A marathon session of Toronto city council’s executive committee continued overnight Thursday and into Friday morning as councillors heard from hundreds of union members, arts groups, social agencies and others on the Rob Ford administration’s deliberations over cutting services to rein in a budget deficit.
When the last of well over 300 people spoke at 6.40 a.m. ET, the meeting had run for over 21 hours, the longest continuous meeting of either council or one of its committees since the modern megacity was created in 1998.
Throughout the night, presenters chose different methods to get their point across. One sang a song, another read a poem, one wrote a short story, a young man performed a puppet show and a retired teacher delivered a satirical essay. Most simply berated the committee.
But the message was the same: don’t cut anything.
The executive committee’s task is to consider cuts suggested to the city’s agencies, boards and commissions by auditor KPMG. While no final decisions have to be made at the meeting, the powerful executive can make recommendations that will carry weight over the coming months as the city decides what to axe and what to save.
Among the services and assets on the chopping block are libraries, water fluoridation, the affordable housing office, the Toronto Zoo, city-owned theatres, night buses and crossing guards.
People packed into the second-floor committee room at city hall – at several points, every available seat in the house was taken – and spilled over into adjacent rooms to watch on television monitors.
When the session first started, leftwing opposition councillors were favourable to the speakers, while rightwing executives in Mr. Ford’s inner circle asked probing questions, demanding community groups and social agencies tell them what services to cut.
“I’m not hearing any suggestions on how to deal with our shortfall,” said budget chief Mike Del Grande to one arts group. “Yeah, you’re important, fine. But we have a huge debt.”
But as the hours ticked by, executives stopped asking questions altogether, while the opposition continued to ask questions, turning the exercise into something of a filibuster.
There were some moments of tension: when two men tried to swap speaking times, Mr. Ford refused to allow it and deputants shouted their displeasure. The mayor eventually ordered one of the men removed by security. On another occasion, the public clapped so loudly no one could speak, and Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, who labelled the dissenters “the socialist party,” threatened to move a motion to stop the proceedings entirely.
On numerous occasions, the excitable crowd booed and screamed at the mayor, who largely displayed a quiet cool and stuck assiduously to the schedule, cutting people off after their speaking time was up.
Many more times, the crowd whooped and cheered their favourite speakers.
“We’re closing schools in the poorest neighbourhood, yet we give police an 11 per cent raise?” said Nigel Barriffe, a primary school teacher in Mr. Ford’s north Etobicoke district, before receiving a standing ovation.
“Rise up!” Mr. Barriffe exhorted them. “Rise up!”
A crossing guard shouted at councillors that children would be hurt if her job was outsourced. A 14-year-old library user cried as she talked about the importance of the institution.
There were, of course, moments of levity, too. Like when Susan Wesson sang a song about the importance of libraries. Everyone – including the executives – burst into applause after.
“Thank you very much. Thanks for livening up the evening,” said Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, who had taken over the chair while Mr. Ford left the room for a break.
Desmond Cole, meanwhile, busted out a puppet named “Roy” to implore councillors not to make cuts.
The 29-year-old explained afterward that, after being to many of these deputations, he wanted to do something different.
“A lot of people get emotional and passionate about these things that we said. I knew there was going to be enough of that, so I decided to do something light-hearted,” he said.
Retiree Mary Hynes, 67, earlier facetiously suggested the city close all libraries, do away with the transit system and shut down its website so that disadvantaged people in need of services would move away and more money would be saved.
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