The Hill He Chose to Fight On


If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll remember that soon after Rob Ford became mayor of Toronto, I compared him to former Mayor Larry O’Brien of Ottawa.

To me, the comparisons were obvious: Like Ford in 2010, O’Brien was elected Mayor of Ottawa in 2006 on a wave of “throw the bums out” sentiment. Like Ford, O’Brien received a strong mandate with 47% of the popular vote. Like Ford, O’Brien was a jocular personality with a combative personal style. Like Ford, he seemed likely to confront council rather than consult with them. Like Ford, when O’Brien won his election, commentators suggested that the next few years at his city council were going to be Very Interesting Indeed (tm).

If the parallels between Ford and O’Brien continued, things did not look rosy for Ford. O’Brien went on to cancel an already approved LRT project, earning a stiff lawsuit from the manufacturer Siemens (the LRT was eventually put back on the table and design work is underway). Relations between O’Brien and his council deteriorated sharply, such that the phrase “gridlock” started to be applied. Two years into his mandate, O’Brien had to stand up in front of council and apologize for how fractious the first half of his term had been. Two years later, he would go down to defeat to a moderate former Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson. O’Brien received just 24% of the vote, compared to Watson’s 48.7%.

A year ago, as the then dismal fiscal numbers of 2012 approached, I was sure Ford would have the same fate: he and council would butt heads, and the public would sour. I predicted that Adam Vaughan would be Toronto’s mayor in 2014.

But two weeks ago, after the 2012 budget vote, I actually thought about revising this prediction. I thought that Ford’s chances of re-election had improved — not because he had won the budget vote, but because, in some ways, he’d lost. After a year of having his own way on council, a majority of councillors had stood up to Ford and had approved a $15 million reduction in the budget’s service cuts, restoring TTC service and preserving library hours and a smattering of other small gains. Council had stood up to the Ford administration once before, taking down its ill-considered and rushed revision to the longstanding Waterfront plan, but this was different. This was a trend.

The thing is, Ford could have played this as a victory. Sure, council had stood up to him, and yes the body language of Ford, his brother Doug, and council ally Giorgio Mammoliti, all suggested that this was a bad loss, but the numbers could be played otherwise. Entering into budget discussions with an anticipated $772 million shortfall, Ford and council had balanced the books, limited the property tax increase to just 2.5%, and shifted a $100 million surplus into overdue capital projects and reserve funds, while at the same time using $15 million to blunt the harshest of the city’s service cuts. And, indeed, on some of Ford’s press releases, this is how he played it.

When this happened, I was struck by the fact that there is one critical difference between Ottawa and Toronto. Ottawa’s council has one mayor and ten (correction: twenty-three) councillors. Toronto’s council has one mayor and forty-four councillors.

In Ottawa’s case, the small size of its council meant that it was easy for two power blocs to form and talk past each other, creating gridlock. In Toronto, the larger council size produced three power blocs. On one side, there was the hardline left wing of around twelve-to-fifteen councillors who could well vote against free ice cream if Ford supported it. Opposite them was the hardline right, again with twelve-to-fifteen councillors who would back Ford even if he had vampire fangs and glittered in the sunlight (damn you Stephanie Meyer!).

Between these two groups, however, sat roughly fifteen councillors, with a diversity of political interests between them, but who are generally categorized as being in the centre. Generally these councillors are quieter, more thoughtful, and have a wider range in their voting records, and they’ve been maligned as being “the mushy middle”. The thing is, these centrists hold the balance of power in what is essentially a minority parliament in Toronto city hall. To them, their job isn’t about standing up to or standing alongside Mayor Ford. At the end of the day, their job is to is to make the city work. The budget has to be balanced, and if cuts have to happen to make that balancing act work, so be it. At the same time, the city operates important services that its citizens need, and if taxes have to be raised so that these services can continue to be offered, well then so be that as well. These councillors were more interested in coming to a consensus that would serve their constituents to the best of their abilities, and it is up to the left and right on council to lobby these centrist councillors for the votes needed in order to make their agenda happen.

It was these centrist councillors who offered a ray of hope to those of us looking for more negotiation and honest debate on Toronto’s City Council. There are merits to aspects of the political viewpoints of both left and right on council, and there is a wider obligation for council to serve all Torontonians, not just that 47% that voted for Rob Ford to be mayor. And had Ford’s administration understood this and accepted this, they could have ramped down the political rhetoric at city hall considerably. They could have had an easier time passing their future agenda.

What they should not have done is dug in their heels. And unfortunately, two weeks after that glimmer of hope for productive discussion at Toronto’s City Hall, this is what the Ford administration has done.

