After Rob Ford reverses on fees for sports fields, why not fix other budget mistakes?

As I write this, Mayor Rob Ford has put forward a motion at today's council meeting that will waive new 2012 fees planned for city sports fields and other recreational facilities. After supporting the new user fees as part of the overall budget in January, the mayor now wants to hold off on implementation of new fees until after a consultation process can take place.

The new fees had been termed – rather theatrically – as a “tax on kids.”

Ford's motion will almost definitely pass, probably unanimously. With that vote, council will have erased a mistake they made when they approved a sweeping change to the operation of public sports facilities without consultation or debate. It'll be a nice, bipartisan victory for all involved.

But even past the particulars of baseball diamonds and soccer fields, the precedent this sets is interesting on its own: if council is willing to reopen their approved budget and right the wrongs contained therein, why stop with sports fields? As services start to erode, why not use this opportunity to fix some of the city's other budget mistakes?

Take the example of the High Park Zoo. Local councillor Sarah Doucette has been working around-the-clock to prevent the century-old public facility from closing, essentially presenting a cherished piece of Toronto's history as a hard-luck charity case. The cost of operating the zoo is so small it's almost invisible in the context of the larger civic budget. With the $1.5 million council will divert to waive planned user fees for sports facilities in 2012, the city could operate the zoo for more than six-and-a-half years. No last-minute private donations needed.

We've seen the same situation with farms in Riverdale Park and on Toronto Island, beloved family-friendly institutions that come at a minimal cost but have been forced to fight for their lives over the last year.

There are other examples. The city has an $8 million surplus after a mostly snow-free winter – that cash would be enough to reverse most of the recent TTC cuts if applied to next year's budget, or it could be used to pay for some new buses the TTC has said it can't afford. Either way, it's time council took a stand on transit cuts – is the plan to keep whittling down bus service in the suburbs, or will transit once again become a priority?

The same goes for a longer-term, more sustainable approach to other services that have ended up on the chopping block: access to community centre programs in priority neighbourhoods, the Toronto Public Library's budget for its collection and educational programs or the bevy of 10% cuts being implemented at various departments across the city bureaucracy. It's that 10% mandate, remember, that almost resulted in the elimination of email service at 311 before council stepped in.

If the goal is cost reduction, then set a goal for continuous improvement that still maintains service levels where demand warrants. Use a scalpel, not a butcher knife. And, seriously: take the time to consult with the people your cuts will most directly impact.

Ford's motion at City Hall today has to stand as a tacit admission that his administration's independent, bulldozer-like approach to the city's finances has been a mistake. Any review of the impacts of this mayor's budget should extend beyond the boundaries of the city's sports fields to look squarely and honestly at the city's civic priorities. It's time to get back to sensible budgeting that preserves and promotes the services this city values.

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/04/10/ford-reverses-on-fields.html on 2012-04-10T00:00:00.000Z

On the waterfront: swapping green space for development lands a lousy trade

Six months removed from the political fight that erupted over the port lands – monorails and Ferris wheels, remember? – Toronto's 1,000-acre block of prime developable land is back in the news this week. Waterfront Toronto has a revised plan for the lands that they've been showing off at a series of public events.

The tweaked plan has been savaged by audiences. At the consultation I attended last night at the Westin Habour Castle, nearly every comment from the public panned the notion of changing the plan to accommodate an accelerated development schedule. No one seemed to understand why an accelerated plan was even desirable in the first place – especially if it comes at the expense of 40 acres of planned green space.

In fact, much of the crowd gathered seemed to regard the suggestion of less green space as a personal affront. An insult.

Put plainly, it seems that while Doug Ford failed in his bid to completely transform plans for the port lands last summer, he's succeeded in muddying the process to the point where community stakeholders have been left confused and agitated. Even where small changes to the original plan make sense, community members are eyeing such changes with suspicion. There's an overwhelming concern that these moves on the waterfront are still politically-driven and part of a continued scheme by the Fords and associated hangers-on to sell off vast tracts of the waterfront to private developers.

