The first meeting of a term of city council is by far the one that attracts the most television news media. It's also the meeting where absolutely nothing happens.
And happens. And happens. It's when a plaque is presented to the 20th of 45 councillors, complete with perfunctory applause, that the surreality of all this seeps in. Repetition tends to do that to anything mundane.
Those not behind a camera and thus concerned with how this is playing out in excruciating real time are left with little to do but note that Glenn De Baeremaeker and Frances Nunziata got new hairstyles.
Other trivia: The senior staffer who applauds the least is chief planner Ted Tyndorf. The award for nicest shoes goes to Pam McConnell. And David Miller is still insanely tall, while Joe Pantalone still isn't.
Making fun? Not at all. From politics to pop culture, the perennial focus on the seemingly superficial is simply a reaction to a public discourse grounded in symbolism.
What to make of the sight of Miller and Case Ootes grasping hands for the camera, the handshake slowing to a freeze as the camera flash captures the faux friendly meeting between the mayor and a councillor whose ouster he called for? Is it that in this age we offer not our consent to be governed, but rather our suspension of disbelief?
Or witness, for instance, the monitors in front of the public officials showing the ceremony they are all currently taking part in. Where lies the metaphor there? Or in the fact that Doug Holyday's eyes are glued to his monitor when all he has to do is tilt his head up a few degrees to see the real thing? Is this the image of a politician, unaware of what's going on around him unless it's first mediated by the techno-political apparatus? Or is his neck just tired?
And are such questions useful, or am I just bored? Thankfully, the presentations end and Miller takes the podium for a state-of-the-city address, the meat of which is a call for councillors and citizens to rally around Toronto as Canada's sixth-largest government.
"This is a special time," he says. "The new City Of Toronto Act and our new governance structures for the first time recognize Toronto's status. I will be asking all members of this council, all Torontonians to join me in a campaign."
Queen's Park and Ottawa, Miller says, are facing elections, and Toronto voters will be asked to fill 23 seats times two. "The candidates and parties that put forward the best platform for Toronto and for cities will be rewarded. Those that ignore Toronto do so at their peril. We must unite again."
Were we united the first time? At any rate, the explicit call for the citizenry and council to engage in some (non-specific) activism is encouraging. But the governance changes of which the mayor speaks don't make good TV (they barely make good print), so little has been said of them recently. Still, it's the little changes that may prove to have the most impact. Changing the number of seats on a city committee from seven to six, for instance, seems superficial but on a well-balanced committee could change the dynamic so that ties are more likely and consensus-building more attractive.
Similarly, the expansion from six standing committees to eight, and the downloading of transactional business (mostly traffic planning) from city council to community councils are cautious baby steps toward decentralization, potentially allowing council to focus on more important issues.
But while there are new procedures to make councillors' work more efficient and, theoretically, give them more time for constituent issues, there are no new provisions for public involvement. The decentralization measures are aimed at making the city more effective as a body in its negotiations with the province and the feds. In other words, they're not necessarily clearing the table for you and me.
Don't misunderstand me. Miller is clearly interested in empowering local government, and that's a laudable goal. One of his stated focuses for this term is to lead the municipal charge on federal politics' unloved child, climate change.
"As Canada's biggest city, we have an opportunity to lead by tremendous example. Reducing greenhouse gases is the issue of our time. Maybe of all time."
It's notable, though, that the greatest progress on environmental measures and in sparking staff innovation was made with the help of last term's Roundtable on the Environment, a new body populated by citizens.
But so far, Miller is asking us to rally around the city mainly to send a message to federal and provincial governments. We may do well to insist that if we give support, we expect to get it back in the form of new ways to get our hands on the levers. If the city can ask the feds to kick down some power, can we not ask the same of the city?
A scrum forms around Denzil Minnan-Wong. "There's no role for official opposition in council," he says, in his role as unofficial opposition. "The mayor needs to have a plan B [in case the upper governments don't relent]."
It's true, he does because his opponents are already working on one. And it doesn't involve us.