way, Matt Elliott has a chart on the subject. Everyone likes pictures. 

Well at least Ford is making those necessary cuts that Miller was afraid to do. That takes courage and conviction.
Also keep in mind that thing about ‘no service cuts...guaranteed.’ To break that promise requires- how shall we say- moral flexibility. But further to the point, these cuts are not necessary. After inflation-level increases on property taxes and TTC fares the budget generates a $139 million surplus while the total cuts are $88 million. So Ford could keep his zero service cuts promise (aside from the Urban Affairs library) and still have a surplus to put in reserves.

OK, but Ford also promised to avoid touching those one time unsustainable surpluses to fund the city’s business, and that’s what he’s saying here.
It’s curious how he uses that argument to justify the service cuts he wants but neglected it when funding his tax cuts, isn’t it?

Oh, and in that same budget last year, Speaker Frances Nunziata was instructed by the Ford Team to forbid any mention of planning for this budget. So all of this ‘planning and prudence’ rhetoric is a bit rich.

Point taken. But the cuts aren’t all that bad. I mean earlier we were talking about closing libraries or bus routes full time and shutting down tons of wading pools, but it’s only a handful.
Ah yes, the ‘well this could have been worse’ argument, ably analyzed by Cityslikr over at his blog. First of all, I guess how bad the cuts are depends on who you are. If you’re a minimum wage worker who relies on the already crowded Dufferin and Finch buses you’ll be paying more for what will somehow be worse in time and crowding. That 'well this could have been worse' argument probably doesn't feel that great. Or if you live near one of those libraries that have 12 hours cut a week, that might be some quality time reading to your son or daughter that you lose. And while no libraries will be shut down like last year, 20,000 hours will be cut which is the equivalent to the 9 smallest libraries closing full-time. Not only that but there will be 150 fewer staff members compared to last year, a number that the chief librarian has referred to as unsafe for current programming levels. Or there’s the wheel trans service if you have dialysis, the wading and swimming pools, the nutrition programs that serve 14,049 kids, the drug prevention programs...

I get it, I get it. And my heart bleeds for all these cuts, it really does, but shouldn’t a lot of those be the province’s responsibility? I mean, we’re just doing what’s right for Toronto.
Yeah, that’s a fair argument to make. Things like certain pools should be covered by the school board and social programs like shelters for the homeless should be funded by the province. That’s a debate worth having. For now, I’d feel more comfortable maintaining those programs while negotiating with the province. Our primary responsibility is to our citizens, not our budget.

I wouldn’t quite phrase it that way, but agree to disagree. But one thing that really gets me going is this property tax hike. And the TTC too. This is awful, and I can’t believe Ford broke his promise.
Not quite- Ford never promised no tax increases. As Dylan Reid explained a couple years ago in a must-read Spacing article, property taxes are only an increase in real terms when they go above the rate of inflation. And 2.5% is a reasonable estimate for the rate (in fact last year was an unusually high 2.9%). As for the TTC fare increase, between labour, fuel and infrastructure maintenance, the TTC’s budget increases above the rate of inflation each year and this really can’t be controlled. A 10 cent fare increase just maintains the inflation rate and if we wanted flat fares we would have to triple the proposed TTC cuts. It’s unfortunate that service has to be cut while enacting a fare increase, and that’s something that I strongly disagree with. Based on this Grid interview with the TTC’s Chris Upfold, I’m guessing some TTC brass do too. 

Well I support the Ford layoffs. I mean, that’s something that’s long overdue. We have more employees than at amalgamation and a lot of them are deadwood. Good riddance.
Any large bureaucracy- including the private sector- has de-motivated or underused employees that could move on. But make no mistake, these layoffs will have an impact on service. In particular, the Fire department is already running behind expected times by two minutes, street cleaning will be impacted although that was a campaign priority of Ford and parks will see a dramatic reduction. For more, read Matt Elliott’s post debunking the idea that the city has an out-of-control employee count across the board. 

