Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Five items for council's agenda (that aren't plastic bags or casinos)

By: Metro Canada Published on Wed May 23 2012

Things are moving pretty slow at City Hall these days.

After council's historic and hard-fought transit decision in March, the political process ground to a halt. The mayor, after much consideration, decided to put a bunch of his energy toward a doomed-from-the-start move to cancel the city's mandatory five cent plastic bag fee. It's a waste of time. He's also been seriously mulling over the province's self-serving offer to put a casino on Toronto's waterfront, though even that decision has been delayed to the fall.

Most everything else – even his pledge to contract out the rest of the city's garbage collection – is off the table, pushed back so Ford can focus on reelection in 2014. Which, if my calendar is right, is still more than two years away.

Waiting around for two years while little happens is only going to make council look dysfunctional and useless. The time is right for councillors to set aside the mayor and start pushing through some ideas all their own. They know they don't need Rob Ford's vote to get things done.

With that in mind, here are five potential items ripe for council's agenda in this post-Ford era. In the interest of fairness, I've limited my suggestions to items that actually have a chance of seeing support from conservative and centrist councillors. Which means I had to give up my dream of the world's largest drum circle and a city-wide Noam Chomsky book club. Maybe next term.

1. Co-ordinate traffic lights for cars and transit

People sure do hate it when they hit red lights at every intersection when moving around Toronto. Synchronizing those signals to ensure steady and consistent greens is actually crazy complicated, owing to this city's varied travel patterns. Still, staff have noted that there's room for improvement and a council-endorsed investment in new technologies for traffic light sequencing is bound to help things get moving.

This kind of improvement wouldn't only benefit those behind the wheel. Any examination of the city's traffic signals has to come with a look at the signal priority system available for transit vehicles. Streetcars, buses and light rail vehicles run better when they're not forever waiting at red lights.

2. Accelerate plan to lower commercial tax rates

Yes, the city needs new revenues which likely means new taxes, but Toronto's high commercial property tax rates – still significantly higher than equivalent rates in many 905 municipalities – present a unique challenge. They threaten the vitality of commercial space being built on the ground floor of condo towers and could throw off the city's lofty plans for real mixed-use neighbourhood development.

David Miller's council put in place a sensible plan to gradually lower these tax rates, but that plan could use a second look. While they're at it, council should also consider removing the huge tax break commercial landlords get when they don't have tenants in their buildings. As written, it seems to mostly encourage real estate speculation and derelict storefronts.

3. Emphasize front-line customer service

Ford promised a variety of customer service improvements during his mayoral campaign, but virtually none of them have been implemented so far. Council should push him.

Kick things off with increased transparency and accountability. Take a page from a popular newspaper feature and allow residents to publicly report on the broken stuff in their neighbourhood. List all the reports on the city's website and provide status updates as things get fixed. Make it obvious that staff are working hard every day to make the city better.

4. Find a permanent, long-term strategy for affordable housing

Fixing public housing by selling public houses is a bad idea. That council actually considered this just goes to show how deep Toronto's affordable housing crisis really is.

TCHC's repair backlog is creeping toward the billion dollar mark with no end in sight. The staggering reality of that number has some councillors floating ideas that sound dangerously close to the kind of mid-century thinking that saw poor people shunted into isolated tower developments, cut off from existing neighbourhoods. We need to reverse course.

Councillor Ana Bailão has been handed the housing file, but she'll need a receptive council willing to embrace innovative ideas. A question to consider: with all that rich private sector residential development happening all over the city, how many of those units have been set aside for affordable housing?

5. Lead the way on voting reform for 2014

Per the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT), 14 councillors have come out in support of voting reform thus far. They've all said they want Toronto to move toward a balloting system for elections that allows people to rank their top candidates. That support runs across ideological and party lines – it's universal.

And why wouldn't it be? Our current electoral system is unfair and leads to vote splitting. Ranked ballots are a simple fix for a complex problem – instead of having to do calculus to determine how to prevent their least-favourite candidate from winning, voters should be able to put an X beside the person they actually want representing them, then rank their other top choices. Easy.

Ford spends a lot of time talking about how it's important to listen to voters. Let's start by making it easier for voters to tell us who they really want representing them at City Hall.

This post was originally published at on 2012-05-23T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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