Rebellion at City Hall: Everything You Need to Know About City Council's Special Transit Meeting
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Rebellion at City Hall: Everything You Need to Know About City Council’s Special Transit Meeting

In which we explain just what a "special meeting" is, and how this one came to be.

Photo by Photolipher from the <a href=""Torontoist Flickr Pool.

On Monday morning, Toronto—and especially Torontonians who have been following the saga of transit planning at City Hall—woke up to some dramatic news. Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) had filed a petition with the city clerk, requesting a special, unplanned meeting of city council. The purpose of the meeting: to circumvent Mayor Rob Ford and reinstate the transit plan that had been on the books until his first day in office—the light rail plan most of us still call Transit City.

But what is a special meeting? What does it mean for the future of transit in Toronto? And what does it mean for Rob Ford?

What is a “special meeting” of council?

Council meetings are planned and scheduled on an annual basis; the rules state that council must meet at least 10 times each year, and that the schedule must respect religious holidays. Special meetings are ones that are called outside of this regular schedule.

There are three circumstances under which a special meeting can be called:

  • At the request of the mayor, who can call for a special meeting at any time and for any reason; he or she must give 24 hours notice.
  • In case of emergency, in which case the mayor can call a meeting without 24 hours notice, so long as all members of council are individually informed about the meeting and a majority of those councillors agree to it.
  • At the direct request of councillors, by way of a petition signed by a majority of councillors. The petition must include “a clear statement of the meeting’s purpose” and the meeting must be held within 48 hours of filing the petition with the city clerk.

The special meeting that will be held on Wednesday is this last type of special meeting—called by councillors—and it is unprecedented: no special meeting of city council has been called by a petition of councillors since amalgamation. (Special meetings have been called by mayors to deal with time-sensitive matters, such as the meeting to decide on purchasing streetcars in 2009, or last year’s meeting regarding the constitution of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation board.)

What will be decided at the meeting?

There will be only one item on the special meeting’s agenda: Metrolinx’s transit projects in Toronto. More specifically, Karen Stintz has said that she will move a motion for council to recommit to the binding 2009 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) it signed with the province: the one that outlines a light rail–based transit plan, with lines for Sheppard, Finch, Eglinton, and Scarborough. None of the councillors who signed the petition used the words “Transit City” today—there is too much political baggage associated with the term—but in effect that is what’s on the table.

Other motions may also be introduced at the meeting, but they must all relate to transit planning—it’s not open season to try to pass anything at all.

At one point, it seemed possible that council would, in some meeting or other, consider a compromise motion that would restore the original plan for building Eglinton above-ground in less congested portions of the route, with the money saved going to Rob Ford’s Sheppard subway proposal. Stintz and other councillors were advocating this compromise as recently as last week, but the mayor has made it clear that he isn’t interested in it. Depending on how the next couple days go for the mayor, however, he might become more amenable, at which point the landscape of what gets debated may change.

How did the special meeting come about?

Though the timing of the meeting was a surprise, the plan to call a special meeting in order to tackle transit planning has been around for at least a few weeks. We first learned about it from a councillor on the day the budget was passed, January 17; it is likely plans were already well underway by that point. In such cases, coalitions are generally built slowly, drawing on some councillors with a ward-specific interest (such as councillors who represent portions of Finch, which stands to gain the most from the light rail proposal), some who have broader policy commitments to transit, and some who want to follow the momentum of council, which has recently overturned the mayor on several key votes.

Two other recent events—the release of a legal opinion saying that Ford didn’t have the power to unilaterally cancel Transit City, and yesterday’s letter by urban planners and academics opposing Ford’s plan—also seem timed to build momentum for the special meeting.

Who called for the special meeting?

The list of signatories on the petition is as follows:

  • Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre)
  • Ana Bailão (Ward 18, Davenport)
  • Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East)
  • Raymond Cho (Ward 42, Scarborough-Rouge River)
  • Josh Colle (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence)
  • Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York)
  • Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough-Centre)
  • Sarah Doucette (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park)
  • John Filion (Ward 23, Willowdale)
  • Paula Fletcher (Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth)
  • Mary Fragedakis (Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth)
  • Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina)
  • Chin Lee (Ward 41, Scarborough-Rouge River)
  • Gloria Lindsay Luby (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre)
  • Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s)
  • Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale)
  • Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York)
  • Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s)
  • James Pasternak (Ward 10, York Centre)
  • Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park)
  • Anthony Perruzza (Ward 8, York West)
  • Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence)
  • Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina)
  • Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale)

Notable for their presence: The single most important name on the list is Karen Stintz, TTC chair and, until quite recently, Ford loyalist. That she has broken with the mayor on the file she was hand-picked to lead is rare, and means she’ll almost certainly lose her position as chair. Also notable for signing are centrists Josh Colle (who spearheaded the reversal of several major proposed budget cuts last month), Josh Matlow, and James Pasternak (whose ward includes portions of Finch, which may be a huge beneficiary if council reverts to the former transit plan); and Sheppard-area councillors Raymond Cho, Shelley Carroll, and Chin Lee, who run the largest risk of voter wrath if the Sheppard plan ends up as light rail rather than a subway.

