Forget downtown versus the suburbs, left versus right, car versus bike—there’s another battle happening at City Hall that’s having a massive impact on how we live. Inside the largely invisible (and increasingly hostile) struggle between city council and city staff.
Who actually runs this city?
We think we know the answer to that question: The mayor and the council he (in theory) leads are elected by the citizens of Toronto to run the city. And we watch the headlines as council spends hours and hours, month after month, haggling over plastic bags and the mayor’s attendance at high-school football practices.
Meanwhile, a whole different group of people is figuring out how to keep the garbage trucks moving and get the potholes repaired. In essence, council acts more like a board of directors for the city government, providing strategic direction, allocating money, and hiring and firing managers. But city staff have to make it all work—an incredibly complicated task.
So council governs the city, but if you ask outright around City Hall who truly runs the place, the whispered response you often hear is that Joe Pennachetti, the city manager, is steering the ship. About 35,000 of the city’s employees report to him, and he reports to city council. (Arms-length agencies report separately: For example, the police service reports to Chief Bill Blair, and transit employees report to TTC CEO Andy Byford.) Pennachetti drafts the budget under the supervision of the chair of the budget committee before it is submitted to politicians for modification and approval. He oversees all the research that councillors use to make their decisions.
On paper, the city manager and the staff he supervises take all their orders from the elected officials on city council. But lately, it seems those orders aren’t always being followed. News reports in December revealed that in 2008 and 2009, staff had spent less than a third of the money budgeted by council to repair the Gardiner Expressway, and decided to reallocate the rest. In 2010, a study that council had ordered to investigate tearing down the Gardiner (among other options) had been quietly halted; the funds set aside for it were spent on other Waterfront Toronto projects. And when new chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat launched a consultation earlier this year on how to pay for additional transit construction, Rob Ford’s executive committee’s instruction that the discussion should include public-private partnerships was ignored.
These episodes provide rare peeks into a constant (and often invisible) conflict at City Hall. Not the left-vs.-right, suburbs-vs.-downtown, car-vs.-bike battles that occupy the headlines, but the tension between the 45 politicians (the councillors and the mayor) elected to govern the city and the more than 50,000 staff workers hired to actually run it (ranging from street sweepers to urban planners to senior managers). While Pennachetti—and other senior city staff, like Keesmaat and deputy city managers Roberto Rossini, John Livey, and Brenda Patterson—are relatively anonymous figures, glimpsed by the public mostly when they impassively field grandstanding questions from city councillors at public meetings, they are the people who truly operate Toronto’s government, often shaping policy decisions away from public view.
As councillor Janet Davis points out, many city staff workers believe the role of elected officials is to provide broad direction—but the details should be left to the pros on staff. “The [staff] philosophy is that [council] should decide what is delivered…and they should decide how it’s delivered.”
From her point of view, that’s a problem, especially when it comes to drafting the budget. “Things disappear. Yeah, absolutely, things get bumped,” she says, noting that projects approved by council are sometimes silently omitted from a new year’s budget, either deliberately or by neglect.
Davis has served on city council since 2003 and is now regarded as a fierce Rob Ford critic. She says she has been trying for years to determine how so much of the city’s capital budget came to be allocated to the transportation department: “Who decided? How is it that all the extra money is now going to roads? And Joe [Pennachetti] says, ‘I decided.’”
Davis also says she’s frustrated that council can approve a budget for certain staffing levels, only to see the city bureaucracy decide to leave some positions vacant, in order to save money—a practice known as “gapping.”
“There were 2,000 [job] vacancies. We approved a budget in 2012 that said there would be these services and these people doing them. And [Joe Pennachetti] left them vacant, and that affected services. Once the budget is approved, we have no mechanism to monitor whether or not staff is delivering on what’s in that budget…It’s not right.”
And staff don’t really even need to openly defy council, she says, if they disagree with a decision. “It’s amazing how an election can bury things…. Any outstanding reports are dead when an election happens. So if you can rag the puck until the end of the term, they’re gone.”
Responding to questions by email, Joe Pennachetti acknowledges that friction is part of the process. “Sometimes there are sensitivities between staff and councillors on certain issues but that’s the nature of the environment we work in, and I have the utmost confidence in staff and their professionalism.” But he stresses that the role of the staff is not to make policy. “I want to make it clear that staff implement policy and direction approved by council. Staff do not make decisions on issues that require council approval. Councillors have an opportunity to raise issues in committee or council, and staff follow and implement their direction.”
Responding directly to Davis’s concerns, Pennachetti notes that the details of the staff-recommended budget are made available to all councillors, who can make any changes they wish through the budget and executive committees and the budget meetings of the full council—and that he and the other senior staff appear at those meetings to answer questions from councillors. He adds that it was not solely his decision to allocate capital spending to roads—that recommendation in the budget was approved by city council.
