A deputy mayor who listens?

Norm Kelly withdraws controversial move to register non-profits as lobbyists


Just before 3 pm on Wednesday, June 11, Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly rose to speak.

The councillor, who was awarded most of Mayor Rob Ford’s powers in the wake of the crack scandal (and the remaining ones upon the disgraced mayor’s leave), had put a troubling notice of motion on the Council agenda [pdf], a power grab of his own, you might call it.

Seconded by Councillor John Parker, it asked the Lobbyist Registrar to report to the following month’s meeting on how to go about forcing “non-profit organizations, unions, and all community organizations” to register as lobbyists.

The implications for representative democracy would be significant, and the impending fight over the meaning and value of grassroots advocacy would become bitter.

Under the current bylaw, only in-house corporate lobbyists, consultant (hired-gun) lobbyists, and others with some sort of profit motive are bound to register their communications with officials in the publicly searchable directory.

But then an odd thing happened. Kelly stood at Council and, cryptically stating that “There is a time to act and a time to listen,” withdrew his motion at the very moment it was to be introduced.

What changed his mind?

“I drove him nuts,” says Councillor Gord Perks, who had been haranguing Kelly and Parker over Twitter. One sample of the snark: “My neighbour has a NOJETS sign. Should I report her?”

Perks says that he “actually overheard [Kelly] telling another councillor, ‘Oh, if this gets to the floor, we’ll get clobbered.'”

“He came and talked to me during lunch and he said, ‘I want to be remembered as the deputy mayor who listens.'”

Council also received nearly a dozen letters from residents associations and other non-profit groups expressing their concerns.

“The proposed amendment would effectively exclude grassroots organizations” from public participation, wrote the Swansea Area Ratepayers’ Association.

The floated change had the “potential to curtail civic engagement to a degree that would impede the operation of civil society in Toronto, and could well be found to be in contravention of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” wrote Community Living Toronto, which works on behalf of people with disabilities.

“The irony here,” Perks adds, “is that the very public tools that they were objecting to managed to organize to defeat their motion.”

My exchange with Councillor Parker bears this out.

“What happened?” I asked.

“We listened.”

“To whom?”

“Everybody.”

So what was the thinking going into it?

According to Parker, “we live in a day and age where there is very sophisticated lobbying going on by all sorts of people and groups of various types.”

He believes that all avenues of organized influence should be tracked in the registry and alludes to “some very sophisticated groups that are pulled together, maybe on a not-for-profit basis, [that] have an issue to advance or an axe to grind or some point of view that they want to stress.” He says “some of them can lobby with far more firepower and far more sophistication” than a small business whose advocacy would technically constitute lobbying.

From his repeated use of the word “sophisticated,” I take it that he and his conservative peers on Council may have been caught off guard by the organizational acumen of such grassroots groups as NoJetsTO and before that No Casino Toronto.

Or as Perks puts it, “certain lobbying firms around here who keep getting beat by political movements of actual citizens have been angry for some time.”

Kelly, a strong advocate for the Porter Airlines’ proposal that’s been frustrated by No Jets activists, insists the idea for the motion came from members of Council who approached him and not from anyone outside City Hall. Kelly moved a similar motion in 2006.

He says he tries to be “as inclusive as possible in the office of deputy mayor” and that involves championing issues brought to him by councillors from across the political spectrum.

“It was a report request, because there are members of Council who felt that the principles of transparency and accountability haven’t been extended to the people who exercise influence here at City Hall,” he says.

Like whom?

“I think you’re aware of the various groups and organizations that do that.”

Those might just be called interested citizens.

jonathang@nowtoronto.com | @goldsbie

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