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City Council is Supreme

A lot of people are saying City Hall is in shambles. Don't believe them.

Karen Stintz and Peter Milczyn hug it out on the floor of council, while their colleagues decide which of them will be the new chair of the TTC.

Yesterday’s vote on the composition of the TTC board was Rob Ford’s single best opportunity to turn the tide and break up the coalition that has been forming to oppose him on key issues over the past nine months. Because the vote involved handing out plum assignments to councillors—many of whom have personal ambitions or strong policy interest in the TTC, many more of whom wanted to sit on the board than there were seats available—the chance that they’d fragment and that Ford would be able to take advantage of internal tensions, playing them against each other, was at its highest.

He failed.

The story many people are writing today is about a mayoralty adrift, a powerless, rudderless leader who lost control of the most important municipal policy file a year into office and hasn’t gained it back—which is to say, no leader at all. That story is true, but there’s another corresponding one that is just as important: the one about a self-governing group of politicians who nobody thought would get along, whose numbers have grown, who have banded together consistently over the past months to stake out and defend positions, who have done so at some risk to their careers, and who show no sign of backing down. It’s the story of a maturing municipal government that is coming into its own.

To take the measure of the chaos on the mayor’s side and the unity in much of council, we need only look at the result of yesterday’s vote [PDF]. Councillors were asked to choose seven individuals to serve as TTC board members, from the 11 who had been nominated and accepted the nomination. (Three were nominated and declined.) Out of the mess of Xs on the voting sheet, a pattern emerges: 21 councillors listed exactly the same seven names. Two more listed six of those seven names, and three more listed five of them. Those are the councillors who were installed as the new commissioners of the TTC. Twenty-six councillors—strange bedfellows, many of them—got together on the future of the TTC board, maintained that consensus through a day of messy debate, and renewed their commitment to rational transit planning.

Rob Ford consulting with his staff and councillor Frances Nunziata during yesterday's debate.

Toronto doesn’t have a mayor who can successfully steer major initiatives through council—that much has been made clear. Rob Ford cannot deliver. But we have a council that can. And that is why, for all that yesterday’s debate was messy and often ridiculous, for all that there were a lot of deals cut behind closed doors to keep the coalition together, and for all that keeping such a coalition together will require continued political wrangling, we are optimistic. We have a government that is working. It is making decisions based on evidence, and it is defending those decisions over time. It is a government that has set a direction on the most fraught and most important policy file we have. It is a government that is doing its job even though Rob Ford isn’t doing his, and if it keeps on doing so Toronto may come out of this mayoralty in better shape than many of us had feared.

One telling aspect of the newly installed TTC board: there are no downtown councillors on it. But it’s not because they were shut out—quite the opposite. Every single downtown councillor backed in majority or in entirety the roster of candidates who won yesterday’s vote.

For months we’ve been hearing that transit is downtown-centric, that downtown councillors want to ram their vision for public transit down the throats of suburbia, that downtown Toronto is selfish and blinkered and doesn’t care about regions of the city that have been left behind. You know how you wind up with a TTC board that has no downtown councillors? They agree, every single one, not to run. They trust that other councillors will represent their interests. You find them in the centre of a much bigger coalition, in other words, in which decisions are made together.

Rob Ford, by contrast, is utterly lost. The once dominant mayor who commanded votes with ease and had a group of allies in apparent lockstep couldn’t get those allies to agree on just about anything yesterday. Many of the councillors who back Ford didn’t even fill out all seven spots on their ballot (Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday only used three of his seven votes), so frustrated were they by the list of candidates. They had no coherent voting pattern, and no slate of their own candidates to put forward.

Even for a new mayor with a clear electoral win, getting a majority of councillors (in the absence of a party system) to agree on anything is difficult; we used to measure Rob Ford’s power by how effectively he did this. He no longer does. But that doesn’t mean that no decisions are being made, and no agreements have been reached. They are, and they have, and the credit doesn’t go to any one person. It goes to approximately 26 of them.

The law tells us that council is supreme, that it determines policy for the city and sets the direction of government. Recent events tell us that council is up to the challenge.


  • Anonymous

    This is what was predicted two years ago when it started to look like Ford had the election in the bag, though Vaughan is still nowhere near the forefront of the shift to the centre/left. I’m glad to see the tables have finally turned and reason is ascendant over kneejerk nonsensical ideology, at least on the transit issue. But will it translate across council and other boards and committees?

    • Anonymous

      Re: Vaughan – not publicly. That doesn’t mean he’s not playing a major role.

      • Anonymous

        Is he?

