Thursday 29 September 2011

Snapshot of a Council in Flux

Peter Power / GLOBE AND MAIL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 26 September 2011

Tracking Rob Ford's Arguments in Council

It’s tough to keep up with the Team Ford claims at City Hall, but it’s necessary. Smart policy can’t be made when the discourse is flooded with murky misrepresentations or poor policy, so filtering those out is a helpful task.

This morning Mayor Ford spoke at Council and thus took follow-up questions from councillors. It may have been his worst performance on the floor of Council as mayor. He was constantly defensive and there was noticeable anger bubbling. Importantly, there were no outbursts.
Photo of today's City Council meeting by Jeremy Kai

There were, however, many misrepresentations or contradictory messages, well covered by people on Twitter (you know who you are). Among those messages:

  • Ford said he was following the wishes of people who tell him to ‘stay the course’. Challenged on this, he was asked about his poll numbers and said that the last Toronto Sun poll had his approval at 72%. This poll is hardly relevant today as it was done in April.

  • Anthony Peruzza asked about the $49 million (expected) cancellation fee from Transit City. Ford began to talk about the right of way streetcar on St. Clair, saying that it was a failure. This project was not a part of Transit City although the right of way is similar to various lines.

  • In the same segment where he bemoaned the financial straits of the city and the structural deficit, Ford insisted the land transfer tax (which brings in close to $300 million) is ‘one we don’t need’.

  • Gloria Lindsay Luby, who normally doesn’t speak much at council, challenged Ford on the land transfer tax, pointing out that Toronto has had the hottest real estate market in North America despite the tax. Ford said that’s irrelevant, it still hurts the market.

  • Ford claimed ‘he gave the police a raise when no one said it could be done’. No one claimed this. (If someone can correct me in the comments, please do).

  • Ford argued that the city should increasingly rely on a user fee model. Mike Layton asked him to define ‘user fees’ and then applied his definition to the vehicle registration tax. Ford insisted his definition of ‘fees paid by individuals who use the service’ didn’t apply (arguing if the money went to road repair it might).

  • Ford cited the Toronto Sun (and Denzil Minnan-Wong) when discussing ‘gravy’, pointing to overtime paid by various departments. The City Manager later said this overtime was largely because of the G20. Additionally, the other option to overtime while maintaining service levels would be more costly- to hire more employees.

The Unfortunate Four Year Campaign

Over at Ford For Toronto, Matt Elliott has a typically good blog post in which he explores the limited effectiveness of the mayor’s office in messaging, strategy and governance. He writes:

But the people he needs to craft that message appear not to have the capacity to do so….If the mayor needs an example of why cutting staff or resources from a department might be a bad thing, he’s got one viewable from his own desk.
Elliott argues that the difficulty his office has had in governance is largely self-inflicted from a lack of staffing, and I’d agree. To that I’d add something else, and that’s the modality of campaigning versus governing.
For starters, I think it’s safe to say that Ford is better at campaigning than governing. Ford was particularly effective at getting people to buy into abstract ideas like “the gravy train”, “the size and cost of government” and “respect for taxpayers”. However, when in governance those abstract concepts must become specific. When you ask someone ‘do you support reducing the size and cost of government’ you’ll get a different answer than asking ‘do you support eliminating 2000 daycare spaces, reducing affordable housing and library hours’. When in a campaign format, you can stick to the larger ideas and themes to create a narrative. When governing, the questions become re-framed.
Ford’s Core Service Review has retained the trappings of a campaign out of necessity. Simply put, as the CUPE 79 poll showed, the proposed cuts aren’t popular and to pass them they need to be kept in abstract terms.
On the floor of council and in media addresses Ford still uses the same stump speech he used on the campaign, invoking the ‘mess of the previous regime’, ‘the out of control spending problem’ and ‘unfair Toronto land transfer tax’. While this is enough to satisfy the demands of campaigning, it is not enough for governing. The most damning thing is Team Ford boxed themselves into this corner through their conduct of the Core Service Review.
The gambit for the Core Service Review was to not commit to anything until necessary. This leaves all options on the table to see what could viably be cut from a political perspective.
The problem is that this engages all constituencies. Whereas previous issues (the TCHC board, outsourcing garbage collection, Jarvis bike lanes) only engaged small, individual constituencies, the Core Service Review impacts everyone. Naturally, these groups and the media demanded more specifics and the results weren’t good.
If you’re going to insist on waging a campaign on cutting city services, you have to convince people you’re doing it in a mindful, thorough and prudent manner. This was not the case. Sticking to the abstraction of ideology, Team Ford pursued cuts without understanding the impact of revenue or how citizen’s value those services.
Moreover, they reveled in this process. This was seen most clearly in Doug Ford’s initial assault on the Toronto Public Library system. A well used and respected resource, the TPL is often referred to as the ‘crown jewel’ of the city. Yet Ford went about criticizing the number of libraries (and falsely bemoaning the number of Tim Horton’s) and engaging in a ridiculous war of words with Margaret Atwood. He even suggested a library in his own ward was unneeded.
If the libraries could be attacked then any service, no matter how well respected or run, was under threat. The mayor, his council allies and staff failed to sell the public on the idea they conducted their due process with an open mind, understood the concerns of critics and articulated their message through an acknowledgment that these are difficult decisions that must be made.
Everyone is still on high alert. It’s seen in children being brought to council last Thursday to highlight the need for affordable childcare to the various organizing groups coordinating people at City Hall today. The proposals are still vague- when the motion to eliminate the lowest performing museums comes up, no one knows which museums those are. No one knows what the ‘where possible’ in the motion to reduce paid duty police officers means. No one knows how much money each recommendation would save, although taken altogether it might be $30 million (or 0.3% of the budget).
The failure of the Core Service Review- which Mayor Ford referred to today as an ‘excellent exercise’- is an indictment of governance.
By not changing the mode of operation through an understanding of changing context and needs Team Ford has guaranteed itself and Toronto self-inflicted wounds. Governance is more than rhetoric, it’s the real stuff of getting things done. It’s hard work through relationship management, smart policy and leadership.
Today we see the consequences of an administration that governs with the forethought, policy abstraction and combativeness of a campaign. These consequences are severe: a city at odds with itself, distrustful of its institutions and anxiously lurching from crisis to crisis.

