Karen Stintz has the distinction of being the only candidate for Toronto council who actually got involved in local politics by answering a desperate help-wanted ad in a community newspaper. "City councillor needed," read the employment notice placed in the North Toronto Town Crier last summer by a group called the Coalition for Municipal Change.
"We want to elect a city councillor who will work with residents, not one whose attitude and behaviour tell us she always knows what's best for us," the come-on continued. "This is a great opportunity to help clean up Toronto city council."
Stintz, a project manager for the provincial health ministry, called the telephone number on the ad and is now going door-to-door trying to unseat council veteran Anne Johnston in Ward 16 (Eglinton-Lawrence)
"I want to make sure that the community's interests are represented when it comes to development in the ward," Stintz says.
Ah, yes, development. That's what the Coalition for Municipal Change - aka FoNTRA (Federation of North Toronto Residents Associations) - is really on about. It has been on Johnston's case in a big way ever since she helped broker a compromise last year that led to council's approval of the proposed twin-tower Minto development at the southeast corner of Yonge and Eglinton.
In some quarters, Johnston was hailed as a courageous political hero. She stood up for the city's new Official Plan and its desire to accommodate municipal population growth by intensifying development along well-established commercial corridors.
There may be no better locale for this approach than the busy intersection of Yonge and Eglinton. But there are also thriving residential neighbourhoods in the vicinity. And their representatives went ballistic when Johnston was seen helping the project along rather than fighting it tooth and nail.
"I think it's a fairly small coterie of people who are being negative about everything," Johnston says of the coalition backing Stintz's effort to oust her. "They have opposed everything associated with development in the north end. Everything."
But Johnston's well-funded challenger says her campaign isn't based on development issues alone.
"What really got me involved is the way City Hall is not being managed in a professional manner," says Stintz, who was working on former cable exec John Tory's mayoral campaign before she became FoNTRA's champion in Ward 16. "I think our area is showing the symptoms associated with a lack of municipal leadership. There's a sense that Anne Johnston is not representing the community's interests on council."
The 71-year-old incumbent, who was first elected to Toronto council in 1972, realizes her would-be deposers have been putting it around that she's well past her best-before date. Stintz talks about bringing a "fresh perspective" and "new approach" to the job her target gave up briefly in 1985 to mount an unsuccessful bid for the mayor's chair.
"The ageism really bugs me," Johnston says. "How old I am has nothing to do with my ability to do the job. I'm still as feisty as I ever was. A bit wiser, too. And more pragmatic than I used to be."
Pragmatism no doubt played a role in convincing the councillor it was better to negotiate a compromise with Minto rather than let the proponent submit its project to the developer-friendly Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) for a ruling that most likely would have been a total loss for the surrounding community.
"I remain convinced that I did the right thing," Johnston says. In the end, she got 10 storeys knocked off the taller of the two towers, $1 million dedicated to affordable housing for seniors and the promise of an underground passageway between the complex and the subway on the other side of Yonge. Council approved the deal by a 32-9 vote.
Johnston insists that the community could have got even more had the residents association made an effort to negotiate with the developer from the outset rather than simply saying no at every turn.
"They cut off their nose to spite their face," she says. "They gave away the game. They really did."
Johnston maintains some neighbourhood groups are starting to see things her way. But Stintz says that's not the message she's getting at doors in the ward.
"Development of a community is vital, but it has to be responsible development," the Duplex Avenue resident says.
So what does Johnston have to say about the candidate who was recruited to run against her? "I think advertising for a candidate was just totally obnoxious," she says. "That's not the way I'd like to see somebody rise to be a councillor. I'm sorry for her. I think she's being used."
Johnston feels pretty much the same about candidate Michael Johnson, a late entry in the Ward 16 race.
"I think somebody put him up to it," she offers. "I had something like this done to me once before."
Alexander Hoffman and Albert Pantaleo are also challenging Johnston. Apparently, they weren't the change FoNTRA was advertising for.