A group of anti-casino city councillors have backed off – at least for now – on plans to put the controversial question of whether Toronto wants a gambling complex in the downtown on the council floor during this week’s meeting.
The group was one name short of the 23 needed to call a special casino meeting for Thursday, but when council began at 9:30 Wednesday they held the balance of power – all that they needed to do was add the casino debate to the regular agenda of council.
Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Councillor Doug Ford were both absent when council was called to order.
The mayor last month removed a staff report on a new downtown casino and the expansion of gambling at Woodbine Racetrack from this week’s council meeting and called a special meeting for May 21 to consider the issue. Under the rules of council, Councillor Gord Perks said all that was needed was a majority of the councillors present in the chamber to call a snap vote to have the debate during this week’s session.
Mr. Perks said councillors who oppose a casino decided not to take that route because the procedural manoeuvring might distract from the actual debate.
“We decided why give people an argument that we pulled a fast one,” he said. “Let’s just debate it on its merits. We can wait a couple weeks to do that.”
Some councillors also felt that after overruling the mayor Tuesday to put the debate on transit funding on the agenda, it might be too much to go against Mr. Ford’s wishes a second time, Mr. Perks said.
“There are some people who felt it would just look like punishing the mayor and that’s not a good reason to make a decision,” he said. “Some people did not want to be seen just beating up on the mayor and thought that the optics of it would be bad.”
Mr. Perks said he was not in that camp. He said having the debate this week would have prevented the casino lobby from spending money over the next two weeks to sway public opinion and council votes.
“I don’t think it is about optics, I think it is about good public policy,” he said.
Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday did not agree, arguing it would be “ridiculous” to hold such a critical debate without any public warning.
“There is a scheduled meeting for it, the public have been advised of that date, a lot of people would like to be present for the debate, a lot of people have made plans for that date,” Mr. Holyday said. “It just would be totally inappropriate to just throw it on the agenda.”
Asked if the abandoned plan was further evidence that the mayor has lost control of the agenda, Mr. Holyday said the administration’s control on council for some time has been “tenuous at best.”
“We don’t control a majority of councillors. We are relying on public support and public opinion to make things happen,” he said. Asked about the need to get the Mayor and his supporters in the chamber for key votes, Mr. Holyday said that unlike other levels of government, there is no party discipline to whip votes.
“If some councillors that we are counting on to support us aren’t present that is definitely a problem,” he said.
Councillor Adam Vaughan, another critic of a downtown casino, said Wednesday he isn’t ready to close the door on a quick debate.
“We might still,” he said when asked if council should have added casinos to the agenda. “I think it is one of the things we should consider.”