By Ivor Tossell - Tuesday, May 21, 2013 - 0 Comments
Ivor Tossell explains why Toronto is better for having walked away
Toronto, if nothing else, is good at saying no to things.
It is a win, to be sure, to be rid of the proposal for a downtown mega-casino. The city’s council dispatched the idea with a vote even more decisive than anyone dare whisper beforehand. When the results were announced, there was an audible gasp in the council chamber: After a long year of debate, 40 out of 44 councillors voted to flatly refuse a new mega-casino in the city. Even more striking, a face-saving compromise by the mayor – who vigorously campaigned for a casino – was also soundly rejected.
Like Rob Ford’s mayoralty, the casino was already dead, but to forestall any potential of revival, council gave it the full Dracula treatment and staked it through the heart. The mayor was spared the same treatment, escaping reporters camped out around his office by fleeing down a side exit, down private stairs to the parking garage, and gunning it.
By Ivor Tossell - Friday, December 28, 2012 at 3:34 PM - 0 Comments
Toronto’s challenges go beyond its unfortunate mayor
Poor Rob Ford, for whom nothing can go right, may not have enjoyed 2012 as much as some. It was a year in which his influence waned, his budget was rewritten, his transit plan was scrapped and the one he tried to kill was revived. It was the year he fired the TTC chief who gave him advice he didn’t like, only to have his control over the agency stripped in retaliation. It was a year in which he accidentally banned plastic bags while trying to make them free, only to have to laboriously un-ban them later. A year in which in which he chased a reporter around a park and staged, then abandoned, a weight-loss challenge, only to fall off his industrial scale and twist his ankle after his very last weigh-in.
It was the year he tried responding to a horrific shooting by proposing that criminals be dumped over city limits, presumably to be told very sternly not to cross Steeles, even just to pick up a Wunderbar at 7/11. It was the year he was caught reading behind the wheel of his SUV on the highway, but still refused to get a driver. It was the year he endured unending flak for repeatedly blowing off work to coach a high-school football team, sometimes with office staff in tow, which was not helped by the time a busload of TTC riders got tipped into the rain so his football team could catch a lift. It was the year his new TTC chief, who he praised up and down the city, asked him to please stop calling. Now, in fairness, let us point towards his record on the city’s labour negotiations, which squeezed concessions from unions without a major strike. But, in the end, his football team lost the championship and he got thrown out of office.
With the remove of year-end retrospect, it’s hard to look at the man without wondering if he’s some kind of lightning rod for cosmic misfortune. Yes, he’s the author of his own misfortune, but what power compelled him to keep on writing? When you refine it down, this is some weapons-grade misfortune. By the end of 2012, nobody would have been surprised if, having wandered away from his job, Ford was found looking plaintively out the window at an Ikea parking lot, dressed in a very large shearling jacket: Ikeamayor.
But as 2013 dawns, Toronto is looking forward to a strangely daunting prospect: The world after Rob Ford. The mayor’s appeal is to be heard on January 4th. If he loses, he’ll likely face an uphill race in a by-election. If Ford is somehow returned, it seems unlikely it will come as a renewed mandate so much as yet another wearying tribulation cleared; if the process transforms Ford into a leader, it would be the biggest surprise of all. One way or the other, the city is going to stay leaderless well into the new year.
It’s all very engrossing in the moment: High office meets low comedy. The results weren’t just zany, but weirdly heartening. The city kept turning. The leadership void was filled with voices who started off partisan but became conciliatory: conservatives who broke ranks, socialists who broke doctrine. While the mayor’s office flooded the market (to say nothing of the airwaves) with partisan blither and made good sense scarce, good sense suddenly became a good worth selling.
It was moderates who put the city’s transit plans back on track, who curtailed a sell-off of public housing stock, who are driving the most promising discussions about alleviating the gridlock that’s choking the city’s citizens and economy alike. The year hardly represented a utopia of governance—a leaderless government, for all its collectivist romance, is liable to be directionless and reactive. But the city settled into something resembling equilibrium: Ford offered, if not leadership, then the unifying effect of a man bent on illustrating What Not To Do.
This can only take the city so far. Events will foist some items onto the agenda one way or the other. Toronto faces huge challenges in the year to come, some of which we’re talking about already, some of which we’re not. The crumbling Gardiner is about to foist a half-billion dollar infrastructure decision on the city. Toronto is going to have to decide whether or not to turn over its downtown core to one sort of mega-casino or another. The subject of paying for transit (read: you, paying for transit through new taxes or tolls) is about to take centre stage.
But just as Rob Ford was not the solution to Toronto’s problems, Toronto’s problem is not Rob Ford. Reactive leadership won’t address the challenges that can’t be solved with infrastructure alone: a city that’s becoming more polarized in income and opportunity, that’s pricing buyers and renters alike out of the market, that’s harder and harder to get around, and that can’t just exile its gunmen to the next town over. This is the challenge for the city’s leadership in 2013: Addressing the shape of the city that’s so big, so full of potential, and at such a critical juncture. Surviving Rob Ford isn’t enough.
