On the days that Toronto city council is in session, John Elvidge will arrive at City Hall at around 8 a.m, and take the elevators up to the empty council chambers on the third floor. From his seat in the middle of the floor – a round table covered with eight monitors – he'll go through his checklist of preparations: Is the equipment in the chamber, including mics and monitors, working? Have all the councillors received all the documents for the day's agenda?
At 9:25 a.m., he'll push a button on his screen labelled "quorum chimes," triggering the sound of clanging bells across the building – urging councillors to hurry up and get to their seats. After that, the Speaker bangs her gavel. The day's meeting begins.
If Toronto's council chamber is a political theatre, then the bespectacled Mr. Elvidge is the stage manager. As director of secretariat, he is part of a team led by city clerk Ulli Watkiss who quietly keep council and committee meetings on track. Despite the political dramas that have unfolded in council meetings over the past four years – former mayor Rob Ford barrelling over Councillor Pam McConnell, raucous protesters in the public gallery and a Bob Marley-themed dance break – none of the meetings were ever completely derailed, due in large part to the clerks' watchful eyes. And, as a new mayor and set of councillors took their places at City Hall this week, Mr. Elvidge and the team's knowledge of council procedure and process was there to guide them through it.
"Council does not run city hall. Neither does the mayor. And, dirty little secret: neither does even the city manager," said Councillor Shelley Carroll. "The city clerk's office does."
City Clerk Ms. Watkiss officially oversees the office, but because she manages a diverse range of issues, Mr. Elvidge is often the one working directly with councillors. "Our job, among other things, is to stage meetings of committees and council," he said. "And to make sure that … everybody has the opportunity to participate and things go smoothly."
If the speaker has a procedural question, Mr. Elvidge is there with his encyclopedic knowledge of the rulebook. If a councillor wants advice on how to word a motion to ensure it won't be ruled out of order, he's the one they turn to. At least one councillor, Paula Fletcher, described him as a "constitutional wizard."
Like any good stage manager, most of Mr. Elvidge's work is behind the scenes, which suits the quiet father of two. But when it comes time to vote on an item, Mr. Elvidge keeps a stern eye on his screen – and the councillors around him – to make sure things are moving along. If councillors are not paying attention, he's the voice on the mic, calling their names and urging them to submit a vote.
After graduating with a degree in public policy from the University of Guelph, Mr. Elvidge worked as an arts administrator before ending up with the city's cultural affairs department in 1990. From there, he moved to the city manager's office and then the clerk's office eight years ago. "I didn't really expect to be working in this business," he said. That being said, it seems to suit his personality.
"He's a pretty low-key guy," said councillor and new TTC chair Josh Colle. "If you got too flustered or frenetic in that environment, you couldn't last – especially the way some council meetings go. He's definitely a calming presence on the floor."
And though the quiet 52-year-old is congenial with everyone, Mr. Elvidge avoids the appearance of bias by answering everyone with the same straight-faced tone.
"Everyone thinks he's on their side. He's on everyone's side," Ms. Carroll said. "Whatever happened in the last four years – when we had the most partisan mayor we're ever going to have here … [the clerks] continued to work with all 44 councillors and the mayor."
Mr. Elvidge said the City of Toronto Act requires him and the other clerks to perform their jobs "without note or comment."
In other words, he said, "our job is to set the table. And then the dinner guests come and they provide the culture."
In his time on the job, Mr. Elvidge has seen all kinds of theatrics. Unlike the much more formal Queen's Park or Parliament Hill, Toronto's City Hall is easily accessible to almost anyone who wants to walk in and participate – making it all the more difficult to control. But Mr. Elvidge says he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I love it when the chamber is full here," he said. "This is a great, robust facility for democracy. It contains democracy really well. Sometimes, that means the place is full and kind of rocking – people making their views known by their presence here. You can feel it in the chamber."