Real City Matters: Keeping Toronto Honest
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Real City Matters: Keeping Toronto Honest

What do you do when politicians and public servants won't play by the rules?

real city matters ethics

Some people disgraced themselves, failed in their duty to their City, lied, put self-interest first, or simply did not do their jobs. Many City processes and procedures were not yet up to the high standards that the people of Toronto have a right to expect. Some people did not show the leadership expected of them. Lines of responsibility and accountability were unclear or nonexistent.

This is not, as you might guess, a summary of recent events at City Hall. In fact, those words are nine years old: they were written by Justice Denise Bellamy in 2005, in the wake of a four year long investigation into dubious activity at City Hall. The Bellamy Report set off a wave of reform in Toronto’s municipal government, and shaped many of the accountability safeguards we have in place today.

Flash forward to 2014. As Torontonians are about to head to the polls, they do so after years of acrimony and accusation, a massive collection of public complaints about political misbehaviour, active police investigations into several politicians, and numerous City Hall-related lawsuits.

How have we changed in the intervening years, and what do we still have to learn?

Before, during, and soon after the forced amalgamation of Toronto in 1998, the City of Toronto issued computer leasing contracts under dubious circumstances; allegations included bribery and corruption. It was a bad start to a government born out of bad blood.

Today we do not, for the most part, worry about this kind of malfeasance. With the introduction of new accountability officers (such as the Ombudsman and the Lobbyist Registrar), along with a host of procedural reforms that tightened up rules around how City Hall makes its major purchasing and financial decisions, our government is less vulnerable than it was before to these kinds of abuses.

That is the bare minimum, however—table stakes as far as what we should expect from government. In her report Bellamy also wrote this:

In 2005, the City of Toronto is at a significant crossroads in its young history. Amalgamation in 1998 brought the City into being, and it came with a great deal of turmoil. Almost eight years later, there is a growing recognition that it is time for a potentially far-reaching reassessment of how the City operates. A spirited public debate on how Toronto should be governed is going on as I write this report. It is an important debate.

It is a debate that is not—and ought not to be—over. In 2006 the province passed the City of Toronto Act, which gave us limited new powers that other Ontario municipalities did not, in recognition of our greater size and the complexity of our challenges. But we are far from having the full-fledged, responsible, autonomous government large and growing cities need in order to manage their affairs properly. We still need to turn to other orders of government for money, for permission to change rules about how our elections are conducted—hell, for sign-off on construction proposals if a developer wants to do something city council has rejected.

We are not, yet, a mature level of government, and that includes our immature relationship to public transparency, accountability, and ethics. We elect politicians, for instance, who accuse the Ombudsman of being political when her conclusions are unfavourable, who curtail her contract when they take personal affront at her findings—and we have no processes in place to prevent such things from happening.

What sorts of powers need to exist in order to properly monitor municipal politicians, and who should wield them? Currently council approves both the appointment of the accountability officers and the police budget (and thus can exert a silencing effect by threatening to withdraw support from those bodies). It is also council that adopts or rejects reports about their colleagues’ (mis)conduct. What are the best practices when it comes to political oversight? How do you protect civil servants from being pressured by politicians to deviate from established procedures? How do you create an environment in which civil servants are properly monitored without alienating or undermining them? Most basically: what should you do when elected officials or public servants won’t play by the rules?

Tonight former mayor David Miller, who oversaw the introduction of many of Toronto’s new accountability procedures and argued for municipal powers under the City of Toronto Act, will discuss these and other questions with Rose Gill Hearn, who led New York City’s anti-corruption agency, the Department of Investigation, for 11 years. Two weeks ago, Rose testified in Montreal, where the Charbonneau Commission is considering new anti-corruption strategies for Quebec.

Within the next couple of years Toronto will be renegotiating the City of Toronto Act. It is time to restart the public discussion Judge Bellamy began nearly a decade ago, about how to make Toronto a more honest and better governed city. Please join us this evening.

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