Yesterday’s surprise decision is another example of how Rob Ford has lost control of his council.
Going into Wednesday’s council session, Rob Ford really wanted the five-cent plastic-bag fee eliminated. He got his wish, although not exactly how he wanted it: plastic bags will be banned in Toronto stores as of January 1, 2013.
How city council got to this unexpected outcome is an instructive look at the fluidity of votes, power, and logic in the clamshell.
The series of escalating events started innocently enough. Last month, councillor Michelle Berardinetti (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest) put forward a motion at the Executive Committee to encourage private companies to donate the proceeds of the plastic-bag fee towards preserving Toronto’s tree canopy, which is being ravaged by the emerald-ash borer.
While Berardinetti’s motion was innocuous, any item brought to the agenda can be subjected to wide-ranging amendments. So when it came time to discuss Berardinetti’s proposal, Ford’s Executive Committee voted to get rid of the plastic-bag fee altogether.
Although the issue had not been part of the mayor’s platform, it had been single-handedly championed by the Toronto Sun. After receiving constituent phone calls about the issue, Ford decided to make the issue a priority even though city councillors and City-Hall watchers anticipated he wouldn’t have anywhere near the votes to win. But the mayor was firmly behind the cause—he devoted a segment of his weekly radio show to people calling in to complain about the bag fee, and he publicly slammed the fee whenever he could.
Suddenly, the vote looked like a coin flip. The relatively trivial item could finally give Ford something in the win column after a long stretch of embarrassing losses since the budget vote last January. But just as Ford’s team used Berardinetti’s motion to enact a very different change that they wanted, Councillors Anthony Perruzza and David Shiner—the latter a Conservative on Ford’s executive—separately proposed motions to ban plastic bags altogether.
Shiner’s motion contained the more aggressive timetable to ban stores from providing plastic bags for free or for or fee; the ban would take effect in six months. (You will still be able to buy garbage liners off the shelf, and small plastic bags for fruits and vegetables will still be available.)
After Ford won the initial vote to axe the bag fee and Perruzza’s ban lost on a tie (ties do not pass), Shiner’s proposal surprisingly won, 24-20. There will be no mandatory bag fee from July 1 until the ban’s implementation on January 1, 2013.
It was a motion Shiner devised only while listening to the seven-hour debate, and he lifted much of the language for it from a ban on plastic bags in Seattle that takes effect this July 1.
Much of the debate centred on the unintended consequences of plastic-bag policy: the environmental and economic impact, versus practical everyday concerns like picking up after dogs.
But the most significant consequence of the debate was political. Just as Berardinetti did not intend her initial proposal to incite a larger discussion about getting rid of the bag fee, Ford had no intention of banning plastic bags altogether when he escalated the issue. In the end, this was another example of Ford losing control of council, and a situation completely of his own making. Conservative Councillor John Parker (Ward 26, Don Valley West) described the process as “City Council at its most farcical … The mayor didn’t do his homework before making it an issue. What we saw was the result of an initiative that was not fully baked.”
Ford critic Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) echoed these sentiments: “The mayor can’t get an issue through City Hall without all hell breaking loose.” He added that Ford’s lack of leadership has allowed the mayor to accidentally accomplish green initiatives that David Miller never could.
And that whirlwind process at City Hall is what pushed Toronto’s plastic-bag policy oceans away from protecting the tree canopy to a surprising outright citywide ban.