Circling For The Kill

Lobbyists poised to cash in on privatization of city services

don wanagas

city hall

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while toronto councillors spent more than four hours last week debating a so-called Policy and Framework for Alternative Service Delivery, a large flock of lobbyists hovered like vultures on the mezzanine overlooking the council chamber.On the floor below, Mayor Mel Lastman argued that the often acrimonious exchange was all about finding cost efficiencies for the beleaguered municipal taxpayer.”What’s wrong with efficiency?” he screeched, the mayoral eyeballs almost popping out of the reforested Lastman noggin. “Has everybody gone nuts here that all of you are afraid of efficiency?” the mercurial chief magistrate spat.

Across the carpet, on the left-hand side of the room, councillor David Miller called the policy/framework “a sham.” According to the politically ambitious politician from Ward 13 (Parkdale-High Park), it amounted to nothing more than a bunch of discredited “old ideas” repackaged to support the privatization of public services.

“It’s clearly playing to an audience that’s not the citizens,” Miller fumed.

The councillor was clearly onto something. One had only to see the looks of glee that broke out among the hungry lobbyists when council finally voted 26-16 in favour of establishing a task force to designate municipal services that may be contracted out with future hopes of saving money.

“It was a great show of support for the mayor,” one of the double-breasted raptors enthused in the wake of the momentous decision. Actually, it would be more accurate to say the vote was a great show of support by the mayor and many of his council colleagues for the lobbyists who’ve become such an integral part of the decision-making process at City Hall.

By my count, at least six “consulting” firms had representatives monitoring the Alternative Service Delivery debate. Jeff Lyons, the long-time Tory bagman and key Lastman fundraiser, who calls everyone including himself “brother,” was on hand, of course. So was Bruce Davis, a partner in Urban Intelligence. Sussex Strategy Group, a firm that recently decided to mow some municipal grass after a few years of harvesting federal crops, sent a pair of seasoned “consultants” to keep an eye on the council proceedings.

Everybody, it seems, has private-sector clients lusting to be alternate service deliverers once all those inefficient (aka unionized) civic employees have been forced out on strike as a first step toward barring them re-entry to their old workplaces. Yup, there’s a lot at stake here.

While lobbyists have long been a fact of life in local government, their influence was more subtle when there were six individual municipalities and a Metro council to contend with. But when the provincial government imposed amalgamation to create the new city of Toronto four years ago, it also sired one huge corporate entity that spends over $6 billion on operations every year. Suddenly, every Jeff, Bruce and Bernie with an exploitable connection to the political decision-makers was prowling the hallowed halls of local democracy making the case for businesses with a product to sell or a service to render.

Certain of these consultants now seem to spend more time at City Hall than many of the politicians they’re there to lobby. In fact, some lobbyists have become so aggressive that they quite openly hand typewritten motions to councillors during debates. All too often, those motions are submitted to council and actually voted on.

Hey, if you can get away with it, why not? “Some of these people know more about things going on around here than half of the councillors and certainly our own employees,” Miller declares. “That’s really scary.”

How have these entrepreneurs managed to amass such influence? Well, many of them actively raise funds for the campaigns of selected council candidates and, come election time, contribute money of their own to the chosen cause. Others, with experience in political campaigning, generate sweat equity by organizing drives for precious votes. Some companies will leave nothing to chance. In close races, they’ll give money to more than one candidate and assign staff to work for competing camps. Once the election is over, the consultancies have forged relationships with more than a few successful contestants. And those relationships help open doors when the time comes.

“A lot of councillors get elected because they have the same fundraisers, and they’re scared to death about losing them,” says Miller.

The mayor insists he never talks to lobbyists — even though the key ones have all played big roles in his two successful bids to lead the megacity. But while Lastman may be suspended in a state of deniable culpability, there is no denying the liaisons between senior members of his office staff and his supposedly anonymous backers.

Representatives of the media are routinely hassled by building security for trying to gain access to the members lounge to which councillors retreat during their increasingly irregular meetings. Yet lobbyists have become a fixture there, engaged in passionate tête-à-têtes with the mayor’s aides, sundry councillors and even some of their political assistants.

Clearly, all that enlightened right-wing guff about how government should not be held ransom by dreaded special interests has no application at City Hall. Or maybe, the “special interests” tag is the sole preserve of organized labour, environmental groups and left-leaning urban reform activists. We’ll have to wait and see.

Miller is quick to acknowledge that “the private sector can do some things that we can’t.” Indeed, the free market has done quite well at City Hall lately in fields like information technology and management consulting. The city auditor has evidence aplenty of that.

What concerns Miller and others is that the municipal services the private sector most wants to take over are the very ones the city now does a laudable job of providing for the public. That’s exactly what makes things like garbage collection, waste management and waterworks control so darned attractive to outside concerns looking to improve their own bottom lines.

“No matter how you dress it up, the private sector looks for a profit,” warns the councillor with the Tommy Douglas poster on his office wall. “When they can’t make it on operations, they have to make it by cutting services, maintenance and things like that.

“They’re going to have to be careful about the services they target, because public sentiment is changing,” Miller adds, referring to the Walkerton water tragedy and concerns raised by September 11 about who should handle airport security. The councillor’s final comment makes it sound as though privatization is already on the way. Given the forces lined up to promote the cause in the name of future considerations, perhaps it is.

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