How many times have we heard that government should be run like a business? The assertion is rarely wrong: Even soft semi-socialism requires management expertise, as Toronto Mayor David Miller learned in his second term. But once you smooth out the concealing folds of that "should be run" construction - to acknowledge that it is inevitably politicians who run government - the proposition collapses.
Consider the spontaneous groundswell of interference that greeted Mayor Miller's businesslike new real-estate corporation, Build Toronto, in its first encounter with city hall's alleged executive committee yesterday. Belatedly realizing that getting something done about surplus property means cutting them out of the deals, the noble guardians of the public interest raised a mighty fuss.
Much of the squawk came from voteless interlopers, but the captive birds clucked sympathetically. Without a whip on, they would have pecked Build Toronto to death in its cradle, what with all their demands for consultations, oversight and outright control of a "development process" that now threatens ominously to produce results.
Even though the mayor ultimately won the day, with the committee endorsing the transfer of 16 largely idle properties to Build Toronto, the fuss foretold a rough ride for those who hope to develop them.
"We're tearing up 30 years of policy, taking a meat cleaver to it," councillor Howard Moscoe, a bona fide member of the Miller executive, complained upon launching a barrage of paranoid motions to frustrate the mayor's plan. "There's no doubt this is a radical change."
The proposed transfer, councillor John Filion huffed, "shows an appalling disregard for councillors and the communities they represent." Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti wondered how the company would ever achieve architectural excellence without taking direction from him.
Their problem is that Build Toronto is designed to operate like a business. Rather than letting the vacant and surplus properties rot peacefully as they have under the auspices of the current councillor-heavy, never-ending "process," the new arm's-length corporation is mandated to develop them - to turn them into cash, just like any other developer would do, returnable to the city treasury.
The corporation is a direct response to the blue-ribbon panel Mayor Miller established to recommend a sustainable fiscal strategy for his revenue-challenged domain. "Monetizing" fallow real-estate was its No. 1 priority. All the politicians agreed until yesterday, when they finally realized what that meant.
Noting that council enthusiastically endorsed the Build Toronto concept, Mayor Miller described the sudden opposition to the inevitable details as "extremely puzzling." Build Toronto will be held to the same rules as any other developer, he said. Projects will go through the same mill, and the authority of individual councillors will not be diminished, "one iota - not one comma, semi-colon or even exclamation mark."
That much is true, but don't believe he's puzzled by the opposition. He knows full well how petty and controlling his minor colleagues can be, even those who pretend to be allies. The question is whether the actual business people running the new company know it.
Yesterday's performance was fair warning.