Thursday 22 September 2011

My Second Favourite Vote From Yesterday's Council Meeting

The logical thing to write about today would be the landmark Waterfront defeat of Ford’s agenda but since I’ve already written my first thoughts I’ll move on to my second favourite vote of the day. Before getting to what that is, some context is needed.

There are some regular criticisms of City Council’s left that are agreed to by many: they have no solutions, only want to pick fights and revel in opposition. Doug Ford alluded to some of these criticisms when he called in to Josh Matlow’s radio show last Sunday, “I get bullied by Adam Vaughan, Janet Davis and Gord Perks,” he said. “Rob could come out and say he had the cure for cancer and the left would come out criticizing him”. Matlow somewhat agreed, saying there are some individuals that wouldn’t agree with the mayor no matter what he did.

Matlow’s response is an important distinction. ‘The left’ is not a monolithic voting bloc that thinks the same way (as with the right wing of council). Adam Vaughan is not Shelley Carroll and she is not Mike Layton. Council is filled with very different personalities and one of these that diverge from the Ford caricature of the left is Kristyn Wong-Tam.
Toronto Life/JoeyS4B

Rookie councillor Wong-Tam (read more about her in this excellent Toronto Standard profile ) has acquitted herself as one of the hardest-working councillors and through that has offered workable solutions. She has put together proposals in conjunction with the local BIA to revitalize Yonge and Dundas north to Gerard and was working on a plan to develop Jarvis into a cultural corridor before the bike lanes were unceremoniously cancelled.

It is the latter case where Wong-Tam was first undermined by Denzil Minnan-Wong. The chair of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, Minnan-Wong spearheaded the removal of the Jarvis bike lanes that was done without notice to local councillor Wong-Tam or community consultation.

Two weeks ago it happened again. Minnan-Wong, once again without notice to Wong-Tam, put forward a proposal to study the Yonge-Dundas pedestrian scramble. She stated she was okay with the idea of looking at it (even though it means it’s clearly under threat) but was again frustrated with ulterior motives and the lack of notice to her (giving notice to the local councillor is considered proper etiquette). Minnan-Wong responded in an interview with the Toronto Star that described him as dismissively saying with a smile, “A-gain? Poor Kristyn.” and on Metro Morning argued that Wong-Tam’s objections were disingenuous.

Which brings us to yesterday’s council meeting. As with the Jarvis bike lanes, Minnan-Wong was scheduled to speak last and introduced a last minute amendment (this time to consult with the TTC, but not riders). In his speech, he referred to Dundas St.:      

 “There’s been a lot of discussion about the process and how notice is required and notice has to be given and somehow councillors’ rights have been abridged or sacrificed. I can tell you, they have not. No rule has been broken, no member has raised an objection, I have not received any complaints from the integrity commissioner…. One member of council has been complaining that they were somehow injured or the community not notified, but I can tell you, quite frankly, it is not my job to do the work of other councillors for them.”

