Karen Stintz's Speech to the Board Of Trade: Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing
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Karen Stintz’s Speech to the Board Of Trade: Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Karen Stintz's first major campaign speech suggests the people want clichés, clichés, clichés.

Photo from Karen Stintz’s Instagram account.

When we fact-checked Rob Ford’s speech at the Economic Club, we promised that we would fact-check at least one major policy speech from each major mayoral candidate. Fair is fair, after all. So we looked forward to Karen Stintz’s speech to the Toronto Board of Trade last week; it was, we hoped, going to be the equivalent of Ford’s speech (right down to the audience).

We really should have known better.

Here is the thing about Rob Ford: whatever his track record with respect to telling the truth may be (and it is not good), he tends to avoid political clichés. In contrast, Karen Stintz’s speech was filled with meaningless political drivel, the kind of zero-content babbling sales talk that drives so many people away from politics. It is precisely this sort of meaningless bullshit that makes people who would otherwise be actively opposed to Rob Ford’s politics inclined to support him as a candidate—because for all of his numerous sins, Rob Ford does not, for the most part, speak as if he were a living SEO engine looking for more hits. Rob Ford speaks like a normal person, which unfortunately makes him a lot more believable than Stintz to the average person who doesn’t have time to do the legwork necessary to discover that Ford lies literally all the time.

So, in addition to the red for outright lies, and the orange for questionable half-truths, for Karen Stintz’s never-ending stream of trivial, market-tested blandness and inspirational feel-good pablum, we are adding blue.

Thank you for joining me today. It is wonderful to see so many friends in the room. And of course, my thanks to Darren Nippard and to all the members of Regional Board of Trade for providing this platform to discuss some of the ideas that I hope will shape our city tomorrow.

Generating thoughtful dialogue about our city and region is a hallmark of the Toronto Region Board of Trade, and this service is greatly valued by us all. Just this week, the Board put forward a compelling case in the 2014 Scorecard where you argued that we are at a “fork in the road” that requires us to choose now to demand “great” rather than “good enough.” These ideas are inspirational to every municipal candidate and create a perfect setting to start my conversation with all of you.

Today I want to talk to you about looking forward towards tomorrow. We all saw that big flurry of activity on Monday. And this is just the beginning. Over the next eight months, I look forward to continuing this conversation not just in forums like this, but at kitchen tables, in community halls and church basements, in coffee shops, in boardrooms, and in backyards across our city. And I encourage you to do the same.

As I consider what it means to live in Toronto—this place of opportunity, potential, and promise—it seems to me that we are at a turning point…or as the Board described it, a fork in the road. I believe the way forward to a better tomorrow does not rely on yesterday’s politics and old-fashioned thinking but change and a fresh new approach.

On Monday, I registered as a candidate in the race to become the 65th Mayor of Toronto. I have to tell you, given the events of the past year, my determination has never been stronger to get past the dysfunction at City Hall and work together with our citizens to build a better tomorrow for our city.

For me, the decision to stand for public office is a journey that started more than a decade ago against some pretty long odds. It was 2003; I had just paid off my student loans in time to take on a mortgage and our first home. We didn’t have children then, so one of my main interactions with my new neighbours was through walking my dog. Everybody here who has a dog gets what I mean.

It was a great way to understand what really mattered to people in my community: traffic; green space; garbage pick-up—those things that impact quality of life, day in and day out in my neighbourhood, just as they do in yours.

Now I’m a policy wonk by nature—I’m sure there are more than a few of you here today who share this quirk with me—and I discovered through all of this that I loved to talk with people about solutions to our local problems. It just so happened there was a group in the ward seeking a candidate to challenge the sitting councillor. I read about it in the local newspaper. Of course, there is always a reason to say to yourself, ‘now is not the time’—but I love a challenge, and I like to get things done. So I decided to run.1

To say it was a long shot would be an understatement. I was running against a 30-year incumbent with an experienced and deep political organization and a citywide profile. I was a candidate with no name recognition. Zero. There wasn’t a single pundit who knew me, much less predicted I would win.
My sophisticated campaign machine consisted of my immediate family. I knew I had to work harder than everyone else. There was no substitute. I knocked on every door in Ward 16 twice. At least we were sure of one thing—I wouldn’t lose for a lack of trying.

