City hall’s status quo is greatly failing residents
Downtowners get what the suburbanites don’t — direct, relentless representation by councillors working for change
So many city hall comings and goings as September turns its back on a wet, forgettable summer.
Last month’s farewell to the well-lived public life of councillor Pam McConnell was just right — whimsical, poignant, haunting and real. Just like the councillor and school trustee of 35 years.
When do we ever send off a politician with renditions of James Oppenheim’s “Bread and Roses,” Phil Ochs’ “When I’m Gone” and the capper, “Who Put the Bomp?” In the Cathedral Church of St. James, no less.
And what is it about these New Democrat city councillors that so endear constituents and evoke lasting appreciation and love. Yes, love. Dan Leckie. Jack Layton. Pam McConnell . . .
Maybe it’s because they loved us first. Maybe it’s because they dared to spend public money to deliver public benefits to segments of the public doomed to lives of poverty and disengagement, without help.
Socialists, yes. And proud of it. Ever since I migrated from the suburban city councils to report and comment on politicians charged with the inner city and the entire Toronto populace, I have concluded that what the suburbs lack — in spades — is the direct, relentless representation that downtowners get from a succession of councillors.
Jane-Finch, Rexdale, Dixon, Malvern, Galloway and Lawrence— Weston Rd. would be more like Regent Park and Alexandria Park if they had been represented by Layton, McConnell and their ilk.
It’s not just a matter of party, either. Anthony Perruzza is a New Democrat; as is Maria Augimeri and Glenn De Baeremaeker. But these suburban lefties are tame versions of the downtown socialists. And it shows.
Meanwhile, if your suburban ward is represented by a right-wing councillor, you are doomed, or endangered, no matter your obvious and public need. How is it possible for north Etobicoke to be so bereft of public gems: amenities that define and mark a place as desirable public space; parks animated or equipped with more than trees and natural trails?
Do you hear councillors from suburban at-risk neighbourhoods raising hell at city hall for improvements? Rarely.
But you hear them crying about property taxes. You hear them threatening to block traffic if the city dares to improve their neighbourhoods with light rail transit, because, y’know, a subway is coming, in, ah, er, 150 years. And who wants those damned streetcars getting in the way of cars?
One of the most controversial councillors of them all, Doug Ford, is about to run for mayor again. At least his brother, the late mayor, had some local and community bona fides. Besides, he engendered sympathy because he presented as goofy. Dougie has neither charm, heart, soul or wit; his is calculated goodness at its cynical and political core.
Toronto will benefit from a Doug Ford mayoralty as much as Etobicoke north did from a Doug Ford term as councillor. Not nearly.
So, bully for Councillor Vincent Crisanti for endorsing Doug Ford for mayor. Crisanti is the classic old school ward heeler. He attends to local events, drops in on groups frequently to kiss the babies, squeeze the flesh. Yet his ward remains among the poorest. And his affiliation with the Fords, while giving him success at the polls, does nothing to lift Ward 1 from the dumps.
If the likes of Layton, Joe Pantalone, Adam Vaughan represented Ward 1, the advances would have been obvious and many.
One other “going” is chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, leaving at the end of the month. You have read nice things about her in this space. But don’t get carried away. Like the man I respect greatly — former city manager Joe Pennachetti — Keesmaat did not do enough to derail the subway to Scarborough.
Both hid behind excuses that they cautioned the politicians against the subway and outlined the massive, unnecessary costs. But, if they did, they engaged in way too benign ways.
They knew where the bodies were buried. They knew the damning details and stats and figures that a reporter could mine to show how utterly ridiculous the subway deci- sion was. They did not rail. They did not respond as if their own money, reputation and future were at stake. Instead of leaking that information — pointing to the smoking gun — they covered up for the politicians, sometimes with incomprehensible gobbledygook.
There is a long history of this. Civil servants swallow their tongues, do the bidding of their political masters and then ride off leaving a predictable mess behind. We must demand and expect more from those close to the emperor.
So, just to be clear. Politicians should not be trusted with crafting transit plans. (Just imagine what we will hear in the 2018 mayoral election.)
Yes, our system requires elected officials vote and sign off. But we need a way to embolden city staff and consultants and planners to feed their information into a public pot of debate and consideration — where the data and conclusions must stand the test of reason, inquiry, study and examination. So much depends on a new approach.
The status quo is robbing us blind and sending us to the public poorhouse.
Now, after the horses have bolted, we are engaging auditors to tell us exactly how badly we’ve been duped. Royson James’ column appears weekly. firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you hear councillors from suburban at-risk neighbourhoods raising hell at city hall for improvements? Rarely