With the mayor apparently in an unusually conciliatory mood, can Toronto finally get back to solving some of its biggest problems?
Let’s look at yesterday’s Executive Committee meeting not as a glass-half-empty scenario—as a group of councillors unable or unwilling to deal with some seemingly intractable problems faced by the city that elected them. Instead, let’s think of the glass as being half full.
With two of the biggest files on the table yesterday—those being transit and the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC)—Mayor Ford and his closest allies reached a compromise with his council opponents. Yes: compromise, Mayor Ford. Mayor Ford, compromise.
Apparently those three words can exist together in one paragraph.
So when the City CFO’s report on long-term strategies for funding transit and Ana Bailão’s special-housing working group’s report on selling public housing passed through the Executive Committee with much debate, but without substantive meddling, we may well have witnessed the Ford administration turning a corner.
Consider where both items started.
Soon after he assumed office, with the TCHC awash in a chocolately mess, Mayor Ford and his council approved a one-man replacement board, Case Ootes, who near the end of his tenure came out in favour of selling 900 or so TCHC houses. The proceeds were to go toward alleviating TCHC’s massive backlog of much-needed apartment repairs, or maybe into the city’s general revenue as part of the annual operating budget. Either way, the city was looking to divest itself of a chunk of social housing.
The mere appointment of middle-of-the-road Councillor Bailão (Ward 18, Davenport) as chair of an affordable-housing working group earlier this year represented a major step back from the fire-sale plans the mayor originally had in mind. Her report, published last month, recommends a much more modest approach. It advocates for selling far fewer homes and seeking a more collaborative direction with tenants and other levels of government—more collaborative, at any rate, than one normally associates with Mayor Ford. That this essentially sailed through the Executive Committee suggests Mayor Ford is starting to figure out how to pick his battles.
Gone are the days of issuing mayoral decrees: “I have a mandate.” “Transit City is dead.” “Make it so.”
That lasted for a little more than a year or so, gummed up the works, delayed the inevitable, and only really served to sideline Mayor Ford. Now, his influence has waned so much that yesterday his Executive Committee was actually talking about revenue sources (i.e., taxes) for building public transit. The mayor has made no bones about his outright disagreement with the notion of creating new taxes for this purpose. But, in the end, he voted with the majority of the committee’s members to consult the public on the possibility.
It’s fascinating to watch the mayor’s evolutions on the issues that are important to him. He starts off with an extreme position—a massive sell-off of homes, say, or a major rejigging of a transit plan—falters on the follow-through, meets resistance, and, ultimately, finds himself having ignited a debate that runs absolutely opposite to his intended direction.
Hardly what you would call the delicate art of compromise. Although, to be fair to the mayor, Councillor Bailão’s report isn’t a complete refutation of his position. Properties will be sold off. Some of the remaining stock will be tended to. Mayor Ford can be seen as making something of a positive contribution to that process.
It’s a start. He should be applauded for that. (And genuinely, not the slow-clap kind.)
But there’s a long way to go, not just for the mayor but for all of council. What yesterday’s Executive Committee meeting revealed, most of all, was that on these big files, like transit and social housing, Toronto cannot go it alone. Higher levels of government have to come back to the table with both money and ideas. Like they used to do.
Otherwise, mild compromising at the municipal level won’t suffice. We’re talking radical solutions for entrenched problems that both Queen’s Park and Ottawa have ignored for the better part of two decades. They’ve had a friend of sorts in Mayor Ford, with his assertion that all the City’s problems are caused by overspending. But even he’s starting to wake up to the fact that cutting spending isn’t going to get the job done.
Maybe these conciliatory baby steps should be seen as something bigger. Maybe Ford’s administration is starting to come around to the point of view that the City’s difficulties— especially in paying for big-ticket items, like public transit—are not self-inflicted, not the exclusive result of our own maladministration.
At least, that’s the way it seems, looking through the half-full glass.