Many in Toronto are still shaking their heads over last week's sudden decision to ban plastic bags in the city starting Jan. 1. Where on earth did that come from and how did it pass city council? The back story of the bag ban tells a lot about how things work – or don't – in the strange era of Mayor Rob Ford.
The notion of banning plastic bags is not new. Mr. Ford's predecessor, David Miller, considered it. After a sharp debate among his city council supporters, it was dropped. Given all the fuss over a proposal to ban paper coffee cups with plastic lids like you get at Tim Hortons, the Miller camp decided the time was not right and settled for making retailers charge a 5-cent bag fee instead.
Shortly after taking office in December, 2010, Mr. Ford started talking about doing away with the fee. An opportunity came when rookie councillor Michelle Berardinetti proposed directing the proceeds of the fee to rebuilding the city's tree canopy, rather than let retailers simply pocket the money. She got her idea through the city's executive committee last month, but Mr. Ford also got approval there for ending the fee altogether. Both ideas came to city council last Wednesday for a decision.
Mr. Ford's push to kill the fee opened a Pandora's box. Opponents at first reckoned the best they could do was defeat the mayor's proposal, but matters can be awfully fluid on the floor of city council, with multiple motions flying back and forth and no political parties to impose voting discipline.
Shelley Carroll, who was Mr. Miller's budget chief, proposed sending the issue back to city staff for research and report. Council voted that down. Anthony Perruzza, a left-leaning councillor, proposed banning bags altogether starting in 2014. That idea lost on a tie vote of 22-22.
Then the real shocker: David Shiner, who often votes with the mayor, proposed doing away with bags as of 2013.
"All of a sudden, out of nowhere, David jumps up and moves a faster deadline than Anthony had," recalls left-leaning councillor Gord Perks. "Counts were starting to go all over the place. People were saying: 'Maybe I'll vote for this, maybe I'll vote for that.' " Though he likes the result, he admits it was "a bit of a zoo."
To everyone's surprise, the Shiner motion went through 24-20. The motion passed minutes after council voted with Mr. Ford to do away with the fee, so the result was confusing to say the least. No fee on the bags – but no bags either.
Peter Milczyn, a member of the mayor's executive committee who voted for the Shiner motion, says that, "if I could turn back time," things would have turned out differently. He says he did not want to ban bags and believes the ban will never take effect. He would have preferred to end the 5-cent fee and let retailers decide on their own what to charge for bags, but the idea got lost in the shuffle.
Another Ford ally, Denzil Minnan-Wong, says: "I don't think there was any sinister plot" to thwart Mr. Ford on the bag issue. "It just kind of went sideways."
But that is what happens in a city hall as disordered as the one run by this mayor. For all his faults, David Miller usually had his ducks in a row before he came to council for support. He didn't always win the vote, but at least councillors knew what they were voting for or against.
Mr. Ford, by contrast, seems unable to bring forward coherent policy or argue persuasively for it. His speech on the bag fee was typical. "Has it been a success? Absolutely it has," he said, referring to the fact that the fee led to a halving of plastic-bag consumption. "But it is really irritating people."
If council's decision was rash and bizarre, Mr. Ford invited it by reopening the issue and leaving councillors to hash it out on the floor.