Mayor Rob Ford has cleared a hurdle in his bid to cash in city assets, inking a multimillion-dollar deal for the city's stake in a district heating system, just as his plan to put the Toronto Zoo up for sale has stumbled.
One day after the city took its first step toward a possible zoo sale, it became clear that Mr. Ford does not have the support of the group that actually owns the sprawling Scarborough site.
By Tuesday evening, at the end of a day-long council session, two more obstacles emerged. A member of his own executive committee, Councillor Paul Ainslie, successfully introduced a motion for a Wednesday vote that could suspend the search for a private operator. And councillors opposed to a sale warned that transferring the zoo to a commercial venture could jeopardize an agreement to bring giant pandas to Toronto next year.
Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, an ally of the mayor, said he feared a sale to the private sector could put the delicate panda deal at risk.
"We're starting to hear that, if it's given to the private sector, that the pandas may not end up here because the Chinese government is very strict about not making profit off the loan of pandas to any zoo or any city," said Mr. Mammoliti, who seconded Mr. Ainslie's motion.
"We have to get that straightened away before this thing spirals out of control."
The zoo is a city-owned facility, but the majority of the property it occupies – about 600 acres – is rented for a nominal sum by the city from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.
The board of that group, made up of politicians from Toronto and surrounding municipalities, asked the city last week not to proceed with plans to test market interest for a zoo deal.
Board members also signalled that any move to run the zoo for profit would trigger a renegotiation of its land deal with the city.
On a day when the city announced the sale of its share in energy company Enwave for a healthy profit, Mr. Ford made it clear that selling the zoo was his aim.
"I'd love to see us sell the zoo and make money on it, if we can," Mr. Ford told reporters. The mayor also said he'd like to see the zoo keep its elephants, instead of sending them to a California sanctuary. "I've never wanted to move the elephants," he said. "Keep the elephants here and take it from there."
Despite his enthusiasm for selling the zoo, Mr. Ford supported the introduction of the last-minute motion to put the sale efforts on hold.
A spokesman from his office said that support was a "procedural courtesy" and does not mean Mr. Ford will support stopping the sale effort when it comes to a vote.
TRCA chair Gerri Lynn O'Connor said the city acted this week without any warning or consultation with her board, despite the trump card they hold on any deal.
"The TRCA owns the land," said Ms. O'Connor, who is also mayor of Uxbridge, northeast of Toronto. "Ultimately, if Toronto wants to enter into a new agreement it will have to come back to us."
TRCA's vice-chair, Toronto Councillor Maria Augimeri, said a private operator would not receive the same favourable lease terms as the city.
"We would insist on a total reopening and renegotiation of the contract were a private enterprise involved – that is our policy now," she said.
Earlier this week, the city took the first step toward a possible sale, despite the TRCA's objections, issuing a request for expression of interest that seeks "innovative, creative and sustainable" options for the Toronto Zoo as a move toward "sale, lease or operation."
Asked if the TRCA's role as landlord gives its board a veto over any zoo proposal, Ms. O'Connor stressed she is hoping to avoid a confrontation.
"I don't want to get into a harangue with Toronto and the zoo, but Toronto does have a lease with TRCA for the zoo lands," she said. "If Toronto wants to enter into a new agreement with us, they'll ultimately have to come back to the board."
This week's move by the city comes as the zoo continues to struggle with a series of troubles including what to do with its trio of aging elephants, an issue that led to the loss of its accreditation earlier this year. The zoo's own board also has proposed a major restructuring that would see the facility run by a non-profit foundation and would gradually end its reliance on city funds. Toronto contributes about $11-million to its operations annually.
Mr. Ainslie – who sits on the boards of both the TRCA and the zoo – said the process needs to stop so that council and city staff have a chance to consider the zoo board's proposal.
"It's the proper way to go," he said.
With files from Kelly Grant