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Hamburgers vs. homelessness: Mayor Rob Ford & council struggle to define priorities

By: Metro Published on Fri Apr 05 2013

For me, the best moment of Toronto City Council's meeting this week came from Coun. Josh Matlow. The Ward 22 rep, who has sometimes found himself the subject of jokes because of his commitment to earnest even-handedness, stood up late in the day on Wednesday in the midst of what would turn out to be a three-hour debate on whether there should be a Hero Burger established in Nathan Phillips Square.

“We are debating menu items at a restaurant,” said an exasperated Matlow, directing his comments as a question to Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday. “Chicken and burgers and fish and all these things. At the last council meeting, we decided that discussing shelters for our homeless community was not a priority for us to debate and resolve. Yet, do you understand why we've identified this matter to be a priority item for council to discuss today?”

His remarks were ruled out of order, but he drew applause from the public attending the meeting — and for good reason.

In a lot of ways, politics is about priorities. It has to be. There are so many competing issues swirling around at any one time that the first job of any effective politician must be to identify the stuff that is truly important and actionable.

It's in that light we have to consider, as Matlow did, both council's decision last month to delay debate on the issue of shelter space for homeless people in the city and the mayor's move this week to designate an item relating to the establishment of a Hero Burger near City Hall as a key matter to be debated without delay.

Those two events make for a weird set of political priorities.

The month-long delay on the shelter space issue is especially bizarre given the way it wrapped up this week. After all the rancour, Coun. Joe Mihevc was able to easily pass an amendment that will see staff work to increase the number of shelter beds available. Nothing in the motion seemed to benefit from the extra time — he could have drafted the exact same motion in February. And the vote wasn't even close, with only the mayor and two allies objecting. Go figure.

Both sides brought decent points to their arguments. Ford and supporters pointed out that the City had issued a request for proposals and Hero Burger won the bid. It makes no sense to go back on that, they said. A fair point. Likely a point I would have accepted.

Opponents, on the other hand, said that, while, yes, Hero Burger is great, it doesn't seem to fit with an original vision for the Nathan Phillips Square revitalization project that had grand ambitions beyond burgers and fries. Also a fair point, though I sort of wonder why councillors and staff weren't able to get the process right the first time.

In the end, Ford got his way on the hamburgers — though apparently not on the homeless. He called it a victory. I'll give it to him.

But, oh yeah, another thing about that Nathan Phillips Square revitalization project: Ford was against it every step of the way. He even tried to shut the whole thing down. As part of the 2008 budget process, Ford, then just a councillor, moved an amendment asking that all funding be removed for the project. He also moved that all funding be removed for the project to implement the 311 call centre and the entire city-wide Bike Plan.

Ford lost that vote. And a good thing, too. Had he won, we'd never have gotten the burger place. And then who knows where his priorities would be.

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2013/04/05/hamburgers-vs-homelessness-mayor-rob-ford-council-struggle-to-define-priorities.html on 2013-04-05T00:00:00.000Z

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