Local democracy is messy, but it needs to be accessible.
A University of Toronto-led task force will look at ways to make Toronto City Council meetings more manageable and improve deliberations.
Led by U of T assistant professor Gabriel Eidelman and urban consultant Brian Kelcey, the 10-person task force also includes former mayoral candidate and councillor David Soknacki, former councillor John Parker, former city managers Joe Pennachetti and Shirley Hoy, former Rob Ford press secretary and current editor-in-chief of the Toronto Sun Adrienne Batra, former Adam Vaughan staffer Ange Valentini, Western University professor Zack Taylor, CivicAction CEO Sevaun Palvetzian, and (disclosure) Torontoist contributor Bianca Wylie, who works for Open Data Institute Toronto.
Following Toronto City Council meetings is complicated. Each meeting involves hundreds of decisions that affect millions of Torontonians in myriad ways. Many of these decisions are taken for granted, and it takes a significant amount of institutional and real-world knowledge to connect the procedural and policy decisions with the lived experiences of Torontonians. Even though it’s important for the public to understand how and why those decisions get made, the process can often feel more like a barrier rather than a place to participate.
This even affects people who you think would or should be more knowledgeable when it comes to the details of Council and Robert’s Rules of Order. When John Tory joined Council as mayor—the first person in about a century to become the mayor of Toronto without being a councillor—his lack of familiarity with the chamber’s process and procedure was striking; democratic deliberations do not operate like a boardroom.
This Council newbie confusion is not unique to Tory when he took office. When a Toronto Star feature writer who typically doesn’t cover Council wrote a story about experiencing a meeting, his lede about how the agenda works was completely false (although the original lede was deleted online, the article was not accompanied by any correction or update). What he understood as civic dysfunction actually had a perfectly reasonable explanation, but the context is needed to make those connections on your own.
Local democracy is messy, but it’s also the most accessible order of government. At times, its very messiness is a feature, not a bug. There is a lot more room to make those deliberations easier to understand and follow (here at Torontoist we try our best), and hopefully in their review the task force also reflects that there are parts that are really great, if only we can appreciate them better.