Notable for their absence: John Parker is generally a Ford loyalist, but he has gone on the record opposing a completely buried LRT. He was, in fact, one of the councillors leading the charge for the compromise move Ford has thus far rejected. Parker did not sign today’s petition (indicating he is trying to preserve his relationship with the mayor’s office to some extent), but he might well vote against the mayor at the meeting itself. Also notable: Gary Crawford and Jaye Robinson, who generally vote with the mayor but claim they occupy middle ground on council; this assertion is much harder for them to make now.

Photo by {a href=""}andyscamera{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Why was a special meeting necessary? Why can’t councillors just introduce a motion at a regularly scheduled council meeting?

Council works, roughly, on a monthly cycle. Standing committees (like Public Works and Infrastructure) and community councils (like North York) meet each month to debate various proposals. The ones that get passed at those committee meetings then go on for debate and final approval at the subsequent month’s meeting of full city council. There is one exception to this: councillors can try to introduce motions directly at a meeting of full city council, bypassing the committee system. In order to do that, however, a councillor needs to get a two-thirds majority rather than a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one—a much higher bar. In this case, councillors who want to revert to the light rail transit plan managed to secure the 23 signatures they needed to call a special meeting (they actually did a bit better, with 24 signatures total), but they didn’t have the two-thirds majority they would have needed to introduce the same motion at a regularly scheduled council meeting.

What does this mean for Rob Ford?

No matter the outcome of the vote on transit, the fact that 24 of his colleagues have decided to debate the transit proposal he vehemently opposes—which formed a central plank of his mayoral campaign—is very bad news for Rob Ford. Given the size of the projects and their centrality to his agenda, this is the closest that council gets to a vote of non-confidence in the mayor’s leadership. Coming on the heels of major reversals regarding waterfront plans and budget cuts, momentum on council is definitely moving away from the mayor.

Will the plan to overturn Ford’s transit proposal work?

There’s a very good chance council will make major changes to the mayor’s transit plan this week: by putting their names on the petition to hold the meeting, councillors are already out in the open as opposing the mayor, and they’ve already rolled the dice as far as breaking with Rob Ford. The mayor’s office will no doubt try to pick some councillors off the coalition list, offering committee appointments or support on ward-specific initiatives in exchange for voting the mayor’s way on transit. The coalition, similarly, will work just as hard to maintain unity.

The mayor has a shrinking pile of favours to offer, and political momentum is against him on this subject. Should he change the minds of any of the councillors currently opposing him, he’ll more likely get them to support a compromise position rather than enticing them to completely switch sides. Which is to say: the proposal that gets passed later this week may not be a full return to light rail—the compromise may win the day after all—but councillors wouldn’t have called the meeting in the first place if they weren’t ready to make major changes in some form or another.

What does this mean for the future of transit in Toronto?

Unclear. Should the mayor maintain his opposition to light rail, the province—which is paying for all of this—will be in a very tricky situation, faced with one strong message coming from council and an equally strong opposing message coming from the mayor. How the province reacts will depend in part on the particulars of what is passed by council (agreeing to an extension of the 2009 MOA, for instance, would have legal implications for the province that an informal compromise plan would not), but unless the mayor completely reverses course the situation will remain unstable. Dalton McGuinty could, in theory, decide to sideline the mayor completely and give Metrolinx the green light to proceed on light rail based on council’s endorsement, but he thus far has been unwilling to overrule Ford. Ford could realize he is boxed in by council and has the majority of his term of office still in front of him, and decide to compromise for the sake of preserving at least a semblance of his former power. Or councillors could lose their nerve in the face of the mayor’s bluster.

In short: this will move the needle toward light rail, but it’s still anyone’s guess as to how far.

City council’s special meeting on transit will begin at 9:30 a.m. this Wednesday, February 8.

CORRECTION: February 6, 10:23 PM This article referred to the 2009 document signed with the province as a Memorandum of Understanding, a non-binding framework for future talks; in fact, it was a Memorandum of Agreement, which is binding.