When asked about the Gardiner and hiring policies, Pennachetti writes, “With respect to the suspension of the Gardiner environmental assessment, staff were asked to explain the decision-making process to suspend it through the budget process and reported back to budget committee in January. In the case of ‘gapping,’ the city lifted its hiring restrictions in January 2012 and all divisions are now hiring to fill vacant positions that were previously gapped.”
As for those “sensitivities” Pennachetti mentions that are part of the work environment, it’s easy enough to see things from the staffers’ side. Senior city staff are often trained professionals—engineers, urban planners, MBAs—with decades of practice keeping the city’s government moving. They are expected to use their expertise to carefully evaluate problems and form plans to manage the city’s goals, but they often see that thankless work subjected to the whims of amateurs, elected officials who may have a completely unsophisticated understanding of the relevant details. And they are constantly being asked to do more with less money and fewer bodies.
Councillor Jaye Robinson, a Ford-friendly but centrist politician, served for two decades on city staff, spending time as a manager in the events department (helping to launch the Summerlicious and Winterlicious festivals and bringing Nuit Blanche to Toronto). “My observation tells me that council sometimes drills down too far. We are there for oversight, that’s our job. And to create policy. And staff are there to implement it,” she says.
Robinson notes that the hostility councillors famously show each other at meetings often extends to civil servants, and they virtually bury bureaucrats in requests for reports. Taking direction from politicians and receiving criticism from the press can be frustrating for staff workers. “It’s part of the package, so you have to accept that. But a lot of these city staff are experts in their fields, and we want to attract the best-in-class to City Hall,” she says. “It gets discouraging. And you see it in the culture—a morale problem. I know a lot of the civil servants and they say that morale is just in the tank, so it’s disconcerting.”
Robinson goes to great pains to point out that this is not a problem particular to the Ford administration—the veteran of the civil service says she thinks the morale problems began with amalgamation. (And, indeed, there was grumbling about the sudden departures of long-serving managers under David Miller, as there has been under Ford.) Still, the conflict between professional staff and political will was clearly illustrated when TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster was very publicly fired last year by Ford’s allies on the transit commission after providing his opinion to council in favour of light-rail transit.
Despite their different takes on the staff vs. council turf battles, councillors Robinson and Davis seem to agree on two things: that the role staffers play in running the city is underappreciated by the general public, and that in this era, when efficiency-hunting and budget cutting are considered top priorities, staff are overworked and lack the resources to properly do all the things council asks of them. That alone takes its toll on morale.
In a way, it seems that the constant friction between staff and politicians is an endemic feature of democracy. Tensions between the two groups seem inevitable, especially when there is no party system or strong mayor powers to centralize authority at city council.
Even at the best of times, and especially when political legitimacy is up for grabs (as it has been in Toronto since city council started overruling the mayor), the question of who staff take direction from has no clear answer. “The Mayor’s Fiscal Review Panel report, released in 2008, noted that since the city manager and senior staff report to council as a whole, they essentially have ‘45 bosses’—each with unique priorities, perspectives, and ambitions,” writes André Côté in his recent report, The Fault Lines at City Hall. “This situation, the report argues, ‘makes for an unwieldy, needlessly politicized and unpredictable system.’”
Côté is the manager of programs and research at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and earlier in his career he worked in the city manager’s office. “When you think about the responsibilities that city administration and senior staff have and the number of different things they’re working on at any given time, and the very public nature of the role and the scrutiny that they get, the uncertainty they have about the reporting relationship—should they be taking direction from the mayor? Or from council?” he asks. “In my discussions with city staff, one of the huge challenges they have—and a major impetus for my paper—was that there’s a great deal of uncertainty about roles and accountability. And also around the clarity of council direction. It’s heightened at times when there’s political conflict between the mayor and council.”
But diagnosing the problem about roles and accountability is easier than prescribing a solution. In her 2012 annual report, city ombudsman Fiona Crean suggested that the province should pass a public service act for Toronto that would clearly delineate the roles of civil servants and outline how, and to whom, they will be held accountable. In his report, Côté says would be a “reasonable next step,” while also noting that the necessary informality of the working arrangements between politicians and public servants makes a high level of friction inevitable. “Personalities, values, and relationships matter,” Côté writes. “Legislation codifying rules and responsibilities will not change that fact.”
It’s not easy to imagine this friction ever disappearing entirely—it’s likely built into an arrangement where the experts are overseen by generalists. But certainly, the system needs to be adjusted so we can at least find out who makes certain decisions—like those about the Gardiner—and why. No one I spoke to thinks it’s appropriate for staff to be overruling council votes.
The entire process needs to be made more open, on all sides, so that city managers and their staff can clearly see what their responsibilities and goals are, without making guesses about political agendas and authority. And councillors and the general public should have enough information about how and why staff are doing what they are doing—not just when something goes wrong and winds up in the newspaper, but as a matter of course.
A first step, for most of us, is simply realizing that when it comes to Toronto’s government, paying attention to the people who staff it should be at least as important as scrutinizing council.