Toronto City Council leads, not follows
By Bruce A Stewart
Toronto, the city everyone loves to hate. Why am I writing about it?
Well, because every so often the right things happen — and in a world full of bad news it’s important to occasionally stop and celebrate when it all goes well.
Toronto looked to be lurching from one side of the political spectrum to the other back in late 2010.
A left-wing mayor had stepped down rather than face the voters again. The city — perennially divided between “old” Toronto, with its leafy streets, street cars, bike lanes and sidewalk cafés, and its former suburbs of six-lane-wide arterials, endless traffic and crammed buses that come in packs — elected a suburban councillor, Rob Ford, as mayor.
Ford had run on one slogan and two key platform items: “Respect for Taxpayers,” to be implemented by “cutting the gravy” and “stopping the war on the car.”
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Almost immediately on starting his term, he cancelled his predecessor’s negotiated, co-funded Transit City plan. LRT (light rail transit) running on those arterials meant losing lanes for drivers. Not having any of that, thank you!
He also cut out a piece of civic funding — the vehicle registration tax.
Then, mid-2011, came his pet consultants’ report on “the gravy”: cuts to libraries, community centres, parks, playgrounds, the zoos and farms, and more.
Citizens lined up in droves to express their views. Ford said “Council will stay in session around the clock to hear you all” — but then that would be it.
Council did sit around the clock. To Ford’s credit, he was there, listening, to the whole thing. Once dawn came and it was done, he sent one of his confreres out, Councillor Mammoliti, to meet the press. “A bunch of communists” was his attitude to the day and night of presentations.
But it woke Council up. They refused to rubber-stamp Ford’s cuts.
Then they remembered that Ford couldn’t kill Transit City: it required a vote of Council to reverse the previous decision. After months of turmoil, including Ford firing the General Manager of the Toronto Transit Commission and carrying on a campaign for “subways, subways, subways” (with no funding model), Council rallied and supported a slightly changed Transit City.
A little more of the Eglinton LRT to be underground for the comfort of drivers … two or three other LRT lines removed from active consideration for now. One extra stop on the underused Sheppard subway to be built as a sop to the mayor. Otherwise, it’s rails in the streets, just as planned.
Since then, Council has run the city. Different councillors ally for different issues: this isn’t a permanent anti-Ford camp in charge, although there are a few councillors who almost never vote with the mayor, and a few who always do.
The mayor’s coterie had planned to overthrow years of planning to just give away the port lands to developers: a mega mall on the waterfront, with amusements and luxury condos. Council has the original plan still running: mixed income housing, offices, parkland and wetland restoration.
Council also kept the social amenities of libraries, community centres and the like funded — all while balancing the books (Toronto’s officially showing a small surplus).
We are so used to politicians binding together into their camps, herded like sheep for their votes, not thinking for themselves.
Toronto should be proud of its councillors: they’ve transcended politics as usual and avoided being either left or right, downtown or suburban, and simply been “for the city, as a whole”.
Sometimes, indeed, the right things happen. And that’s a good news story, for once.