John Tory's Comments About City Staff Call Into Question His Leadership
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John Tory’s Comments About City Staff Call Into Question His Leadership

A clip of the mayor's criticism toward TTC senior staff is not indicative of a leader, says a former Toronto councillor.

Like many Torontonians, I was shocked by the recent revelation of a recording of a Toronto mayor behaving in a manner unworthy of his station and giving cause for doubt about his suitability for the job entrusted to him by the people.

I refer, of course, to a clip now in circulation of John Tory’s public comments tearing a strip out of the “swollen ranks” of TTC senior management in anticipation of its failure to trim its operating budget in a manner that meets his approval. The clip dates back to Tory’s pre-campaign days, but it speaks volumes about the kind of leader he is today.

Having committed to some enormous capital projects while also promising to keep a lid on property tax increases, our mayor has noticed that City Hall has a large—and growing—operating budget. One-third of the way through this Council term, he has unleashed his master plan to bring the budget under control: he has pushed a resolution through Council requiring all departments to reduce costs by 2.6 per cent across the board.

So, now it falls to staff to deliver. Leadership, it would seem, is to make up a proposition and nail it to the wall; responsible management is the willingness to salute and prove the proposition right. Anything short of that is insubordination.

Forget for a moment that the City of Toronto has been operating in this mode since the 2010 election and that the squeeze has been on for years. Forget that the previous mayor built a personal brand around a fight-the-waste agenda—and, for that matter, so did his budget chief. (Something about a gravy train comes to mind.)

This is not to say that management shouldn’t always be expected to look for ways to find efficiencies and reduce costs to do better for less. Everyone’s closet could do with a regular review of what’s needed and what’s not, what things should go elsewhere, and what things can be eliminated altogether. Ways of doing things should always be held up to scrutiny against better ideas and modified, updated, or improved, if possible. That’s not bold leadership; it’s just good housekeeping.

For example, in past years the Toronto Public Library implemented ways to streamline the systems used to serve customers, check out books, and supervise the use of library space through available technology and the simple redesign of shelving and rearrangement of floor space. The result: one librarian on the floor can carry out functions that used to require several employees.

Good management will do that sort of thing, and taxpayers should expect it of them.

So,Tory is not wrong to keep his managers’ feet to the fire. And, the goal of reducing costs by 2.6 per cent is probably enough to irritate those who refuse to countenance any budget cuts and not enough to satisfy those who want to see some real slashing and burning. It probably hits the political bull’s eye for someone like this mayor.

But, let’s not kid ourselves that it is the mark of bold leadership and vision, that it will solve City Hall’s budget problems, or that it is anything other than an arbitrary number conjured up out of thin air.

First of all, if the cost reduction target is the same across the board, it is in essence an admission that it does not flow from a rigorous assessment of where waste, duplication, and mismanagement might actually be lurking. As unlikely as it may be that there is no room for belt tightening at all, it is similarly unlikely that the potential is equal in all areas of the organization. And a call for equal cuts everywhere certainly does not reflect a vision of what activities and services are a priority and which can be regarded as secondary, redundant, or wholly unnecessary.

Second, if there is justification to the cynicism underlying the assumption that managers need to be shamed into finding efficiencies by Council resolution, it is no leap in logic to assume that anyone worthy of a management role will find ways to pad their budgets up front in anticipation of a call to cut costs. Any observer of the methods of Sir Humphrey Appleby would know enough to counter an anticipated arbitrary demand for cuts with a bit of built-in sacrificial excess in advance. And the game, fuelled by arbitrariness at the top, goes on—if the actual logic behind the demand for uniform across-the-board cuts holds any water.

But, all of that is beside the point.

The point is that a leader leads. A leader does not whine and make threats. A leader does not go on the air and deliver a public rebuke of the very people he will be counting on to serve under his leadership and deliver on his policy goals.

Except in the case of this one. His target: everyone’s favourite punching bag, the TTC.

The TTC provides service levels that strive to deliver on policy goals. Where the policy goals are amended, service standards are altered accordingly. When the call comes to cut short-term costs, service standards on the margins of policy are curtailed. Buses run less frequently, pack in more riders per trip, and shut down routes earlier in the evening.

Most of us see that as the logical follow-up to a call for immediate cost reductions. But, this mayor sees it as a ploy. Remember those inefficiencies “marbled” throughout the organization; he wants to see management heads on a stick.

There is no end of ways that the TTC can cut costs in the long run. For one, it could implement automatic train controls on the subway lines, which will both reduce costs and improve service levels. The sooner this is done, the sooner the savings will accrue. But, like most other genuine cost-cutting measures, this requires a significant capital investment up front and, well, we have a subway project in Scarborough to pay for.

Tory could go to Queen’s Park and make the case that the job of transporting patients to and from medical treatments should be a line item in the province’s healthcare budget, that it’s not a municipal transit expense. If the TTC were relieved of the cost of providing Wheel Trans service, it could cut its budget substantially and improve service levels for commuters at the same time. But the mayor needs the cooperation of the provincial government to help pay for the aforementioned subway project, so now may not be the time to advance that particular issue.

Any objective review of the opportunities, either to implement lasting savings at the TTC or to meet the policy needs of a large and growing city, is likely to point to the need to increase the resources available to the TTC, not reduce them. It would certainly seem unwise to cut staff to satisfy a short-term objective, only to rehire them later to address long-term ones.

But, it’s the short-term that seems to matter to this mayor. And services are not to be cut, so people have to go.

Can the mayor point to any jobs that can be cut? No, but he knows that they exist. It’s an article of faith. His public comments reflect the view that top management is either protecting them or is simply unable to recognize them. And if management won’t do the job, he says he likes the idea of sending in his deputy mayor to root them out. Because the deputy mayor, somehow, is better at that sort of thing than the people whom we have been trusting all this time to run the place.

What leader who values the people who work for him makes public claims like that, backed up by threats like that? Did he seriously want to cast doubt on the integrity and ability of the senior management of the TTC? Was he setting the stage for a top-level TTC housecleaning? Why else would he launch such an attack and issue such a threat?

We’ve already had a mayor with a fondness for arbitrary propositions. But for all of Rob Ford’s faults—and it appears he may have had a few—he was not one to go out of his way to use a public forum to criticize the performance of City staff. He respected their expertise and their professional integrity. He spoke of them only in the most respectful terms, even when he was not happy with what he was hearing from them. He did not make threats.

The same should be said of his successor.