when city councillor gordon Chong called it quits last year, lefties at City Hall breathed a quiet sigh of relief. For years, the bullheaded Tory had been a thorn in the side of NDPers on Toronto council, the former Metro council and at the new amalgamated city of Toronto.
Later, when he was elected chair of the Greater Toronto Services Board (GTSB), the sleepy, do-nothing regional planning body, nobody thought much of it. Chong's former Metro colleague Alan Tonks had snoozed away at the GTSB for a couple of years before he broke away to the federal scene, winning a Liberal seat in the last election. Now it seemed it was Chong's turn to go out to pasture.
But these are trying times for local governments coping with provincial downloading, decaying public transit systems and roads, unchecked suburban sprawl that threatens the region's fragile ecosystem, as well as maddening traffic congestion and the resulting deadly smog.
All are big problems that require parochial politicians to pull their heads out of the sand, understand the connections and act for the collective good. No easy task, to be sure.
Enter our anti-hero, Chong. Not content to serve tea and chat aimlessly once a month with the region's mayors, chairs and councillors, he's lately become the Tony Montana of sustainable regional planning -- he desperately wants the money and the power to make change.
How times have changed. Lefty Toronto councillor Jack Layton began his political career in 1982 by defeating right-wing Chong in the old downtown Ward 6.
Now, the provincial NDP and Liberals are supporting Chong, and perhaps for the first time he's on the same page as some of his old lefty council foils like Howard Moscoe, David Miller and Layton, who all represent Toronto on the GTSB (Toronto currently carries 50 per cent of the vote).
Chong's talking transit-friendly, compact urban developments and he's not taking any guff from the developers who are steadfastly opposed to this progressive vision.
"If you look at the transportation problems we're having, clearly they're linked to land use," Chong says. "And as far as I'm concerned, that link is obvious to almost anybody. If you drive or take public transit, especially surface public transit, you know damn well that you're caught in congestion all day long."
One indication that the timing may be right for an expanded GTSB is the fact that suburbanites have become sensitized to the environmental threat of sprawl, to the chagrin of local politicians who are used to welcoming builders with open arms. Consider the citizen protests in the 905 against development on the Oak Ridges Moraine and marshlands in Brampton.
The GTSB recently took a small but significant step toward a more sustainable region. While local progressives were busy gearing up for the anti-globalization fete in Quebec City and trying to save city services from the budget axe, politicians from across the GTA met at Toronto City Hall.
Although Toronto mayor Mel Lastman was conspicuously absent, the rest of the municipal leaders overwhelmingly agreed that the province should amend the GTSB Act and give it sweeping new powers that would, in effect, make it the overlord of regional transportation planning and development.
The politicians also demanded that the stingy federal and provincial governments open up their wallets and fund a new Transportation Authority for the GTA (TAGTA).
Chong wants to model TAGTA on transit authorities like the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) and Vancouver's Translink.
TAGTA would plan transportation and public transit corridors and fund local transit authorities, including the TTC. And the new transit grid would be melded into the overall regional development blueprint.
"It would have to conform with the GTSB's growth management plan, exactly the same case as with GRTA and Translink," says Chong.
While it's become routine for Mike Harris to tune Toronto out when the city makes these kind of demands, this time the 905 mayors, including Mississauga's Hazel McCallion, Oshawa's Nancy Diamond and Oakville's Ann Mulvale, among others, are onside.
Only a minority of local mayors are paranoid that this is all just a power grab by Toronto and rival 905 mayors.
"How in the hell are the people in the city of Toronto -- guys like Howard Moscoe -- ever going to make an intelligent decision about what's happening in Whitby?" complains town of Whitby mayor Marcel Brunelle, who opposed the expanded planning authority the board proposed for itself. "What's happened is you've got people like me who are moderates and reasonable people who wanted to make the GTSB work now absolutely opposed to what's being proposed."
Chong's not bothered. He's already been forging ahead, meeting with municipal affairs minister Chris Hodgson. But can this Tory make Queen's Park listen?
"All along they've said we're waiting for the (final GTSB) report," says Chong. "Well, the report's done. The vote was clearly more than two-thirds of the people who were there, and the big cities, along with Toronto, were unanimous."
Hodgson's spokesperson, Alexandra Gillespie, says the minister will have no comment until he has looked at the report.
Some of Chong's proposals, like supplementing government funding for regional public transit with money from large institutional lenders (he says OMERS has already approached him), should be closely scrutinized. But his crusade for a clean and green region deserves support.
Just consider that the city of Toronto was prepared to spend a million dollars to oppose development on the Oak Ridges Moraine at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) last year. If the GTSB is empowered the way Chong, Toronto and the the big 905 mayors want it to be, local development plans would have to comply with the board's overall plan for the GTA, and the OMB would have to recognize that.
Surprisingly, Chong says, "We're going to have to at some point look at some hard and fast rules and say this green land should be protected forever and a day, whether they like it or not. I think you have to look at the greater public good here, and the greater public good is, yes, we want development, but we want it planned and we want it to make sense, and there is no unfettered right of any individual developer to develop on everything."
Not surprisingly, the Urban Development Institute of Ontario, which represents the province's developers, is opposed to effectively transferring the OMB's powers to the GTSB.
Basically, the UDI would prefer the board remain a toothless chat group with no broad legislative powers. It also wants the board cut drastically from 42 members to eight. And instead of weighting board votes by population, the UDI wants a parity system.
"I'm not saying (our proposal) is going to be productive, to be very blunt with you," says UDI president Neil Rodgers. "(But) I don't think just money and more legislative power would necessarily yield good decisions."
Chong, the unlikely champion of progressive public planning, isn't deterred.
"I don't have a lot of patience for the way the UDI has responded and reacted to our report."
Welcome to the fight, brother.
GREATER TORONTO SERVICES BOARD
Current role: oversees GO Transit
Board members: 42
Member municipalities: 30
Total area: 7,200 sq. km.
Total population: 5 million