It's all a little depressing. And it doesn't help that, hiding behind all the politics and lingering outrage, the fundamental truth about waterfront development at the mouth of the Don River has become clear: nothing can happen without a hell of a lot of money.

How we got here

Before Ford: After an extensive consultation process and an international competition, Waterfront Toronto decides on a plan for the Lower Don Lands (a major part of the port lands) that includes extensive naturalization of the Don River and two promontories creating a more natural landscape around the mouth of the river into Lake Ontario. Everyone is pretty happy with this plan, but it comes with a slightly prohibitive price tag: just the river naturalization and flood protection are set to cost more than $600 million.

The Ford Impact: Cue the mayor's brother, who hits the scene with a splash last summer. In one fell swoop, Doug Ford declared Waterfront Toronto to be a “boondoggle” and their plan for the port lands lacking when compared to his own vision: a retail shopping and tourism destination with a megamall, monorail and maybe even the world's largest Ferris wheel.

People react about as well as you'd expect them to. No one seems to think the port lands is the right spot for Doug Ford's Navy Pier. Community members get organized and even Ford-allied councillors start to make some noise about voting against the plan as proposed. Ultimately, the Fords hit the eject button and council forges a consensus where they all agree to ask for a study on options for accelerating port lands development. Councillors stress that Waterfront Toronto will remain the lead on the project and that the original plan remains intact.

And now: The acceleration study concludes that acceleration isn't possible. Over the next twenty years, the best case scenario says only about 20% of the 1000 acres of developable land in the port lands can support residential, commercial or industrial use. And that's after making some pretty optimistic assumptions about Toronto's real estate market.

The study also points out that the infrastructure requirements – water, electricity, transit – would mean significant up-front public investment, especially if the desire is to build a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly waterfront neighbourhood and not, you know, a canyon of condos with no amenities.

The study does conclude, however, that approximately $175 million could be saved off the originally-projected $634 million cost of river naturalization and flood protection with the elimination of 40 acres of greenspace.

This tweak doesn't do much in terms of making the plan more affordable or doable. There's still a huge upfront cost – it's just a little less huge. It doesn't seem to significantly impact the ability to phase development or to kickstart projects in the near-term. And it doesn't bring Toronto any closer to enjoying the vibrant waterfront residents want.

All it really does is trade some green space for some extra land that could, some day, be sold to developers, all in the name of saving a few bucks. Not a great trade – not now and definitely not for the future.

While there are some who worry that the Fords have their fingerprints all over this new plan, I'm skeptical that the mayor's office still maintains any interest in the waterfront file. They've moved on from last summer's lakefront get-rich-quick scheme and on to the idea of a casino as the city's fiscal saviour.

Doug Ford did surface briefly, telling the Globe & Mail's Elizabeth Church that he was both vindicated by the tweaked plan (“I told you so,” he said) and also that he totally disagreed with the report's major conclusion that there was limited development potential over the next two decades. The councillor from Etobicoke has rendered himself irrelevant in this debate.

Far from being influenced by the nefarious Ford brothers, all Waterfront Toronto has done is produce the report council asked for. They've demonstrated that accelerated development is unlikely and that forward movement in the port lands requires significant public investment. And, yeah, they've said they could reduce some of those upfront costs by shrinking some green space and changing the flood protection landform.

When this plan comes back to to the chamber floor in June, it's up to councillors to indicate that they're not interested in that reduction of green space and that the naturalized areas around the realigned river are critical pieces of this plan that shouldn't be sacrificed.

The most important point made about waterfront development in the debate last year is came from John Lorinc. For Spacing, he explained why the prospects for near-term development were nil unless governments moved to give Waterfront Toronto the fundraising tools they need as a major development corporation:

That said, the Fords could actually do something that would shift this ocean liner of a project from first gear into second. And here’s the cherry on the sundae, guys; that little something wouldn’t cost you a dime:My suggestion: call your best bud Jim Flaherty (but not while driving) and ask him to start talks with Queen’s Park on legislation that would allow Waterfront Toronto to debenture, with the feds signing on as guarantors if those loans go south. The city’s piece of the deal: allow Waterfront Toronto to retain real estate revenues.By giving the agency the power to borrow within prescribed limits, Waterfront Toronto can take on the necessary mortgages to build vital infrastructure – the Don Mouth naturalization, public spaces, transit, etc. – in advance of planned development. The improvements to the public realm, in turn, serve to increase property values, thus creating more downstream revenue to the corporation, a portion of which it will use to pay down the aforementioned loans.

