National Column: Council debate a clamour in a clamshell

by Rosie DiManno

Pursed lips, pouts, political piety. And a juvenile refusal to use the Big P word: Premier.

To extend alliteration for just a bit: More petulance than principle.

That just about sums up Toronto councilís vote – by a smaller margin than I would have expected – to buckle down on a legal challenge of the provincial government’s admittedly unilateral and stupidly timed decision to reduce the number of municipal wards to 25 from 47. A whack job against the city cabal of pols, some of whom have turned the job into a lifetime sinecure.

Jobs which would be fiercely contended in the Oct. 22 election, with many incumbents having to go mano a mano against each other, against ideological allies, on the redrawn map whilst also fending off fresh challengers.

In throwing down the legal gauntlet by a head count of 25-17 at Monday’s daylong special session, council ignored the advice of its own solicitors, whoíd warned there is no “obvious path” to successfully challenge Bill 5, approved by the legislature earlier this month.

To support the contention that this is what Torontonians want council to do for them, push back against the bullying and purportedly avenging nastiness of Premier Doug Ford, councillor after councillor rose to pretty much sing from the same hymn book, right down to the scripted language, submitting petitions totalling about 25,000 signatures (I’m rounding out generously) urging this august body to pin back the premier’s ears or sink trying.

Sounds impressive but I wouldn’t attach too much significance to the 25,000 figure, which amounts to 2.52 per cent of the 991,754 citizens who cast a ballot in the last municipal election. It would have been more illuminating if, by way of comparison, the councillors or their advocates had also solicited signatures among residents who support Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act. Which Ford indisputably shoved down their throats, and only theirs. Which, as per existing legislation, he – disputably, pending arguments before a judge-alone hearing on Aug. 31 – can do, although this came as a rude aha reckoning when the Starís Robert Benzie first broke the news of Ford’s intentions.

So Toronto council joins with parties – individuals – who’d already launched legal challenges against the province. Unlike those opponents, however, council will be pursuing their bid with your tax dollars, which theyíve never much cared about wasting. Just about every legal expert the Star has canvassed on the matter holds out faint hope for the courtroom gambit. Judges apply the law, it should be remembered; they don’t make the laws.

Insight into the legal arguments that could be advanced – and the obstacles posed – was not for public consumption, discussed only (repeatedly) in camera, with a motion to bring out into the open the contents of a confidential report prepared by the city solicitor defeated. “Why in the world would we give away our legal strategy before we even begin,” harrumphed Councillor Janet Davis. “I think the motion to make this public is sabotaging, sabotaging, the city’s position – and I find it shocking.”

Well, I find it furtive, if tiresomely typical.

Ordinarily I admire people who tilt at windmills. Sometimes, it’s true that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. Democratic institutions should be vigorously defended. But prudence also requires that you fold your cards when the opposition is showing four aces. Because otherwise it’s just a gesture, a squeak oiled up with noble words.

While it would have behooved Ford to consult before he set about lopping – apart from a passing reference to Mayor John Tory, which was apparently not taken seriously – there’s no obligation to do so prior to restructuring a municipal government, and Toronto is very much a creation of Queen’s Park. Maybe that tethering should be snipped, a tweeted proposal for sovereignty – Toronto a city-state, essentially – floated by mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat when the former chief city planner hastily tossed her cloche into the ring.

Doubtless an assessment of how councillors conducted themselves Monday would depend on where you land on this issue, insofar as the populace is engaged at all in the wrangle. The usual suspects assumed their usual stances with their usual sense of absolute righteousness, a dollop of insolence larded in by those, led by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (does she have any expression beyond a deep-V frown?), who made a virtue-signalling pretence of not uttering “Premier” out loud, opting for “Mr.” instead. Iím no fan of Ford – heís a populist nincompoop – but, geez Louise, how childish.

Why not just stamp your feet or hold your breath, tantrum-style, until you get what you want? Not a whole lot of grown-ups in the rotunda.

Tantrums and tempestuousness, with council going so far as further directing the city’s legal squad to explore postponement of the election, should the judicial Hail Mary prove successful and if the clock is turned back to a 47-ward race, a jack-up from 44 wards four years ago. A do-over edict after city staff explained what a laborious process it had been, re-prepping for the mandated 25-ward framework. “I am absolutely not confident at this point that I can turn this around,” said deputy city clerk Fiona Murray, who’s in charge of election services.

A motion by Councillor Josh Matlow directing city clerk Ulli Watkiss to prepare for both a 47-ward and a 25-ward election was ruled out of order. “It’s simply not feasible to run systems – to do two elections at the same time,” Watkiss said.

I totally understand anybody desperate to keep their job. But amidst all the caterwauling about local democracy getting boot-kicked by Ford, council has not made a compelling argument about why 47 wards are necessary in a city of some three million, when 25 wards aligns with current provincial and federal ridings.

In most of the private sector, streamlining equates to efficiency. Not so much, of course, when the grubby objective is to increase profit by over-tasking employees. But profit margins have nothing to do with public service.

If nothing else, 25 councillors at city hall would curtail the kind of time-gobbling grandstanding that has long afflicted municipal governance in Toronto.

A hostile and ham-fisted government up at the legislature. An egocentric government down at city hall.

Woe is us.

Twitter: @rdimanno
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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