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Toronto councillor Josh Colle (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto councillor Josh Colle (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

city hall

Gamble tipped the budget vote Add to ...

On the day before Toronto city council began this week’s budget debate, a group of first-term councillors met with the mayor to broker a compromise. The group – four moderates who often vote with the mayor – suggested he could gain broader support for his budget if he saved $15-million in city services. They even offered to let him take the credit. Mayor Ford did not agree with their plan to dip into the surplus to cover the spending. The next day, minutes before the debate began, the councillors returned to make another last-ditch pitch to staff. The response: no dice.

Eleven hours later, the mayor’s cost-cutting budget was passed, but only after a very public surrender of his line in the sand – that not a penny from last year’s surplus be used to save programs. He had chosen to fight rather than compromise and lost the battle by the narrowest of margins. One more vote would have swung things his way.

Political theatre doesn’t get much better than this week’s budget debate at City Hall, with the drama guided by a handful of councillors, the mayor and his staff. Faced with outrage from residents, the mayor’s allies had already made a series of saves in a bid to get council’s support, rescuing school nutrition programs and community centres, some TTC services and protecting library hours. Defections from the mayor’s camp from dissatisfied councillors meant he failed to hold on to his razor-thin margin.

When it ended, Toronto had a new man-of-the-hour: rookie councillor Josh Colle, who introduced a $15-million package of service-saving measures that included stopping further cuts to public libraries, kept pools and arenas opened, sent more money to the TTC and saved daycares and shelters. He handled success like a diplomat, refusing to take the bait from reporters or put down the mayor. Mr. Ford, on the other hand, was left to explain how what looked like a loss was really a win. He wandered off script, taking shots at his opponents and vowing to tell taxpayers how their councillors had voted. It sounded more like sour grapes than a victory speech.

This was supposed to be a touchdown for Mr. Ford – proof that he could stop the waste at city hall. Instead, it came off like a fumble and left people questioning how much of his agenda he can get through council. How did that happen?

Crafting compromises, defecting support on the left

For weeks leading up to the budget debate, buzz was building. Councillors, trying to respond to the demands of residents, were crafting compromises to placate them. In the days before the meeting, four new councillors – Ana Bailao, Josh Matlow, Mary-Margaret McMahon and Mr. Colle, made the rounds of their colleagues’ offices on the second floor, holding meetings with the left and the right. Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson, members of the mayor’s executive, had spoken out on specific budget issues and they knew Gloria Lindsay Luby, James Pasternak, Gary Crawford and Chin Lee – votes the mayor usually could count on – had concerns, even after $8.8-million in new assessment growth was used to restore some programs.

The four councillors gave up their idea of using a slightly higher tax increase to save programs (the mayor was adamant about keeping it at 2.5 per cent) and worked over the weekend with members from both sides of council to get agreement on what would go into Councillor Colle’s package, getting support from the left to tone the rhetoric down during council debate. The experience of reaching a compromise over control of development in the Port Lands this summer was a guide. But unlike the case of the Port Lands, this time, the mayor and his brother did not agree to “sing Kumbaya” with council.

On Monday, councillors McMahon, Colle and Bailao met the mayor together. The fourth member of the group, Josh Matlow, met with him privately.

“We couldn’t have been more clear and more respectful,” Councillor McMahon said. “We said, ‘Take it. You champion it. We do not need credit at all,’” she remembers. They repeated the offer on the morning of council, but the idea of dipping into the surplus stymied the deal, she says.

By Tuesday, support was slipping. Councillor Robinson says she left when it became clear that spending surplus was the group’s answer. “I don’t support quick political fixes,” she explained later in the week, describing the motion as a Band-Aid solution. Councillors Crawford and Berardinetti also voted with the mayor against the motion.

Heading into the budget meeting, the councillors remained nervous about the 23 votes they needed, and kept close watch over a few key supporters.

“We put them in the witness protection program,” Councillor McMahon jokes. Councillor Matlow was paired with Councillor Pasternak, both former school board trustees, even following him on a bathroom break. Councillor Pasternak won his seat by a slim margin and faced pressure from the mayor’s office over the budget, with suggestions he might not be so lucky again.

‘Vague’ proposals and distrust on the right

Talk to the mayor’s closest advisers, and they’ll tell you it’s all going according to plan. “We are spending less,” says Mark Towhey, the point man in the mayor’s office for the budget, giving two thumbs up on the week’s events.

The changes made at council took about $19-million from the surplus, but many, including the budget chief, were expecting their critics to try for more.

Skeptics of the motion say some of the asks in the declined proposal were vague and came too late to be properly considered. Also, agreeing to give up $15-million before council began would have opened the floodgates to even more spending, they reasoned.

Then there was the principal of protecting the city’s surplus. After arguing for months about fiscal responsibility, how could the mayor and his supporters agree to such changes?

“Some people decide to put their asses on two sides of the fence, that’s not our approach. We stick with our beliefs,” explains the mayor’s brother, Councillor Doug Ford.

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday is more diplomatic. “It is not even a matter of victory, it is a matter of wise spending and common sense,” he says. “We should have explained those kinds of things right off the bat. Live and learn.”

A slim victory

Councillor Ford says Tuesday’s battle could have gone either way.  He points out that Ron Moeser, who often votes with the mayor, was absent.  ”One of our guys was in the hospital or we would have won the vote,” he says.

Asked about the Ford administration’s ability to promote its agenda if it can’t muster support on council he has this to say: “What I’d like the point out [is]I think it was a dozen councillors [who had]won [their seats]with less than a thousand votes; half a dozen won by hundreds of votes. I’d be concerned if I were them,” he said.

Those who lined up against the mayor this week say threats like that are exactly what’s wrong with his tactics.

“They decided they preferred to beat us than to actually win,” says Councillor Matlow. “I think that cost the mayor a lot.”

The councillors were deliberately careful about the details of their compromise, he said, for fear the mayor and his staff would use it to try to “pick off” some of their supporters.

Friday, as the mayor arrived with Doug Ford at Nathan Phillips Square to promote their weight-loss challenge, he shrugged off suggestions that a group of swing voters could be shifting the balance of power.

“Everything is going well. Everything is going very, very well,” he said, when asked if he was worried. “We are saving taxpayers a lot of money. We have the lowest property-tax increase in any municipality I know about. That’s a big win for the taxpayers.”

With files from Marcus Gee and Patrick White

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