  • Anonymous

    City council may be able to set the direction of government, but it’s not in direct control of the bureaucracy. We’re going to find out why that’s important as soon as Metrolinx has to interact with traffic services. So yes, this is still a huge mess.

  • Anonymous

    Nice to read a report, that see the positive aspects of yesterday meeting. Let’s hope you’re right about council being up to the challenge.

  • Anonymous

    This is an excellent counter-argument to Marcus Gee’s terrible column from today. Gee says council is “in chaos,” when in fact, by sidelining the mayor, council has mercifully removed the biggest source of division and chaos. And only in Bizarro world could conservative Karen Stintz be considered part of, never mind the leader of, a “power-drunk left-wing opposition.”

    Meanwhile Tim Hudak is demonstrating true brass balls. After he helped cancel the Eglinton subway and cut TTC funding, he is now scolding City Council for not spending billions it doesn’t have on infrastructure it doesn’t need. And today he will demand that the Province ignore council and build subways, presumably paid for with magic beans and rainbows. What is it about subways that turns purported conservatives into tax and spend dreamers?

    • Anonymous

      “What is it about subways that turns purported conservatives into tax and spend dreamers?”

      Developers dangling campaign contributions, at a guess.

      Modern conservative governments are all about diverting government resources (social, infrastructure, you name it) into the pockets of the rich, by any means necessary.

      That’s their power base and their oxygen supply. All else is just divide-and-conquer window dressing.

    • Anonymous

      “What is it about subways that turns purported conservatives into tax and spend dreamers?”

      The same thing that made Mike Harris build a toll highway with public money and then sell it off at a loss to a private consortium. Kick back? Greed? Personal interest/ profit? External corporate pressure? Take your pick.

      • Bradley

        Though selling the 407 was partly to discredit the NDP government who did most of the work getting it running. Why have a successful revenue tool credited to Bob Rae when you can sell it to Conservative campaign contributors?

  • Dhan Bhay

    Thank you, Hamutal; I always enjoy reading your careful and engaged analyses of our city’s government.

  • Want a Better City

    I am afraid I must disagree with your assessment about council. All the bickering punch and counter punch by the mayor and council and for what? To see who gets to spend $8 billion dollars that doesn’t belong to them but the Province. They are like a bunch of school Kids having a knockdown fight over what flavor of ice cream their parents should buy them. If I were the Province I would probably take the $8 billion off the table until the kids could play nice.

    • Anonymous

      Well that’s transparently a Fordista spin. The “bickering” is all from the Fords and their allies. They are clearly enraged as they lose vote after vote, and desperately try to goad, bait and bully Council into breaking ranks.

      Early days, they got away with it. Now it’s just old, tired, and silly. Let them carry on.

      Nobody cares, or is paying attention anymore.

    • Paul Kishimoto

      So, a few things:

      —The money and the governments that spend it belong to the citizens of both the province and the city.
      —The province isn’t going to take the money off the table, because it “wants a better city”. “Playing nice” is secondary, and no reason to withhold transit from those affected but not directly involved.

      Maybe you hope the money won’t be spent at all?

    • Pedro Marques

      I was in council yesterday and on the Feb 8 special meeting and have been observing the “Stintz coalition” starting to build. The majority of City Council are collegial with one another and have been working towards the common goal of improving the city. It’s anything but chaotic. Even Ford loyalists like Michael Thompson (who voted for Stintz to remain on the TTC and as chair) are working productively with Council.

      There are just a few hardcore Ford enthusiasts who are being obstructionists and throwing fuel on the fire. Going against the will of council and firing Gary Webster is one of those attempts. That solved nothing and burned $600,000 of “taxpayers” money. With yesterday’s votes, Council saved the transit agenda from Ford’s irresponsible hands.

    • ILoveToronto

      True! And to think it the Province, not the TTC board, the Mayor, or Council who will ultimately decide if Subways, LRT’s, Express Bus Lanes or some combination there of get built. All one up-man-ship being carried on is ultimately only for show and weakens the City.

      • Anonymous

        The Province will follow the lead of Council, and they’ve already said as much. Council has spoken. It’s not really “one up-man-ship” (as you call it), it’s common sense.

  • Fixtime

    C’mon council, make him the weakest mayor in Canada. He went for broke, he lost. He tried to be a strong mayor under a weak-mayor system. Time to neuter him completely. That’s what he would do. Lock him out of power for the rest of his term. This is important.

    • Pedro Marques

      They don’t have to go for an all or nothing approach just yet. The more Ford pushes, the more Council will push back. He tried to rule against the will of Council on the Transit file. They took it away from him.