By Ivor Tossell - Friday, December 7, 2012 at 7:20 PM - 0 Comments
Ivor Tossell on the case for giving Canada’s largest city a ceremonial head of state
It’s mayor-picking time in Toronto, a season the locals can’t seem to get enough of. Even under non-calamitous circumstances, Toronto’s mayoral campaigns last a whole 10 months, from winter to fall. Now, Torontonians are being treated to a special bonus round of mayor-picking, after their last choice ran into trouble with conflict-of-interest law.
This go-around comes with extra excitement, since it’s still possible that the new mayor could be appointed rather than elected. Technically, council can appoint anyone. They could appoint Rob Ford. They could appoint Rob Ford’s mom. They could try to appoint you. This might be a good time to make that trip to the exact opposite side of the planet you’ve been putting off, just in case.
This week, Ford won a stay of the judgment removing him from office, allowing him to stay mayor until his appeal is heard in early January. This wasn’t unexpected. From here, one of three things could happen: If he wins his appeal (and I’ll spare you the amateur odds-making on this front), he stays mayor. If he loses, council has 60 days in which to either appoint a successor or call a by-election. For now, we wait.
There’s quite a bit of conversation about what kind of mayor the next mayor should be. Should it be a centrist, who, as the Globe’s Marcus Gee suggests, could help stabilize Toronto’s oscillation between doctrinaire left-wingers and off-kilter right-wingers? Downtowner or a suburbanite? Insider or outsider?
And then there’s the unmayor crowd: those who argue, rhetorically or not, that Toronto doesn’t need a mayor at all. As Adam Vaughan, Ford’s downtown nemesis, acidly pointed out this week, the city’s been working without a functional mayor for more than a year.
There’s truth to this. In his mayoral honeymoon, Ford handily won every vote that came to council. But by the fall of 2011, his support fell away amid a flurry of ill-advised initiatives and personal misadventures. Since then, Ford has had neither the political touch to build alliances, nor even the organization to corral his allies’ support. The city has floated on from one fiasco to the next, with its assembly of 44 councillors figuring things out amongst themselves.
For all that, Ford’s incapacity has not proven to be an entirely bad thing. Progressives have seen his worst excesses curbed, his budget cuts tempered, his definition of “waste” brought more in line with most citizens’ view. (Libraries: Not needless waste.) Conservatives still have a council that broadly leans in their direction, and one that’s still willing to put the vice on spending. Ford was still able to impose an aggressive, strike-free settlement on city unions, who may well have recognized that if Ford was willing to let his hidebound intransigence take himself off a cliff, he’d take them, too.
The city is now on the brink of having a more productive conversation about funding transit than it’s had in years: The left and right are both talking about going directly to the taxpayers to fund the expansion that everyone agrees the city needs. The mayor’s attempts to ram through a nonsensical plan—and his subsequent firing of the TTC boss who wouldn’t back it—had a bracing effect. When Ford’s bull-headed partisanship went from difficult to disconcerting, working together gained a certain cachet. If a new mayor is elected who—unlike Ford—actually wields partisanship effectively, a return to the dreary status quo is inevitable.
In Toronto, there’s not a lot of set rules about the mayor’s job description. The law says that the mayor is supposed to lead council, but doesn’t specify how. The law also says that the mayor is supposed to act as the city’s “Chief Executive Officer,” which is an odd title, since it comes with no formal power other than a mandate to further the city’s interests and act as an all-around civic booster—essentially, to act as a ceremonial head of state.
All this being the case, why not just re-appoint Ford? There’s an argument for it, as Thomas Walkom pointed out in the Star. The problem with Ford is that, even as an inert quantity in the mayor’s office, he makes a lousy head of state. He is not stately. One never knows exactly what state he’s in. This is a bad combination for someone who’s in the representation game. It’s hard to argue that Ford is a net positive for the city’s image of itself, or for its stature on the national or world stage.
If turning the city council into a mayorless, Occupy-style collective would prove too much of a stretch (“Mic check!” “Mic check!” “I’ll kick you in the nuts and the face at the same time!”) then why not appoint a mayor on the understanding that his or her job is to serve as a ceremonial leader while the city gets its act together. What’s Adrienne Clarkson doing these days? She knows this turf. She could attend ribbon-cuttings and proclamations. She could lead missions of cultural exchange to the far north, or Barrie. She could do anything she likes, really, as long as it fits in the mayor’s budget and she keeps her nose out of transit policy. Or appoint an athlete, or a poet, or Drake or Don Cherry or some minor member of the royal family. Toronto’s grand experiment in leaderless government is just starting to bear fruit. Why stop now?