After a summer mostly filled with commentary about the latest mayoral embarrassment, council is cranking up, the committees are springing to life, and full council meetings are set to go the first week in October.
The end of the last session was very acrimonious, and many councillors weren't on speaking terms. We'll see whether the break has mellowed dispositions and if memories of colleagues' votes and behaviours have faded over the summer.
For those of you missing local political stories with content, this fall promises a number of big-ticket items:
1. 2013 OPERATING BUDGET
While the actual discussion won't launch until November 29, the mayor's already laid out an arbitrary tax increase goal of 1.75 per cent.
That puny increase is undoubtedly designed to create a budget funding crisis and require more cuts, while a more reasonable 3 per cent would basically eliminate the need for major cuts. Many councillors, it seems, are opposed to another round of deep cuts that could put more services at risk. Final details will emerge toward the end of the year, so there's still lots of time to get this right.
2. TTC: YET ANOTHER PLAN
Some might think the very modest service increases on 34 bus, streetcar and subway routes that went into effect this week mean the transit wars are abating. The lull won't last long. City staff are due to issue a report about the implementation of a citywide plan and how to pay for it. This entire process will include public consultation and will likely constitute round two (or is it round three or four?) on subway versus LRT as the preferred expansion, with some possible BRT (bus rapid transit) thrown in for good measure.
The upcoming budget could also generate debate around a 10¢ to 25¢ fare increase, especially with ridership growing and a mayor determined to keep taxes as low as possible. In this scenario, the TTC would have to look to riders to fund the provision of just enough buses to carry the growing ridership.
This entire dynamic could change, of course, depending on whether the mayor succeeds in getting his choice of new citizen transit commissioners. That decision is due this fall, and it's likely he'll want reps more willing to implement his anti-transit agenda than the current crop of councillor commissioners.
The mayor controls the striking committee, but council must ultimately approve the choices - another point of potential friction.
3. TCH REPAIRS
One of the first items council will have to consider is the report of the Affordable Housing Committee's Special Working Group, a task force chaired by Councillor Ana Bailão. It's due in mid-September and will determine the fate of 619 single-family houses owned by Toronto Community Housing. TCH proposed selling these earlier this year to pay for renovations, but so far the task force is indicating it will recommend selling only a very few of them. It's true these houses are more expensive to maintain than high-rise units, but they offer the best sort of social housing - small-scale and integrated into communities.
4. CASINO DILEMMAS
A staff report due in October will make proposals on the issue of a local casino. While the province has promised millions for T.O. if one is sited here, many fear it would be a net negative. The report's specific recommendations will be interesting, and council is anything but united on the matter.
5. PLASTIC BAG RETHINK
A major challenge in a system without political parties is the willingness to re-debate old issues that one or a few councillors feel weren't dealt with correctly the first time. Remember June's plastic bag ban? Staff have been asked to prepare a report on the implications of implementing the decision, and it's likely they will raise doubts about its viability, painting a dire picture. This may well provide the impetus for a reconsideration of the ban, although procedurally that could be difficult.
If procedural manoeuvring to kill the bag ban is unsuccessful, it will go into effect in January - further evidence of the mayor's inability to control the agenda of council.
6. JARVIS BIKE LANE AGAIN
Public transit isn't the only transportation-related issue facing council. More than a year after the vote on the Jarvis bike lanes, reconsidering that issue (unlike the bag ban, which is way less than a year old) requires only a simple majority, not two-thirds. Will there be a last-ditch effort to save the lanes? This one will be a challenge; the odds are at best 50/50 on success.
7. WILD CARD MAYOR
Finally, the wild card, as is often the case these days, is the mayor, and specifically the outcome of the court case against him. While many may find the testimony itself interesting, depressing or unbelievable, the outcome could prompt further moves by council to curtail Ford's agenda. In the unlikely event that he's removed from office, council would have to discuss next steps, which would almost certainly mean a by-election.
Those who thought council would just go back to minding the shop should get ready for some sizzling debate.