Well according to Ford’s presentation 54% of the growth since amalgamation belongs to Police, EMS and Fire. So there’s redundancies there.
It’s a lot harder than it seems. The fire department has dangerously low levels, with fewer employed than at amalgamation. EMS has increased their headcount by 150 the past 13 years but their response times are poor. The overwhelming amount of this growth has come from the police department (the budget has almost doubled in this time period), which Ford proved unable to cut this year. It’s with good reason too; the province mandates a certain level of police officers and provides money for each position. With 85% of the budget tied up in labour costs, it’s impossible to make a dent in the budget without impacting the front lines. When Bill Blair said he would have to fire 1,000 officers (just under 20% of the force) to meet Ford’s arbitrary 10% target, he wasn’t kidding.   

OK, but at least Ford is doing what he can. He leads by example, cutting his own office budget and all those silly little perks councillors get.
That’s true, he has cut his office budget. But when we get down to this level, it’s really just symbolism. It’s nice to take a close and critical eye at each budget line but with an operating budget close to $10 billion cutting snacks for councillors is pretty meaningless.

OK wiseguy, what bright ideas do you have?
Well Jack Diamond of Diamond + Schmitt Architects has a nice column in the Globe arguing for re-zoning parking lots to encourage better planning and improving economic development. It’s something that would give more developers more flexibility, make land more valuable and discourage car dependence (which also means decreasing congestion).

Toronto has a much lower rate for development charges than other areas $9,000 compared to $29,000 in Oakville, for instance. This is due to how the provincial formula is calculated which I’m going to investigate in a future piece, mainly because I don't get it. But it sounds like there’s room to change it there.

Also, that deluxe leaf pickup and windrow clearing sounds suspiciously like gravy.

But mainly, we need to look at alternative revenue sources in conjunction with the province, ensure they upload the services they promised to and push hard on 50/50 subsidies for TTC operations like we used to have.

OK, so let me get this straight. Rob Ford inherited a massive surplus last year, spent it all on tax cuts while not allowing people to talk about next year, has another smaller surplus this year that would still cover all services but insists on not touching it this time while having service cuts or eliminating entire programs for the TTC, libraries, the arts, programs for children, youth, seniors, the homeless, people with AIDS and HIV, 2300 fewer city workers, less street cleaning and snow clearing and dramatically decreased budgets to all city departments except the police and planning?
Um, yeah.

Where can I learn more about the budget and how can I participate?
The city website is a great place to start. This has all of the documents you need to go through.  In particular, make your way through the analyst notes on the 2012 operating budget.  If you want to compare to previous years, just change the year in the address bar.

Also, go to the budget meetings on Wednesday and Thursday at City Hall. There should be lots of people there from 9:30 AM- 9:30 PM both days. Sign up here by Tuesday at 4:00 to make a deputation by e-mailing the address in the top right. If you do so, direct your remarks towards Chin Lee, Michelle Berardinetti, Frank Di Giorgio and John Parker. These are the more moderate councillors who are relatively open-minded.

Also, follow the #topoli hashtag on Twitter, Matt Elliott’s blog Ford For Toronto, Cityslikr’s All Fired Up in the Big Smoke blog, the Openfile, Torontoist and Spacing coverage and the reporters from the four dailies. There’s some other great blogs and columns out there, but I can’t list everything.

Also, e-mail or call your councillor- you can find out who they are here. Ask them questions, develop a more informed opinion, offer suggestions. (You can check out how they vote by looking at Matt Elliott's awesome scorecard here.)  In particular, speak with councillors' Executive Assistants. They can offer really good suggestions for what you can do and any one of them worth their salt should get back within 24 hours. If you want to speak on specific issues within the budget, they can point you in the right direction. 

For particular issues, some councillors are more helpful than others. A quick rundown:

General budget questions: Shelley Carroll and Gord Perks probably have the best understanding of the budget's intricacies on Council. Both answer Twitter questions regularly (@shelleycarroll and @gordperks) and are approachable and accessible at City Hall. 

Arts: Recently swing vote Gloria Lindsay Luby introduced a 20,000 strong arts petition at council and Jaye Robinson (@jayerobinson), another crucial swing vote, is also a supporter. Most any defense of arts programs for council votes needs them behind it. 

Wading Pools and Pools: Swing votes Josh Matlow (@joshmatlow) and James Pasternak (@jamespasternak) were both vocal in support of funding for TDSB pools as trustees, Matlow saying that confronting the issue motivated him to run for council. 

Children's Nutrition Programs, other programs for children: Janet Davis (@janet_davis) and Kristyn Wong-Tam (@kristynwongtam) are both on top of these issues, Davis in particular. Josh Matlow and Michelle Berardinetti (@councillorMB) are the point people defending the Toronto Youth Cabinet. 