Minnan-Wong goes on to argue that accommodations were available if they were asked for. If she- he then stopped himself to say 'they'- had requested to specially speak at committee, he would have allowed it. Until the rules change, everything was proper.

Wong-Tam spoke on a point of privilege to point out that the report at the committee level did not touch her ward and the suggestion that she should have been there out of interest is disingenuous. She objected to Minnan-Wong suggesting that she isn’t doing her job to which Minnan-Wong said that ‘I never said that’. John Parker, acting as speaker, agreed because no particular councillor was mentioned by name.

Which bring us to my second favourite vote of the day. After Wong-Tam lost a challenge to the speaker’s ruling there was a vote to extend Minnan-Wong’s speaking time.

Here’s how it went (apologies for the blurry screencap):

In spite of Minnan-Wong’s personal attack, the procedural shenanigans he has pulled, and the lack of courtesy he has shown, Wong-Tam chose to extend his time. No one would have batted an eye if she chose to vote against it but instead she decided to rise above it.

It’s a really small thing, but that’s why it’s worth mentioning. These acts of courtesy don’t really go noticed but they are what collectively ensure civility and integrity in our discourse. They defy the stereotype that casts aspersions on certain ‘types’ of councillors and they’re things that Denzil Minnan-Wong could hopefully appreciate. 

On a day when Kumbaya was ironically sung by councillors Wong-Tam quietly embraced the spirit. 

It’s not quite the same as beating a monorail-megamall-ferris wheel, but it’s worth celebrating. 

Wednesday 21 September 2011

The Port Lands Timeline

From an out of nowhere Waterfront proposal to a midnight consensus the Port Lands has taken a lot of twists and turns in the quick month since it became an issue. In the interest of looking back and preserving those details, here is a timeline of how it happened:

August 25: Waterfront activists hear rumours that there will be imminent action on the Port Lands. 

August 26: At 4:15 on Friday, Port Lands item EX 9.6 is announced on the city website for the next Executive Committee meeting. 

August 27-28: On the weekend, speculation mounts as to what the Ford plans for the Port Lands are. Initial guesses include an NFL stadium at the RL Hearn site. 

August 29: After the weekend, the daily newspapers pay more attention to the Waterfront issue and it's generally not positive.

August 30: In an effort to gain public support Doug Ford is sent to pitch his vision to the media. With only rumours surrounding it earlier, he takes to Metro Morning, Newstalk 1010, AM640, CP24 and CTV to articulate his plan for a Ferris wheel, monorail and mega-mall. 

Predictably, Twitter reacts negatively. Laurence Lui (@larrylarry) starts the hashtag #CodeBlueTO to organization opposition. It will be the name of a quickly mobilized group of activists organized to support the current Waterfront vision.   

August 31: Doug Ford refers to his backroom meetings with developers as 'backroom vision'.

September 1: Torontoist contributor and Animaniacs enthusiast Jaime Woo creates a video to dispute Doug Ford's claim in his Metro Morning interview that aside from the Eaton's Centre there is nowhere to shop downtown (and thus a mega-mall is needed). 

September 2: John Tory and Julia Deans of Civic Action release a letter urging community consultation and cooperation with Waterfront Toronto. 

September 5: A formal complaint is lodged with the integrity commissioner over Doug Ford meeting with Australian mall developer Westfield without them registering as a lobbyist. 

September 6: The day of the Executive Committee meeting where architect Eric Kuehne's video and PowerPoint presentation is given (see eye candy designs here). There is strong opposition in the room, including critical deputations from former Chief City Planner Paul Bedford, waterfront activist and lawyer Cindy Wilkey and waterfront academics Gene Desfor and Jennefer Laidley.   

During the lunch break Councillor Adam Vaughan organizes an impromptu informational media session with Waterfront Toronto's John Campbell, Mark Wilson and Wilkey. 

The executive unanimously approves the motion to be sent to council, but executive Councillor Jaye Robinson is noticeably absent from the room at the time of the vote. 
Eric Kuehne's Ford Vision

September 7: After being critical at the executive committee and on Twitter, centrist councillor and critical vote Josh Matlow indicates in an online letter he will not be supporting the Ford vision. 

September 8: Mayor Ford gives a classic quote, that trees in the Port Lands are nice but a mega-mall is better because, "That tree can't employ anybody".