It's ridiculous to expect Waterfront Toronto to move forward on the Lower Don Lands when they're stuck waiting around for a government to swoop in with gift funding. Under the current governance model, little is likely to happen without a catalytic event like the Olympics or a major new university campus.

If council really wants to accelerate development along the water's edge, they should make a formal request to the federal government to grant Waterfront Toronto the powers it needs to raise money for infrastructure investment.

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/04/05/port-lands-update.html on 2012-04-05T00:00:00.000Z

Vaughan for Toronto? Carroll for Toronto? Who should run against Rob Ford in 2014?

With all eyes – including the mayor's – on the 2014 municipal election, we've started to see speculation about how the next mayoral race could shake out. Poll results showing that Rob Ford is remarkably vulnerable in a two-way race have only bolstered arguments that say, two and a half years out, that it's time to start thinking about the next campaign.

In a story for the Toronto Star last week, David Rider looked at some of the names most consistently floated as would-be mayoral candidates: Adam Vaughan, Shelley Carroll and Karen Stintz.

We can rule out Stintz as a contender. She and her staff have been adamant that there are no plans for the embattled TTC Chair to mount a mayoral run. As much as people want to make her actions on the transit file out to be a kind of power-grab against Rob Ford, I don't see it. If anything, the last three frustrating months are going to drive her further from the political arena – she's not going to dive deeper into the muck.

Downtown councillor Adam Vaughan, on the other hand, hasn't shied away from the speculation. He's got some strong poll numbers on his side. Forum Research's March Toronto Issues poll showed him trouncing the mayor by 12 points in a two-way race. Incredibly, Vaughan's actually polling better than the mayor in Etobicoke/York – the vaunted capital of Ford Nation.

As a candidate, Vaughan could be a bit of a mixed bag. His strengths are his ability to give eloquent – if maybe a tad long-winded – speeches and his extensive knowledge of civic issues. He also has a canny talent for making Rob Ford explode in furious anger, which could be a useful tactic in debates. Vaughan's major downside is his status as a downtown councillor and resident: he's vulnerable to the same kind of suburbs-versus-downtown messaging Ford's team employed successfully through 2010.

Shelley Carroll of North York, on the other hand, can speak with authority as a voice for the suburbs while also maintaining popularity amongst the downtown elite. Carroll might very well be the best on-paper candidate. She's got clout with both Liberals and the NDP on the municipal level and a broad base of experience, including some time as budget chief.

Her liabilities are her relative lack of name recognition – with media experience, Vaughan's got an edge there – and her consistent support for new revenue tools like a municipal sales tax. That last thing, it should be noted, could be a really tough sell to voters.

At the March 5 council meeting, Ford's allies took the curious step of trying to make Shelley Carroll the new TTC Chair.

The Toronto Sun's Don Peat explains:

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti put Carroll’s name forward to be on the TTC with the mayor’s blessing on Monday. Another Ford loyalist was poised to nominate Carroll for the job of chair. Before councillors voted to select the seven new TTC commissioners, Carroll turned down the nomination as a candidate for the TTC board.“I love Shelley Carroll, I honestly think she does a great job,” Mammoliti told reporters after the vote. “I honestly think she would have brought a different flavour to the new commission. I honestly think that the fighting may continue with the group that has been chosen.”

Part of this strategy was simply designed to try to spark in-fighting amongst the anti-Ford coalition on transit, but the other side of it stemmed from a realization that Carroll is very likely to be Ford's biggest challenger in the next election.

Carroll as TTC chair would tie her explicitly to the kind of issues that always plague the person in that seat – late buses, construction delays, sleeping fare collectors – and make her the face of surface rail in North York & Scarborough. It would give her opponents more mud to sling. In the future Ford vs. Carroll race, this stands as the first strategic campaign move.

