There were two long days of debate at City Hall on the question of transit this week. It got complicated, and messy. So I have taken the liberty of editing the video footage of council down to a single 45-second clip that I think sums up what happened:
In an orgy of petulance, childish selfishness, cowardice, and spite, this city council jumped the shark. It’s been an entertaining up-and-down drama over the past two and a half years since Rob Ford was elected but, over the course of the meeting this week, our elected officials showed they are pretty much not worth paying attention to.
Here’s the set up: After two generations of stupid neglect of the need for transit construction to meet the needs of our growing city (and region), the provincial government’s Metrolinx transit agency finally has a 20-year plan to start catching up by building a host of new subway, LRT, heavy rail, and bus rapid-transit lines. And they have a rough price tag for all that construction that comes to about $50 billion. They are about to decide, on May 27, how they recommend the provincial government pay for it. So they asked local cities to consider some options and report on which ones they thought might work.
City council asked the city manager, Joe Pennachetti, and the planning department to consult residents about the question. So they did, over the course of months. At public meetings, and in extensive telephone polls, more than 85 per cent of respondents agreed we need new revenues dedicated to building transit, and they expressed opinions on which kinds of taxes and fees would be appropriate. The city manager prepared a report so city council could weigh in in time to influence Metrolinx’s decision.
But then, the mayor of Toronto tried to block the report at his executive committee, in a bald-faced move to shrug off any responsibility for the most important item under city council’s purview. So once again, as it did last year, city council had to decide to overrule the mayor on transit and force a debate. The now-familiar suspects—Adam Vaughan, John Parker, and especially Karen Stintz—charged in to make it happen. They said we needed to have an “adult conversation” about this important issue, and they lined up the required two thirds of council who would be needed to vote to overrule the mayor and have that conversation. That’s where we ran into problems.
It seems that some of the many members of council you need to get to a two thirds majority aren’t so good at focussing on things or having adult conversations or actually taking any account of the needs of the city beyond their own short-sighted political interests. Glenn De Baeremaeker, in particular, views every life-and-death issue for the city as an opportunity to make a greedy grab to score points with his local constituents. So, it appears, if he was going to consent to having a discussion about raising revenue, that same discussion would also have to be about scrapping years of negotiation and planning so a subway could be built in his ward. No matter that trying to do so risked the entire under-construction transit plan. No matter that doing so is actually an entirely separate topic from the urgent matter of paying for transit construction. And since there were political points to be scored, it wasn’t hard to persuade some other Scarborough councillors to join in his cynical crusade.
And guess who went along with it? Karen Stintz, reputed leader of the sane “adult conversation” forces. She threw away a year or so of supporting evidence-based transit planning and hard-earned leadership capital by joining the subway-reopening discussion in order to get the votes she needed for the funding debate. And once those hands were in the cookie jar, the grab-fest was on.
The city manager tried to plead with councillors at the start of the meeting to stay on the topic of funding, and to save any discussion of transit-line planning for a scheduled report in the fall. TTC CEO Andy Byford advised strongly against any suggestion that the master agreement on existing construction projects be reopened—opening negotiations on this stuff would delay everything, he said. And jeopardize it, we all knew. Ha!
Glenn De Baeremaeker would not be dissuaded from derailing the discussion! And then it seemed every other member of council decided if he was doing so, they were going to speed their own engines into the smouldering wreckage, too: James Pasternak wants a useless, monumentally expensive boutique subway line in his ward, too! Doug Ford still wants a subway on Sheppard! Giorgio Mammoliti wants one on Finch! And so hows about an LRT extension to the zoo, while we’re at it? And a Jane LRT? And an extension of the Bloor line to the west? And so on, everyone with their little pet project.
