It's too early to say whether the forthcoming 20-year city-wide single-company street furniture contract will be a boon or a blight, but one thing's certain: any issue that causes this much political dissonance is certainly worth watching.
As anxieties over the avenue accoutrements were expressed at council during a debate split between May 25 and June 27, a surreal and unacknowledged coalition formed: artist-activists such as the Public Space Committee were temporarily joined by the right wing of council. Most of the latter had made their peace with the plan by the time the vote was taken. But what a curious little journey along the way.
David Shiner, for example, opined that in seeking to grant an effective monopoly the city might prevent itself from meeting the changing needs of the populace. "The citizens of Toronto, through their council, should control the streets of Toronto. We need to make sure that this allows future councils to do that," said Shiner.
As little as 12 years ago, he pointed out, no one would have predicted the amount of curbside recycling that now happens in Toronto - an example of how things change.
Frequent firebrand Karen Stintz, meanwhile, wondered whether a lengthy monopoly would remove the incentive for the service provider to keep the items in good repair, using the example of a public toilet. "You know what we'll have? We'll have a billboard," she said. "A billboard disguised as a toilet."
Case Ootes, for his part, objected to the fact that council was being asked to sign off on something it had not seen - and would not see. As part of an attempt to stem backroom lobbying, councillors would not have access to the details of the Request for Proposals while it was being drafted. "You want to stop councillors from doing what they're elected to do," he said.
It was curious to behold frequent private-sector proponent Stintz arguing against advertising, while former Lastman lieutenant Ootes held forth on the need for openness.
Sadly, you didn't need to look farther than the gallery for a possible explanation: through assistants, Stintz and Shiner were in regular contact with representatives of Eucan.
Eumex's Canadian wing stands to lose big if Toronto opts for a coordinated single contract: not only will it be the final nail in the company's embattled Megabin pilot project, but it's unclear whether it would be capable of bidding on such a massive undertaking.
Once an amendment was passed at the June 27 meeting stipulating that any unanticipated future need that the winning company could not fulfill would be bid out individually, most opposition died down.
But even if conservative opponents' motives were compromised, their concerns were reasonable. As it stands, the amendment may well give us the worst of both worlds: a monolithic furniture line without a guarantee against more Eucans.
But it may be just what the city needs to keep leverage over the winning consortium. Either way, the right-wing reaction was more measured than that of many council progressives.
Strangely, most of council's lefties went to bat for corporate advertising and monopolies. Shelley Carroll suggested those complaining about lack of input weren't doing their jobs; the mayor implied that those questioning the contract were denigrating the work of staff. It was painful to see what a non-issue the pervasiveness of advertising has become.
On the secrecy of the drafting process, Howard Moscoe noted quite reasonably that it was to avoid another MFP scandal by preventing the contract from being "filtered through a particular bidder and a specific interest."
As debate wound down, councillors Paula Fletcher and Janet Davis won a battle to keep advertising off the benches. "We are not in the business of providing venues for advertising," said Davis, whose previous attempts to promote ad-free or hybrid funding models found little support among councillors. "We are in the business of providing furniture in the public realm."
Why weren't there more such examples of principled opposition? Most supporters of the project could not even be bothered to feign reluctance; Glenn De Baeremaeker behaved as though the city had just enacted a second Christmas.
"I support more parks. More swimming pools. More daycare workers. More outreach workers." Advertising is parks? Billboards are daycare workers? Just like SUVs are rugged independence and Sprite is skill on the basketball court, I suppose. "I love public toilets," he continued. "And if there's one thing I love more than toilets, it's advertising."
Good thing - it's probably the thing more likely to keep working.