Imagine my surprise when I won by several thousand votes. On that campaign trail, I talked to a lot of people about a lot of issues. But I didn’t win on any of those issues. I won because my community wanted a new way of looking at problems, a new way of defining solutions, a new way of getting things done.2

1 Stintz is underselling herself a bit here. In 2003, she was working for the John Tory mayoral campaign when she decided to run against Anne Johnston, so she was already involved in politics and didn’t need to read “the local paper” in order to know that the North Toronto Tenants Network was seeking a candidate to run against Johnston. Stintz, in fairness, has claimed since her run in 2003 that the classified ad was in fact the reason she ran, so at least she is being consistent about her pretty-obviously-baloney story that portrays her as some naive innocent who just stumbled backwards into politics.

2 More accurately, Stintz won mostly because Anne Johnston had supported the Minto Towers development at Yonge and Eglinton, and many of her constituents were motivated to vote against her for that reason—and because Stintz was associated with the John Tory campaign, which gave her additional name recognition she would not have had otherwise. It does, however, appear to be true that Stintz’s political organization in that campaign was minimal—which is not surprising, considering she entered the 2003 race relatively late.

So if I learned one thing from my first campaign it is this: if we aren’t pursuing new ways to make things better—better for communities, better for business, better for neighbourhoods and families in every corner of the city—if we aren’t making things better for them, we will get left behind. Left behind on jobs. Left behind on economic growth. Left behind on opportunities. And it’s as true today as it was a decade ago—even more so today, because the pace of change is so much faster. And the possibilities of what we can be as a city if we seize the opportunity are so much greater.

This has helped shape my fundamental belief that we have a choice. A choice to relentlessly focus on tomorrow or live in yesterday. A choice that isn’t just cut-cut or spend-spend. A different choice, one that focuses on unlocking value for taxpayers and for the money we all pay to keep our City going.3 A choice to make this city the best place to live, the best place to work. A choice for you, for me, and for our youngest residents who will inherit this city.

3 This is the most pernicious lie that lies at the heart of virtually every centre-right political campaign of the past few decades: that somehow you can cut taxes without cutting services, or increase services without raising taxes. In the case of Toronto, this is simply not true: the City is presently understaffed and the KPMG audit in 2011—which Stintz voted for—was conclusive that there was very, very little to cut that would not materially affect services. In fact, budget-conscious city manager Joe Pennachetti said in December that “the gravy was gone” from City Hall, and last week indicated that Toronto will eventually need additional revenue streams, such as a sales tax. In other words, Toronto won’t be able to cut its way toward growth.

You know, when I went to City Hall a decade ago, it was dominated by the free-spending, high-taxing ways of the NDP. We had a leader that was so busy being a Big City Mayor that he didn’t pay enough attention to the bread-and-butter issues that mattered to people in their everyday lives. Finally, I decided there was no option but to organize against the attitude of fiscal irresponsibility at city council. And so the Responsible Government Group was born.

We were a small collection of councillors who decided we had to fight back against old-style tax-and-spend attitudes—who strove to close the glaring gap between what residents were paying for and the value they were receiving. We rallied against the practice of raiding reserve funds and using one-time pots of “found” money to plug holes in the budget.4 We opposed irresponsible wage and benefit contracts. We pushed hard for greater accountability to taxpayers. We spoke out loudly against the mayor’s handling of the 2009 City workers’ strike and fought for good customer service—good customer service—a term not used enough at City Hall.

I will never forget the looks of genuine surprise when I stood in council to ask that Toronto residents get a rebate on their waste collection bill after we had endured a 39-day garbage strike, requiring everyone to haul their own garbage to the temporary dumps set up in our parks.5 By this time, trust in City Hall to do right by the taxpayers was completely eroded. On taxes, the people of Toronto were tapped out.6 Our current mayor was elected in direct response to the failings of the previous administration to “respect the taxpayer.” We thought we were getting a responsible leader.7

4 Of course, many of the members of the Responsible Government Group went on to become members of Rob Ford’s executive commitee and repeatedly voted for unsustainable budget practices, and Stintz herself voted for many of these unsustainable budget practices as well—but in fairness, when they weren’t in charge of anything, they were really very much for scolding other people.