The Ford team has reason to worry about Carroll as challenger. Where messaging against Vaughan is obvious, Carroll is more of a wildcard.

Ford's most workable path to reelection comes in a crowded field of candidates. With bedrock support of about 37%, Ford gains greatly from split votes. Per Forum Research, he'd win a race if matched up with both Vaughan and Stintz as principal opponents.

With the election campaign still so far off, there's a lot of room for shifting strategies and candidates, but one thing won't change: the left and centre-left in this city needs to find a single candidate they can support as their challenger to Ford. This can't be a free-for-all with five candidates sitting around a debate table again.

For their part, I think Vaughan and Carroll recognize this. In fact, I wonder if Vaughan's continued speculation is part of a divide-and-conquer strategy designed to keep the Ford team guessing.

At a recent Academy of the Impossible event, in response to a question by David Topping, Vaughan spoke openly about the prospect of a mayoral race with both himself and Carroll as candidates:

I would be wrong to say I'm not thinking about it, but I'm thinking about because I've been asked to think about it. I would be wrong to say that I'm going to run, because I haven't come to a conclusion in my own mind. And I would also not be lying to you to tell you we have really important work to be done at City Hall and it's really hard to be a candidate and do that work. Nonetheless, the only successful candidates are the ones who stick at City Hall and do that work before they become the mayor.So it's a process. You had Shelley Carroll here a couple of weeks ago and I think she said she was considering it. Shelley and I are actually considering it together – figuring out how it works. We had lunch just the other week to make sure that it was not about turning people against one another or running each other down. In fact, one of the things I really don't like about City Hall is the way in which Liberals and New Democrats seem better at fighting each other sometimes than they are at fighting the Tories.

Carroll, when asked the same question by Topping a few weeks earlier, was a bit more straightforward with her answer.

“Absolutely I’m considering it,” she said. “And I would be a fool to try to be coy about it.”

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/04/04/run-against-ford-2014.html on 2012-04-04T00:00:00.000Z

As the battle for Jarvis heats up, a call for pragmatism – not necessarily bike lanes

Last summer, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, with the backing of Mayor Rob Ford, led the charge to eliminate the bike lanes on Jarvis Street, which were installed in 2010. As a result, council decided to ignore traffic studies and the opinion of the local councillor – who found herself blind-sided by Minnan-Wong's move – and vote 27-18 to remove the lanes. Without some kind of political intervention, the city is set to spend more than $250,000 painting over the lanes and reverting the street to its previous operation later this year.

The elimination of the bike lanes was a dumb decision last summer and it remains a dumb decision today. At best, it stands as a complete waste of money. A less charitable take: it was an action driven almost entirely by political spite that will needlessly make commuting more dangerous for the people who live and work in the area around Jarvis.

Still, as the Toronto Cyclists Union launches a legal challenge against council's decision and rumours of plans for civil disobedience swirl, I can't help but call for some pragmatic thinking on this issue. It might be time to let the Jarvis bike lanes go.

Here's why: when council voted last summer, they in fact opted to do two things.

  • Remove the existing bike lanes on Jarvis.
  • Restore Jarvis to its previous configuration as a five-lane road with a reversible middle lane.
  • While both these actions have been bundled together as part of the great bike lane debate, one does not necessarily follow the other. The removal of the lanes doesn't instantly mean that the street needs to revert back to the five lane monstrosity it was previously – with ugly hanging traffic signals, super narrow vehicle lanes and recklessly speeding traffic.

    In fact, when the prospect of beautifying Jarvis first came up several years ago, it was the elimination of the fifth lane that was the major focus. The plan always called for the removal of that traffic lane and the use of reclaimed road space for wider sidewalks and public realm improvements. The idea, backed by community consultation, was to make shabby grey Jarvis a little greener. It wasn't until late in the political process that bike lanes were put on the table.