Mind you, this could have simply been a case of bad timing. The issue that has come up appears to be something that Ford has chosen to define his mayoralty around. The problem is, it may be the least sensible and least fiscally conservative policy on his platform.

Recently, a growing number of councillors have openly questioned Ford’s decision to unilaterally cancel Toronto’s Transit City proposal — a plan to create a network of LRT lines stretching across the city northern suburbs, and an eerie parallel to Larry O’Brien’s cancellation of Ottawa’s approved LRT project. On day one, after meeting with TTC General Manager Gary Webster, Ford announced to the world that “Transit City was dead”, and that instead he would pursue a policy of building subways for Toronto. Weeks later, he and Dalton McGuinty issued a Memorandum of Understanding which would route the province’s $8.4 billion — pre-approved for Transit City — into an Eglinton LRT modified to operate fully underground rather than partially on the surface for $2 billion less. In exchange, the City of Toronto would be responsible for extending the Sheppard subway to the Scarborough Town Centre (a $4 billion expense), which Ford claimed would be easily paid for by private interests.

A year later, the man that Ford picked to study the Sheppard subway extension is reporting that full private funding is impossible. The Ford administration has talked about hitting the province up for $650 million (taken from a potential but unrealized surplus in the Eglinton LRT’s budget) to fund an extension to Victoria Park. It is becoming clearer that Ford’s decision to cancel Transit City and shove the Eglinton LRT entirely underground was a foolish one. He is even losing some allies, as principled fiscal-conservatives are noting that by going with the original plan for the Eglinton LRT, $2 billion could be freed up for a more modest Sheppard extension, and bus rapid transit along Finch.

Ford has chosen to be entirely dogmatic in his approach to the transit file. Any measure that he believes might obstruct the progress of cars is a measure he opposes, this despite the fact that such transit projects would end up serving more people on Toronto’s streets. He turned down an offer of $2 billion from the provincial government to fund his Sheppard subway because doing so would have put the Eglinton LRT in the middle of Eglinton Avenue from the Don Valley Parkway east to Kennedy Avenue — never mind that Eglinton would have been widened so that no traffic lanes were lost. He claims that voters elected him to build subways, even though his transportation plan was one of the least publicized parts of his platform, and he never took the time to explain to the public just how much more such construction would cost. He claims that people have spoken to him about this, and these are the people he’s listening to, but then he ignores the many more people who have shown up at city hall to ask that their services not be cut, so who, really, is he listening to? The answer seems to be his dogma.

The next few months are going to be interesting. Left-leaning councillor Mihevc prodded the issue with a stick by gaining a legal opinion that Ford’s unilateral axing of Transit City was illegal. Key Ford allies like Karen Stintz are noting the foolishness of operating the Eglinton LRT fully underground. The issue appears to be coming to a vote in March. The local media, who salivate over political conflict at city hall, are providing blow-by-blow commentary. The Ford administration itself is enhancing the feel that this vote is to be taken as a confidence motion, which isn’t exactly ramping tensions down. But, then, it simply may not be possible for Ford to ramp tensions down.

It is the height of irony that if Ford had gone to council a year ago to approve his decision to kill Transit City, he likely could have passed such a resolution with a strong majority of councillors. He chose not to, because that’s how Rob Ford rolls. He’s the goddamn mayor, and council answers to him, not the other way around.

Except that it is sort of the other way around. A working majority of councillors can most definitely overrule the mayor when he oversteps his bounds or proposes policies which are unpopular or foolish. Which is what Ford has done.

It’s interesting how things change. Two weeks ago, Ford could have reached out to the middle of council and built the $15 million reduction in his service cuts into a more conciliatory approach to dealing with the items on Toronto’s agenda over the next two years. He might not have gotten everything that he wanted, but he probably would have gotten his way more often than not. But he chose not to do this, and the middle of Toronto’s council has been forced to pick sides in the war between the council’s equally intransigent left and right.

The thing is, nobody likes bullies. And while there are leftist councillors who can match councillors on the right in terms of fervency of dogma, it’s Ford that currently has the power, and the willingness to use that power to spitefully punish those who don’t tow his line. But that power is largely illusionary. The reality is that power on Toronto’s city council goes to those who can reach out the farthest and build enough bridges to gather a majority of councillors. And on a council as diverse as Toronto’s, such a majority is more likely to stay together through conciliation rather than brute force. The Ford Administration has failed to do this, leaving a power vacuum that the middle is starting to fill.

So, today, I do see one thing in Ford’s future that won’t mirror Larry O’Brien’s past: I don’t think Ford will apologize to council at the end of this year for the gridlock he helped cause. Quite simply, I don’t think he has that the humility for it.

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