5 It is true that Stintz put forward a motion for residents to get a user fee rebate following the 2009 inside and outdoors workers’ strike, of which the garbage workers were a small but visible part. A variation of the motion passed 22-19, but the money that was used to pay for it came from one-time funds intended for capital, exactly the kind of practice Stintz criticizes in number four.

6 As we noted when discussing Rob Ford’s speech, Toronto’s property tax rates are the lowest among all GTA municipalities. (Note that Stintz, being the creature of marketing speech that she is, tries to avoid saying whether property taxes are too high or too low for budgetary purposes. Instead, she talks about the feelings of Toronto taxpayers. Because feelings can’t be wrong.)

7 When Rob Ford became mayor in 2010, Stintz had been a councillor for seven years. If she genuinely thought that Ford’s politics and style represented a responsible approach to governance despite his track record, then that raises a question about her judgment.

So where are we today? We’ve made some progress on the financial side with outsourcing and holding the line on spending—all of which I have vigorously supported. But, just this month, the ombudsman reported that customer complaints and grievances with the City of Toronto are at an all-time high. This is not the deal you seek. It’s not what you need; it’s not what you deserve. For the leader of this city, the challenge—and the opportunity—is to provide a better and more affordable service. Let me tell you this: it is entirely possible.8

8 See note 3.

During my time as the chair of the TTC, we balanced the TTC budget while our subsidy was cut by 10 per cent. We adjusted our services to match our revenues. We kept fare increases at the rate of inflation. I led the initiative to outsource garbage collection at the TTC. Then I outsourced cleaning. And then I outsourced bus maintenance, because I didn’t think it was right to ask TTC customers—some of whom make minimum wage—to pay premium wages for TTC employees.9

We also negotiated a balanced labour contract, and we did it after the TTC was declared an essential service. At the same time, the first ever TTC Customer Service Charter was put into place. And we pushed for new ways to continue to improve the customer experience: new subway trains10, new maps, clean new washrooms, electronic fare cards, Wi-Fi access, time-based transfers, and integration with GO Transit. It was about a better, but affordable service.11

9 Of course, those TTC employees whose jobs were outsourced were shifted into other roles at the TTC, so TTC customers kept paying their wages regardless.

10 The Toronto Rocket trains were planned and purchased under David Miller’s administration, when Adam Giambrone was TTC chair. During Karen Stintz’s time as TTC chair, all that happened was that those plans were executed. She does not really deserve credit for the new trains at all.

11 The problem with Stintz’s claim about “service” is that she is equating cleaner trains and Wi-Fi access with “better service.” Clean vehicles and Wi-Fi are fine and good, but most people who actually have to take transit on a daily basis will tell you that what defines “good service” in terms of transit is how quickly it gets you to your destination, and in this regard, the TTC is flailing desperately, because council has refused over the last four years to increase TTC funding in order to improve its service with respect to its increased ridership. Indeed, this was part of the reason Stintz pushed for the outsourcing of TTC cleaning jobs: the savings could be used to direct a small amount of money elsewhere within the TTC. While TTC chair, Stintz voted to reduce service on 62 bus and streetcar routes and increase crowding standards (thus making rush-hour rides more cramped)—and saw the TTC subsidy per rider fall from 93 to 79 cents.

I believe this approach—this focus—must be the number one priority at City Hall. And we need to start with the problem of congestion. Because when we focus on the customer, the entire approach changes.

Congestion—and let’s face it, is there really anything more frustrating than being stuck in traffic, whether you’re on a streetcar or in a car or on a bike? It robs us of important time—important time we could be spending with our families and friends, with our kids at the dinner table, at our sons’ or daughters’ hockey games or soccer matches. I get it. It affects corporate decisions about where to locate offices. It affects tourists’ decisions about where to spend their vacation dollars. It affects economic development and jobs. The board reminds us that congestion costs us about $11 billion a year in lost economic activity.12

12The $11-billion figure comes not from the Board of Trade, but from a C.D. Howe Institute study that argued congestion cost the entire GTHA $7.5-11 billion in annual economic activity. For its part, the Board of Trade put the number at $6 billion in a 2011 study.

Now is it just me, or does it seem like most of the discussions we have on this incredibly important topic have been focused on the “fight,” instead of the “fix”? Here’s the fix: we need a true transportation system. One system, where all the pieces are moving together, in sync. One system, getting us where we need to go, no matter which mode we choose to travel or how many modes we choose to use.

