There were many moments during the past year when Toronto’s politics felt like one of those flashback episodes from an old sitcom. We revisited some of the greatest battles from recent memory in order to fight another round: the plastic bag fee was lifted, then plastic bags were banned, then unbanned, all in the span of a few months; the decision to remove the Jarvis bike lanes was voted on again, before the paint on the road was finally power-washed away and the beloved reversible-lane lights were re-installed. Hell, even the debate about tearing down the Gardiner Expressway, a favourite running gag from previous seasons, resurfaced.
Through it all, Rob Ford played City Hall’s wacky-neighbour character, one who—like Steve Urkel or The Fonz on the sitcoms of old—had somehow come to dominate the show. And those amusingly absurd set pieces only he could star in became central storylines: chasing down a reporter in a park next door to his property; reading behind the wheel while driving on the highway; working the phones to check up on the public bus meant to transport his football team. [Cue laugh track.]
Despite the number of eyeballs glued to those fun elements of The City Hall Show, these very memorable episodes—save maybe the Gardiner—only amount to a set of minor subplots. Meanwhile, in the main story arc of where Toronto is going, 2012 marked a huge shift into new and uncharted territory.
It’s almost difficult to remember now that it was just one year ago that the city appeared poised to implement massive budget cuts, lock out its unions, and waste $8.5 billion dollars or more pursuing an underground-only transit strategy. At that point, there were little more than murmurings of dissent when it came to the mayor’s unchallenged dominance of city council.
In 2012, the opposition to Ford turned into action, and quickly. In January, Josh Colle fronted a coalition of councillors who reversed many of the cuts in the planned budget. In February, Ford managed to extract a deal from the unions, but saw Karen Stintz lead a transit coup that cancelled the mayoral plan and reinstated the previous mayor’s LRT scheme. By March, council was firing Ford’s hand-picked transit commission and installing new members—which put them beyond the influence of his office.
After that, Ford almost seemed to check out—reports suggested that he appeared to be working far fewer hours and focussing on his volunteer football coaching above all other priorities. He bitched about government on the radio rather than leading it from his office. The only real initiative he brought forward was a half-baked, lobbyist-led silver-bullet casino dream.
However, city council proceeded to demonstrate fairly convincingly that it had no idea how to harness its newfound power except by marginalizing the mayor. You can see the plastic bag ban fiasco as a trivial example of how the team that fought the Ford machine quickly turned on each other, or the short-lived OneCity transit plan as another, perhaps more substantial, example of council’s inability to move forward.
Still, even as councillors fought amongst themselves, the mayor continued to fight himself. Two different legal battles that stemmed from a pair of trends in Ford’s behaviour—his loud mouth and his refusal to follow procedures, respectively—found their way into the courts to showcase his personal shortcomings. And just as we started to wonder how it was that our entire city’s politics had become a debate about Ford’s behaviour, the result of one of those cases ordered him removed from office.
So as the year ends—pending a cliffhanger appeal decision coming in January—we find ourselves ready to reboot the storyline: Council has shown Rob Ford to be irrelevant, and the courts have formalized that position. We’ve hit the reset button for the beginning of 2013. Like after one of those weird throwaway seasons of a television show, we get to start fresh, as if much of the past two years was all just a dream.
Finally, it seems, we’re in a position where the personal eccentricities of one man and the petty squabbles of the past no longer need to dominate the agenda. The question for next year is a good one: What kind of city do we want to be? And what will we do together to build it?
Coming up this season
1. Casinos or no?
2. What to do about the Gardiner.
3. How to pay for transit.
4. And maybe choosing a new mayor, and then preparing to choose another one in 2014.