Rejoice! Toronto’s civic system may yet save the city from itself

On October 27, Toronto voters reverted to type by electing one middle-of-the-road (or is it subway?) mayor, and a grand total of seven fresh faces on a City Council of 44 members.

Some candidates lose elections, but the government always wins, cynics may be tempted to say.

But the deeper causes of such political stability deserve scrutiny they never received over the last four years. The glare of international infamy shone on former mayor Rob Ford. But glare blocks the view of other factors, especially among political pundits drawn to the light.

For good and ill, there are bedrock realities to Toronto politics. Residents of Toronto who support change and want to rouse the rabble need to understand these realities. So do residents of other cities who admire Toronto’s outstanding record of social, public health and environmental leadership, and who need to find ways of imbedding some of these structural realities in their own turf.

Uninformed political commentators refer to Toronto as suffering from a  “weak mayor system,” a reference to the fact that the mayor has only one vote on council, and no institutional way to  twist arms of other councilors.

This should be reframed as Toronto’s “strong civic system,” a reference to all the checks and balances that have weathered many challenges — not least having a neo-conservative on crack in the mayor’s office.

Toronto’s politics flow from the river system that has carved the city into valleys, thereby preventing neighbourhoods occupying huge tracts of land dominated by one population type, be they rich, poor or middle. That is the norm in the U.S., where the impoverished and marginalized live in the “inner city” while  affluent but culturally impoverished suburbanites are drawn to politicians lacking mental as well as political balance. The material base for such kookiness in Toronto is only possible in Etobicoke, a textbook case of bad city planning.

To give geography its due, Toronto has been spared this fate by its mostly disjointed political ridings, each containing some cross-section of the overall population. Wealthy Rosedale is kitty corner to Saint Jamestown, for example,  and must compete for political attention with people in social housing as well as activist local gentry in Cabbagetown.

As a result, most Toronto wards have some reasonable equilibrium. Toronto’s right is rarely so far to the right, or its left rarely so far to the left, that they do not have to meet the needs of diverse populations. Left or right, they have no choice but to deal with demand for quality public services, neighbourhood peace and quiet, and the many-sided, compelling and flammable issue of dogs running loose in parks.

As well, due to reforms introduced over a century ago, a relatively expert, effective, engaged and committed civil service staff has the upper hand at City Hall, without much fear of political interference.

Independent and expertise-based staff reports are required on all motions, for example, and are treated with great respect by elected officials.

In contrast to cities where the spoils system prevails, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health and Chief Planner, to give but two examples of leading officials, have been free to deliver reports exposing madcap schemes of mayors and others.

This civil service independence counters campaigns by powerful economic and political figures to support such madcap items as a gambling centre in downtown Toronto, or an international airport on Toronto Island. Likewise, thanks to Canada’s tradition of social unionism, a relatively competent city hall workers’ union campaigns for public support  to block cuts in services — most  successful in preventing large-scale library closures early in the term of Mayor Rob Ford.

Lest we forget, active citizens and citizen groups have also done their homework in making the governance system porous in terms of citizen input. Citizen deputations are an ongoing feature of civic life, and held up Mayor Ford’s bid to impose  service cuts during several all-night sessions of City Council.

And Toronto is a city of joiners, facebookers and twitterers who know how to make a fuss, as well as of informed, engaged, empowered people who work in public schools, colleges, universities, art schools, hospitals, union offices and a huge network of community groups, art and cultural centers and Non Government (more properly, Civil Society) Organizations.

Two forces apply pressure in the opposite direction — not that either has received much attention in the media or public debate.

One results from amalgamation, which forced culturally distinct suburbanites and urbanites to live together under a common government. Inevitably, cultural preferences dominate public discourse, with one group valuing the quality of public spaces in the downtown, and another seeking ways to escape the downtown and drive home after work as quickly as possible.

This is not a division that is hospitable to dialogue about the big issues of city life.

More important, though it has escaped much notice, Toronto has had a change of ruling class over the last 25 years. In recent memory, Bay Street was dominated by people who ran companies that made things and often sold them to Torontonians and other Canadians.

That class is now extinct, replaced by bankers, investors, stock speculators, real estate speculators, lawyers and a variety of — what’s an objective word for huckster? — business leaders who do not specialize in making things or selling them to Torontonians and other Canadians.

Contrary to the stereotype, such power does not speak loudly, but whispers. As a result, no one ever asks why we need to spend billions on subways into the downtown bank towers when we could decentralize downtown functions over a wider area, thereby encouraging people to walk and bike to work and high-quality leisure offerings.

Another taboo subject is the need to re-envision cities as governments with real clout in promoting local economies and job creation, and to challenge the power of more “senior” governments with a long-established track record of having done next to nothing to create quality jobs for urban youth.

Thus we had an election without any theme bearing on local green jobs or jobs based on a localized food system.

The new Bay Street elite never thinks about an evolution of city governments that would give them fiscal authority or budgets to deal with the issues that actually affect the quality of life in a city — good jobs, affordable housing, adequate levels of social assistance, for example. They don’t even need to pooh-pooh the idea to make it go away.

That forbidden topic is what doomed the mayoral bid of Olivia Chow, who campaigned mainly on these verboten issues, and somehow could never “connect with the voters,” despite having a more commanding understanding of complex city issues and administration than any other contenders for mayor.

It is a credit to Toronto’s strong civic system, however, that capable individual councilors who entertain such visionary possibilities are among those elected. Shelley Carroll, Josh Colle, Janet Davis, Paula Fletcher, Mike Layton, Josh Matlow, Pam McConnell , Mary Margaret McMahon, Joe Mihevic, Gord Perks, Kristin Wong-Tam — all falsely accused by the media of being divisive forces in the last session — saved the city from irreversible damage. May they have more productive opportunities with a Red Tory, who guided Premier Bill Davis, also a Progressive Conservative,  who created more public institutions (think community colleges, Science Centre and a host of others)  than any in Ontario’s history.

Let us rejoice.

Wayne Roberts was a leading member of the city of Toronto’s Environmental Task Force and Food and Hunger Action Committee and co-authored the Toronto Food Charter.He recently wrote The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food and Food for City Building. You can join the conversation he moderates on Linked in at Food for City Building.

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