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MARCUS GEE

Sharks, subways and strip clubs: A year in Toronto politics Add to ...

Rob Ford has managed to dominate the news to such an extent that it sometimes seems as if nothing else happened in Toronto this year. With a transfixed city tuned to the Ford Channel – all Rob, all the time – it is worth recalling some of the events of 2012 that did not feature the mayor’s football team or his dashboard reading stand.

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The big bag bust

City councillors surprised the city – and themselves – by voting 24-20 at a June meeting to ban giving out or selling plastic bags starting Jan. 1. The out-of-the-blue decision, made without the usual research and report from city staff, was immediately challenged by the plastics industry and other industry groups, which launched lawsuits to block it. After warnings that the city might lose the case in court, council turned around and killed the bag ban at a November meeting, by a vote of 38-7. A byproduct of the whole saga is that Toronto no longer has a five-cent tax on bags. Councillors did away with the tax, in effect since 2009, at the same June meeting where they passed the bag ban (though some supermarket chains still charge a bag fee regardless). Council is due to revisit the whole issue next June, perhaps this time after a little homework and forethought.

The elephant run

City councillors spent many hours this year arguing over the fate of three aging elephants at the Toronto zoo. Self-appointed pachyderm experts such as councillor Michelle Berardinetti believe that Iringa, Thika and Toka would be better off enjoying the balmier weather at a California animal sanctuary. The real professionals at the Toronto zoo strongly disagree. Regardless, council overruled them in November and voted to send the elephants south. In their wisdom, councillors also voted to urge Edmonton’s zoo to send its own aging elephant, Lucy, to a place with a more hospitable climate. What happens now is unclear. Flying three elephants to California is no simple matter, and when and how it will happen has yet to be decided.

The casino conundrum

When the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. said it wanted to put a casino in Toronto, it set off a frenzy of speculation. Would city council approve the idea? Where would the casino go? Casino executives and their lobbyists descended on the city like locusts. Developers unveiled glitzy proposals for casino/condo/office projects. Councillors are lining up on both sides, with Adam Vaughan, a possible candidate for mayor, leading the opposition. They must weigh the good the cash-strapped city could do with the millions in revenue from a casino against the possible social damage from bringing big-time casino betting to the city. City council is expected to debate the matter in April.

The great transit revolt

It seems like 100 years ago now, but last winter featured the most dramatic rebellion that city council has seen for years. Mr. Ford had scrapped the Transit City light-rail plan in his first day in office. He wanted a subway to Scarborough instead. He loathed streetcars so much he struck a deal to bury most of the coming Eglinton light-rail line, at a cost of billions. Only one thing was missing: the consent of city council. Councillors didn’t buy his pitch that the Sheppard subway could be built by the private sector. Led by TTC chair Karen Stintz, they voted it down and went back, in essence, to Transit City: a web of light rail.

Privatized garbage

Fulfilling a Ford campaign pledge, the city contracted out garbage collection between Yonge Street and the Humber River. The bright green trucks of Green for Life Environmental Corp. replaced the old city crews starting in August, collecting trash, recyclables and wet waste from 165,000 homes. Mr. Ford has said he wants to contract out garbage collection east of Yonge in his second term, if he gets one.

The public housing mess

For years now, city councillors have been squabbling over what to do with hundreds of single-family homes that are part of the city’s public-housing portfolio. Mayor Ford wanted to sell them and use the profits to fix up the rest of the city’s aging public-housing stock, which faces a $750-million repair backlog. His opponents said that, with tens of thousands of people waiting for public housing, it would be wrong to sell off any homes. In came Anna Bailao, a rookie councillor. Her working group recommended selling just 55 of the 619 homes and finding other ways to address the repair backlog. Mr. Ford called it a “good beginning,” but it was really a defeat for the mayor and for reform at the troubled public-housing agency.

Highway to heaven

Speaking of repairs and aging infrastructure, the debate about whether to take down the Gardiner Expressway often seemed academic till this year, when the half-century-old roadway began visibly to fall apart. As chunk after chunk fell from the crumbling edifice, city staffers insisted everything was under control. Now, they say it will cost half a billion dollars over 10 years to keep the damned thing from falling down, and that the eastern end will be unsafe to use in six years unless its deck is replaced. Tear it down or spend a fortune to fix it? Again, the decision was put off until at least next year.

Shark! Shark!

In another example of city councillors overreaching themselves (see elephants, bag bans), council passed a bylaw in 2011 to ban the sale, consumption or possession of shark fins or shark-fin soup in the city. Never mind that fisheries matters are in the jurisdiction of the federal, not municipal, government. Members of the Chinese community called the ban discriminatory and took the city to court. An appeal court agreed last month that the ban was outside the city's powers.

Bike lane? What bike lane?

Mr. Ford vowed to get rid of the much-disputed Jarvis bike lanes and this year, he did. In November, city crews scrubbed away the painted lane markings and put back the old-school reversing lane, to howls from cycling activists. On the plus side, on nearby Sherbourne Street the city installed separated bike lanes, the first of their kind in this city.

Taking on the unions

Despite the defeat on transit and the distraction of his various antics, the mayor can claim at least one solid accomplishment for 2012. His administration reached new deals with unions for both inside and outside workers and took only one strike – a 10-day affair staged by library workers – in the process. By preparing in advance for a work stoppage, then threatening to implement its final offer whether or not the unions accepted it, the city was able to wrest concessions from the unions on their generous job-security protections.

Toronto the naughty

As if all this were not enough to keep city councillors busy, a council committee took some time in October to rejig the bylaw on conduct in strip clubs. The new bylaw requires panic buttons in lap-dancing booths and specifies which body parts that dancer and patron can make contact with. The “perineal area” is out of bounds. Some councillors had to look that one up.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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