Friday, 2 March 2012

Counting the votes: Gloria Lindsay Luby edition

When Gary Webster was fired last week I spoke to some councillors beforehand and afterwards for a piece on the day's events that I was hoping to sell to a publication. Between one thing and another that didn't happen, but I had a really interesting conversation with Etobicoke councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby. 

I'm reminded of that conversation because chatter on Twitter between Matt Elliott and John McGrath pointed to the March 21 vote on the Sheppard line potentially being close. As McGrath writes at OpenFile, Pasternak will support team Ford on this, but they'll need Lindsay Luby and others to flip too. 

Given how they voted to not excuse her from the special transit vote and the interview below, I say she's not in a sympathetic place when it comes to Team Ford:

How do you feel about this process [of hypothetically firing Gary Webster]?
I think it's disgusting. He's very competent. He's an engineer. I find him- and I've been through two previous managers- to be definitely the best. He listens, he's conciliatory, he wants to help and he's knowledgeable. 

I think they just want to hire someone who is going to kiss the mayor's ring. That's just not the way it works. 

Do you see this as payback for the council vote [to affirm the 2009 LRT MoA]?
I do not understand what goes through their minds, I really don't. I don't even want to try (she laughs). 

There seems to be a governance approach that, for the lack of a better term, has an element of spite to it. 
The vindictiveness is very clear. Whether it is to members of council or to staff. Do as I say. 

Do you feel that personally as well? 
Oh sure. Oh definitely. 

In what ways does that manifest itself? 
Many ways, actually. Whether it's specifically to vote against me on certain things, yeah, I do feel it. 

What advice would you give to the Ford administration to turn this around? 
Learn to work with council. 

So what are the best ways to reach out to council? 
Just because a mayor is elected on a platform doesn't mean all members of council have to follow that platform. We're all elected independently, so I'm going to be following what I think is the right thing not only for my constituents but for the city. We're not a bunch of bimbos that can be led by the nose. We're intelligent people and you have to deal with us intelligently. That's not what I'm seeing happen. 

You were a management consultant for a number of years. If you were doing a report on the management here at City Hall, what would it say? 
Well you have to look at two sides, the elected and staff side. I just can't put it into one word. There would be many, many recommendations. I find the hardest ones to deal with are on the elected side. That comes from an experience I had many years ago in a small municipality in New Brunswick where the elected members didn't get along with the mayor and the mayor basically didn't understand what he was doing. 

So, they had all sorts of issues and they called in the RCMP and it was a very complicated situation. The final analysis is we tried to get them to work together. But their election was coming up. And I said to members of council, if you want to run for mayor, just one of you do it, not all of you. Well you know what they did. None of them got elected. 

Don Cherry on pinkos

On Twitter last night, via Goldsbie, this video with Don Cherry on The Strombo Show was shared. In it, Cherry speaks about his inaugural address for mayor Rob Ford, what he means by 'pinkos' and blames G20 protesters for what happened in June 2010.

If it has any significance at all, Cherry provides an interesting amplification of a Fordian mindset.

Also, Cherry will be joining Twitter, so we might see more of this. 

How can you not trust this photo?

From David Rider/Toronto Star in this article:
Ford, Hudak and Mammoliti meet to discuss how they will not support any new taxes to fund their subway proposal. Nothing can go wrong here.  

Are taxes evil? Not so much.

Here I thought we were making so much progress. As the Ford brothers flail about trying to make their Sheppard subway proposal work, they inadvertently started an important conversation about taxation and revenue sources to invest in the city. When you have Norm Kelly talking about a sales tax and Rob Ford endorsing parking levies for the city, you've made legitimate progress in the conversation. 