Libraries: Libraries will probably have a lot of changes in their reductions between now and the final budget. For now, library board member Jaye Robinson will play a key role. She's a defender of libraries and also a supporter of increased corporate sponsorship. 

TTC: This impacts pretty much everyone, so it makes sense to focus on your region. If you live in North York, tell swing vote James Pasternak how you feel about the Finch bus whereas if you live in midtown contact swing vote Josh Colle to discuss the Eglinton service. If you need background, get in touch with opposition Councillor Joe Mihevc, who I'm sure would be happy to share his thoughts on the TTC and who to speak to. 

Layoffs: Ask your local councillor how this will impact services in the area and what strategies are being used to maintain service. 

With that, I hope you understand the budget slightly better.  

More questions? Criticisms? Leave a comment. 

Friday 2 December 2011

The #topoliday gift exchange

For all those fears that Rob Ford would be bad for Toronto's culture, he has certainly strengthened City Hall's culture and engagement. As Goldsbie tweeted recently, as recently as a year ago or so it would be just him and one other person watching Council. 

But now it's not, as anyone following the #topoli hashtag on Twitter can see. While this online exchange is nice, so too is an in-person one. And so I am putting the idea out there to have a #topoliday gift exchange at 6:30 the evening of December 7 when the budget committee will be hearing deputations. 

Essentially, bring a gift and get a gift and meet all of your favourite #topoli watchers in one place. Budget time is a stressful time of year, so kick back and be merry, if only for a little while. 

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • If you bring a gift you'll get a gift. There will be no assignments in advance, just putting all the gifts in a pile and people can choose the one they want one by one. 
  • Anyone and everyone is encouraged to participate, such as Twitter commentators, media, coucillors/staffers and assorted characters. This includes Sattva, Sue-Ann Levy, Giorgio and City Raccoon. 
  • All gifts must have their total cost under $15. An arbitrary number? Yes. But hey, it's the budget meeting. 
  • #topoli themed gifts are encouraged. If you would like to give a tin of cookies decorated like Denzil Minnan-Wong, then go for it. 
  • UPDATE: We'll meet in committee room 2. Be there.  
  • The more people you recruit for this the better. That friend of yours who thinks politics can't be fun and interesting? Yeah, bring him or her. 
See you on December 7. 

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Council Snack (sized news)- Photoshop Edition

Reddit had lots of fun with its Ford photoshop challenge. 
City Hall may have banned council snacks for its elected officials, but that doesn't mean us plebians should suffer. So here are your City Hall (news) snacks for Day 2 of the November session:

The big news of the day is the information coming out on the previously announced layoffs. Sue-Ann Levy feels the elimination of 2,338 positions including 1,190 firings is overdue, citing the struggles in the auto sector and media over the past few years as a parallel. If you follow that logic, you probably don't read this blog anyway. For bonus fun, see if you can find the glaring error/typo in her article (which has been part of the article for far too long). 

These layoffs and vacancies will have a direct impact on service and that's particularly bad for a mayor who has promised to improve 'customer service' so much. When they change the dispatch target times for emergency personnel and have a looming crisis with a firefighter shortage you're prioritizing your numbers over reality (more on this later).

Now also might be a useful time to remind Rob Ford of his campaign promise for no layoffs

In response, Adam Vaughan said these cuts are entirely avoidable and represent voodoo economics being driven not by reality but ideology. 

The other big news of the day was the proposal for a private-public partnership on the Eglinton crosstown LRT. There would be no problem for that on the construction side, but this includes looking at the operational side too. That is, that a private company would run the Eglinton line while the TTC would be publicly run. This sounds like it would have a lot of problems (Same pricing? Tickets? How to transfer? What about standards for employees?) It might also be worth mentioning that Ford's top strategist and policy adviser argued on his personal blog during the campaign to sell the TTC entirely.

Late last night the Toronto Star's chairman announced via an editorial that the paper intends to lodge a complaint with the integrity commissioner for the mayor's refusal to include them on press briefings and notifications of conferences. As they should. The administration's Star freezeout is juvenile, embarrassing and wrong. In spite of this, the Star provides the best coverage of City Hall of the four dailies and good on them for it. 

