At its first meeting on Monday , January 15, the executive committee gave a slow but unanimous nod (we'll take that over the rapid and fractious sort) to recommendations for a six-month trial tracking influence-peddlers.
Pending council's approval next month, lobbyists will have to register with the city before they can ply their trade with any councillors or staff in private, outside of established processes, and log any business-related communications.
Frequent calls for such a system have come from within and without council (including the mayor), but while City Hall's first steps are good medicine, there is some danger of over-medication.
"If people come to their councillor about having a tree removed," asked a seemingly unconvinced licensing chair Howard Moscoe, "are they lobbyists?" Similar questions from staff dominated the meeting, as some councillors mostly Moscoe and Gloria Lindsay Luby endeavoured to untangle undue influence from simple interlocution.
The difficulty, which will no doubt soon spread beyond the executive's bounds, is grappling with the system's implications. So is someone seeking tree removal a lobbyist? No. Or, well, maybe.
Truth be told, it seemed to depend on which legal staffer was answering. Same with union executives, shopkeepers and the directors of non-profit foundations. And if you talk to a councillor about rezoning your residential property, that's all right but if your architect tags along you'd better call ahead.
Non-profit and activist groups would also seem to fall into the category of lobbyists if they're on the clock while talking even about a matter that has no bearing on their paycheque. If there is already an established channel through city staff for any inquiry, then to step outside of that is to step into a grey area.
Ironically, grey has never been bureaucracy's favourite colour. So when it comes to the subtlety of the backroom, staff have proposed a rather blunt instrument. Glenn De Baeremaeker teased out the problem by asking what would happen if he called up the owner of a local donut shop for information on that property as it relates to a rezoning. Staff said the shop owner would need to register even if the councillor initiated the interaction.
"You've just made them into lobbyists," joked Moscoe. "Don't call anyone any more. Just collect your paycheque and don't do anything."
Now, Moscoe has been known to work the backroom himself, and the left has tended not to notice, since, hey, it's been their backrooms. But he has a point: with the wording or its interpretation by staff anyway as it is now, councillors may be discouraged from meeting with constituents, directing them to staff instead.
Affordable housing committee chair Giorgio Mammoliti took exception to the possibility that staff would receive most queries and asked why lobbyists' regular channels shouldn't be tracked as well. (They have to register for extracurricular meetings with staff, but normal planning or zoning meetings, private or public, are exempt.) "I can count on one hand the number of our politicians who have been in trouble," he said, implying that the opposite is true of staffers. He also stated his belief that staff are easier to influence.
It is true that staffers are harder for the average Jane to keep track of and harder to get rid of. Now they'll be further empowered if they become the gatekeepers for political discourse between public and councillor.
While there's some nervousness around politicians engaging with constituents, BIAs and ratepayers associations are exempt. There was no doubt about that, because surely no developer has ever had sway over a BIA or ratepayers association.
Make no mistake. If handled properly, this registry could head off a lot of the manufactured right-vs-left controversy we've seen lately, most of which has centred around questions from both sides about who's working for whom. It could also be one of the biggest follow-throughs on the Miller promise of increased accountability. And it will likely end up being the greatest argument and driving force for changing Toronto's let's-make-a-deal planning process.
Sad, though, that the only solution to too much bureaucracy is more bureaucracy, especially since positive citizen interest in City Hall over the last few years has been akin to that of a cat on lithium, and the recent spike won't be sustained by a phone directory maze of city staff, which can prove byzantine even to those paid to navigate it. Yes, procedures that give the task of building a sustainable city longevity beyond ephemeral political careers are necessary, but we elect those politicians to help us through that system, and it's best that all involved remember it even if some of us own businesses.
Let's hope the new policy will encourage politicians to reflect on the spirit of the job rather than hide behind rules and regs. The registry is a good first step, and this lot of councillors and staff are perfectly able to make it a balanced one.