Thursday, December 9, 2010



Toronto council just voted to stop giving tea and cookies to the politicians, officials and their buddies during council and committee meetings. I confess I was the one that got the coffee break started 50 years ago.
And while I'm confessing to costing the city a lot of money, estimated now at $48,000 annually, let me add that I'm also the guy who got the admission charge eliminated for routine use of pools and rinks. Let the boos turn to cheers!
It was a weary council meeting around 1960 in the old council chamber where the three reporters - that was all there were at most meetings - sat inside the horseshoe of desks. All the reporters for the Tely, Star and Globe had to do to talk to aldermen was to walk a few feet to their desk and as long as you bent and didn't interfere with sight lines, you were ignored.
It was late in the day and I had the munchies. Of course, I had the munchies. I lived in a boarding house on Alexander St. without even a fridge so if I couldn't keep the food outside on the window sill, I had to eat it immediately. Limited my diet.
So I snuck over to a little female alderman from downtown, May Birchard, and said that it was a wonder no one got ill because of long meetings without any caffein. I suggested coffee or tea would be nice, and maybe Peak Freans. So Ald. Birchard, egged on by me, stood up, interrupting a colleague, and said Mr. Mayor, we need coffee to help us get through these meetings.
Nathan Phillips was stunned. Sit down, he yelled. I whispered that she shouldn't be pushed around by the mayor. So she interrupted the debate again, and demanded coffee. The mayor glared and hammered the gavel in exasperate but Birchard kept talking and the mayor agreed just to shut her up..
She looked at me, pleased that she had got on the good side of the Tely. Then I repeated that cookies would be nice too. So she rose again, defiantly, and demanded cookies. It looked like Phillips was either going to have a stroke or evict her. Except she was little (but also tough as nails.) So he snapped there would be cookies too.
This expanded to committee meetings too. And now it has ended by a majority of only five votes. I say in my defence that I never visualized how tea and shortbread could be expanded into some of the city spreads which are only justified for really late or marathon meetings. And what's with all the hangers on who sipped too under a "coffee, tea or me" attitude by the pols.
I'm proudest of my idea one warm day after I read about a kid who had stolen empty pop bottles to get enough refund money so he could go swimming. I asked Don Summerville, a bantam rooster in debate, why should people have to pay to get into pools when it had been their taxes that built the pools in the first place. The city would save by not having to staff a ticket office. Summerville became a controller and later, briefly, the mayor (he died playing goal in a charity hockey game) precisely because he could run with a good idea.
I wrote a Page One story about what Summerville was going to propose. He wasn't even a member of the parks committee but he appeared before it, made the case using info I gathered about the cost of collecting admissions, and it passed easily. Council didn't dare say no. Then Summerville expanded the idea to free pleasure skating in the winter.
There's often a symbiotic relationship between the smart politicians and the smarter reporters. The media often make the bullets that the councillors fire. The reporters on the important City Hall beat used to spend more time withe politicians than with their own families. I talked to most of the 22 aldermen every day.
This relationship may have reached its stormy peak during the last decade of the Telegram-Star feud where for a minimum of three editions a day, the competition on the police and political beats was as intense as a cremation fire.
Taxpayers are lucky that most reporters' schemes weren't as expensive, say, as their publishers. Bob MacDonald, a fierce reporter who had worked for the Star, Tely and Sun, and bachelor colleagues, shared a rooming house where the landlady was always telling them what the city should do. One breakfast she told them that the best plan for future subway routes was to have a giant X with transit riders literally being brought from the four corners to the city centre.
Back in the 1960s, newspapers and reporters used to ride their pet schemes as if they were training for the Queen's Plate. Not only wasn't the X subway plan quickly dismissed by the transit commission and Metro council, for some months it had more support than the Bloor subway.
Looking back, I think it made more sense than the silly extension into Scarboro which cost double that of regular transit. This enormous waste was justified on the grounds it was a trial of new technology. Then there was that stupid stub of a Sheppard line, the billion-dollar mistake.
Neither goof was the idea of reporters. Mel Lastman and Paul Godfrey screwed those up on their own. And I comfort myself saying that all the tea and coffee and cookies didn't cost nearly as much as one stretch on those subways to nowhere. And just think of the happiness of all those kids who could skate or swim for free.
Unfortunately, too often the public and the media concentrate on the spending that is, comparatively, peanuts, when they should be spending 99% of their time on labour contracts with transit and police, which spends hundreds of millions each year, or on killing the fair wage policy, which prevents taxpayers from never getting lower costs in building anything.
They criticize the rain drops and ignore the flood.

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