An Open Letter of Apology to Councillor Karen Stintz, Chair of the Toronto Transit Commission

TTC Chair Karen Stintz

When I’m wrong, I like to believe I’m mature enough to admit it. And these past few weeks, I think I’ve been proven wrong about Councillor Karen Stintz, current chair of the Toronto Transit Commission.

On December 1, 2010, on the very first day that Rob Ford assumed the mayor’s office in Toronto, he set up a meeting with the TTC’s Chief General Manager Gary Webster for 7 a.m. that morning. He then held a press scrum immediately after and announced that he had directed the TTC’s GM not to pursue the previous council’s policy of building LRT lines on Eglinton, Sheppard and Finch Avenues. At his direct order, Transit City was “dead”.

This was typical Ford. Fresh from his big victory earlier that month, he took his take-no-prisoners attitude into the mayors office and made bold decisions unilaterally, without consulting council. For those who cared to consider the democratic process, we couldn’t help but wince. Sure, Ford had won a significant mandate from the Toronto electorate, but so too had all of the councillors who were sitting on Toronto city council. They were all as democratically elected as the mayor was. If they had run and won on platforms which contradicted the mayor’s platform, what were they supposed to do? Shut up? Wasn’t that completely the opposite of the democracy Ford was claiming to uphold? And how would Ford have liked it if, say, a provincial politician himself won a mandate and then decided to overrule a mayor’s pronouncements?

But what irked me most of all was the fact that Ford went to TTC GM Gary Webster and then went to the press and announced this unilateral decision, all by himself. Councillor Karen Stintz, the woman Ford and his allies had themselves selected to be chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, didn’t sit in on the meeting, and wasn’t called to even stand alongside Ford at the subsequent press conference.

As interested as Ford may have been to implement his transit policy, it still seemed to me to be unconscionable not to include his own pick for TTC chair in the picture. Ford had, in my opinion, completely overshadowed Councillor Stintz; shown her to be, in his view, completely irrelevant to the political relationship between the City of Toronto and the Toronto Transit Commission. Inadvertently or not, Stintz was portrayed to be less of an ally of Ford, less even than Ford’s representative on council on transit matters, but as nothing.

I saw this as a shocking slap in the face to Councillor Stintz, and on her first day on the job to boot. I said at the time that if I were in Stintz’s position, I would have resigned, or run the risk of being seen as Ford’s patsy.

This week, Councillor Stintz proved that she was no patsy.

Actually, my respect for Stintz had been rising for some time, as she dedicated herself to her position as chair of the TTC. She may have taken positions I disagreed with, but she gave every indication of researching her responsibilities and the organization she was charged with leading. She maintained a dogged commitment to fiscal responsibility that, for the most part in my opinion, balanced the need to serve Toronto commuters with the realities of shrinking budgets. She sought to improve the TTC’s customer service delivery (though she was hampered again by shrinking budgets), and she tried to stay away from cost-cutting measures that would have done the TTC and Toronto taxpayers more harm than good.

Her pragmatic and nuanced approach angered those on the angry right, like Sun columnist Sue Ann Levy, who repeatedly called for her ouster (as clear an indication as I can see that Stintz was doing the right things). And, as we saw, Stintz’s fiscal responsibility eventually brought her in conflict with Rob Ford, over the simple premise that $2 billion is far too much to spend to put an LRT underground where the conditions don’t warrant it. Her sensible efforts were thwarted by the mayor’s office, who dug in their heels on this issue and refused to compromise. In the end, she was pushed to call for a special meeting of Toronto City Council, defying the mayor, and earlier today, she won.

A lesser politician would have given up. It takes a lot of guts to stand up to a mayor — particularly a mayor of Rob Ford’s temperament. Stintz didn’t give up. And she deserves all the accolades she has received thus far.

And she is not, clearly not, a patsy.

What About Stintz’s Future?

Clearly, her future is going to be an interesting one, indeed. In response to a comment from one of my commentators, I would say that it’s entirely possible that the Ford administration will seek to remove her as chair of the TTC. She presides on a committee where five of the councillors (a clear majority) clearly indicated that they’d follow Ford’s directives more readily than her’s. But it’s no easy thing to just remove a committee chairperson. Eventually, the matter comes back to city council, and city council has already indicated where they stand when it comes to choosing between Karen Stintz and Rob Ford. If Ford’s allies pushed too hard, it’s those five councillors who might suddenly find themselves off the committee.

But to respond to this comment in particular:

my feeling is that no side will want a traitor. She will be tainted goods to the Fords and the ‘other’ side will not want to take chance with her. The only other major political turncoat that I can think of right away starts with Belinda….followed closely by somebody named Rae.

Well, I have to respectfully disagree. Stintz is no traitor or turncoat. She did her level-headed best to produce a workable compromise that would have allowed Rob Ford to save face. He chose not to accept it, not her, and she had every right to follow her own constituents agenda, as she saw it.

And I would further point out that the examples given of Belinda Stronach and Bob Rae exist in the provincial and federal political contexts, whereas Stintz is wholly municipal. And in Toronto’s municipal politics, parties have no sway. Much as Giorgio Mammoliti would like to hold caucus meetings and vote as a bloc, there is no formal government and opposition on city council. There are no back-benches that a “turncoat” can be banished to. And if the mayor is defeated on matters that he deems important, it’s not a confidence motion, and he cannot resign and go to the people to try and renew his mandate. A majority of councillors, if they so choose, can decide to hand the mayor his backside again and again and again.

Not that I think this is likely to happen. The budget is passed. The transit issue is now in the province’s court. The most contentious thing I can see Toronto city council dealing with over the next six months is the labour contract for Toronto’s inside workers, and that may well peel a number of centre-right councillors back into Ford’s camp. Everything else is just playgrounds and speed bumps. There is no opportunity to punish Stintz unless Ford tries to do so directly and obviously, and council has already stood up to that, and would be obliged to stand up again, in order to preserve the moral victory they won here, today.

And will those who consistently stand against Ford treat Stintz as “damaged goods”? I don’t think so. Because, whether she is the TTC Chair or not, she is ultimately just a councillor, just like them, with the same powers and responsibilities that they themselves have. Again, there is no formal governing party and opposition at Toronto city council, just 44 separate individual political parties from which a coalition must be gathered, again and again and again. There is little precedent for, nor easy means for enforcing a hardline partisan discipline at Toronto city council, the way it exists at Queen’s Park or on Parliament Hill. Stintz’ successful motion isn’t the first time that Ford has failed to win his agenda. It won’t be the last, either. And as long as Ford fails to recognize this reality and change his approach to council, his base of loyal councillors will get smaller and smaller, until Ford Nation becomes Ford Island.

And speaking as someone who values the contributions of our local members of parliament and our local members of provincial parliament, and who has detested the trend over the past five decades to diminish their responsibilities from representatives of their local ridings to trained seals responding only to their party leader’s call, this is a good thing. Toronto is not a homogenous entity. Local representation is important. There will always be a diversity of opinion at city council and a need to navigate the treacherous waters of debate and compromise. And that, in my opinion, is a very good thing that we need more of.

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