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The rookie councillors: A year later, the lessons learned

Toronto City Hall Oct 26, 2010. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

One year ago, these six councillors walked into City Hall as the most influential first-time councillors in recent memory. They held the balance of power in what was expected to be a fiercely partisan council session polarized by Mayor Rob Ford's conservative faction and an obstinate left. Dubbed the "Mighty Middle," they were independent, thoughtful and a little naive. After council's year of discontent, The Globe and Mail caught up with the crew to find out what they hated, loved and learned during their first year working with the Ford administration.

Ana Bailao, Davenport

This even-keeled rookie blew her top this summer when she discovered work crews were about to cut into a section of Dundas Street that was recently restored to work on gas lines.

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Hardest lesson

"Don't take it personally. Everything is political."

A former staffer to past councillor Mario Silva a decade ago, Ms. Bailao was shocked when she returned to city hall by how divisive council had become, starting with what she calls the "pinko episode" with Don Cherry at the mayor's inauguration. Over the year, she has seen that divisiveness play out in issues in her ward, such as a council vote on a traffic light and the proposed sale of a city building to a seniors' group. As a moderate, she gets pressure from all sides and in the worst cases has been shunned by those unhappy with her vote.

Best Day

Feb. 8: The day parking returned to Dundas Street West. It was an issue that incensed local businesses and was a major campaign pledge. The day council agreed to return the parking spots was a major accomplishment, this rookie says. "People tell you, 'You promised and you did it.' It shows people there are politicians that speak the truth. That felt good."

Worst Day

Nov. 7: That was the day cyclist Jenna Morrison , a 38-year-old mother expecting her second child, was killed when she was run over by a truck in an intersection in Ms. Bailao's west-end ward. "That was really disturbing," she says. "We were already doing work [on that street] We were planning. You can't help but think if something had been done earlier … It was tough."

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Big issue

Affordable housing: Ms. Bailao has several issues in her ward, including transit, but says breaking the cycle of poverty citywide for residents in social housing is a priority. She praises groups such as Hammer Heads, which helps teach trades skills, as the kind of creative solution the city needs. The vote to approve Toronto Community Housing Corp.'s sale of 22 homes – which she supported – was one of the most difficult this year, she says.

Michelle Berardinetti, Scarborough Southwest

The "elephant lady" made a splash when council approved her motion to send Toronto's three aged elephants to a sanctuary in California rather than another zoo. The move pleased animal activists while enraging some members of the Toronto zoo board.

Hardest Lesson

She worked as a political staffer in Ottawa and Queen's Park, "but city hall is a much different beast," she said. "You learn very quickly about petty human behaviour, unfortunately. To try to rise above that is a tough lesson. There are a lot of councillors trying to stay above the fray. That's where the 'mighty middle' councillors really want to make a difference."

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Best Day

Feb. 10: "I know it's a local issue that didn't get much attention, but when we secured public funding for our new Warden Hilltop Community Centre, it was exciting. It was slated to be contracted privately. I felt it should be publicly funded. I went to the mayor and said, 'This is my number one issue and I want your support on it.' And he did support me. It meant a million in funding every year."

Worst Day

July 11: When Mayor Ford's massive review of core city services began rolling out, it became clear that councillors would face some tough choices about what to cut and what to keep. "No person, no human, no councillor wants to make those decisions," Ms. Berardinetti said. "It's like Sophie's Choice. We did end up removing quite a few cuts on budget committee and executive compared to what was originally presented. When we had to make the final decisions, that was tough, especially things like the Hardship Fund."

Big issue

When it comes to larger city issues, Ms. Berardinetti is all about bio-energy. "I really think looking at waste-energy models would be phenomenal for the city to do," she said. "The left doesn't support it. They're just against it. I'm hoping under this administration we can change the approach."

Josh Colle, Eglinton-Lawrence

The more subdued of the rookie Joshes speaks softly but may carry the most sway of any middle councillor. On the mayor's biggest initiatives, his votes have fallen 50/50 between the left and right.

Hardest Lesson

As the dean of the middle, Mr. Colle is subject to relentless appeals from either side of the political spectrum. "I didn't expect the intensity of the lobbying," he said. "That has been the most surprising thing. I was anticipating some, but not to the extent you feel on the floor and in the halls of city hall. Maybe that was my mistake by positioning myself as an independent."

Best Day

Dec. 7, 2010: "My first day in the chamber was pretty cool. That was the first time it really sinks in that you've actually done it. And then Grapes [Don Cherry]provided an auspicious start to things."

Worst Day

The first few months: Being the son of seasoned MPP Mike Colle didn't quite prepare him for the grind. "Some days really wear you down," he said. "There are those days, especially early on, when you really overwhelm yourself and your staff. You realize you should probably say no to those requests. Some of those could be leaving the house at quarter to seven and getting home around 1 a.m. Those bad days, you just try to forget about them."

Big issue

"The issue I want something tangible done on is transit on Eglinton, which is at the south end of my ward. It's one of those projects people in my area feel once-bitten, twice-shy on because we lost it before. I think much of my term will be spent trying to push that ahead, making sure we get the stations we were promised."

