As an experiment, I decided to let myself be surprised when Scarborough Southwest councillor (and former Planning Committee chair) Brian Ashton was asked to step down from the Executive Committee following a vote on deferral of a crucial tax package.
Observers expected Mayor David Miller to unhook Ashton and throw him back - as the Strong Mayor gives, so the Strong Mayor takes away - but I held to the idea that democracy tolerates dissent.
And a fine platitude that is.
Miller is generally an aficionado of democracy, but here he is up against competing interests - staff, vote-hungry councillors, penny-pinching senior governments - who see city government as everything from a business or a service to an ideological battleground.
To pursue democracy is to admit that it can never exist - which is just a roundabout way of saying that Ashton's return to the pond was both necessary and tragic.
My first thought was that at least the residents of Scarborough Southwest have a councillor again. Not entirely fair, I know, but if we take Ashton at his word - he says he flip-flopped (having voted for the tax package at Executive two weeks prior) due to his constituents - then mustn't we ask whom Executive councillors are responsible to - the mayor, or their constituents?
"I don't feel pressure from the mayor," says Community Development chair Joe Mihevc, noting that he voted against Miller on giving Casa Loma to a non-profit. "[But] there are some votes that define the character of a council, and on those you have to decide if you're on the team or not."
Fair enough. And we mustn't idealize The Constituent - many people know how to vote and not much else. A thoughtful councillor should fertilize new desires as much as he/she heeds existing ones.
If you read this column, you know I was never fond of the Strong Mayor system, yet had hope for the Executive. It was proposed as an ongoing strategy session, a place for committee chairs and the mayor to decide and maintain the needed spin on important procedural pitches.
It was a site of potential compromise between local concerns and city-building necessities. Committee chairs could build consensus and bring initiatives to council with the prestige of the Executive behind them, and have a reason to think beyond personal projects and petty lordships.
Instead, it's now no longer clear what standing committees are even for. Should one dissenting vote be more important than the Planning and Growth Committee? Turns out it is. Ashton, who's done a fine job as chair there, now has to turn it over to visionless Norm Kelly, thanks to the mayor's desire for a lean, mean Exec.
A newly centralized system should have netted Miller - and us - something more than six guaranteed votes. And it shouldn't cost what this is going to.
Sure, Ashton's oddball vote caught the mayor unawares.
"The way you do things around here," says Mihevc, "is you do your yes column, your no column. Then you have your weak yeses and your weak nos, and you work on them. You can't keep tabs on 44 people. Brian was in the strong yes category. This was a failure of process."
Essentially, government is a computer: council comes down to trying to create, maintain and expand complex systems out of long strings of binaries: yes and no votes.
"I don't know if [Ashton] knew that he was the 23rd vote," says Mihevc. "I'm not saying he did this, but sometimes you have to vote one way for one issue and at the end of the day you vote the other way. My intuition is that Brian voted for the deferral but would have voted for the taxes as well."
Miller may now have the tax votes he needs for October, but like an athlete on steroids may make the finish line without any new muscles built, cheered half-heartedly by an embittered electorate. Is the tax worth it? Probably. Perhaps this is the best we can hope for when politics is at odds with pure democracy.
This is the problem with a focus on better tools instead of better ways. We see it all the time: someone with a new Hummer getting nowhere - or, heaven forbid, a strong mayor who can't get anything off the ground.