At council there were some key items. Most notable was a late-night vote to sell Enwave, which passed handily. It's a profitable city-owned enterprise but it makes sense to sell it. It's well positioned for growth but is under-capitalized, making it a good opportunity for an outside investor. Additionally, further expansion could help with providing strong environmental options for downtown tower energy use. The debate for Toronto Hydro is a different story and that will come up in January. 

There was debate on the city's naming rights policy and there are significant changes to it. Most importantly, city staff have discretion for naming rights on contracts up to $500,000 whereas previously it was a tenth of that, $50,000. Little to no naming rights go for more than $500,000 so it looked like it was intended to be a way for the Mayor's office to take power from council by having 'staff' make all the decisions. 

But a motion from Paul Ainslie nixed that and likely unintentionally. His motion expands the policy to city agencies, boards and committees, meaning that they will eventually go to Council. We all know from Ainslie's Twitter account how much he loves corporate ads, so this has to be unintentional. But there were some bad items too. Adam Vaughan motions to not sell sponsorship targeted towards children (a position Public Health supports) and not selling naming rights on heritage properties both failed. 

Mary Margaret McMahon's motion to allow backyard hens was referred to the Licensing and Standards Committee meeting on January 25, where I'm guessing it will be voted down. Twitter produced many successful puns on the subject though.

Council also voted to support sideguards on trucks in principle. I say in principle because they have no authority on this. Rob Ford was one of three votes against. Ford was also one of three votes against another Lawrence Heights project vote. 

My vote for worst vote of the day goes to Denzil Minnan-Wong, who was the sole vote against receiving a petition from 20,000 people in support of arts funding. Voting against receiving a petition? What the fuck is that? 

I don't really give many hat tips to Speakers Frances Nunziata and John Parker because they have been aggressively partisan in their rulings and the former consistently loses control and or track of the meeting. But both rightly admonished Ford ally Giorgio Mammoliti for abusing points of order and unfairly berating staff for not producing a document on short notice (Layton was criticized for this yesterday). So good on them. 

And good on Giorgio Mammoliti (weird sentence is weird). After a couple councillors, particularly Gloria Lindsay Luby, worried that some street names might be 'too ethnic' for people to pronounce, Mammoliti hammered this argument. To paraphrase, he argued: This is who we are and if these people are part of our history then they deserve to be represented. Have trouble pronouncing their names? Then learn them. Failing that is a slap in the face to immigrants. 

I don't get to write this much so I will- right on, Giorgio.  

I don't follow the theatre community, but I'm told a big-name producer was in attendance this morning and is looking at doing a production based on City Hall, which is great theatre in and of itself. It sounds good if this is better than the reportedly lousy fringe plays produced on Ford this past summer. Goldsbie, Nicholas Hune-Brown and Cityslikr are all much bigger theatre buffs than myself and seemed excited.

Over at Reddit, the hivemind went to work on photoshopping our Worship in a thread that has more than 500 comments and the results are pretty great. I posted my favourites on Twitter, but here they are again

Council Snack-sized News

Photo from Xtra (Andrea Houston?)
So some news and notes in bite size format for you council watchers on the go:

Adrienne Batra is leaving the Ford Team to join the Ford cheerleaders at the Sun comment page, Newstalk and filling in on SUN TV. Really, it's a logical fit for her (she's written for Sun Media before) and she's done a pretty good job as Ford's media handler. Doing that job for a year- and another year on the campaign- would be some of the toughest media work around and she's lasted as long as you could expect someone to. I'm also told that when she's not cutting off questions mid-sentence she's a really nice person. So while I look forward to criticizing future Sun editorials, good for her. 

Yesterday was day one of the council meeting where they predictably defended community environment days. What's notable about it is this charge was led by conservative Ford ally David Shiner, who proposed keeping them at a reduced cost. Denzil Minnan-Wong, Shiner's Public Works colleague, argued against this and Shiner probed for areas of compromise as Josh Matlow solemnly nodded his head behind the two of them. The fact that Shiner has been coming across as the reasonable one lately (on Public Works and here) due to the prominence of the likes of Minnan-Wong in this administration? Amazing. 

Remember how the Mayor was going to stick up for the little guy and stop the nonsense at City Hall? Yesterday councillors discussed the water and trash budget. In the water budget, councillors voted to give high corporate water use and polluters a break in the morning. In the afternoon? They voted to have non-profits, churches and the like pay for garbage collection so the city can collect $2.9 million. If this sounds like exactly the opposite of Ford's rhetoric, then you're reading it correctly. 

