It was back on january 18 that Justice Dennis O'Connor's report on the Walkerton water tragedy came down strong on the side of making local politicians ultimately responsible for the protection and safe distribution of the precious life serum."Municipal ownership (...) should provide a high degree of accountability in relation to the local water system," the learned appeals court judge advised. "In the event of mismanagement, municipal residents are in a position to hold those responsible accountable through the electoral process."
You'd figure Justice O'Connor's words would make great sense to anyone truly interested in winning the trust of voters. Yet here we are -- not even five months later -- and Toronto councillors are being urged to turn over responsibility for this city's publicly owned water utility to a board dominated by citizen appointees.
Have the bumbling bunch at City Hall gone completely off their rockers? Or do the mayor and his little band of pals really think they can pull this one off without creating a huge stink about future privatization and blatant cronyism?
"We know that we can save a heck of a lot of money," Mel Lastman enthuses.
Of course, this is the same mayor who once assured everyone that amalgamation would be painless. He also gave personal guarantees that Toronto would get the 2008 Olympics and the Maple Leafs would win the Stanley Cup in 2002. In other words, his credibility is stretched pretty thin.
"We have no intention of going to privatization for water," Lastman insists. "All we want is a corporation like (Toronto) Hydro and some of the others we've got going."
In the case of the proposed water board, five members would be appointed by city council (on the recommendation of the mayor's office, of course) and four would be elected ward reps.
"They report to council and council's their boss," Lastman emphasizes. But that's hardly reassuring, given what's come to light regarding council's political authority over its own staff in the MFP Financial Services scandal. This little problem is already in the early stages of a judicial inquiry to determine how a computer leasing contract worth $43 million ballooned to more than $100 million without council's knowledge or approval. And the mayor wants to give elected politicians minority status on a water board? Yup.
Lastman maintains that opposition to this proposal (which is expected to be pushed through his rubber-stamping policy and finance committee today) comes from "some people who don't want change." And he's right.
"I don't think it's broke and I don't think it needs to be fixed," councillor Lorenzo Berardinetti says in favour of the utility remaining a city department. He's well aware that several international water companies have set up offices hereabouts and have lobbyists floating around in search of political support. Berardinetti is convinced the recommended makeup of the new water board "is the first step toward privatization" of the city's waterworks.
"It may be that this particular council does not want to privatize," he suggests. "But, still, this creates a new management system. Then, down the road, the next council or a council 10 years from now will be more easily able to privatize. And that's my concern. It's more likely to happen."
What's even more likely to happen first is a whopping big increase in local water rates. The money is needed to upgrade the city's aging water and sewer infrastructure. The annual cost to the average household will climb about $150 over the course of the next five years. That's an incredible 50 per cent hike.
"Hopefully, it won't be as bad if we have this new corporation," Lastman muses.
As bad for whom, we must ask. Because more than a few councillors will argue that the appointed board is being set up as a target for the wrath of outraged customers so politicians can escape the inevitable heat when the price of water skyrockets.
"To put additional charges on the ratepayers while hiding behind a puppet board is almost scandalous," charges councillor Brian Ashton. And he has other concerns as well.
Ashton points out that the city's water purification and waste water treatment facilities are state-of-the-art and have long been the envy of other municipalities. "The old Metro Toronto system was a poster boy for efficiency and productivity," he recalls. "So why, suddenly, do we need this more distant board to carry forward responsibility for it? There's something hidden here that doesn't shake out for me."
Well, don't expect the mayor to shake it out for him. Lastman took exception when one reporter raised concerns that the new board will lack the accountability Justice O'Connor so forcefully advocated and the public now expects from municipal governments. "Please don't tell me that," he snapped. "That's not true. I won't buy it."
The mayor said he wants the city's drinking water to be even cleaner. "We want it to be better," Lastman declared. "We want it to be more efficient and we want to save money doing it.'
Exactly how the new water board will accomplish this, he couldn't say. But it won't "cut corners" like some profit-seeking private sector company would do, "because once you lose that water quality you're out of business and you're going to kill people." Which is precisely why Justice O'Connor was called upon to determine why seven people died and more than 2,000 became ill in the town of Walkerton.
"It's totally unacceptable for the water system not to be under the direct control of elected representatives," councillor David Miller says.
He's equally quick to note that council's record of citizen appointments to boards "is somewhat spotty," given recent controversies related to the Toronto Economic Development Corporation, the Toronto Police Services Board and the Greater Toronto Airport Authority. "We tend to appoint people who are very well-connected politically," Miller contends.
"This has been a very curious thing," he continues. "There's been enormous pressure from the mayor's office on city staff to recommend a separate corporation like Toronto Hydro. But when you ask why, you're just told, "The mayor likes Toronto Hydro' and you don't get past that. There's no analysis or understanding whatsoever of the implications."
Which is why the water board proposal may be in for a much rougher ride than Lastman expected when it's presented to council for approval later this month. Let's certainly hope so.