If you’ve spent any time lately at city council and found yourself uninspired by the lack of substantive debate and partisan chest-beating (or bleating, depending on your view), may I suggest you take a pass on attending any executive committee meetings. At least watching the entire council at work in the chambers, Team Ford is diluted somewhat, usually triumphant in the end but at least put through its paces, challenged on almost equal footing by the opposition. But in committee room #1? The executive is let off the leash, barely touched by “visiting” councillors or deputants who hope to make any sort of impression upon them.
Made up of the mayor’s handpicked standing committee chairs, the executive committee acts as the official brain trust of an administration; the public face of Mayor Ford’s unofficial brain trust consists of his councillor brother, Doug Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North) and staff. The executive committee basically preps the mayor’s agenda that will be presented at—and bludgeoned through—the next city council meeting. At executive committee, motions are gussied up, some lipstick and rouge slapped on them in the form of minor amendments to make them look all pur-dy. Or sometimes, motions go there to die, killed by an indefinite referral.
Which is what happened to the proposed letter to the
federal Harper government by Councillor Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York), protesting the millions of dollars of cuts to immigration services that were going to have a disproportionately adverse affect on Toronto’s ability to house, educate, and find employment for the significant immigration population that arrives here annually. The motion had been narrowly defeated after a heated debate at city council in February and referred back to the executive committee. To what end? So they could summarily finish if off with but five minutes of consideration, all of it coming from Councillor Davis, late in the meeting after most other “visiting” councillors had called it a day.
Unanimously voting for an indefinite referral, the committee displayed a couple things we should keep in mind for future reference. Politics trumps the welfare of this city. Citizens will be sacrificed in order to avoid stepping on the toes of senior levels of government that are Conservative blue. And its commitment to the concept of open debate and the exchange of ideas only extends as far as the ideas are its own and the debate doesn’t alter the proposed course of action.
This isn’t entirely surprising since the executive committee is essentially chosen by the mayor as his on-field team. No one expects serious splits, divisions, or close votes. That’s for council. This is how the mayor marshals his forces to try to advance his agenda.
But I don’t think I have seen a less curious, less thoughtful, or less intellectually rigorous group outside of a church. No one cared about input from those who took the time to attend the meeting and express their views. This administration seems to believe that the “people” spoke last October 25, and all this is now just an annoying distraction from the work that has to be done. They couldn’t even muster the pretense of listening. Twice, as the meeting wound down, they had to stop after it was pointed out there wasn’t a quorum—seven committee members—present. During a discussion about how they were going to proceed with their core service review! The nuts and bolts of governing.
The executive committee agenda for its March 21 meeting.
This was the crux of yesterday’s meeting of the executive. After a twenty-minute presentation from City Manager Joe Pennachetti, titled “Managing Through Agencies and Corporations and Public Appointments Policy,” much of the remainder of the day was taken up by discussing, deputating, and “debating” the nature and structure of the multitude of boards that the city oversees. All of which led to the city manager’s review and recommendations about the services the City should or shouldn’t be delivering, and how. You know, the very essence of what a municipal government does.
Combine this with the leaked memo from Pennachetti that seemed to be pointing in the direction of big cuts to city staff next year, and the atmosphere throughout the meeting was contentious at times. Visiting councillors hammered away at a hidden agenda and broken campaign promises of no service cuts, while committee members (or at least the ones who chose to engage: Jaye Robinson was absent the entire day, Peter Milczyn didn’t say a word, councillors Berardinetti, Kelly, Palacio and Ainslie barely made a beep while Giorgio Mammoliti checked out for most of the afternoon) dismissed such talk as unfounded and little more than fear-mongering.
Truth be told, the executive committee dismissed most of what they heard that deviated from the program. But they did little to assuage the fears and concerns that emerged from other councillors and most of the deputants who spoke. Frankly, after spending nearly ten hours in their presence yesterday, it’s hard not to conclude that the core drive of this group is to dismantle the activist government of their immediate predecessor.
There are two reasons for that, I believe. One is pure ideology. The members of Ford’s executive committee who aren’t just along for the ride (see parenthetical above), like the mayor himself, are hardcore, tried and true, anti-government neo-conservatives. Barely ten minutes would pass during the meeting when somebody wasn’t yammering on with trite bromides like “learning to live within our means,” “governments are just like households,” and “respect for the taxpayer.” Did I mention that already? Repeatedly? Yeah well, so did the members of the executive committee.
The second and equally applicable reason for the Ford administration’s anti-Miller sentiment is much more personal. It’s pure, bitter resentment at having been excluded and sidelined for the past eight years or so. When various members of the executive committee aren’t talking of finding efficiencies and waste, they let it be known how badly they were treated by the Millerites, excluded or kicked off that board, ignored or ridiculed at that committee meeting. It’s like revenge of the nerds, but in real life.
If true, I’m sure some of it was along partisan lines. Councillor David Shiner (Ward 24, Willowdale) pointed out that he’d been turfed from the board of Toronto Hydro because he wasn’t supportive enough of green initiatives. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that. Not to mention that he also was alone in standing up to his colleagues who are sniffing around the question of executive compensation at Toronto Hydro, smelling the next scandal to run with (stay tuned). A “witch hunt,” he called it. Sound familiar?
But I’d also suggest that, with the possible exception of councillors Shiner and Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre), the more I watch the members of the executive committee in action, the more I think most of them, along with the chair of the committee, Mayor Ford, are lightweights. They bring very little to the table in terms of original ideas or well-developed thoughts. Those who do bother to express an opinion rarely do so in any sort of rational or compelling manner. They’re too busy checking off the list of grievances at previous slights.
None embody this bubbling cauldron of spiteful, inchoate animosity better than the budget chief, Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt). The more I see the man in action, the more distasteful I find him. Hectoring and disagreeable, the councillor from Scarborough is equal parts know-it-all and I-told-you-so. He lectures rather than asks questions. Berates not debates. He re-configures his opponents’ arguments into ones better suited for him to deride and dismiss. Yesterday, the councillor told a skin-crawlingly personal story of paying the way for his university-aged daughter, and how under his roof it was his rules and he who holds the purse strings… Oh my god, the poor woman!
The truly galling aspect of this, though, is Councillor Del Grande’s temerity to lecture others about the value of money. Here’s a guy, always boasting of his chartered accountant credentials and how he understands that you can’t spend more than you have, revenues must match expenditures, and yet he was on board with cutting the VRT and freezing property taxes, thereby denying the city millions and millions of dollars? With a straight face, he demands our respect for him as a sound fiscal manager?
This executive committee is the ugly manifestation of Ford Nation. Like a jilted lover, it has seized control, determined to prove its worth. It brooks no dissent and counters any disagreement or outside opinion with vitriol and contempt. Retribution, not reconciliation, is its agenda. This is the heart of an administration that has more interest in getting even than it does in governing.
Daren Foster is also known as Cityslikr. He tweets, and likes to write a lot about City Hall.