September 9: Waterfront Toronto officials indicate to the Globe that the Ford vision might cost $270 million more than the current plan. 

September 12: Ivor Tossell writes a very good piece for the Toronto Standard comparing Doug Ford to an 1860s prospector.

September 14: A very bad poll comes out that puts Ford's approval rating at 42% following the waterfront vision and KPMG cuts being in the news. 

Also today, The mayor's chief of staff, Amir Remtulla, writes a letter accusing Waterfront Toronto CEO John Campbell of a 'serious breach'. This is in response to a question about the pace of development and that he has to turn away offers because, "We cannot do deals behind closed doors". 

September 15: Jaye Robinson becomes the first member of the Executive Committee to defect over the Port Lands. Later in the evening TTC chair Karen Stintz posts a letter to constituents indicating the same thing as well as executive councillor Michelle Berardinetti. Deputy Speaker John Parker will later join them while executive councillor Peter Milczyn sends out a 1300 word e-mail to constituents explaining that he will support the mayor's vision but encourages compromise and cooperation.    

Also today, Richard Florida, Richard Sommer, Paul Bedford, Eric Miller and other leading Toronto academics, planners, architects, engineers and thinkers hold a press conference and release a letter to strongly criticize the Ford vision for the waterfront. 

CodeBlueTO also releases a comprehensive reality check and announces that they have reached their goal of 2,500 signatures. They would go on to collect 7000. 

September 16: A massive poll of 13,000 is commissioned by CUPE 79 that shows only 27% of voters would vote for Rob Ford tomorrow. The poll is ostensibly about the KPMG cuts but is further proof of Ford's declining popularity. 

September 18: Doug Ford had cancelled his guest spot on Josh Matlow's weekly radio show a few days earlier and Goldsbie teased on Twitter that Matlow would have story to share related to it on-air before 2:00. Matlow then related an exchange that while Ford had cancelled on his show he would do it the following week if he voted 'yes' on the Ford Port Land vision. Saying that he didn't do horse-trading, Ford allegedly responded that 'everyone has their price'. 

Minutes later Ford angrily calls into the show to correct what he feels are inaccuracies. He then inaccurately says that planner Ken Greenberg is married to Adam Vaughan's executive assistant and claims he feels bullied by Janet Davis. The whole thing is alternately bizarre and amazing (last five minutes of Sept 18, part one and first half of part two). 

Sensing that they have the political leverage, CodeBlueTO releases a 'no compromise' message to councillors, Waterfront Toronto and TPLC. They insist on the approved Lower Don Lands vision for river naturalization, Waterfront Toronto as the lead agency and to use the existing environmental assessments and research while recognizing the need for some sort of deal. All of these priorities will be realized in the final deal.  

September 19: While most eyes are on the marathon KPMG core service review Executive Committee meeting, John Lorinc writes an excellent Spacing article on the case to be made for measured compromise on the waterfront as Waterfront Toronto will still have to work with the mayor if the Ford vision loses on the 21st. 

September 20: Late in the day, word breaks that a 'consensus' agreement has been reached. The consensus is worked on until midnight and seems to have heavy involvement from councillors Fletcher and McConnell (whose wards include the Port Lands) and executive members Milczyn and Thompson.  

The consensus defers all governance 'enhancements' proposed for TPLC from the Ford vision and requires further financial and environmental assessment to be done with increased city coordination and a report to be completed for May or June. It also calls for an 'accelerated' timeline but avoids specifications. 

CodeBlueTO holds a public event "Behind Closed Doors" to raise awareness for the issue. They deliver their petition to City Hall and Pam McConnell and Paula Fletcher sing "Behind Closed Doors". In their three week campaign CodeBlue's website received 20,000 hits. 

September 21: The consensus agreement unanimously passes. Councillors and citizens in the audience cheer each other. The mayor goes up to his brother, shakes his hand and has a short conversation with him. 
The scene after the consensus vote with Rob talking to Doug and the crowd cheering.
Photo credit: A Goldsbie production

Correction (10:00 AM Sept. 22): An earlier version of this post incorrectly had the name 'Jamie Woo' rather than the correct and updated 'Jaime Woo'. I regret the error and thanks to Geoff Gilmour-Taylor for pointing it out.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Political Implications for Ford's Sinking Port Lands Vision

For better or worse, you likely won't see this on the Port Lands

In advance of Wednesday's City Council vote a 'consensus' has been reached on the motion to hand over control of the Port Lands from Waterfront Toronto to the Toronto Port Lands Company to be sold to developers. 