Which, since council was making the stupid leap into demanding tens of billions of dollars in increased spending from the province, would seem to make the revenue portion of the conversation—the reason for the debate, remember—all the more important. You might think that, but you would be wrong. The vast majority of councillors wanted nothing to do with supporting new taxes or revenue tools or whatever you want to call them. Some, like Mayor Rob Ford and his dwindling band of allies, want nothing to do with taxes of any kind and don’t care if the city goes to hell as a result—and they want nothing more than to see Kathleen Wynne, the premier sticking her neck out for Toronto by backing these tools, to be defeated by Tim Hudak. Others, like the nonsensical wind machine Anthony Peruzza, are carrying water for the provincial NDP and so blather on about corporate taxes and refuse to back any other source of revenue that might be associated with Premier Wynne—all the better to defeat her at the provincial polls, even if it means screwing the people of Toronto in the process. Still, others are just outright cowards, afraid to stand up and acknowledge that Toronto is a city worth investing in.
Councillor Chin Lee—a one-time Ford ally from Scarborough—was among the voices of reason in the tax debate. “I will put my neck on the line,” he said, “to lead. And not be a coward and hide behind the province.” He said he’d be proud to defend new taxes door-to-door in his ward because they were needed. There were others: Josh Matlow, Paul Ainslie, Janet Davis, Ana Bailão. Mary Margaret McMahon, generally one of the most sheepish of councillors—known for bringing cookies and acknowledging birthdays in the chamber—told her fellow councillors it was time to “grow a spine.”
But vertebrae were in short supply. And so motions piled up, full of innovative new ways of opposing any new taxes. Josh Colle, who just over a year ago found himself at the front of the parade trampling over the mayor on the budget, crafted a slippery non-endorsement his colleagues could slither into: a motion that explicitly rejected a bunch of the proposed revenue tools without endorsing any, so that councillors could say they had not voted in favour of any new taxes. And then others proposed even more of the proposed taxes be add to that not-endorsed list. Which eventually led to votes in which a “yes” vote meant a tax was added to a list of no-nos—so voting “yes” on any tax was to vote against it, and voting “no” was voting to… not stridently oppose it.
The voting was every bit as much a crapshow as you’d expect two hours of wrangling weasels would be. People didn’t know what was going on. But few of them had shown they really cared.
And throughout this two-day display, the style was every bit as disgraceful as the substance. Doug Ford suggested Janet Davis should be shot with a tranquilizer gun. Adam Vaughan actually put forward a prank motion to specifically tax the vinyl labels the Ford brothers manufacture at their company. There was shouting at various points. And hugging at others.
Often, looking at the mess of a council debate, we can stand back and say that at least it happens out in the open—no backroom deals, no party system, so we get to see the sausage made in public. Sometimes that’s a source of solace. But in this case, the sausage itself didn’t really get made, and the malformed, unfinished glob of entrails and mystery meat that did result was an unappetizing dish. Steve Munro sums up the mess over at his blog: the broad strokes are that every councillor’s pet transit project should be made a priority, but so should our existing projects, and we don’t support any new revenue streams, though we don’t support some more than others. And, on top of that, we want the province to send us way more money, and to put the mayor on the transit-planning board.
If you’re Tim Hudak, this is excellent news: undercutting the premier and signalling transit chaos and opposition to new taxes in Toronto—a perfect condition under which to try to force an election and then just cancel all the construction. If you’re Kathleen Wynne, you get the message that sticking your neck out for Toronto will not go unpunished, and we might expect her to learn her lesson and adjust her priorities accordingly.
If you’re a citizen of Toronto, the news is less good. The leadership vacuum at city hall has descended into an incoherent free-for-all. Karen Stintz, her reputation for potential leadership severely damaged, was reduced to trying to call this some kind of win. “Although the debate may have been messy, the outcome of yesterday’s Toronto City Council votes on Metrolinx’s revenue tools does allow the Province, through Metrolinx, to proceed with how it intends to pay for the transit our region needs.”
Rob Ford, who spent much of the debate absent from the chamber, and who has long been the chief clown in this circus production, seemed more genuine in his appreciation of the fiasco. “I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “This is one of the greatest days in Toronto’s history right now.” Perhaps he has reason to celebrate. Finally, council is following his leadership—in that it has been reduced to the level of coherence, discipline, and vision that have been his trademarks as mayor.
He’s been thinking hard about the next election for a long time. Maybe it’s time for the voters of the city to start following his lead on that.
PHOTO: DAVID RIDER/TORONTO STAR