I have long pointed out that we have all sorts of transportation customers—drivers, transit users, cyclists, and pedestrians. And we have all kinds of plans—parking plans, construction plans, bike plans, pedestrian plans, multi-year TTC plans, and GO plans. But there’s nothing that links them all together. No one who connects all the ideas and plans, working towards a common vision. No one who sees the big picture when we are making tough choices about how to use scarce resources, or simply how to use them more efficiently. But there is no reason that we can’t change this situation.

The City of London, for example, was facing a crisis of congestion and did a total re-think on how it served its transportation customers. It brought every transportation-related service under one person. A Transportation Czar. King of the Road. One person who has a mission to ensure that all transportation customers get to where they are going safely, reliably, and with minimal delays—whether by bus, car, bike, or foot, or any combination thereof.13 One person who knows everything that is happening on our city streets. One person continuously thinking about how to serve those transportation customers better. You know when they did this in London? Fourteen years ago! I think it’s time we leveraged this thinking because the payback for you—the transportation customer—is huge.

13 It is true that media reports frequently refer to a “Transportation Czar” in England, but they also refer to a “Gangs Czar,” “Cycling Czar,” and “Design Czar.” They really like czars. However, they don’t have absolute control over their division—they still respond to politicians, as they should. After all, it would be unwise to empower a few unelected individuals to become the Robert Moses of Toronto. This means that politicians like Stintz are free to ignore staff like city planner Jennifer Keesmaat when she advises against the proposed Scarborough subway, but at least there’s some transparency in that process.

Imagine one person knows where the construction work is happening. That same person knows where the greatest volume of cars are, if there is a delay on a streetcar, or even if someone is parking illegally, blocking traffic. It’s not difficult. GPS technology, traffic sensors and cameras–there’s a lot of good information to be easily had. And a lot of good information to be shared. Could you just imagine looking at your smart phone in the morning and having all the information you need to know how to get to work the best way? Or get the kids to school?

At the TTC, we are already talking about this service. Recognizing for instance, that the TTC customer and a GO Transit customer can often be one and the same. We had to look out for both of them. We realized that leveraging technology—like the next bus applications—offers real value to people. “Leveraging technology”—that’s another term that isn’t often used at City Hall! But we must look for those technological tools that deliver value—and we don’t have to look too far.

At the University of Toronto—our very own city’s university—they have developed a fourth generation of smart traffic lights that cut wait times by up to 40 per cent. That means that your commute time is reduced by 25 per cent—25 per cent. 14 We’ve got the one!

14 Two points need to be made here. First, the smart traffic system to which Stintz refers has already been tested in Toronto—in fact, that’s where Stintz’s numbers about congestion are coming from. Second, there are a lot of doubts about whether smart traffic lights in fact deliver the benefits they promise, or can be effective on a wider scale.

I know, I know: you’re thinking—this is great, great ideas, big thinking. How are we going to pay for all this? That’s the question I get asked a lot—how are we going to pay? If we have priorities that require investment to be realized, like the Downtown Relief Line, we need to start thinking about how to unlock the value from other City assets. Just as we used the proceeds from the sale of Enwave to pay for our new air-conditioned streetcars, we could use the proceeds from the sale or lease of Hydro to pay for transit.15

15 The problem here is that Toronto Hydro is currently valued at $1 billion. Stintz has previously proposed selling a portion of Toronto Hydro, but Ontario tax laws for municipalities mean that it is financially counterproductive to sell more than 10 per cent of Toronto Hydro. Leasing Hydro—which provides a $25 million dividend annually—is another option, but the important takeaway here is that it is extremely unlikely that either of these options would come close to generating the $3.2 billion or more that the Downtown Relief Line will cost just to reach Bloor.

Let’s leave yesterday’s thinking and attitudes where they belong—in yesterday. Let’s stop building walls and start building a transportation system that moves us forward as one city: the one city that I’ve been talking about for years—one thriving global city. You know, to me it’s not just about getting that time back with our families that’s being robbed by congestion. It’s what we would do with that time if we had it back. It’s about making sure our city has facilities and activities to offer today’s kids, and they can offer their kids tomorrow. It’s about making one city, with strong neighbourhoods.