    Jarvis can become a welcoming and beautiful street even if it doesn't have bike lanes. But it can't become anything great if it has a reversible traffic lane running down the middle of it. In effect, maintaining the existing four lane configuration is significantly more important than keeping the bike lanes.

    Keeping the street at four lanes is also a more winnable fight.

    I simply can't see this council endorsing bike lanes on Jarvis. Even with the tide turned against the mayor, councillors like Karen Stintz hold firm to their belief that cyclists should be happy with the lanes on nearby Sherbourne. It's a view held by a lot of councillors, who feel their support for Minnan-Wong's puny network of separated bike paths is all the support the cycling community needs.

    Getting to the critical 23 votes needed on a theoretical revisiting of the Jarvis lanes would mean reaching not only middle-aligned councillors like Josh Colle, Gloria Lindsay Luby and Chin Lee, but also some mushy mayoral allies like Jaye Robinson, James Pasternak or Ron Moeser. The math doesn't look very good.

    In comparison, a motion that would seek to maintain the four lane configuration on Jarvis Street – which staff say has caused minimal traffic issues – and return to a plan that calls for improved sidewalks and more greenery does seem like something this council could easily endorse, especially if arguments in favour are divorced from the car-versus-bike rhetoric. Instead of wading back into that tired debate, this plan would be about improving the neighbourhood – about making sure that Jarvis has a chance to thrive as something more than a lifeless traffic arterial.

    Bike lanes or no bike lanes, the city has got to have a plan for Jarvis that respects its status as a place where people live, work and go to school. The fifth lane respects no one but rushed commuters from Rosedale.

    Even if council opts for a beautification plan without painted bike lanes, the upside for cyclists would be that a four-lane Jarvis Street would remain many times more hospitable to traffic on two wheels. It would also mean that bike lanes could be added back in the future, should the political weather start looking more favourable to people on bikes.

    Going forward, this necessary war for bike lanes can't distract from other improvements needed across Jarvis. All types of commuters – whether they're on two wheels or four – need to keep in mind that Jarvis is more than a means for you to get around. It's a could-be culturally-vibrant piece of a rapidly growing neighbourhood on the east side of downtown.

    More on the Bike Union's legal challenge

    The Bike Union's lawyers argue that the changes council wants to make to Jarvis require a full-scale Environmental Assessment, which would include public consultation. We'll see how the city's own legal staff responds, but either way this should be effective as at least a stall tactic. It'll buy some time.

    In general, I support the Bike Union's work on this issue: my ideal version of Jarvis includes bike lanes, provided they fit into the overall plan favoured by local residents. But I worry that advocates may be inching toward a bike-lanes-or-bust attitude that's too dogmatic and narrowly focused. My hope is that local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam is working behind the scenes to ensure – bike lanes or no bike lanes – Jarvis doesn't regrow its reversible fifth lane. That has to be the priority.

    This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/04/03/jarvis-bike-lanes.html on 2012-04-03T00:00:00.000Z

    Infographic: things we can learn from recorded votes on speaking extensions

    One of the best absurdities of the Rob Ford mayoralty is the mayor's relentless devotion to keeping his pledge to require recorded votes for every decision made at council meetings. Even as he sheds and forgets campaign promises related to service cuts, bike lanes, transit and other things, he clings to this one minor plank of his platform.

    Not that this promise doesn't have its good points – it leads to increased accountability & fun scorecards – but it does come with a major downside: it's made procedural business, the kind that used to pass with a quick voice vote, way more tedious and time-consuming. Under Ford, council can't even approve their meeting agenda without their fancy voting machines.

    The most flagrant example of how ridiculous this policy is found with speaking extensions. Previously, councillors received five minutes to speak on an agenda item and, if they ran out of time, they could ask for an extra two minutes that would virtually always be granted after a simple yay/nay voice vote. It was a minor part of council meetings that few paid much attention to.

    But under the Brave New World of Rob Ford, speaking extensions require a recorded vote, just like everything else. The time and money wasted on this is unfathomable: over the course of the 21 meetings held under this administration, council has considered 297 requests for an extra two minutes of speaking time. The voting process itself takes about a minute each time. That adds up to nearly five hours of meeting time in which elected officials have done nothing but press buttons.