Now, the Sheppard subway extension still won't happen for any number of reasons (funding, density and zoning among them) but at least we're going in the direction of talking about building infrastructure with the attached risk sacrifice applied to it. The Grid's Edward Keenan makes this explicit in this piece, where he shows what his family share of the various Sheppard subway plans would be: 
Put another way, the family capital cost for Ford's proposal is the equivalent of paying the VRT for 100 years. 
 This is the basis for a conversation about the value of a proposal and how much one is willing to contribute. To be fair, it's only the beginning of a conversation as it only looks at individual costs and not collective benefits, but it's a place to start thinking.

This, on the other hand, is not: 
 "We're against all taxes. All taxes are evil as far as I'm concerned." -Doug Ford on paying for the Sheppard extension
Whereas Keenan is willing to discuss the amount of taxation needed in real terms (and implicitly concludes it doesn't make much sense for him or his family) Ford rules out a conversation altogether. 

He uses loaded and emotional language to do so, calling taxes 'evil'. As Joe Mihevc said in this piece I did for The Grid, you can't begin to negotiate with something you think is evil. 

But there's a deeper thread here. Ford's sentiment speaks to a view of government that it can do nothing right and says that the social contract is only about individual freedoms and not collective responsibilities. 

We have shorthand sayings for these complex thoughts- Oliver Wendell Holmes's "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society" and Genesis' "I am my brother's keeper" come to mind. These sayings aren't fully fleshed out, but they capture the ethos that to belong to or to build something larger one must contribute to something larger than oneself. Without that underlying principle, there's no point in engaging with the likes of Edward Keenan or a conversation on civic discourse or policymaking in general. 

This is about more than just a subway or Doug's childish refusal to pay for something he wants (echoed by the Toronto Sun and real estate developers). The Doug Ford principle reduces citizens to islands where they struggle to defend themselves. 

And curiously, it's where the Ford administration finds itself politically. With an inability to make sacrifices and build bridges to collective interests, Team Ford is stuck playing in its own sandbox, kicking sand at those who pass by.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Real Waste at City Hall

Rob Ford and Karen Stintz, as drawn by Charles Schulz Neville Park.

Throughout the mayoral campaign and his first year in office, Rob Ford reminded anyone who would listened that it was all about waste. City Hall was filled with waste, he claimed, and he would be the one to look after it.

This language characterized his KPMG budget too. It was about finding 'efficiencies,' separating the nice-to-haves from the must-haves and making tough choices to move forward.

But the conversation was limited and the politics were small. The scope of Toronto's budget reform focused on how to cut services rather than the larger question of analyzing the structural relationships that give rise to the underlying issues. So while Ford had the public willingness to do a deep-dive in to how Toronto addresses its finances and the underlying issues, it was more Sue-Ann Levy than John Lorinc.

So it is with Toronto's transit plan. Ford was legitimately elected with a platform to re-visit Toronto's transit plan and specifically the poorly communicated Transit City plan. But instead of addressing the underlying flaws of Transit City- a lot of transfers and increased stress on the at-capacity Yonge-University-Spadina line- he decided to plow ahead with his completely unrealistic Sheppard line, accompanied by no funding and no transit experts who would support the idea.

And so The Mayor's office dithered on transit for a year, and Gordon Chong's much anticipated report was delayed multiple times before an optimistic version was released that still argued Sheppard was not feasible unless tolls, new parking charges or congestion taxes were introduced.

Of course, these suggestions were non-starters and Council's opposition fought to preserve the status quo, a vast improvement over the Mayor's crayola-planned underground.

It is rightly a triumph for Council's opposition; they effectively neutralized the uncompromising delusions of the Mayor to avoid a disastrous policy commitment.

But much like the other two big Mayoral defeats of the budget or the Port Lands, there's a bitter aftertaste to this victory. After all, it's all about preservation of existing policy, not progress. In this way, waste once again rears its ugly head, as the theme of this administration has become wasted opportunity.

In the aftermath of campaigning on criticism of the city's budget, planning and transit, Ford had the chance to lead a conversation of what Toronto has to do in order to achieve its goals. Of course, the populist and intellectually disinterested former Ward 2 councillor was never the man for that job.