The Toronto Star's David Rider has more reporting here and CodeBlueTO co-founder Laurence Lui has a brief summary here

The consensus promises an 'accelerated' timeline with Waterfront Toronto in the lead and 'more co-operation' with TPLC. I put 'accelerated' and 'more co-operation' in quotes because it remains to be seen what concrete actions these refer to and how they will be enforced. 

Apparently a range of councillors from opposition to centrists to Ford allies worked on the consensus and must be pretty tired after yesterday's 19 hour meeting. Which councillors took the lead in developing the motion will likely come out in due time and they'll get some hard-earned political points. 

While details about the consensus (note, not a 'compromise') are sparse, it's never to early to speculate on the political ramifications. 

Ford loses here and loses big. When details emerge it will be interesting to hear the level of involvement the mayor's office had in building the consensus although my guess is that it's low to negligible. 

Both Rob and Doug shot themselves in the foot on this item and shot themselves many times. They made this a flashy, high visibility issue which drew attention to themselves and the lack of transparency that brought them to this point. The megamall-monorail-ferris wheel plan alternately looked like a flight of fancy on the back of a napkin or a series of backroom, opaque steps. Either way confirmed the worst public suspicions of their governance style. 

Moreover, as Goldsbie said on Josh Matlow's radio show The City, the Fords have seemed to lose control of the narrative. Even after the disastrous launch of the Ford Waterfront Vision, they had a series of miscues in trying to sell their pitch. 

The Mayor had his absurd Fordian line that trees may be nice but they don't employ people. His office also slammed Waterfront Toronto CEO John Campbell for rather harmlessly explaining why he doesn't have private developers line up, that his organization legally, "cannot do deals behind closed doors". There was an official complaint about Doug Ford meeting with Westfield without it going in the lobbyist registry. Then there was Doug cancelling on Matlow's show- allegedly to get Matlow's vote on the issue- and then calling in to, among other things, dismiss noted planner Ken Greenberg for being married to Adam Vaughan's executive assistant (he's not) and complain that Janet Davis bullies him.

The 'consensus-builders' look all the better by contrast. From the vocal left to centrists like Matlow, who took an early and forceful stand on the issue, they come out on the winning end of history. It's particularly good for individuals like Jaye Robinson, Michelle Berardinetti and Karen Stintz, Ford allies who showed a willingness to say no. 

More than any individual political capital won from this issue- and yes, this article ignores the huge benefit of keeping the better Waterfront Toronto plan- is the demonstration that a broad coalition of councillors is workable at City Hall. 

The breadth of this consensus will likely not be a regular occurrence, but at the very least it indicates there's a willingness to work beyond the mayor when needed on key issues. This should embolden all councillors to say no and force the mayor's office to either consult more broadly and openly with council or risk having the mayor further marginalized. 

While it's a nice victory- one that will probably be remembered next election when people say, 'Hey, remember that crazy monorail-megamall thing?'- it's not over yet. According to Marcus Gee, Doug Ford has expressed an interest in a Board of Directors seat with Waterfront Toronto. It's conceivable they'll try this again in a different way. 

The lesson to be learned from all of this is that skepticism of the administration is good, the governance style of the mayor's office is publicly and internally seen as bad and in the absence of change a broad coalition is an achievable better way. 

Monday 19 September 2011

A Deputation: Doing Things Right and Doing the Right Things

I was thinking of making a deputation - my last one didn't exactly happen- but after talking to a couple people about the ethical implications I'm deciding against it. If I'm going to write about city hall as a 'citizen journalist' then it's probably better not to blur that line any more.

With that said, sharing a deputation is a useful writing exercise, so like last time, here is what I would say. 

Before I begin I'd like to thank everyone present for participating in this process from Executive Committee and Visiting Councillors to city staff to the hundreds of engaged observers and deputants here today. It may have happened in July, but this kind of tangible expression of civic virtues and values doesn't happen often and it should be noted how special it is.  

The core service review tells us a lot about the priorities that citizens hold for Toronto. In a way, it asks the valuable and important question 'what is your Toronto?'. 

Looking at the report, we get an idea of our values. According to KPMG, the lowest ranking policy priority in their consultation with citizens was 'affordable taxes'. Instead, we had 13,000 survey responses and while some may try to dismiss it as 'not statistically valid' it provides a useful roadmap for a city that values its services. We value transparent and accountable government and meeting the needs of vulnerable people. This sounds like Toronto the good. 

