STRONG LEADERS WITH FEET OF CLAY
It's the lazy approach to politics. Instead of worrying about all the pieces in the jigsaw of government power, the voters worry only about the boss of it, the person they think holds the jigsaw.
So we had a municipal election that for most voters and the media was simply a contest between Rob Ford and George Smitherman and not the hundreds of other candidates for mayor, councillor and school trustee.
It's an old gag in Canada that voters emerge from the voter's booth waving the ballot with puzzled air and demanding to know where is the name of the person they want to elect PM or Premier, not having figured out that can only be the choice in several ridings, and that the PM or premier only gets power if they have most of the MPs or MPPs whose names are on all the other ballots.
Of course, after the elections in the senior levels of government, the voters and the media pay the most attention to the leader and, to vary a cliche, the ordinary MP or MPP is not known 100 steps away from the Parliament Buildings or the Legislature, and too many of them don't even feel they have recognition or power within the buildings.
The municipal election focussed almost completely on the views of Ford and Smitherman. Since election day, the talk is all about what Ford will do. There is the occasional story about the plans of mere councillors for the TTC or in environmental and cultural areas. But there's been drowned by the attention to whom Ford is going to choose to be committee chairs or to run important bodies.
Let's not forget that Ford is only one of 45 votes on Toronto council. With his perceived and real powers, he leads the most important voting bloc. Yet he still needs the support of 22 councillors to pass anything important.
It has always been that way in Toronto because even though a "strong mayor system" has been thrust upon it, Ford still doesn't have many of the mayoral powers of the United States where strongmen have flourished in New York, Chicago and all the other big cities.
There are many who wish the Toronto mayor had more powers. Count me out! Just look at the damage to the basic infrastructure of Toronto because Dave Miller was so busy dancing on the world environmental stage, he forgot to fill the potholes.
The people who I join in opposing a strong mayor system point out that it's fine if you get a great man or woman, but what happens if you get a lemon. You can't just make lemonade.
I summarize the argument here by reciting one of the common sense rules of life : Don't put all your eggs in one basket.
Ford has promised as his term comes to an end to deal with the size of council, perhaps cutting the number of councillors in half. Council should also decide to reduce the term from four years to three, because the first four-year term was hardly a success. I also think council and Ford should consider reducing some of the powers under our modified strong mayor system.
In 2003, the Toronto Board of Trade, to its credit, established a task force examining City Hall governance. The membership was led by Mike Wilson, the former finance minister and U.S. ambassador, Al Leach, the provincial municipal minister who brought in amalgamation, and some who had been powerful insiders at City Hall as the clerk and CAO.
Most task force members favoured Toronto adopting a strong mayor system and a longer four-year term. They argued that this would allow a mayor to implement the platform upon which he had been elected. As the only media member of the task force, I was pleased to have some former City Hall senior bureaucrats argue along with me that there were dangers in giving too much power to a mayor. He or she should have to persuade a majority of the councillors. The mayor shouldn't be able to impose the will of the office.
We also saw value in having a deputy mayor elected in each of four sections: Etobicoke/ York, Toronto/East York, North York and Scarboro. They would form a cabinet with the mayor. The position would also be a launching pad for good deputies to challenge the mayor at election time who now has the incredible advantage of being the only politician elected previously in a race over all 22 ridings.
Our report got lost in the process. I last wrote about it on July 28, 2008, under the blog headline Overdosing On Powers At City Hall.
Cub reporters are told not to write many stories about political process because most readers have little interest. Process stories are covered by the cliche that you should never watch sausages being made. Trouble is, that's when the horse-trading is done, in the backrooms, in the tedious progress of any bylaw or law through the political machine.
Tinkering with council's structure is process, not seen as important as the future of the TTC, police staffing and decayed roads. But unless we have a more efficient council in dealing with the city's needs and the voters' wants, it's a little like asking a carpenter to renovate your kitchen while leaving most of the tools in the truck.