John Tory brings an understandable impatience to his new job as mayor of Toronto. Like many Torontonians, he is frustrated at how long it takes to accomplish things in this city. As a newcomer to city government, and the first mayor in recent history to come from outside of city council, he admits to being perplexed at how slowly the wheels turn down at City Hall.
"When you are talking to the staff, they are incredibly professional, but everything is on a time horizon that is much longer than I think should be the case," he told the Globe's Elizabeth Church in a year-end interview before going off on vacation. "I think that it is because, over time, there has been a lack of direction saying, 'Please, speed it up and do it faster.'"
In his first month at work, he has been driving home that hurry-up message in his meetings with senior officials.
After meeting with Toronto Transit Commission chief Andy Byford, he announced all-door boarding to improve service on the King streetcar, and debit and credit card payment for tickets and tokens at subway-station collector booths.
After meeting with the transportation department, he announced a plan to reduce gridlock by towing illegally parked cars during rush hour, co-ordinating road closures more effectively and speeding up a project to retime traffic signals.
After scrutinizing plans
for the never-ending construction on the Gardiner Expressway, he said the city would step up the pace of work and reopen a portion of the roadway two months early.
He wants to be clear: he isn't saying city employees are layabouts. "I don't think it is a lack of urgency – people just sitting around saying 'Who cares, if it takes longer so be it.' I think there isn't the reflection inside of the urgency people feel outside."
He is making it his mission to convey that sense of public frustration to everyone who works at City Hall. That can't be a bad thing. After the turmoil and drift of the Rob Ford years, it is a relief to have a mayor who is on the ball and eager to get moving. Mr. Tory seemed to be everywhere in his first weeks on the job, popping up all over the city to make announcements, attend events and give interviews.
Because he is a city hall outsider, he brings a fresh and skeptical eye to the often-Byzantine workings of that place. When officials tell him, "That's just the way it works" or, "That's going to take time," he is entitled to push back.
But though his energy and his impatience may be welcome, there is a limit to how much he can achieve simply by lighting a fire under those who work for him. When officials tell him, it's complicated, mayor, sometimes they are right.
Yes, you can accelerate construction on the Gardiner to save motorists some heartache, but it's going to cost money – about $2-million, in fact, to pay for heftier equipment and more work crews labouring longer hours. Yes, you can try to cut down on weekend road closings for marathons and street festivals, but the fact that Toronto hosts so many such events is a sign of its vibrancy. Officials already work hard to try to make sure the events don't overlap or cause undue disruption. Yes, you can crack down on those irritating curb-lane hogs during rush hour, but where do you find all the tow trucks and parking-enforcement officers to make it work?
Egging on your officials to move faster only goes so far. The trick is to find the money and muster the political forces to get things done.
Though he has spent much of his career around politics and government, there is sometimes a whiff of the amateur to Mr. Tory. It is almost as if he doesn't want to hear any backtalk about the complexities of running a big city.
When it comes to some of Toronto's problems, the mayor told The Globe, "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out. It's just a matter of saying, 'No, we don't have weeks. There have been weeks or years, now get on with it.'"
Sad to say, it is more complicated than that. Mr. Tory's impatience is understandable and his eagerness is welcome, but getting things done will take more than having a new ring master to crack the whip.