Monday, July 28, 2008



The questions of process and governance, which concern how politicians operate as they spend our taxes, are boring for most taxpayers. About as exciting as the cliche about watching paint dry.
Which is what the politicians count on. They want us to lose interest as they grab more power and money and time.
Since I wasn't going to get much to write about in my column, I didn't jump immediately when the Toronto Board of Trade invited me to be the only media member of an eminent task force it was establishing to consider recommendations to Queen's Park about how Toronto council should function. Obviously our views would be considered for all the councils in Ontario, so it was important work, but it wasn't going to trigger much news.
I found the first meeting to be impressive for both the quality of my colleagues and the nature of the support the board was giving the task force. Unfortunately when we did report, no one noticed that much and we were lost in the shuffle as Mel Lastman's term as mayor ended and the city was actually excited at the contest between David Miller, John Tory and a host of usual suspects to be Mel's replacement.
Mike Wilson, the former finance minister who is now the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., was a thoughtful member. Then there was Al Leach, the former transit bureaucrat who as the urban affairs minister had rushed Toronto into amalgamation. There were men who ran the family mutual fund business and former City Hall insiders who had been the city clerk, housing boss, planning commissioner, CAO etc,
The mood through the meetings was to give mayors more power to implement the agenda they had promised during the election campaigns. And for council to be allowed by its provincial master to do more without being vetoed. More money for the city treasury from the senior governments was also a major idea.
But it's noteworthy that a few former City Hall bureaucrats who I admired did not go along with the majority. And they were receptive as I tried a rebellion against giving the mayor more power, in the jargon, ending the "weak" mayor of Canadian councils where the mayor just had one vote but the most influence, and adopting instead a "strong" mayor system where the mayor was given extra powers to dictate wishes to council.
My basic argument was that this strong mayor that many wanted was a grand idea if you had a good mayor, a strong, imaginative, compassionate, individual, but what if you got a weak dumb man or woman who just wanted to have a good time and allow a few insiders to run things and line their pockets.
I argued that under the old system, a mayor had to persuade a majority of the 44 councillors to vote their way on everything, so there was a check on arrogance or the imposition of a bad idea. And I had the support of those who had worked for the Toronto mayor or chairman of the regional "Metro" council, or who had been the boss of a major department or the entire civic service. (I've known every mayor for half a century --and written the memoirs of one--so I knew what those insiders did, that some mayors couldn't run a doghouse if they weren't propped up by colleagues and officials.)
Nothing much happened with our report, but unfortunately the flavour of a "strong" mayor system remained. And the idea died that a few of us supported, that the four municipal regions each elect one executive councillor across its area who would serve as the deputy mayor for that area and also sit with the mayor on the most powerful committee. It obviously would be the training ground or incubator for future candidates for mayor since someone who has been elected only in one of 44 wards has a herculean task to tackle a mayor who has been elected across all the wards.
But now we are stuck with a system where it will be incredibly difficult to rid ourselves of a bad mayor. I wonder if any member of that task force remember my warning of a few years ago, now that Queen's Park has allowed Miller to become a "strong" mayor, virtually a dictator. And the same Liberal government then handed out a four-year term.
This may become an eternal agony.
What our task force seemed to miss, and this council majority ignores, is that Torontonians want the most important duty of a council to be just to run things well. Grand schemes are nice, but make the roads work and fix the potholes and pull the weeds and keep the pools open and let's not have a tax increase every single year. We don't want Miller to endlessly blame senior governments for Toronto's financial woes but to give us efficient government rather than the present bloated mess.
We want the Miller majority to stop looking into the heavens and promising us pie paid for by the feds and province and instead look at the ground and a crumbling infrastructure.
The Miller majority has been given this extraordinary power by provincial pols who never thought of my question of what happens if you get a weak mayor. So we have a council that spends more time worrying about the homeless than those who are about to be taxed out of their homes.
We didn't care about the endless debate over governance. All we wanted was a city that worked. Instead, we got a council that didn't.

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