Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

In defence of Toronto city council, a government that kind of (mostly) works

By: Metro Canada Published on Fri Aug 29 2014

While I have my issues with the government of the city I call home, I also think Toronto city council generally gets a bad rap.

Council, which wrapped up its final meeting of the term yesterday, has been called childish and dysfunctional. Some, like Mayor Rob Ford, have argued that there are simply too many councillors, implying that a better job could be done by fewer people. But much of the criticism is unwarranted — or at least overstated.

Take, for example, the tiny tempest that erupted last week after an item appeared on council’s agenda regarding changing the lyrics to “O Canada” to be more gender neutral. The member motion by Coun. Ceta Ramkhalawansingh sparked blocks of derisive talk radio segments and a series of newspaper editorials and columns which accused councillors of wasting time debating irrelevant issues.

But, whoops, council never ended up having a debate on the national anthem. The item didn’t get anywhere close to the two-thirds vote it needed to formally get to the floor for debate. In the end, all that griping about council wasting time was itself a waste of time.

Meanwhile, most of the issues council did debate this week were actually of local importance. They discussed the McNicoll Bus Garage, a TTC project that is vital to maintaining adequate bus service across the city. They debated items related to their accountability offices. They approved a deal with MLSE for a Raptors practice facility that will give residents — including, yes, low-income youth who might live in TCHC buildings — access to new recreation programs. They fought through local opposition to approve the relocation of a homeless shelter.

And, oh yeah, they gave their assent to a whopping 755 storeys of new development.

Where council seems dysfunctional, it’s generally because municipal government is the only level of government that occurs in real-time. There are no parties dictating vote results along membership lines. There’s no cabinet working behind the scenes to set the government agenda and keep heated arguments off the floor. It’s free-wheeling, with individual councillors sometimes not deciding on how they will vote on an issue until the literal last minute. That can make for chaos, but it’s a more honest and accessible form of governance.

None of this means that council wouldn't benefit from a few changes to how it does business, and one of council’s biggest issues is that they deal with too many issues.

Their system is set up so that certain decisions can either be handled by city staff, based on council policy, or can be debated only at the community council level — smaller councils that mirror the old pre-amalgamation governments. But in practice, the full city council still ends up dealing with too many small-scale local issues.

For instance, yesterday council spent too much time debating what to do with two trees — one in Etobicoke and one in North York. Things got heated. But there’s no reason for a Scarborough councillor to offer their two cents on a tree on the other side of the city. Either let city staff make these decisions or send them to a more local level.

Just no more debates about individual trees. The next council should call for a review of which issues are delegated to staff and which go to committees.

Council’s other big problem is that 44 of the 45 members are tied to a ward — a small part of the city. Only the mayor, in theory, is concerned with the city as a whole. This tends to make council far too susceptible to NIMBY arguments as councillors work to appease their constituents — sometimes at the expense of the city as a whole.

The quick fix? More councillors, not fewer. The city needs elected councillors who can’t be swayed by the whims of small groups of residents. We need more big picture representatives who won’t be afraid to support things like homeless shelters or bus garages that, while undoubtedly good for Toronto, tend to face fierce local resistance.

As a solution, consider electing councillors at-large, who either represent the whole city or much larger parts of it. We could even look at making the TTC chair a separate elected position, so there is at least one elected official completely focused on the needs of Toronto’s transit system.

But even as things currently stand, council doesn’t deserve your derision. With a leadership vacuum and nearly non-stop circus music wafting out of the mayor’s office, council still managed to keep a handle on the business that keeps Toronto going.

So don’t bury your council. Praise it. Because ultimately it’s a government that — albeit slowly and sometimes tortuously — gets things done. To still be able to say that after the past four years is pretty impressive.

This post was originally published at on 2014-08-29T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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