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The 'mushy middle' toughens up to fight Ford cuts

Mayor Rob Ford, with his staff, and supporters speaks to some of the key councillors whose votes he will need as the budget debate continues at Toronto City Hall on Jan. 17, 2011.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

If Year One of the Rob Ford mandate was the rule of the right, Year Two is starting out as the rise of the rookies.

In the mayor's biggest political setback to date, a handful of first-term councillors long thought of as the politically "mushy" middle rose up and helped vote down a long list of the mayor's 2012 budget items on Tuesday in a 23-21 vote. Councillors supported the overall $9.3-billion operating budget, allowing Mr. Ford to claim victory on ending more than a decade of annual spending increases. But he lost the support of centrist councillors whose votes unravelled roughly $19-million worth of cuts.

The uprising came from an unlikely source. Councillor Josh Colle is a humble rookie who until Tuesday had never spoken longer than five minutes on the council floor. Now he's being hailed as a hero by some left-wing colleagues for reversing several of Mr. Ford's cuts.

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Mr. Colle stood toe to toe with Ford supporters bent on derailing his motion, which used $15-million from a city surplus that Mr. Ford had declared untouchable to restore funding for ice rinks, pools, community grants, homeless shelters, mechanical leaf-collection and the TTC. Not only did his motion lure the votes needed from unlikely allies, but it had a snowball effect, resulting in the passage of other motions to restore more funding.

A demand for the library to make additional cuts was taken off the table, three jobs saved at the Toronto Environmental Office and more than $300,000 for a "community animator" program for Live Green Toronto was put back in the budget. Money for a immigrant women's health program also was restored, the only reversal supported by the mayor.

Keeping to form, Mr. Colle was quick to play down any heroics or suggestions he was waging battle against the mayor. "I am definitely not a hero," he said, calling his motion a "tweaking" of the mayor's budget rather than a full-out repudiation. "We're talking about 0.2 per cent of the operating budget here."

With many onlookers shocked at the degree of Mr. Ford's defeats, the mayor claimed victory, arguing that the core of his budget – $330-million in cuts and efficiencies, a 2.5-per-cent tax increase and nearly 1,200 layoffs – remained intact. "We are spending less money this year than last year, that is absolutely unheard of," he said. "We are starting to change the culture here at city hall."

Asked to explain the council votes, the mayor said some councillors could not refuse the temptation to dip into the $154-million surplus he was trying to protect. "They see money in front of them, it is like putting food in front of a dog, they just can't resist."

While Mr. Ford put on a brave face, his allies couldn't hide their disappointment, but argued that he still – contrary to critics – held sway over council. "It's a setback, but it's not a major setback," Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday told reporters. "I'm sure the mayor is going to stick with this and do the right thing no matter what and people like me are going to stick with him."

Asked if the budget vote is a sign that Mr. Ford is unlikely to get support for other key items, such as the phasing out of the land transfer tax, Mr. Holyday said time will tell. "The mayor is committed to doing some things, and whether there is support on this council or not is to be determined," he said. "If there's not, it is up to the taxpayer and the voter to judge what has happened here. We can't control 45 minds and their votes at all times."

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A shift toward the centre had clearly taken place – with the help of Councillor James Pasternak, a key Ford ally for much of the first year of this term.

"It was a tipping point in that we showed Toronto wants managed change, not sharp turns," said Mr. Pasternak.

In comments following the budget vote, Mr. Colle and his fellow rookies recognized their own emergence while remaining deferential to the mayor. "People will stop calling us mushy," said east-end councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, standing with Mr. Colle, Josh Matlow and Ana Bailao.

"I think this is the triumph of Toronto," said Ms. Bailao. "We are heading in the right direction. There's a lot of things that had been done. We just put the final touches on a good budget."

Veterans of council's left couldn't help but look on admiringly at the coming out party.

"A third of the 45 people here are new," said Councillor Adam Vaughan, "and those relationships are starting to grow because we're starting to trust each other. All of us took a look at how we needed to change to work better together because the alternative is letting a radical conservative budget run this city."

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Late in the day, about 200 protesters attempted to barge past security barriers in front of city hall but were repelled by police.

Police said four men were charged with obstructing a peace officer and unlawful assembly and were due to be released shortly. Their names were not released.

At press time, police were not been able to confirm or deny whether pepper spray had been used.

With a report from Carys Mills

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Toronto City Hall bureau chief


National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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