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Toronto city council eager to get back to the issues

Mayor Rob Ford wants to scrap the five-cent charge for plastic bags by this summer, but first he needs to persuade a majority of councillors to support his plan.

Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail/tim fraser The Globe and Mail

When Toronto city council kicks off its fall session this week, Mayor Rob Ford will have a real shot at a real win on a real issue.

If the mayor's allies succeed in postponing or reversing a plastic-bag ban that Mr. Ford has derided as "outright stupid," he will have something to celebrate after this summer's gaffes.

As the fall political season begins in earnest, supporters and independents on council are practically begging Mr. Ford to get down to business. They are desperate for the mayor to champion issues – any issues – that would bring the public's attention back to policy at city hall.

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"Just cut it out," is Councillor Josh Matlow's advice to Mr. Ford.

"If he would focus on the substantive issues that Torontonians want council to prioritize, whether he's on one side of the issue or the other, no one could say that he isn't doing his job."

Pollster Nik Nanos agreed that Mr. Ford needs to find an agenda and champion it if he hopes to direct the public conversation away from his reading while driving, his use of city resources for his football teams and a conflict-of-interest lawsuit that could force him from office.

"The tolerance for controversy goes up if people believe that progress is being made on things," said Mr. Nanos, the president of Nanos Research, which conducted extensive polling in Toronto prior to the 2010 election.

So far, the mayor's specific priorities don't appear to extend beyond his previously announced agenda: streamlining senior management, passing a budget that keeps residential property taxes to 1.75 per cent or less, and creating jobs.

Mark Towhey, the mayor's chief of staff, declined an interview request to discuss the administration's autumn plans.

The agenda for the council meeting that begins Tuesday does not include any major items shepherded through committee by the mayor.

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The most contentious issues are expected to be do-overs of past decisions, such as the bag ban and the removal of the Jarvis bike lanes. A group of left-leaning councillors is hoping to save the lanes this week.

There are some practical reasons the Ford administration has had trouble concentrating on council business.

Mr. Ford loves to brag about slashing his own office budget. But his frugality has put a heavy burden on a small office that has suffered a string of departures lately, including the loss of chief of staff Amir Remtulla in July.

Mr. Towhey replaced him, leaving his old post of policy director vacant.

The mayor's office is down to 14 staffers, only three of whom hold senior roles.

This summer, they had their hands full just putting out fires lit by their boss and his councillor brother, Doug Ford.

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By contrast, David Miller employed 22 aides in 2009, his last full year in office.

"I think that [short-staffing] has been a challenge since the beginning of this administration," said Councillor Peter Milczyn, a member of the mayor's executive.

"When the mayor shows leadership and there's a clear focus on issues," Mr. Milczyn predicted, "there'll be success."

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Health reporter

Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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