Once dismissed as malleable fence-sitters, City Council's "mushy middle" grappled Mayor Rob Ford over Toronto's 2012 budget and won a reprieve from cuts for some programs.
Councillor Josh Colle, a member of a group of swing voters on council that identify neither with the mayor's conservative faction nor the left-leaning bloc that held sway under former Mayor David Miller, tabled a motion on Tuesday that unravels $15-million worth of cuts recommended in Mr. Ford's budget. The motion carried 23 to 21.
The entire budget passed with amendments, 39-5. The amendments restored about $19-million in funding to programs, according to the mayor.
About 200 protesters showed up outside City Hall before the voting, at about 5:30 p.m. They tried to push past security barricades but police held them back. Cheers went up among the crowd when it was announced that Mr. Colle's motion passed.
Police said four men were charged with obstructing a peace officer and unlawful assembly and were due to be released soon after. Their names were not released.
Late on Tuesday police had not been able to confirm or deny whether pepper spray had been used.
Shortly before 9 p.m. about 20 people gathered outside the 52 Division police station, protesting the arrests earlier in the evening.
Using $15-million from a city surplus that Mr. Ford had declared untouchable, Mr. Colle's motion restores funding for ice rinks, pools, community grants, homeless shelters, mechanical leaf-collection and the TTC – all areas slated for cuts and closures under the mayor's plan.
Councillors also voted not to cut the library funding and to restore funding to the immigrant women's health program among other things.
Constable Wendy Drummond confirmed there had been arrests at City Hall, and a Toronto Police tweet said four arrests were made.
Constable Drummond said the large number of protesters meant that additional officers were brought in from across the city as the demonstrators tried to get into City Hall.
Soon after Mr. Colle's motion hit the floor, the rookie councillor endured wave after wave of withering criticism from Mayor Ford's team.
Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti accused Mr. Colle of taking funds out of the city's surplus to fund his own "pet projects" and Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong suggested the motion was "soft-headed."
Mr. Mammoliti also introduced a motion that would kick Mr. Colle's plan off the council agenda and over to the Mayor's Office.
A fellow member of the middle, Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, stood to defend her colleague, making it clear through questioning that Mr. Colle's ward did not stand to benefit greatly by any of his proposed measures.
As council recessed for a two-hour lunch break, the vote on Mr. Colle's motion remained in question with councillors huddling in muted strategy scrums to plot their next moves and the mayor meeting with his staff and allies on council as well as with councillors who hold swing votes.
"This is, I describe it as tweaking in response to what people have said are the most important issues for them," Mr. Colle told reporters. "This is a prudent way to proceed"
Mr. Colle said the move does not change the budget dramatically. "This is council's chance and only chance for those who aren't on executive or budget, to get their fingerprints on [the budget]"
Mr. Mammoliti characterized the move as "sneaky," and urged council to put off any bid to save services until the city knows its final surplus figure later this spring.
Earlier in the morning, councillors endorsed Mr. Ford's plan to raise property taxes by 2.5 per cent.
With only five votes opposing, councillors passed the mayor's tax plan amid speculation that some might boost it to help stave off cutbacks included in the mayor's 2012 fiscal blue print.
At the outset of the three-day meeting – the culmination of months of debate over the direction of Toronto's finances – Mr. Ford exhorted the city's 44 councillors to avoid using a further tax increase or the $154-million surplus to prevent cutbacks.
"Most people can afford a tax increase of just 2.5 per cent, but just barely 2.5 per cent," he said, as children and their parents chanted "Save Our Pool" steps away on Nathan Phillips Square. "I know they cannot afford a penny more."
Mayor Ford added that he wants the entire surplus to go towards a $700-million bill City Hall faces for new streetcars ordered under the previous term of council.
"They last council ordered $700-million in streetcars with not one red cent set aside to pay for them. That's completely irresponsible. Folks, everyone knows I'm not a fan of streetcars, but I believe in paying my bills. The responsible thing to do is pay for our streetcars. They are coming, we have to pay for them. We have to put every single cent of the $154-million towards paying for our new streetcars."
For days, councillors have been meeting privately to devise plans for saving some pools, community centres and other programs recommended for cut or closure under Mr. Ford's budget. Among the trims they would like to see reversed are TTC route cuts, community grant reductions, swimming pool closures, cutbacks to priority centres, leaf-collection cancellation in Etobicoke and homeless shelter closures.
Undoing all of those cuts would require up to $20-million that Mr. Ford insists the city doesn't have.
The debate promised to be a raucous affair, with several community groups planning protests at City Hall. Occupy Toronto protesters were planning to reappear after weeks of dormancy to set up a tent city at Nathan Phillips Square. The Toronto Stop the Cuts Network, an amalgam of neighbourhood organizations, is organizing a banner drop, a mock hand-out of pink slips and a public demonstration at 5:30 p.m.
Budget Chief Mike Del Grande told reporters that the city is "at a crossroads" but urged council against carving off pieces of the mayor's budget.
"If we start doing what some councillors want," he said, "and spare one program over another, then it is not going to work."