      Stintz has been incredibly patient with the Mayor. She’s offered him compromises after compromises all while he was trashing her name in the media. She sounded conciliatory yet again after delivering a knock out punch, giving him yet another chance to start playing by the rules.

      He’s wasted all his political capital and goodwill and beyond. There is little if any of his platform that will pass council at this point. Make no mistake, Ford is a lame duck Mayor with no virtually no power and he still has more than half of his term to go.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t think that is at all wise. Ford represents a sizable constituency. True, he’s incompetent, got elected on a campaign of calculated lies, and surrounded himself with weasels.

      It’s important though to understand and recognize his appeal to voters who feel that government is self-serving (often true), and they no longer matter (definitely true). They don’t, perhaps can’t, grasp why.

      Rob Ford is someone who answers their phone calls, and fixes their problems. Even though, as mayor, he creates far bigger ones. He has that one-on-one connection with his supporters. They’re mad as hell, and he was their day of payback. Publicly humiliate him, and by extension them, at your peril, for he (or his successor) will only come back in more virulent form.

      I think many on council have absorbed that lesson at least.

      • cooks

        I am not so sure we can say anything with certainty about Ford Nation. If they are as shallow as you imply, and I believe they may well be, showing a photo of Ford supine with council’s foot on his neck may be just what the gormless fools require to turn on him while they reach around looking for their pitchforks and torches.

        • Anonymous

          The information people need to understand our political landscape is being deliberately kept from them, has been for several lifetimes, with ever-increasing sophistication.

          It’s not easy to find, unless you already know where to look, and you aren’t easily dissuaded by the super-abundant threats and warnings to not look.

          Contempt and condescension aren’t going to change that.

  • Anonymous

    Meanwhile, at the Mayor’s Ministry of Propaganda (AKA the Toronto Sun), they are calling it “Stintz in charge of a mad bunch”. Even though Rob Ford had no transit plan other than getting the transit user out of his way as he drives his mini-van by himself.

    • Nick

      So true, wklis: speaking of crazy, what about Ford’s fantabulous concept of building new lanes on the Gardiner or DVP (with what money?!) to generate tolls to pay for an extension to a subway that’s operating at only 15% capacity. Completely barmy, and even the Sun should be able to see that.

      • Anonymous

        Sun didn’t report on it at all – I think the editors over there are getting a wee bit nervous over the corner they have painted themselves into and starting to be very selective in what they print. I mean, a guy who proposes billions of dollars of road construction, right through neighbourhoods, to fund an even more expensive subway plan because trains must go underground but cars should not, even though maintenance would eat up most or all of the revenue? Or, maybe, a lottery, even though the amount of profit he wanted from this casino equals the combined total from all four existing Casinos? The Sun can’t afford to protect fantasyland much longer. It will get very nasty when they do finally turn…

        • Anonymous

          The battle between Qubecor and CBC is over. I guess all they left is King Harper to defend.

        • Anonymous

          The Sun did report on it, even if they didn’t put it on their front page. The report by Don Peat was a bit skimpy, but had no obvious spin to it (it would have raised no eyebrows in the Globe or the Star), unlike SAL’s screed on the same page. I don’t know if it’s up on their web site, I picked up the free print edition downtown yesterday.

  • David Toronto

    ” . . . .The once dominant mayor who commanded votes with ease . . . .”


    And now he can’t command respect from the council he’s supposedly leading.

  • Anonymous

    Really, it’s got nothing to do with Karen Stintz and where she falls on the left / right spectrum. The most important thing about Hamutal’s analysis is the counterpoint it provides to the narrative being pushed by more than one corporate media outlet, which is one portraying Toronto’s city government as being chaotically adrift. Any comment or suggestion that describes council as akin to a bunch of kids squabbling in a sandbox just helps to reinforce that narrative, and let’s not have any illusions about whose interests THAT serves.

    Just think about who benefits from that perception. Who do you think wants everyone to dismiss government, civil servants and the public sphere in general as dysfunctional, ineffective and corrupt? Just listen to the radio on Sunday afternoon sometime as Brother Doug tells his listeners that he wouldn’t trust any of his fellow councillors to run a kid’s lemonade stand. Not hard to see where he’s going with that. Once again, if you haven’t read what J.M. McGrath and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler have written in this regard, take a few minutes and go through it.

    So no, what we’re seeing now isn’t the ideal situation, but council is showing that for all its disparate elements and conflicting interests and personalities, it is capable of conducting the city’s business in a mature and responsible manner. Sure, it would be nice if the mayor would play ball and show leadership, but what the last few weeks have shown is that council can function even if he doesn’t. That’s a good thing.

  • Anonymous

    Supreme children misbehaving.