Doug Ford, the blunt-talking Toronto councillor and brother to the mayor, is ratcheting up the cost-cutting rhetoric at city hall, vowing to support library closings and dismissing the efforts of a CanLit legend to spare branches from the chopping block.
Mr. Ford, a rookie councillor who has quickly gained a reputation for headline-grabbing statements, said Tuesday he would close a library in his ward "in a heartbeat," characterizing a growing movement to save branches backed by Margaret Atwood as an "over-reaction," led by "library groups."
"Good luck to Margaret Atwood. I don't even know her. She could walk right by me, I wouldn't have a clue who she is," said Mr. Ford, responding to the celebrated author's remarks on Twitter opposing the proposed library cuts.
"She's not down here. She's not dealing with the problem," he went on to say. "Tell her to go run in the next election and get democratically elected."
The councillor's remarks came on the same day that people packed a meeting of the Toronto Library Board to discuss the proposed cuts to the city's 98 branches, with the overflow crowd following the debate on closed-circuit television in a room next door.
Toronto is hunting for savings to close an estimated $774-million gap in next year's budget – part of a pledge made by Mayor Rob Ford to find the "gravy" at city hall. Consultants KPMG have looked at more than 150 city services, producing a long list of possible money-saving cuts that include the suggestion of "rationalizing the footprint of libraries" by closing an unspecified number of branches.
Mr. Ford figures there are five or six library branches within a two-mile area near his ward, which includes what he described as a little-used location in an industrial area.
Asked if he would vote to close that branch he said, "Absolutely I would. In a heartbeat.
"And my constituents, it wouldn't bother them because they have another library two miles one way and two miles the other way."
An online petition to protest potential closings has attracted more than 24,700 signatures and got a major boost last week after Ms. Atwood used Twitter to pass on the link to the petition. Since then, Ms. Atwood has devoted several tweets to the Etobicoke councillor, who got into hot water earlier this month by suggesting there are more libraries than Tim Hortons in his ward – a statement which proved to be an exaggeration.
At Tuesday's meeting, the library board voted to defer consideration of KPMG's report until its September meeting and that a representative of the auditor should attend the meeting to answer questions.
Councillors Janet Davis and Sarah Doucette backed the motion while Councillor Paul Ainslie opposed it, arguing the options the report suggested did not need clarification.
"I don't think there are a lot of grey areas here," he said. "As a board, we're elected to consider all the options before us. I'd like to deal with it."
Library supporters applauded two members of the public who made presentations.
"I do not want the official Toronto city library bookmobile to become a Tim Hortons," said Himy Syed, who argued Toronto needs many libraries to serve its diverse, multilingual population. "If you want to destroy civilization, you burn the libraries."
Maureen O'Reilly, president of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, which set up the petition, said all three of the libraries in Mr. Ford's Etobicoke North ward have relatively low circulation numbers and would be vulnerable to closing if borrowing rates were all that mattered. The one he singled out, Northern Elms, lent 96,328 books in 2010, the sixth lowest in the city, she said. The highest, by comparison, was North York Central Library with a circulation of more than 1.7 million.
A poll sponsored by the union was conducted in the wards of the three councillors on the library board who voted for shutting the Urban Affairs library at Metro Hall – Cesar Palacio, Jaye Robinson and Paul Ainslie, all supporters of the mayor. It showed the majority of their constituents – from 71 to 78 per cent – opposed branch closings as a cost-saving measure, Ms. O'Reilly said. The random telephone polls were conducted by Public Polling on July 11-12, with sample size that ranged from 1,400 to 893, depending on the ward. The margin of error ranges from plus or minus 2.6 per cent to 3.25 per cent, depending on the sample size.
The executive committee, chaired by the mayor, will meet Thursday to consider the consultants findings for all agencies, boards and commissions, including the Toronto Public Library.
With a report from Adrian Morrow