Sadly, the process thus far has not reflected this. 

The process explicitly targeted services to be cut without pairing them with potential revenue sources and the value the services provide for citizens. This assumption fundamentally ignores the wants of the citizenry and reduces the names, faces and needs into abstract budget numbers. This isn't good planning. 

It isn't good planning when we cancel the vehicle registration tax without finding an offset for that revenue, just saying 'oh, we'll find that next year'. 

It isn't good planning when the Mayor's Speaker forbade- forbade- councillors from mentioning this year's budget when they were planning last year's budget with the David Miller surplus. 

It isn't good planning to ignore the needs of citizens and those motivated to be involved in civic affairs as 'usual suspects'. We need more people who regularly care about their city and government. 

And we have it here today. The expression of the values and priorities in the seats in front of you, in the overflow rooms and hallways. It's an expression that Toronto is about more than the bare essentials, that we care to be better as a people and city. It's a sentiment expressed by business management guru Peter Drucker, that "management is about doing things right; leadership is about doing the right things". 

It's the leadership we have here today and had in July with hundreds of Torontonians expressing their voices- practically in unison- that they care when daycare spaces vanish, they care when dental care for the poor goes away and nutrition programs for children are considered gravy. 

From what I've seen, people care about a process that listens to them and those values. They know that that means raising property taxes a reasonable amount and thinking creatively about revenue sources. That's the sacrifice- the leadership- that citizens have acknowledged they are willing to make because they feel it's right, that it makes a city they're proud of.

In these passionate deputations they've expressed their opposition to the flawed and narrow-minded process from KPMG and the mayor. Now it's your turn, councillors. It's your turn to answer the question 'what is your Toronto', show leadership and do the right things. 

I hope you will and I thank you for your time.  

Friday 16 September 2011

Responding to Ford-KPMG Talking Points

The upcoming Executive Committee meeting on the recommended KPMG service cuts will be well-attended and watched. Questions remain as to whether it will be as dramatic and eventful as the 'Citizen's Filibuster' in July and whether councillors like Jaye Robinson and Michelle Berardinetti will defect and vote against the report. One thing that we do know is the type of arguments Team Ford will employ to further their agenda. In the spirit of CodeBlueTO's  excellent Spacing article on arguments against Waterfront Toronto I've compiled the KPMG list below to provide my own humble bit. Reading some of Matt Elliott's old posts was a great help in this, so a hat tip to Ford for Toronto

1) "Toronto has a massive $774 million deficit. This needs to be solved".
This is an oft-repeated refrain that has been cited by most media sources and officials. 

Toronto does have a deficit, and its starting point was indeed $774 million. As happens each year, Toronto starts with a very high deficit and whittles it down, which Edward Keenan explains nicely at The Grid. The idea that this particular starting point is a 'tsunami' is misleading as it tracks with previous years pretty closely. Matt Elliott, writer of the superlative blog Ford For Toronto put together the nifty chart below:
In fact, $774 million isn't really the number we should be talking about as Elliott explains in that excellent post. Instead, we should conservatively be talking about a $530 million deficit. Other people have pegged the number much lower, such as left-wing councillor Gord Perks and Rob Ford's former Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis (August 28 on The City) have pointed to a number closer to $300-$450 million (Kouvalis later recanted this on Twitter, oddly claiming he meant this in addition to the starting point). 

$530 million is conservatively the more accurate number we're dealing with at this time and using the $774 million is an effort to increase political leverage to make unpopular cuts. 

2) "We've inherited this mess from the out-of-control Miller regime. We're the only ones willing to talk about the problems we face". 
For all of the promise of accountability and responsibility coming from Team Ford, this is a frequent line. 

As suggested in the chart above, Toronto has endured large annual structural deficits since amalgamation. During the mayoral campaign Ford frequently pointed this out and criticized the Miller administration for only thinking of the year at hand. 

Yet in the first budget for Team Ford, Frances Nunziata- presumably on orders from the mayor's office- refused to allow mention of the 2012 budget. As Sean Meagher pointed out in his Citizen's Filibuster deputation, if Team Ford had planned ahead for the 2012 budget in the previous budget it would have had the lowest deficit starting point in almost a decade. 

But council was forbidden from talking about or planning for this year's budget-that-must-not-be-named. Now that it's here, The Voldemort Budget is-surprise- scary. All of that money from keeping the Vehicle Registration Tax and having an inflation-based property tax increase (which would just maintain levels, as this Spacing article explains) would be enough to pay for all of the KPMG recommended cuts. Even the Christmas bureau. 