    All 297 requests have been approved with minimal opposition. (The closest anyone came to being denied: Anthony Perruzza once saw an a bipartisan alliance of 17 councillors try to shut down a speech he was giving about the 2011 budget .)

    But, still, Ford isn't likely to cave on this any time soon – just as he wouldn't cave on subways or the budget or most other things. And so, stuck with the lemony reality of tedious and useless recorded votes for speaking extensions, we pour lemonade.

    Here's an infographic look at speaking extension votes over this council term.

    Click the image to view full-size.

    This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/04/03/infographic-speaking-extensions.html on 2012-04-03T00:00:00.000Z

    Rob Ford's issues with women: Jaye Robinson quits executive

    The Globe & Mail's Kelly Grant:

    Jaye Robinson, a fiscally conservative freshman councillor, has decided to quit the mayor’s executive committee at the end of the year.Part of the reason is her desire to reassert her independence. Part of it is the mayor's bungling of the subway file. And part of it is Ms. Robinson's own weariness at trying to be a moderating force on an administration that does little in moderation.“What is our vision for the city? What is the strategy? What is the plan? That’s been missing in the Ford agenda,” she says. “Unless there’s a significant change in approach – and I haven’t seen any indication of that – then I would not participate on executive in the second part of the term.”

    Robinson's move isn't really surprising – she's opposed the mayor enough times on the council floor that she can't even call herself an ally these days. If Ford ran his executive like his predecessor did, Robinson would have been punted off the committee shortly after she took up arms against Doug Ford's Port Lands plan.

    But even still, this is troubling news for the mayor for a couple of reasons.

    First, there's simple math. In the very best of cases, Ford only has 22 solid votes on council. And I can only get to that number if I include John Parker and Karen Stintz – both of whom the mayor has seemingly decided to alienate because they had the gall to oppose him on the transit file. Take them away, and he's got 20. Any way you look at it, Ford's in an uncomfortable position: he can't get the 23 votes he needs to pass agenda items unless he starts building bridges.

    Councillors quitting executive committee because they don't understand your vision for the city is not an encouraging sign for bridge building.

    The second thing is, as Kelly Grant calls it, the mayor's “female trouble.” Robinson's announcement comes on the heels of a similar announcement by fellow executive committee member Michelle Berardinetti. Berardinetti quit the budget committee – which reports to executive – on the same night council voted to dissolve the TTC commission. She's also said she's unsure about returning to the executive committee after this year.

    With Stintz, Robinson and maybe Berardinetti on the outs, Ford doesn't have any women to turn to for political support. Frances Nunziata, the only female councillor with a voting record that supports the mayor more than 90% of the time, isn't eligible to serve on executive committee due to her role as speaker.

    Female councillors are twice as likely to oppose Rob Ford on major votes

    The optics of an all-male executive are obviously terrible, but Ford has backed himself into a testosterone-filled corner with no options – his bedrock support is almost completely male. On average, men on council have supported the mayor 66% of the time on major items. Female councillors have supported him only 33% of the time. The women are the difference-makers on this council: without them, the mayor would still control the agenda.

    And it's not like all these women are card-carrying leftists. Even right-leaning women have, over time, found themselves at odds with the mayor's agenda. Gloria Lindsay Luby, who began this term thinking she'd work with the new mayor – they share a base ideology and a suburban outlook – ended up leading a charge against Ford's 2012 budget. Similarly, centrists like Ana Bailão and Mary-Margaret McMahon have seen themselves pushed – reluctantly – toward the opposition after the mayor refused to embrace compromise on key issues.

    It's way too simplistic to claim that the issue is just that women on council tend to be more left-leaning. There's got to be something systemic about the way Rob Ford has driven away his female allies over the last year. It seems the mayor's priorities and style of governance clash with the vision a lot of women have for council and this city.

    It's that clash – and the mayor's math problem – that threaten to set the tone for the rest of Rob Ford's term.

    This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/04/02/robinson-quits-executive.html on 2012-04-02T00:00:00.000Z