Is Big Biz for Real?

Board of trade pushes goofy plan to give mayor more power

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A few words of caution to the folks at the Toronto Board of Trade who have added their voices to others saying this city should get a better deal from the federal and provincial governments: be careful what you ask for because you may just end up with it.We’re not talking about the $9 billion and change that a recent trade board report claims the bandits in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park are stealing from local taxpayers’ pockets every damned year. Most people hereabouts are well onto the fact that our so-called senior levels of government are milking the nation’s cash cow for a lot more money than they’re pumping back into it. No doubt about it.

What’s at issue is the remedy the board is prescribing in its mercantile effort to address City Hall’s enormous credibility deficit in the eyes of those financial control freaks up University Avenue at the Ontario Legislature and beyond, on Parliament Hill.

“Toronto’s governance structure must be reformed to be effective and accountable and reflect its status as the largest city in Canada,” concludes the 30-page document, entitled Strong City, Strong Nation: Securing Toronto’s Contribution To Canada. Key among the report’s three recommendations: “The striking of a task force by the province to design a new governance structure for the City of Toronto that would facilitate the movement towards a new public finance model.” To bastardize the punchline from another Field Of Dreams fantasy: build a new municipal government and the money will come.

Don’t mind me, but I seem to recall heading down this road with the board of trade once before. It was back in 1996 and 97, I believe, when all those civic-minded big-business types hanging out at 1 First Canadian Place joined forces with the newspaper magnates at 1 Yonge Street and a few other supposed city builders to promote the provincially legislated amalgamation of the former Metropolitan Toronto’s six municipalities into one big megacity. And hasn’t that worked out for the best?

It was amalgamation that gave us provincial downloading. And it’s that transfer of financial responsibility for many programs and services onto the new city’s property tax base that most Toronto politicians insist is the root of all evil and the main ingredient in a veritable smorgasbord of municipal money woes.

Of course, amalgamation also gave us Mayor Melvin Douglas Lastman.

A judicial inquiry will begin this fall in an attempt to ferret out how the city ended up on the hook to MFP for more than $100 million in computer leases worth just $43 million.

In the minds of many, this is where amalgamation has taken the new city of Toronto so far. It created a mother lode of municipal contracts so rich they immediately started attracting schools of corporate sharpies looking to take nourishment from the public purse. A feeding frenzy ensued that has hardly abated in spite of all the attention focused on the city finance and info technology departments. I guess some of us are just too darned thick to understand that this is what they call “doing business” at City Hall.

Alas, it’s hard to see how the “strong mayor” model of municipal government, to which the board of trade report makes considerable reference, would have changed anything in this regard. It’s arguable, in fact, that the controversies in which council is currently embroiled had their genesis in the previous term, when, most political observers would agree, Lastman was in a definite “strong mayor” mode.

Conversely, it can safely be said that the computer leasing scandals didn’t start coming to light until the mayor’s position was seriously weakened because of the beating his personal credibility has taken in the last few years.

David Miller, the Ward 13 (Parkdale-High Park) councillor contemplating a run for the mayoralty next year, certainly sees it that way.

“I think the first term of the amalgamated city council showed that, under the system we have right now, a mayor can lead if he or she has a clear vision and wants to lead,” Miller says. “The mayor’s vision the first term, with its focus solely on taxes instead of city building, wasn’t one I particularly shared. But he got what he wanted because when the mayor shows real leadership, council will follow.”

These days, councillors tag along behind Lastman at their political peril. And they give thanks that he only has one vote on the 45-member council. Nobody even wants to think about what the likes of Lastman could do with more executive authority. Things are weird enough as it is.

This is something the board of trade failed to fully consider when it raised the idea of strong mayors with appointed boards of control and political parties fighting to put their candidates in council seats. Toronto is already reeling from all the changes that have been made to its municipal government system in the past four and a half years.

Don’t forget that just three years after amalgamation the province slashed the size of council by 13 members. And further cuts could be in the works once the latest redistribution of federal and provincial ridings is completed.

No, what local government in Toronto needs more than anything else right now is stability and a mayor who can articulate a vision of the city that will truly inspire people. However well-intentioned, the changes the board of trade has envisioned can’t hope to accomplish such a feat.

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