David Miller left a $350 million surplus. By refusing to plan for 2012, Team Ford owns this budget and has turned what could have been a very manageable budget-that-must-not-be-named into a Voldemort Budget of heartless cuts.    

3) "Either we do these cuts or we face a 35% property tax increase. Some downtown NDP councillors want to do this, but I don't".
Rob Ford mentioned a few variations of this line of attack in his interview with Jerry Agar

The 35% property tax increase number comes from the Toronto Taxpayers Coalition (tacitly endorsed by Doug Ford, Sue-Ann Levy and Michael Coren, oh my!). The TTC that's not really the TTC based this number on the $22 million generated for every 1% increase in property taxes. Using the faulty $774 million number covered in number one here, you get 35%.

This is a completely unreasonable number. The number excludes any further funding sources for the city (land transfer tax, user fees, dividends from assets etc...), surplus money left over from the previous budget ($88 million) and actual honest-to-goodness efficiencies that departments can find to cut their budget. The number is also politically unfeasible and acts only as a scare tactic. 

Furthermore, no councillor has supported raising property taxes by this amount and I haven't seen any activist, journalist or deputant support it either. 

Saying 'either we make these cuts or raise property taxes 35%' is a disingenuous false dichotomy that uses a false number for cynical politics.

4) "We're being taxed to death in Toronto. This has got to stop". 
Rob Ford has essentially ruled out any property tax increase greater than 2.5% (he wants 2%) and feels taxpayers are unduly burdened. 

Toronto has significantly lower property taxes than comparable Ontario cities. While Toronto has a 0.79% property tax rate, Mississauga's is 0.96%, Ottawa's is 1.25% and Hamilton's is 1.48%. 

Additionally, Toronto offers more services than these cities and pretty efficiently as the KPMG report indicated. Within the KPMG report the lowest ranked policy priority from citizens was 'affordable taxes' (page four), so the idea that this is being demanded by citizens is contradicted by the report the mayor is relying on. 

Lastly, there's a secondary concern in having very low taxes. When the city goes to arbitration- as it soon will with the TTC in a very expensive process- the city will argue that it doesn't have the financial capacity to extend salaries in the manner the union wants. The arbitrator will then say, 'but you have extremely low property taxes compared to your comparables and recently cancelled a tax just granted to you by the province. You clearly have more capacity, and should pay accordingly'.

Toronto is not being taxed to death- far from it. This isn't to say taxes should be at Hamilton rates, but that there is public willingness and an economic argument to raise taxes reasonably. 

5) These aren't really cuts, they're efficiencies. 
Rob Ford said no service cuts. Guaranteed. He promised efficiencies and doggone it, that's what these are. 

While Ford's lead spokesperson acknowledged service cuts in a talking points memo to allies recently, the mayor has refused to do so. In the Jerry Agar interview yesterday, Ford was asked whether cutting 2000 daycare spots was a service cut. His response? "No, it's an efficiency. There are no service cuts." 

Someone on the Toronto subReddit made the appropriate analogy that it would be akin to saying cutting off three of your fingers makes your hand more efficient. This line is utter nonsense. Potentially cancelling the blue night bus? Service cut. Eliminating 2000 daycare spots? Service cut. Reducing snow shoveling, street sweeping, horticulture, getting rid of the Christmas bureau, reducing wheel trans, eliminating libraries or reducing hours? Those are service cuts. 

Importantly, Rob Ford told the National Post's Natalie Alcoba and Chris Selley that closing one library on a Sunday would be a 'major' service cut

Efficiencies are when you have the same service delivered at a lower price or increased services delivered at the same price (or better value, dollar for dollar). That is not the case here.

These aren't really efficiencies, they're cuts. 

6) "There's lots of gravy. Just look at all of these unionized city employees. How come we have more than at the start of amalgamation? We should have less."
This is a relatively new line of attack and the strategy is to position your tax dollars against the disliked unions. 

In 2000, Toronto had 2.4 million citizens and 45,000 employees according to this budget (page 3).   

In 2010, Toronto had 2.77 million people and 46,228 employees according to this city document. Granted, the number of employees has been low at various points- it was 40,000 in 2006- but it's hardly out of control like this claim suggests. 

And it does bring up another Ford campaign pledge, that he wouldn't fire staff but would finance his budgets through a managed 3% attrition rate

This wasn't the 'gravy' Rob Ford promised, in fact he promised to not fire anyone. City employee growth tracks reasonably well with population growth which makes Ford's claim less meaningful. 