Josh Matlow, St. Paul's

This rookie likes to talk over the issues, even hosting his own radio call-in show to hash out city matters. Some accuse him of fence-sitting. He calls himself an "independent thinker."

Hardest Lesson

"How politicized advice from staff has become since the stronger mayor system was implemented a few years back." Mr. Matlow says he started seeking advice from outside experts and former mayor David Crombie after the Port Lands experience, when the city manager recommended the city take back control of development from Waterfront Toronto. "It's harder for me to know if the information that I have received is spun to support a political endeavour or [if]it is objective, factual information," he says.

Best Day

April 12: When council unanimously supported his motion to create a strategic plan for seniors. "All this baloney about having to pick a team is fundamentally wrong for so many reasons," he says. Getting approval for the strategy proved, he says, that "one doesn't need to be partisan to see [one's]ideas to fruition." Asked if supporting an issue with such broad appeal was a no-brainer for council, Mr. Matlow counters that he has seen even simple matters become blocked by one side or the other. "There are some petty, really awful things that happen here," he says, adding he still thinks councillors can work together. "If you want my vote, come and convince me."

Worst Day

June 27: The mayor is a no-show when the pride flag is raised at city hall. "I was really disappointed when the mayor didn't acknowledge the LGBT community during Pride Week. That was one of the saddest moments for me as a councillor. I came into office hoping the mayor would be the best he could be. I still have that hope, but that was a moment where I just couldn't stop thinking what effect it has on the members of the community who felt neglected or misunderstood or slighted by their families and colleagues – and then to see the leadership of their city do the same thing."

Big issue

There are about 20. "I won't pick,' says Mr. Matlow. "That is not even intellectually honest. We are going to have to make some choices. It's not honest to say that one is more important than another … Transit is a priority. Childcare, as well. Gridlock. But there are other ideas – heritage, arts and culture, environment, fiscal responsibility."

Mary-Margaret McMahon, Beaches-East York

Known for her muffin-making talents at council, this strong environmentalist also arranged tours of the Port Lands when the issue of development there simmered over this summer.

Hardest lesson

"You can't please everyone all of the time." After unseating a long-time incumbent, Ms. McMahon discovered some supporters expect her to do their bidding and turn to e-mail to vent when she doesn't. "Do you lie to your kids with that mouth?" one constituent wrote. Her solution? House calls. Those with a beef may find this rookie on their doorstep at breakfast. She also contacts her critics by phone. "It does a lot to defuse tension," she says.

Best day

July 23: A bike tune-up workshop and community garden planting at Main Square. Organized by the councillor, non-profit group Bicycle Common and local residents, it turned an empty, litter-strewn courtyard at a high-rise complex that is home to 4,500 into "a community hub," says Ms. McMahon, who hopes to repeat it. "Even the seniors who had been sitting there guffawing, they were telling us how to grow the plants by the end."

Worst Day

Pride Weekend: "I got accused on social media of not being at the Pride Parade and I was burying my mother," says the councillor, who attended the launch party before going to her hometown of Collingwood, Ont. A passionate advocate for local food, Ms. McMahon lent her "vegetable costumes" – a pea, carrot and apple – to folks in the parade. "People have to remember that you are human and you have a life and family," she says.

Big issue

Transit. "We are crippling ourselves with congestion, we are asphyxiating ourselves with poor air quality. The number one thing we can do is get this city moving. We need to be looking at revenue generation – road tolls, congestion levies, parking fees, anything to fund it."

Jaye Robinson, Don Valley West

A member of Mayor Ford's executive committee and former senior manager in the city's economic development department, Ms. Robinson distinguished herself in the last year when she spoke out against Councillor Doug Ford's monorail vision for Toronto's waterfront.

Hardest Lesson

"When it comes to voting, you learn quickly that there's intense pressure from both sides," said Ms. Robinson, who, along with other rookie councillors, was surprised at the level of partisan animosity during council debates. "I learned that when it comes to pushing that green or red button for votes, you have to listen to your constituents."

Best Day

Sept. 15: Ms. Robinson came out against the Ford brothers' new vision for the Toronto Port Lands, earning instant accolades from across the city. "I had one negative e-mail and hundreds of beautiful, supportive e-mails. It was a difficult thing to do, but it was the right thing. I respect the years of planning that went into the Waterfront plan."

Worst Day

Sept. 19: During Mayor Ford's all-night executive committee meeting, Ms. Robinson found herself questioning the nature of public engagement. "By far that was the worst day and night. I ran on civic engagement, but making people stay up all night, that's excluding the seniors and families that can't depute at 3 a.m. Also, I'm not a big caffeine person, so I found it hard to stay awake, even though some of the speakers were highly entertaining."

Big issue

"I'll be keeping my eye on the waterfront and the library," she said. "But my focus will be on museums for a bit. Four museums were on the chopping block, set to be closed Jan. 1, 2012, and I helped stop that. Now I'm working on a strategy to enhance heritage in Toronto."





































































































































































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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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