Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Toronto council continues to ignore the experts under John Tory

By: Metro Published on Mon Jun 15 2015

If you’ve ever wondered why qualified professionals tend not to want to work in the public sector, consider Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat as Exhibit A.

Keesmaat, by all accounts an accomplished urban planner who reportedly took a steep pay cut to work at Toronto City Hall, has been given a rough ride since she was appointed in 2012. She’s seen it all: the general dismissal of her work, political meddling, attempts to keep her silent, Twitter spats.

Things were supposed to get better with the election of John Tory to the mayor’s job. As part of his election bid, Tory unveiled a “code of conduct” he would adhere to as mayor. Tucked away among his promises to show up to work on time and, uh, not commit criminal acts, there was this: “I will always treat city staff with respect and professionalism.”

But city hall’s contentious debate on the eastern Gardiner Expressway — which ended (for now) with a narrow 24-21 vote to keep the elevated highway with some ramp modifications — left me wondering how committed the mayor is to that promise.

The Globe & Mail reported that Tory didn’t take kindly to Keesmaat publicly announcing her support for removing the Gardiner East. There was a meeting held in the mayor’s office to discuss it. After the meeting, Keesmaat stopped tweeting about the issue. There was silence.

Nick Kouvalis, a former Tory campaign advisor, took things even further, composing a bizarre string of tweets in which he accused Keesmaat of having an ego that spans international borders.

It’s not clear what great sin Keesmaat committed. The city-commissioned report on the Gardiner concluded that removing the Gardiner East was preferred from a planning perspective, with no room for ambiguity.

As such, Keesmaat, as someone with a responsibility to her profession, had no choice but to take the stance she did. To do otherwise would be like a marine biologist saying petroleum is good for the ocean.

That doesn’t mean Tory had to agree with Keesmaat’s conclusions. This debate was about more than just planning issues. But the proper reaction for those who disagreed was to refute the chief planner’s arguments with reasonable facts and evidence.

Instead, it appears Tory’s office thought she shouldn’t have publicly expressed those arguments at all.

It sets a bad precedent. The reason city hall hires qualified professionals is so elected officials get the best advice on issues. Transparency and accountability mean that advice must be given in public.

If that isn’t going to happen, why bother? Why have experts if politicians care little for their expertise?

This post was originally published at on 2015-06-15T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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