$800,000 P&R facilities audit passed without debate -- in spite of our warnings, and a promise
My Experience at City Council
by Luke Cayley
posted Aug 4, 2004
When I went to the Toronto City Council meeting on July 20th, I arrived there expecting to be confused. I had been to several City Council meetings before, and had generally not had any idea what was going on for most of the time. The first morning of the three day Council meeting met all my expectations, as item after item whizzed by without a real vote, or any debate ever taking place. Mayor Miller sat at the head of the Council chamber, reading each item, and then quickly saying "all in favour… opposed… carried," all in one breath, often without ever even looking up to see if anyone had put their hands up in response to the vote that was supposedly taking place.
By the time the morning session ended, and the Councillors went for their lunch break, I was thoroughly disconcerted, and was sure that I would end up spending three days at the meeting without ever knowing what was happening with the several items that were of interest to me. Luckily, I decided to stop in at Councillor Adam Giambrone's office, and got a chance to talk to his constituency assistant, Kevin Beaulieu. Kevin explained the process, and helped me to understand exactly what I had been looking at. Apparently, a large amount of City policy is effectively decided by committees, and having these items passed by Council is just a formality. All issues are first discussed in the committee that has jurisdiction over them; for example, an issue related to parks will go to the Economic Development and Parks Committee, and an issue related to street repair will go to the Works Committee. After this, the committee votes to see if it will recommend a particular item to Council. If the committee votes in favour of recommending the item, it is added to the agenda for the next Council meeting. Before the beginning of the next City Council meeting, Councillors look over the agenda, and decide what items they would like to put a "hold" on. If a Councillor puts a hold on an item, it is debated at the Council meeting, and then a recorded vote is conducted to see if the item passes. However, if no Councillor puts a hold on an item, it is assumed that Council accepts the recommendation of the committee, and the item is automatically passed, after the mandatory recitation of "all in favour… opposed… carried." A Councillor may decide to put a hold on an item at any point in the meeting, if they have not already done so.
My conversation with Kevin Beaulieu was very helpful in assisting me to understand what was going on at the meeting. After he explained the process to me, I was able to discuss with him an item that was of interest to me, namely Parks and Recreation's upcoming "Due Diligence Assessment Audit," which will be an audit of all Parks and Recreation facilities, costing the City $800,000. The problem with this audit is that in many areas it is virtually identical to an audit that was done only a few years earlier (the 2001 Parks and Recreation visual audit). Kevin assured me that Councillor Giambrone would put a hold on this item, thus opening it up for debate, and there would be a recorded vote on it.
With renewed confidence in my ability to understand Toronto's political process, I went back to the Council meeting for the afternoon session, to watch the debate on the proposal to put 1,000 new garbage bins across the city. Although the idea of new garbage bins and less litter sounds great on its face, the problem with this proposal was that the new garbage bins would actually serve a double purpose, as both garbage/recycling bins and large street level billboards. The proposed garbage bins, called "ecomuppis," would consist of a bin with separate compartments for garbage and various types of recycling, which would be sandwiched between two seven and half foot tall advertisements, which would be illuminated at night. Earlier on in the month, the proposal had been recommended by the Works Committee by a 5-4 vote, after several hours of deputations by people who were strongly opposed to the new bins. The debate on this issue raged on for the entire afternoon, lasting about four and a half hours. It was virtually impossible to tell what was going to happen in the vote, because the number of Councillors speaking for and against it were evenly split. In the end, the proposal was passed, in a close vote. Over the next short period of time, two ecomuppis will be put in each ward, and if people do not register their overwhelming opposition to them (and perhaps even if they do), a full thousand will be added around the City. Get ready.
The next morning, I went back to the Council chamber, hoping to see a debate on the Due Diligence Assessment Audit. It did not happen. A large part of the morning was taken up by a fight between Councillor Rob Ford and Councillor Gloria Lindsay-Luby, over the fact that Councillor Ford had handled a complaint by a woman within Councillor Lindsay-Luby's ward. In the end, the morning session had to be concluded early, and the Council chamber closed, because they could not get the two Councillors to stop fighting, and therefore could not conduct any real business.
During the lunch break, I went back into Councillor Giambrone's office to talk to Kevin about what was happening with the Due Diligence Assessment Audit item. When I got there, he informed me that the item had already passed. I was shocked by this, because I had been in attendance for the entire meeting up to that point, and had not heard the item come up. I guess they put it through so fast that I didn't even hear it. Kevin told me that Councillor Giambrone had not put a hold on it because he had not had time to rally enough support to defeat the proposal. He said that the best they could do now was to put forward a motion to have the Economic Development, Culture, and Tourism Department (the department in charge of Parks and Recreation) do a report on the audit. This, however, would not do anything to stop the audit, because by the time the report was done the audit would likely already be underway.
Disappointed, I attempted to go back to the Council chamber for the afternoon session. This proved impossible because a motion was scheduled to be put forward that afternoon to renew Police Chief Fantino's contract, and the chamber was packed with several hundred Fantino supporters. I decided to call it a day, and ultimately decided not to return for the third day of the meeting, since the item that I was interested in had already been passed.
Overall, my experience at Toronto City Council was mixed. On the upside, I now have a greater understanding of how the municipal political process works, which will make it easier for me to get involved with future issues, if I so choose. On the downside, I was forced to sit through hours of tree removal and rezoning items, only to find out that the item that I found most important had been passed without me ever even knowing it. There is obviously a problem with our political process if $800,000 of tax payers' money can be spent in the blink of an eye, without any debate or a vote by the people elected to look out for the interest of Torontonians. So what is the solution to this problem? This is obviously a very difficult question, because, as my experience proved, even if you do attempt to get involved with an issue, there is no guarantee that the City's politicians will be interested in helping you. However, this should not be used as an excuse to simply accept the fact that "you can't fight city hall," and not even attempt to stand up for what you believe in. If you really care about an issue, fight for it. It will not be easy, but then again, nothing worthwhile ever is.