Is City Council Learning to Play Nice?
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Is City Council Learning to Play Nice?

This month's council meeting ran overtime, and some agenda items are still unfinished. But there were at least faint hints that our elected officials might be inching their way to compromises—a sharp contrast to Rob Ford's very blustery first year as mayor.

Is the Power of the Thumb waning? Photo by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.

A two-day meeting dragged into three. And as that third day ground to its inconclusive conclusion, participants voted to defer all remaining items to the next regularly scheduled meeting in February. Decisions put off. The business of municipal governance delayed.

Perhaps it was because council members were looking ahead to the big game: the 2012 budget battle. Beginning almost immediately—today, in fact—as the Budget Committee kicks off the first of seven days’ worth of meetings over the course of the next eleven days, including two for public deputations, to hash out a budget for city council to consider and implement next month. That’s the big fish to fry, where energy needs to be expended. This week’s council meeting was simply the warm-up session, getting loose, stretching the body into fighting shape.

Or it simply could be seen as the precursor to how things are going to happen over the next little while. A war of attrition.

Gone are the early, glorious days of shock and awe that saw quick and surprisingly decisive victories for the Ford administration. The Vehicle Registration Tax: gone! Councillor office budgets: slashed! Transit City: mauled in its infancy. The mayor is still pushing ahead, but it’s now become a tough slog, a slow grind. Some of his more egregious intentions are being picked off by sniper fire, some even coming from friends and allies. His opponents’ Maginot Line is still holding.

Councillor Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East) successfully moved an amendment to prevent large industrial water-users from getting carte blanche to ignore sewer bylaws, reserving the City’s right to monitor effluent—essentially waste-water dumping—and to keep aiming for water conservation targets. The mayor found himself on the losing side of what turned out to be a drubbing on that one, abandoned even by his brother and budget chief.

One of Toronto's community environment days. Photo by {a href=""}Lú_{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Mayor Ford also took it on the chin when it came to the Solid Waste Management budget when Councillor David Shiner (Ward 24, Willowdale), a usual Ford loyalist, found a way to retain the current 44 environment days instead of cutting them back to 11. To be sure, Shiner’s amendment scales the scale of the events back, and doesn’t threaten the mayor’s desired zero per cent increase in waste collection rates. It was, however, a definitive poke in the eye of those looking to do away with remnants of green initiatives in the city.

Councillor Shiner was, moreover, front and centre in negotiating a compromise with noted foes of the mayor, Councillors Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) and Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina), on the relocation of Eva’s Phoenix. The youth shelter sits on property that Team Ford has its eyes on selling as part of the revised Fort York bridge plan—an obstacle in the march to “monetize city assets.” In finding it a new home, Shiner brokered a deal that kept both sides, if not happy, at least content.

It could also be that what we’re witnessing is the formation of a consensus-building model at city council. The hitherto unuttered word since Rob Ford took office, ‘compromise,’ is becoming part of the vernacular. Even traditional adversaries Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) and Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York) came to an uneasy agreement over the direction of child care services in the city. They and council agreed to work at not closing any daycare centres until they hear what the provincial government, which has been slow and unsteady holding up its part of the funding formula, will say about the matter in next year’s budget.

Compromise may be a word the mayor has to come to terms with. Winter is indeed blowing in, and with it a serious threat of bogging down his troops and heavy artillery in the muck and goo of the 2012 budget process. Talks of cuts to services at the TTC, elimination of pools and programs, and reductions in library hours all are emboldening the opposition outside the council to set up and stand their ground. Within council, allies are exerting their independence and not bending to the mayor’s bully tactics. (Witness just how far the moderate, small-c conservative councillor Chin Lee (Ward 41, Scarborough-Rouge River) has drifted from the Ford fold.)

The mayor has expended an awful lot of political capital in his first year, tilting at longstanding pet peeves of his that represent, in his view, the worst excesses of tax-and-spend governing. Non-automobile forms of transit. Community engagement and outreach. The arts. The environment. The so-called “nice to haves.” And that’s all before it truly gets ugly for him—when that bus doesn’t arrive for that little old lady going out grocery shopping in Scarborough or that library is closed on Sunday for that little girl looking for some quiet study time. When the family has to go even further afield to find affordable swimming lessons.

The battles are going to get more intense over the next six weeks, the pushback stronger, and the terrain more treacherous. Already besieged, it’s hard to see how Mayor Ford can simply bludgeon ahead in that damn-the-torpedoes fashion that has been his governing style to date—his arsenal has been severely depleted. While hardly a spent force, Mayor Ford is not the indomitable powerhouse he was earlier this year, the one that caught everybody flat-footed, surprised, and easily overwhelmed. It’s now trench warfare and any gains will come with great cost. If he fails to adapt to the new reality, the mayor may find that the 2012 budget is the hill he will die on.