The city once known as Toronto the Good found itself in the international spotlight again this week, and not in a good way. At city hall, the mayor faced questions about an unproven claim – forcefully denied by his lawyer – that he was behind a jailhouse beating. Just a few blocks away at a local police station, cops pushed through a throng of reporters pursuing a teenaged pop star in a backwards baseball cap.
Seldom has Toronto seen its name so much in the news and never has the news been so tawdry. It is all a little unfair. The Toronto its residents know is an admirable and usually sensible place, a thriving, multicultural metropolis with a bright future.
But its governance is in a mess, and the problem goes beyond the antics of a rogue mayor whose time, voters willing, runs out in nine months. Toronto is a big city with hick-town politics.
Consider what happened this week in the city’s main democratic forum. City council met in its clamshell chamber to pass the 2014 budget. This should have been straightforward. As one city councillor pointed out, the budget documents presented to council ran to 2,000 pages and councillors had been given four months before the vote to work it all out.
Committees and department heads had combed through every expenditure in the $9.6-billion plan. Citizens had been given their chance to speak out in a thorough consultation process.
Most of the compromises had been made and battles fought. Yet it took council two full days of clowning, shouting, posturing, cursing and speechifying to ratify the thing, a brutal marathon that didn’t wrap up till nearly 10 p.m. Thursday.
As usual, Mayor Rob Ford took centre stage, accusing his council colleagues of letting spending rip since reducing his powers over the crack-smoking scandal. The man who has called himself the “best mayor that this city has ever had” railed against what he has called “the worst budget that has ever been presented,” even though he was in charge while most of it was drawn up.
After days of refusing to say what he meant, he put millions in cherry-picked cuts on the table and challenged councillors to pass them or face the wrath of taxpayers. Minutes after the budget debate got under way on Wednesday, he was telling Councillor Michael Thompson, “You shut up,” as the Speaker banged her gavel and threatened to eject him from the chamber. Outside the chamber, his brother Doug poured fuel on the fire when he said spendthrift councillors would “take the gold fillings out of your teeth if they had the opportunity.”
But the Fords were far from the only offenders. Giorgio Mammoliti, an off-and-on Ford ally, told another councillor to shut up and said, “You can blow your property-tax increase out your ear.” David Shiner mocked a colleague by brandishing what he called a “bullshit bag” to hold the councillor’s proposal.
Josh Matlow took the meeting on a long and ludicrous detour by trying to reopen debate on the proposed Scarborough subway, an issue that council argued over at length – and decided on – months ago. Glenn De Baeremaeker told him that any attempt to kill the subway would be a “declaration of war on the people of Scarborough.”
Various councillors tried to restore money to the fire service budget and curry favour with the powerful firefighters’ union, whose members, dressed in red T-shirts, packed the public gallery. As the whole messy business wrapped up Thursday evening, a stack of more than 60 motions came up for vote, from a call to spend $2-million to save a fire truck, Pumper 215, to a plan to work with the Toronto Skateboard Association on expanding the city’s skateboarding infrastructure. It was so bewildering that councillors kept pressing the wrong voting button, forcing the Speaker to call a new vote on the motion.
Former budget chief Mike Del Grande told fellow councillors that they risked losing all credibility, both with the public and with higher orders of government that Toronto depends on for help.
“As much as there is all the issues surrounding the mayor, we’re not far behind either,” he said. “We succumb to personal attacks amongst each other and we think it’s fun and games here, but when it’s viewed on the screen by the public, the amount of respect in this chamber falls and we bring ourselves down to the lowest, lowest levels possible.”
To be fair, democracy can be a rowdy affair and legislatures are unruly places at other levels of government, too. In some ways, the free-for-all at city council is preferable to the barking of trained seals you hear in the federal or provincial parliaments, where members dare not break party discipline. The budget that city council finally passed was a decent one, with a modest tax increase and no big ramp-up in spending.
All the same, the spectacle at city hall was discouraging for anyone who cares for this city and hopes for better leadership after Rob Ford.