7) "The People complaining are just the Usual Suspects, Unionists, Socialists or Jobless. They don't speak for the city."
"There are 2.5 million people in this city and we've heard from about 400 individuals over the process of consultation. Letting them say which programs they would like to keep and which ones they don't want to keep for 2.5 million people, to me that doesn't make sense." -Giorgio Mammoliti to Inside Toronto

While Team Ford simultaneously says that they've done historic consultation, staying up all night listening to people, they also dismiss them out of hand as having unrepresentative voices. 

Aside from the fact that activists, unionists, socialists and the unemployed are also Torontonians who have a valid voice and contribution to make to the discourse, this line of argument is also untrue. Anyone who was there at the Citizen's Filibuster knows that the day was not just remarkable for its length, but the diversity of people and causes who were there. 

Another argument ties in to this one, that 'these people' are just out their to protect their own self-interests. In a way, that's true- they feel invested in their community and value services provided for it. Much like, say, some people might be self-interested and value having a lower property tax rate. After all, in the Habermas vein, that's what politics is about. 

What's really going on with this is an attempt to categorize the opposition into a caricature and devalue that voice so as to ignore it. And really, that's undemocratic.

 This argument ignores the reality of the diversity of people speaking out, is anti-consultation and cheapens the political institutions the mayor's office is supposed to uphold. 

8) "Why are we in the business of running zoos and theatres? It's about wants and needs. When we ask people 'what do you need', it's not running a zoo". 
This argument suggests we need to re-prioritize and have a paradigm shift (ugh, that phrase) in how we think of government. 

This is a somewhat reasonable argument. It's important to re-assess the role of government to make sure it's on track. We should force ourselves to re-think what the status quo could be too. 

However, for that to be done, a simultaneous efficiency and value study has to be conducted to find out what those priorities are. People have to be genuinely asked and listened to for what they need so that subsidized dental care for the poor can be evaluated from both the citizen's and a 'business' perspective. 

This was not done. The scope of the KMPG report was explicitly limited to discovering what could legally be cut and giving limited recommendations. The value the city gets from the services it delivers (the intangible benefits of the arts, say) was not considered. The limited consultation that was conducted was dismissed as 'not statistically valid' by Ford ally Denzil Minnan-Wong. 

Wants and needs cannot be determined until you find the value of each service in consultation with citizens.

9) "We need to run this city like a business. I'm going to do that."
With his experience at Deco Labels, Rob Ford positions himself as the man with the knowledge to get things done at City Hall. 

I'm not going to cast aspersion on Ford's experience at Deco Labels, but I don't think his 'business strategy' is right for the city. 

I work in business too. Businesses conduct thorough cost-benefit analyses to make prudent short and long-term decisions to optimize profit and limit risk appropriately given their profile. That means they invest in themselves and cut sometimes and most of the time they're doing a combination of both. 

However, this mayor is so idelogically opposed to the idea of government that he is unwilling to look at ways for the city to invest in itself. So the argument of how arts funding spurs a multiplier effect of city benefits falls on deaf ears. Good businesses are open-minded, think creatively and plan for contingencies. They look at the market for the cost of debt- interest rates- to see whether they can get capital at cheaper rates than the returns they generate. With interest levels at record lows, cities with business savvy and good AA+ credit ratings like Toronto can see that as an opportunity for wise investment and measured growth.  

Good businesses do not exclusively cut. They grow because they believe in themselves.

If the city must be compared to a business, it's one that should rightly face a shareholder revolt for not finding value. 

10) "This is the City Manager's report, not ours. We're just following staff."
We're just responding to data and acting accordingly. Why are you making this all political?

Ah, the age-old 'we're just following the wishes of staff' argument. It's a great argument because councillors are not really allowed to criticize staff- Joe Mihevc drew some 'ohhhhhs' when he criticized Pennachetti for producing the Waterfront Toronto-TPLC report. 

The thing is, everyone knows staff are influenced by political pressure and the mayor's office in particular. To think otherwise is just naive.

City staff aren't immune to political pressure. 

Team Ford will give lots of reasons to justify their actions including some of the above. Many of them are demonstrably false or shallow arguments and should be treated accordingly. 

Note: An earlier version of this article stated Matt Blackett wrote the Spacing article with arguments against the proposed Waterfront-TPLC changes. This was written by CodeBlueTO and the article has been edited to reflect this. Apologies for the error and thanks to Matt Elliott for pointing it out.