A decision on the future of Toronto's Gardiner Expressway appears set to be won by just a few votes, with councillors pointing to a "seismic shift" in City Hall culture – namely, a weakening of the role of vote-whipping – as the key to understanding why.
The Globe and Mail conducted an informal survey of the 45 council members Thursday about how they plan to vote next week on the eastern portion of the Gardiner. Fifteen councillors said they are in favour of removing it, 14 are behind Mayor John Tory's preferred "hybrid" option, and 13 are undecided. Three councillors either did not respond or did not choose one of the two prevailing options.
To explain how the vote could be so close on such an important issue, several councillors said the new mayor, unlike previous chief magistrates, has a much less aggressive approach to vote-whipping – the practice of ensuring that supporters vote in line.
"As of today, there has been no whipping in my office, not even with a wet noodle," said Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker. At least five councillors approached by The Globe said they had not been lobbied by the mayor's office on their Gardiner vote.
And even if Mr. Tory tried, some said, the legacy of the Rob Ford era and its culture, in which 44 councillors learned to work independently around a largely ineffectual mayor's office, means he would likely have little or no effect.
"I think the four years of chaos and civil war under Rob Ford have taught every single councillor to be independent," Mr. De Baeremaeker said. "We have learned after being threatened by the last mayor and his henchmen to vote one way or another. They can't really knock us off. … Whether the mayor likes you or not, doesn't really matter."
Councillor James Pasternak described it as a "seismic shift in political culture."
As evidence he pointed to two recent events at City Hall: a press conference by Councillor Pam McConnell, one of Mr. Tory's deputy mayors, pressing for the removal of the Gardiner's eastern portion; and one by Councillor Michael Thompson, a member of the mayor's executive committee, calling for an end to the police practice of carding. Both positions contradicted the mayor's.
"You would never have seen those situations under a strong mayor system," Mr. Pasternak said. "What you saw in the last term was an amazing, significant weakening of the role of the mayor because of the power vacuum that was created."
But not everyone is willing to vote against the mayor. The group in favour of the hybrid option – which entails rebuilding the portion of the Gardiner east of Jarvis Street, with slight revisions – includes several members of Mr. Tory's cabinet-like executive committee, and over the past week they have publicly stated their support for that option.
On Thursday, five councillors led by public works committee chair Jaye Robinson held a press conference at City Hall on the heels of a new city report on the Gardiner. The report said the underside of an elevated highway could be made more attractive, raised concerns about broadening a boulevard from eight to 10 lanes, counselled against pedestrian overpasses and looked at ramp placement.