On the subject of corporate water use, Norm Kelly asked council why they would want to confuse an environmental and economic issue. Oh Norm. 

But what council meeting would be complete without Norm Kelly's monthly Contrarian Book Club Recommendation? This month you're assigned to read Thomas Sowell, the libertarian economist and social critic who doesn't really like multiculturalism. He also once compared Obama to Hitler, so there's that too. 

As for this morning, you know that Lawrence Heights revitalization project? It passed another vote, 27-3. The three votes against with the two Fords and James Pasternak. I'd love to know what Pasternak was thinking. 

Last night Mike Del Grande criticized the library for carrying popular movies, 'like Pirates of the Caribbean' and carrying items in languages other than English. I get that Del Grande really cares about keeping costs down, but I'm pretty happy that my library system serves diverse communities and doesn't act in an overly prescriptivist way. I'd also point out that one of the library's most popular items are Hindi movies, which are 1) not books and 2) not English. 

Lastly, Edward Keenan and a revitalized Royson James both have outstanding columns on the tomfoolery in the city budget for The Grid and Star. I'll be getting back to these columns for a future post. 

Monday 28 November 2011

Merry Budgetmas!

One of the most important days in the Ford administration arrived with Budgetmas 2012. Since Ford insisted on going through the budget line by line (as he should!), I thought I would follow suit by parsing his speech line by line. 

Rob Ford led off with a speech that grounded the authority of the budget in his election mandate and the desires of the public. Here is half of the first three minutes of that speech:
13 months ago I was elected with a very clear mandate: to make respect for taxpayers a core value at City Hall. The people of Toronto have been crystal clear about what they want. First and foremost, they want us to stop the wasteful spending, to reduce city expenses and hold the line on taxes... The 2011 budget process included more public consultation than any previous budget ever has. We continued that consultation over the summer. We held eight public meetings. We heard from over 1200 people at consultation sessions. More than 13,000 people responded to the service review survey. Committees and council held more than 100 hours of debate and heard over 600 deputants.
Ford is right to invoke the nature of his mandate, and certainly respect for taxpayers was part of that. Part of what 'respect' meant, according to his platform was transparency and consultation (campaign promises 7, 10 and 12) and a guarantee that services would not be cut. Those promises were pretty clear, but they're not what we have. Ford cites in-depth public consultation as a validation for the budget, but his version of consultation was only a token gesture.

After all, the committee meetings were designed to limit feedback (and had absurdly low time limits) and the 13,000 responses to the Service Review were dismissed by staunch Ford ally Denzil Minnan-Wong as 'statistically invalid'. This makes sense that he would respond this way, as the results from the survey and deputations were not what they wanted. But when Ford cites consultation as a grounding and validation for and of his budget, that's disrespectful to the vast majority of people who turned up to support the preservation of city services. The backbone of this budget wasn't found in the Ford promises of consultation and transparency, but through misinformation and political gamesmanship, as Hamutal Dotan details in this excellent Torontoist editorital. This spin was present in Ford's speech too.
In fact, folks, for the first time ever we will spend less this year that we did last year. That is unheard of. But that is exactly what the taxpayers demanded and that's what we can deliver with this budget. Through our core service review and modest service level adjustments we have found $355 million in savings this year...that $355 million is more than the amount of one time money we used last year.
As John McGrath points out on Twitter this morning, spending may have went down this year but the taxes collected went up. So pitching this as a great deal for taxpayers really only looks at one side of the equation. And Ford is right that citizens did ask for a halt to city spending, just like on the other side of the equation he promised no service cuts. But he's not right on other items in this statement. 