Now it's up to Council to lead that conversation and assert its primacy beyond playing defense against a harmfully reactionary Mayor. Until then, in the glow of a historic victory, we have City Hall in the same place as the Mayor's disposition, stuck in arrested development.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Transit: How we got here and what to expect

So you may have heard that there's a special meeting of council this morning. Called by opponents to Mayor Ford's transit plan, the meeting will focus on just transit. 

At issue is the 2009 Memorandum of Agreement for the Transit City plan. The MoA expires on March 31 after which Council would have no transit deal in place (particularly since Ford's memorandum of understanding has no chance of passing). 

That this MoA has been resurrected is surprising by itself and deserves some context. Here's the timeline of how we got here:

  • Ford ally and Deputy Speaker John Parker calls the all-underground LRT plan 'goofy'. 
  • While Ford campaigned on subways (and no Eglinton line), TTC chair Karen Stintz comments to the Globe and Mail's Adrian Morrow that if the decision is to go with an LRT, it should be done at-grade where possible. 
  • At City Hall the next day, Stintz indicates she thought she had the support of Doug Ford (and thus the Mayor's office) on the item. The Mayor strongly opposes the Stintz plan. 
  • A group of councillors, including Stintz, Parker, Josh Matlow, Maria Augimeri and Joe Mihevc have meetings throughout the day to come up with some kind of compromise plan. 
  • The compromise plan comes out and includes a BRT on Finch (which could conceivably be turned into LRT later), a subway stop added to the Sheppard line and the Eglinton east crosstown surfacing for 8km. 
  • As the transit file becomes increasingly nebulous, Metrolinx issues a letter asking for a clear direction to move forward. 
  • At the regularly scheduled TTC meeting, Ford allies on the board, knowing they can't win at Council, vote 6-3 against a Stintz motion to finalize a framework for construction on the Eglinton project. In effect it is a vote of non-confidence in Stintz (Parker and Augimeri were the other two in the minority). 
  • As the Ford team gets beat up on the transit file, it doubles down on the rhetoric. In his weekly 'Cut the Waist' scrum, Ford fields questions on transit with the same answer, resulting in poetic and autotuned homages. 
  • The rhetoric continues. A push poll comes out later in the week suggesting people want subways, but its value is panned. Gordon Chong's long-awaited Sheppard report surfaces with more optimistic numbers than he ever suggested before. It also argues that any subway financing would be contingent on an alternate revenue source, like road tolls or congestion charges. The mayor's team also co-ordinates talking points, some of which are debunked here.  
  • On Superbowl Sunday news breaks that Council's opposition will call a special meeting to essentially revert to Transit City (but don't call it that). Stintz indicates that had her TTC commission vote went through she would not have done this. 
Further Information
Torontoist has a great summary of what this special meeting means, and you should totally read that. Additionall, Matt Elliott does his usual and rounds up the votes on the issue. Key people to watch will be James Pasternak, Jaye Robinson and John Parker. Robinson and Parker did not sign the petition for the special meeting but have had reservations about the Ford plan. 

What to Expect
Aside from rancorous debate and an out-of-control Frances Nunziata? Well, it's an omnibus motion so Team Ford will try to break it up to get councillors to vote against one another on prioritizing their areas. There will also be amendments to try to delay this to past the key March 31 date, or to send it back to the TTC commission, which coincidentally has a motion to reconstitute its membership (hrmmmmm). 

There were rumours going around City Hall yesterday about some kind of compromise package, but it's been shown that this isn't Ford's preferred route. 

In the meantime, follow council the same way as for the budget meeting (see tips here) and I'll be on Twitter. 

Monday, 30 January 2012

Ford's Defensive Line

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 January 2012

Your January 2012 Executive Committee Preview

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

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

TCHC Motion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

2012 Budget: The Day After

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Keenan provides his typically excellent analysis at The Grid. 

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

City Budget in Microcosm: Alexandra Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 January 2012

How to Follow the Budget Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team Ford and Working with Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 9 January 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 5 January 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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