Over a 23-year career in local politics, Scarborough Councillor Brian Ashton has cultivated a talent for zingy one-liners and a knack for reading shifts in the political winds.
But for headline-grabbing moves, nothing compares to his surprise vote at council last week that tipped the balance, 23-22, to stymie Mayor David Miller's push for two new taxes, precipitating threats of cuts to transit and other services.
"This ranks No. 1," said Mr. Ashton, 57, who said he learned about "brutish" politics from battles in the 1990s over property-value assessment reform and the exit of then-Toronto-police-chief William McCormack.
Mr. Ashton voted to defer decision on the taxes - a land-transfer tax on property sales and an annual vehicle ownership fee that together would net about $356-million a year - until Oct. 22, despite voting for them in June as a member of the mayor's cabinet-like executive committee. But beyond the immediate drama of the vote, his tactical reversal sheds light on the fluid nature of politics even under the new "strong-mayor" system adopted by council last year.
To charges by allies of the mayor of not being a "team player," Mr. Ashton (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest) is blunt about his allegiances.
"There are no teams at city hall," he said. "That is what makes us a dynamic, open and transparent government.
"If I am a team player, I sit on the bench with my constituents," he said in an interview this week.
Some 10 days after the pivotal vote, and despite a tongue-lashing this week from Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty over council's failure to seize the new taxation powers granted by the province this year, Mr. Ashton and others are unrepentant about the deferral.
"I have been inundated with e-mails and phone calls thanking me for taking a difficult position," he said, convinced that not making a decision will force the McGuinty government, in the run-up to the Oct. 10 election, to pick up social welfare costs funded in part by local taxpayers.
But Mr. Ashton may yet vote for the taxes, if the province fails to act on offloading and if the new revenues could prevent service cuts.
In the meantime, Mr. Ashton has one regret: blindsiding the mayor on his decision. "The politics of stinging the mayor was not part of any of my thought processes," he said.
For Mr. Ashton, the tax vote capped months of brewing dissatisfaction about his role on the new executive committee, one of several council-approved reforms last year meant to streamline decision-making. The mayor now hand-picks a team to help steer priorities through council.
"I don't think it [the executive committee]is operating the way it was designed to," Mr. Ashton grumbled, just hours before he and others on the committee unanimously approved the mayor's tax proposals in late June. "I don't think there is the type of debate in the public realm that is necessary to bring the public onto our side," he said.
Presciently, he also said before that meeting: "The mayor may be challenged to get a majority on council."
Mr. Ashton, who says 200 of the 900 e-mails he received about the tax measures came from local constituents, contends the mayor did little to persuade skeptical councillors, or the public, of the need for new revenue.
"There is a solid legitimate complaint by the public that there has been no proof of city council being serious about sound fiscal management," Mr. Ashton said.
"I came to the conclusion there is not a long-term plan" for the city's fiscal future, he said. "I decided a week ago that this thing [the vote]was floundering and council and the community had no understanding of the gravity of the issue."
Councillor Case Ootes, delighted at Mr. Ashton's decisive role in delaying the taxes, said his role in rebuffing the mayor sends a message about how to deal with council.
"[Mayor]Miller made the mistake of treating it [the executive committee]as if it were a cabinet and forgot there is a council he is answerable to," said Mr. Ootes (Ward 29 Toronto-Danforth). "He absolutely read it wrong and he is paying the price for it."