What’s Efficient about This? Or, When the Fraser Institute Thinks You’re Wrong…

In a blog post published back in July, a senior policy analyst at the Fraser Institute took issue with Premier Fug Frod’s “plan” to reduce the size of Toronto’s city council. I offer it with the caveat that the Institute’s membership may or may not contain (to use Frod’s words) activists “who’ve entrenched themselves in the power [sic] under the status quo for years” and routinely side with “left wingers looking to continue their free ride on the backs of the taxpayers of this great city.”

Frod’s demented followers argue (actually, “argue” is too generous a word—“parrot the talking point” is the phrase I think I’m grasping for) that 44 councillors are too many, let alone 47. Reducing the number of municipal politicians is the way to get things done, they say.

Let’s review. In 1994, when there were six civic governments plus the regional municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, there were 106 elected municipal politicians for a population of 2.3 million. Amalgamation in 1997/98 reduced that to 57. The complement was further cut to 44 in time for the next municipal election, in the autumn of 2000, and that’s where we’ve been for nearly 18 years, during which we’ve added half a million people.

As the Fraser analyst points out, 20 years after amalgamation, we still haven’t realized the supposed savings (or efficiencies or economies of scale—call ’em what you will) that Premier Mike Harris insisted would be had. Fug Frod claims this is the fault of obstructionist, left-leaning councillors in the former City of Toronto.

Problem is, city councillors didn’t offload the costs of Ontario Housing on the new City of Toronto. Or the cost of provincial highways such as the stretch of the Queen Elizabeth Way between Highway 427 and the Humber River. (The city has steadfastly refused to maintain that particular bit of expressway. For visitors to Toronto arriving at Pearson International Airport or motoring in from points west, driving that rutted, woebegone stretch of road is a helluva “Welcome to Toronto” moment.)

It wasn’t a cabal of downtown socialists who decided that the province no longer needed to contribute to the operating budget of the Toronto Transit Commission.

Transit isn’t getting built, Frod whines, conveniently forgetting that an extension of the Yonge/University/Spadina line to a parking lot in the City of Vaughan just opened (and… remind me why Toronto should be responsible for providing rapid transit service to York Region—isn’t that the job of Metrolinx?). We’re nearing completion of the Eglinton light rail line. Planning work is ongoing on other projects, including Frod’s beloved Scarborough subway boondoggle.

It would be peevish, of course, to point out that Fug Frod’s father, Fug Frod the First, was a Conservative MPP when the government of the day voted to fill in the tunnels for the Eglinton West subway. That would interfere too profoundly with Frod’s narrative that Frods have always been champions of boring. Tunnels, that is. For subways. Whether they’re needed or not.

It would also be peevish to point out that the successful aspects of amalgamation, such as Toronto’s extensive and well-used public library system, are the sorts of things that Frod despises.

A catchphrase in 1997 was “harmonize.” We’d save money if the whole megacity got the same level of service. Thing was, access to public swimming pools in “old” Toronto was free of charge. In the other municipalities, there might be a user fee. How best to resolve that? The old City of Toronto didn’t believe in plowing side streets or sidewalks. It’d melt eventually, right? The city’s strategy seemed to be to dump a tonne of salt on every one of its streets to accelerate that process, and let Metro and the province do whatever they wanted on the parts of the road network that fell under their purviews. Well, what if North York thinks it’s an essential service to clear snow off of sidewalks?

Consequently, 20 years on, that “harmonization” (homogenization would be a more apt word) hasn’t happened. Hell, we couldn’t even see our way clear to eliminate duplicate street names.

The state of affairs isn’t as sorry as Frod makes out, but where the failures of amalgamation are concerned, you’d need to assign most of the blame to the suburban, right-leaning councillors—if only because they represent an overwhelming majority of the wards on the current city council. And this cohort has included some of the most egregious mediocrities ever to be involved in the region‘s civic governance—James Pasternak, Denzil Minnan-Wong, Giorgio Mammoliti, Jim Karygiannis, Frances Nunziata, just about any councillor from Etobicoke.

These people‘s stock in trade is to stoke resentment between their constituents and “the downtown elites.“ Which is a great way to get elected, but a lousy way to govern a city of nearly three million.

I don‘t believe that Toronto city councillors have a vested interest in preventing the city from being run as efficiently as it can. I don‘t believe that for a second about the councillors from the urban core, whose built form is more efficient and delivers such a high return on investment that it subsidizes vast swaths of the city. And I believe that the suburban mediocrities also want efficiency—I just question whether they have ever given any honest thought to what efficiency looks like. “What’s most convenient for me“ (six-lane arterial roads, acres of “free” parking, etc.) does not equal efficient. Rendering decisions rapidly, without sufficient feedback from stakeholders, does not equal efficient.

And judging by the legal bills that Ontario citizens are going to have to foot because of Frod‘s single-minded vendetta against the city that rejected him as a mayoral candidate, interfering in elections and quashing constitutional rights does not equal efficient.

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You want efficiency? We’ve already got it

Doug Ford thinks Toronto’s city council is dysfunctional and unproductive because it’s too big. Thing is, they’re in the midst of a monthly meeting (it would’ve been finished, but they suddenly had to deal with his bombshell) that began with about 400 agenda items. First, 300 were released — which is council’s way of saying that, on second thought, the item doesn’t need to be debated after all. That’s called streamlining things. The other 100 were dealt with in five days. I doubt the provincial legislature makes that many decisions in that much time.

Maybe Ford thinks Toronto city council is unproductive because he made it so. His brother and his henchmen (Mark Towhey and Nick Kouvalis — note that the latter ran John Tory’s 2014 mayoral campaign and has been brought back to run his 2018 reelection campaign) managed to bully councillors, especially rookies, into believing it was their way or the highway.

And they enjoyed a remarkable run of success, eliminating the vehicle registration tax (costing the city upward of $60 million a year), stripping TTC workers of their legal right to strike, cancelling the Transit City program unilaterally without a vote at council, bullying the province into tunnelling the Eglinton Crosstown light rail for its entire length (somebody at Metrolinx was sharp enough to leave the agency an out), got budgets cut, and on and on.

And then came Doug Ford’s Ferris wheel. I get the impression that this barely sentient sac of leaking pus got it into his addled brain that he was the mayor of Toronto, not his brother. Doug took backroom meetings with an Australian developer who wanted to build a megamall on the waterfront. Because in the second decade of the twenty-first century, shopping malls are where it’s at (said no one ever). The “plan” was to include an ice rink at the old Hearn generating station and a giant Ferris wheel.

Doug Ford had installed an old high school football buddy as boss of the Toronto Port Lands Company, and he’d gone to the trouble of paying an architectural firm $55,000 to draw up plans. (Sole-source deal, even though the Fords were supposed to hate those.)

Next, the city manager sprung it on council that the Port Lands Company, which was basically moribund, should replace Waterfront Toronto as the primary driver of waterfront development. The pushback was remarkable. Even Ford family friend Jim Flaherty was against the nonsense Doug Ford was trying to pull off.

The councillors whose wards were affected by Ford’s dealing, Pam McConnell and Paula Fletcher, managed to get a motion through council that effectively kneecapped the mall plan and the elevation of Doug’s football buddy to waterfront czar.

The first indication that Rob Ford’s mayoralty was over came when his 2012 city budget was effectively defeated. By November 2013, after Rob Ford had finally admitted he was a crackhead, council voted to strip him of many of his duties, assigning them to deputy mayor and noted branded merchandise hawker Norm Kelly.

By many accounts, city council was more productive and more efficient after Rob Ford was politically neutered.