There've been lots of noises coming out of the council chamber of late. Some tell the story of a power-mad mayor. Others whisper of spoiled right-wing brats spoiling things just for the spoils of notoriety.
Only two months into the year, I'm already wondering how this must allfilter down to residents who had great hopes for the new City Of Toronto Act, which apparently empowers council to fight over group photos.
Negativity reigns. Two months ago, David Miller was the "do-nothing mayor." Now we have a lobbyist registry, a timeline for streetcar expansion, an executive taking to new roles with aplomb, and a mayor who, for better or worse, has accepted the mantle of "CEO of the city" and is now criticized for being a do-something mayor.
What kind of message does it send, though, that at this month's council meeting, at a time when local control over planning is crucial, a quarter of council voted against appealing the Ontario Municipal Board's hubris in the Queen West Triangle development decision?
And what to make of a loose alliance of right-wingers who played a major role in getting entire paragraphs in the dailies on photo-session bickering and dragged a 10-minute discussion of council's agenda into a three-hour brawl, accusing the mayor and his executive of dictating to council through new governance structures?
I ask executive member Kyle Rae if he thinks the objections are valid. "Council supported the restructuring," he reminds.
But you know what? Maybe the so-called opposition has a point in spite of itself.
Shouldn't we be concerned that we now have an executive that could become (even if not under this administration) a de facto cabinet? And shouldn't we consider the fact that council's speaker can now choose whether or not to recognize "points of order" in council, a situation objected to by the right? The left did not join the protests on this matter, with the exception of Howard Moscoe, who relented rather quickly.
And why should they when they're more likely to have their objections heard in the hallway?
It's been left to the right to raise the question of why council isn't calling for the abolition of the OMB. Miller dissers were wrong, of course, to oppose the appeal of the OMB on the Queen West decision (which permitted towers in an artists' enclave) because of the $350,000 price tag. They failed to use their complaints in a way that could have helped their goal of OMB abolition.
But the progressive majority, it seems, is unwilling to call for the body's removal. Instead, they want to reshape it.
Stuart Green, from Miller's office, tells me the mayor is adamant that the OMB should be an appeal body only, with no power to impose decisions. "It could only say, "Council, you have to revisit this, based on [your own rules],'" he says.
Half-jokingly, I ask what would happen if we just, well, started ignoring the OMB. "Wouldn't it be fun to test?" says Green. "Frankly, though, that's not an option."
Why not? I mean, I know the answer, but still, why not? For the most part, only the mayor's opponents have asked some version of this question but can we entrust it to them?
Rae certainly doesn't think so. Many of the suburban councillors speaking out against the OMB, he says, are using it as a scapegoat for their opposition to the city's Official Plan. "They don't want to be informed by the planners.'
But right-of-centre councillor David Shiner insists his opposition to the OMB is not a stand-in for anything else. "[Council is] saying over and over that the process is wrong," he says, "but until you get rid of the appeal body, this will go on. We've had OMB appeals in the northern parts of the city where the developers got everything they wanted, and the mayor didn't stand up.'
True or not, the focus is still narrow. Until the OMB is out of the picture, people you and I will be discouraged from getting involved, especially if OMB appeals occur only at the sufferance of council's majority, or an empowered ideological minority.
Aren't questions about concentration of power the ones that need to be raised, even if sometimes for the wrong reasons? If we're annoyed by Denzil Minnan-Wong's needling over process, we should ask ourselves this: What if he were mayor? Wouldn't a Tory executive run us into the ground?
"It could," acknowledges Rae, "but those are the choices that citizens have to make."
As the city slowly gains more responsibility, our municipal ballot something most people still use as currency for water main repairs or getting their cousin a job with parks gains more power than it can hold. And now we get ot use it less every four years instead of three, a fact to which some objected.
This is probably the place where I say our city council needs us more than ever. Indeed, Miller's candidacy and mayorship has represented an interesting change: "Vote for me" became "Help me." Our votes felt like they were actually for something , not just someone. But an empowered mayor is not an empowered resident.
Miller's trying, but T.O. mayors will find themselves increasingly pulled in two directions. If the vacuum at the bottom isn't filled by community input, we run the risk of conscientious criticisms being lost in the ideological war of the blocs.