For instance, the $355 million number he cites is completely fictitious. This number is not arrived at through the core service review and modest service level adjustments, but because conservative staff estimates for various budget lines have been adjusted. The rest of the savings come from $88 million in cuts that people did not demand or are not modest. These include:
  • A deferral of hiring Fire department staff for the year in spite of a new report that indicates the department responds two minutes slower than the standard. Additionally, the fire department has 7 fewer employees than they did at amalgamation.
  • A reduction in service on 62 bus lines, including some of the city's busiest. This includes more crowding and is accompanied by a fare increase and excluding dialysis patients from using Wheel Trans. Hardly the customer service the mayor promised.
  • A reduction of 20,000 library hours (the equivalent of closing 9 libraries full time) and 160 fewer library staff (100 through attrition). Importantly, City Librarian Jane Pyper has indicated firing 60 staff would result in more program reductions or cause safety concerns.  
  • A reduction in street cleaning and snow shoveling. Hardly the clean city Ford made a priority in his campaign. 
  • The elimination of 5 wading pools and 2 outdoor pools that the mayor will not specify. The fact that these won't be specified is the most galling point; it's the way they'll be shut them down to prevent any response from the impacted communities.
  • Eliminating 3 homeless shelters, 58 nutrition programs, more than 100 arts programs, 2-3 AIDS programs, 3 drug prevention programs and the WinterCity programs. 
  • Reducing spending on roads, public health and municipal licensing by more than 5% each. This is basically the stuff that Ford says is integral to a well-functioning city and it is hit hardest. 
This does not include the proposed 2300 fewer city employees which will mean other service decreases. But Ford is firmly proud of this budget, offering it as a respectful and prudent way forward:
We have begun a process that will reduce the size and cost of government to a sustainable level. We made huge strides in re-building our fiscal foundation. Folks, it wasn't easy to get here. 
 Ford points to Miller as the reason why he has to make these tough decisions, but Ford was responsible for last year's budget. Consider that if Ford had kept the Vehicle Registration Tax (after all, he says the city has little money) and implemented an inflation-based tax increase (which would make it a freeze in real terms) then the city would have $250 million more over the past two years. In other words, all of these cuts (plus the Urban Affairs Library) are completely avoidable.

Not only are they avoidable from last year's Rob Ford decisions, they're avoidable this year too. The proposed efficiencies cuts total $88 million (not that phony $355 million number), but they propose not using any of the $138 million surplus. So the surplus could pay for everything- balanced budget FTW!- and the conversation could be about how we plan for the future and which programs are no longer effective.

Instead, as Robyn Doolittle details in this article on background from what every City Hall watcher assumes is Nick Kouvalis, the choice is to scorch the earth of the fiscal foundation to force changes in government. You know, screw those libraries and transit users, we have an ideology! It's also worth remembering that around this time last year Speaker Nunziata forbade mention of this year's budget in deliberations to prevent any planning for it. So to put this on David Miller is pretty rich.

In other words, with the David Miller surplus, maintaining fiscal tools and having a flat, inflation-based budget this would have been one of the easiest budgets since almagamation with plenty of money leftover to pay down more debt and put in reserves.
We were faced with closing over 35 wading pools. Instead, we have closed just 5. And they are underused and require expensive capital improvements. We are leaving over 100 wading pools functional and in operation. We faced the possibility of closing libraries to save money for childcare or emergency services. Instead, we managed to avoid library closures but we need to find efficiencies in the library system. We were faced with the prospect of raising taxes 34% to fill the $774 million hole that we inherited. But we have been able to keep our property tax this year to a manageable 2.5%
I won't belabour this part too much because Cityslikr already covered it in a Torontoist article. But suffice it to say these are false dichotomies presented to make people feel good about closing only 5 wading pools, even though no one really talked about closing 35. And the Ford Team must be financial wizards if they turned a potential 34% increase into 2.5%, even though that was always going to be the number. In other words, nothing about this is based on hard work or tough decisions. It's based on a false choices and an ideology that will invariably choose service cuts over revenue increases, making decisions easy.

It's worth remembering Rob Ford's campaign promises too. (Here was his budget proposal during the campaign)

It promised an $850 million surplus in its first two years (from gravy) and no service cuts. So by Ford's own promises, he has failed to deliver. Instead, he has treated citizens with overwhelming disrespect. He was elected on a platform of a 'voice for the people' yet ignores the feedback they give. He was elected in part because of his non-politician stance, yet he plays semantics to avoid calling cuts what they really are. He promised to offer citizens real choices, but he's only ever offered one, his own. 

Earlier I wrote that budgets are a reflection of who we are. It's true of Rob Ford's administration too. This budget wrongly grounds itself in the popularity and authority of the public, undermines the city's services, frames false choices and ignores promises.

On balance, it's exactly who we thought Rob Ford was.