Anyone yearning to see local democracy in one of its purest forms ought to check out the Environment Day events the city is sponsoring in communities all over Toronto.The popular weekend happenings have been going full bore since early April and continue until late September. Citizens flock to them with shovels in hand and sundry containers to be filled with the aromatic leaf compost the city works department cooks up in one of its yards. The organic material is a sought-after nutritional supplement for gardens and flower beds. And since it's free, the black, earthy mix is likely to be long gone if you don't get to the pile early enough on the designated Saturday morning. Those who snooze lose.
Of course, you can always go later and buy your own backyard composter for $15. Works employees sell these metamorphic marvels off the back of huge trailers parked on site. And the municipal staffers also have blue and grey recycling boxes ($5 each), the new and much-publicized green yard waste bins ($6), rain barrels ($60) and water efficiency kits (indoor and outdoor versions) for $15. Be there or be a boring eco-square.
But Environment Days are fast becoming much more than just another worthwhile municipal service. They're turning into grassroots political events. At least that's what the one I attended at the East York Civic Centre last Saturday morning became.
I'd no sooner unloaded the two damaged blue boxes I planned to exchange (at no charge) for new ones than I was approached in the parking lot by an elderly gentleman with a thick sheaf of papers in this hands.
"Can I give you some information about water?" he asked. "The city wants to turn our water over to an appointed board, and people like me don't believe it's going to be properly accountable to the public."
I told the gent I was on his side and headed past the compost pile toward the semi trailer where my new blue boxes were stashed. But before I could get there, I was stopped by a woman wanting to know if I'd sign a petition opposing the creation of a new water board dominated by appointed citizens instead of elected politicians.
"This is not the direction the city of Toronto should be taking in the wake of what happened in Walkerton," Janet Davis advised me. She cited Justice Dennis O'Connor's report on the tainted water tragedy and his recommendation that municipal politicians be made more accountable for the safe delivery of public resources.
Now, Janet Davis is no stranger to local politics. Just last December she came within 54 votes of winning a city council by-election in Ward 31 (Beaches-East York). Her supporters urged her to seek a recount, but Davis decided against it and set her sights on unseating the 54-vote victor, councillor Michael Tziretas, at the municipal polls next year. Clearly, it's never too early to do a little unofficial campaigning.
This explains why Tziretas -- whose ward starts on the east side of Coxwell, across the road from the civic centre -- had set up a table near the semi trailer containing my replacement blue boxes. The councillor was there with a member of his office staff, greeting folks who'd lined up to pay (by VISA, Mastercard, cheque, debit or cash) for their composters, rain barrels, yard waste bins and water efficiency kits.
Tziretas sprang into action when a woman who'd been refused a free replacement blue box informed him she couldn't produce the old damaged one because it was destroyed in that big Sammon Avenue fire the week before. As it happened, the fire was west of the civic centre in deputy mayor Case Ootes's ward. But Ootes was down by the hazardous waste dumpster talking dirty motor oil and old car batteries with a constituent who just might want to help elect him mayor if His Washup, Melvin D. Lastman, ever calls it quits.
Tziretas got the woman her free blue box and shook a few hands as he headed back to his table, next to the one managed by three members of Ootes's City Hall office staff. They were busy handing out little brown bags that each contained a pink petunia seedling and a Deputy Mayor Case Ootes fridge magnet. Talk about hot swag. Call 416-778-CASE to check for leftovers.
By now I'd been through the line to sign the forms that will help the city keep track of how many blue boxes it sold or gave away today. I'd listened as works staff advised folks who'd queued up to remit signed forms for merchandise that there's a strong likelihood they'll be on strike June 24. That's what happens when the union and the city are unable to negotiate a new collective agreement. Most people seemed quite sympathetic to the employees' situation. But one surly fellow mumbled, "They're probably getting paid overtime to sit around here today."
Probably. It was Saturday.
Finally, I got my new blue boxes and went straight to the compost pile to fill them with the rich soil. Ootes was there, too -- in discussion with a resident who was not very impressed with the way the mayor's doing his job.
"You should tell that Lastman that it's time to go," the agitated fellow advised. "You'd be a much better mayor than he is."
The deputy mayor didn't respond. Instead, he introduced his booster to the nearby newspaper columnist who was busy shovelling compost into blue boxes. Ootes then turned his attention to another man who wanted to talk water board.
"It doesn't make much sense to me," the guy said of the changes proposed to the way the utility is administered. The deputy mayor countered that private-sector appointees would bring valuable expertise to the board, which can't help but make the utility more cost effective.
The concerned citizen seemed unconvinced as he walked away and almost collided with a woman holding a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other.
"Would you be interested in signing up to be a deputant at the joint committee meeting next week where people can voice their objections to this plan?" she asked the man. They walked toward the parking lot engaged in conversation about this past Tuesday's public hearing. Meanwhile, Ootes was busy jousting with another chap who's none too keen on the water board idea.
"You've got to be prepared to listen to both sides of the issue," the deputy mayor told the plan's detractor.
And all I'd wanted was a couple of blue boxes and a little compost.
Environment Days are fast becoming grassroots political events.