Across Toronto right now, many cash-strapped school boards are in the process of selling off fields and playgrounds. While this decision belongs to the school board, the loss of that green space will dramatically and negatively change the shape of neighbourhoods in every corner of our city. All this is happening at the same time that sports clubs and community groups struggle to find the resources and facilities that they need to deliver their programs. Now typically, these issues would be addressed separately, or not at all.

But consider what we might achieve if we took a new approach—one that considers tomorrow’s potential and not just today’s circumstances. I believe that rejecting the old politics of the past and embracing change and a more creative way of doing things includes new ideas that help solve interconnected problems. There is absolutely no reason why the City cannot unlock the full value of these recreational fields and give our kids greater access to play facilities, while still addressing the financial concerns of the board. We can do this in a smarter way, in a way that won’t cost taxpayers more money.

We can lease the land, borrow against the asset to make needed improvements, and then to generate revenue, contract out the permitting process with the goal of making it easier for people to get permits to get community groups to play, for sports clubs to get access.16 This reflects the kind of new thinking we need. Tomorrow thinking.

16 To be clear: Stintz appears to propose that we lease playgrounds and community centres to private companies, whose profits would either come from increased user fees (which would make it harder for poor kids and families to use the facilities) or payment from the City for services rendered (which would likely defeat the fiscal purpose of the leases). She then suggests that we borrow money, using the leased facilities as collateral—which is just borrowing money when you get down to it—and contract out permits to make some money. Stintz is dishonestly suggesting that these steps make up an interconnected plan, when in fact, they are just three ideas that really have little or nothing to do with one another. Outsourcing City services would neither represent new thinking, nor a way to provide the increased access Stintz argues is needed.

Like many of you, my kids play baseball. And like you, my life as a parent makes me continuously appreciate the city, and its services. So I have spent a lot of time not just discussing it, but living it. And I look forward to spending the coming months sharing my ideas about how the services we provide residents and families can make our day-to-day lives a little easier.

Because before Councillor Stintz, or TTC Chair Stintz, or now “Candidate Stintz,” I am Karen Stintz, “Mom.” My son is nine, almost 10—my daughter 7. My all-time favourite newspaper photo was taken by the Toronto Sun in my rookie year. It’s me holding up Jackson when he was just a baby, in front of City Hall. And that photo hangs in my office today as a symbol of something very important to me. It’s a symbol of the choices that I make in my life, as a mom and as an elected official. I make those choices for him, for both of my kids. Parents across this city do it every single day. Choices for a better tomorrow…for our children.

Around you today are sunflowers. There’s a reason that I’ve chosen them as something that represents my quest to be your mayor. A few months ago, I asked Jackson and Hailey what they wished for Toronto tomorrow. Hailey told me her wish was that Toronto would be a beautiful city; Jackson wants a bold and modern city. These sunflowers are for them. Because sunflowers, they’re not just beautiful: sunflowers are strong and bold, and they always turn to face the sun.17 I believe it will require strong leadership to deliver the tomorrow we all want, the tomorrow where our kids and grandkids will play. And grow. And work. A tomorrow that we, as one of the truly great cities in North America, need to be focused on.

17The myth of sunflowers following the sun was debunked by English botanist John Gerard in his 1597 work The Herball. While heliotropism is often seen in budding sunflowers, mature ones face a fixed direction, most commonly east.

Tomorrow needs a leader who will see things differently. A leader for all Torontonians, one who believes in customer service. Because I am here to work for you—not just for the suburbs or the downtown; not just for drivers or cyclists or transit riders; not just for middle-class neighbourhoods, but neighbourhoods at risk. A responsible and accountable leader who gets it. A leader who is prepared to lead, and make tough choices. It will take optimism. It will take fresh, big, new, and forward-looking ideas. So I hope you’ll continue this conversation about Toronto’s tomorrow with me.

But more importantly, I hope you will keep having the same conversation with your families, with your friends, and with your colleagues. Because this October, every single one of us has an opportunity. An opportunity to choose change. An opportunity to choose optimism. An opportunity to vote to bring Toronto together rather than to divide. An opportunity to choose to reject the politics of the past and embrace tomorrow. An opportunity to choose, to turn, and face the sun.