Dufferin Grove has been described as a "community centre without walls." Now, arguments over the construction of a compost toilet may be making a case for a bit of City Hall without the hall.
When an eco-friendly toilet was donated recently, park volunteers expected to do the same as they did last year, when they built a cob courtyard and fireplace (made of earth and straw) near the playground: pitch in and get the job done. They went to digging a 2-foot foundation hole for the outhouse, which was slated to be built of the same mud and straw.
But someone complained, and staff from the buildings department concerned over an unpermitted "construction site" contacted the parks department.
A steel fence was put up around the dig, children were barred and steel-toe boots mandated, ironically making the safety measures the most dangerous thing about the site. Bureaucracy does not react well to things it doesn't already have sheafs of documents on.
But after an anxious meeting of 75 people at the rink house on September 12 and lobbying by local parks manager Sandy Straw, parks supervisor Peter Leiss and councillor Adam Giambrone, the project is a go. Architect Martin Liefhebber checked the plans and, with only minor changes, certified the construction.
Staff at buildings department now say they will fast-track the approval as soon as the certification reaches them. At a certain point in the construction, it will be re-categorized as an art project instead of a building project. That means children can help again and the fence will come down. But the delays have meant construction won't continue in earnest till spring.
Straw says she has always taken a "community involvement approach,' which doesn't always fit into the city flow chart. "Parks is so front-line - we're the ones who have to push the envelope,' she tells me.
Projects like this "open up opportunities that the city, with financial constraints, might not be able to do."
She says that after a playground was built at Kew Gardens, with $228,000 from a community fundraiser topping up the measly $72,000 parks had budgeted, it was easier for her to facilitate a similar project in High Park.
But if we really want more experimentation at the local level, it seems the first step is abandoning the idea that city legislation implicitly prohibits anything that it doesn't explicitly permit. Currently, it's easier for condo developers to apply for variances to rules than it is for mud mounds.
"Straw and Leiss have a job that's incredibly hard," says Georgie Donais, a volunteer coordinator. "They have to fight against the whole city structure."
But what if every park group had clearly codified ties to the city through local councils or advisory committees? Council is already talking about delegating power to community councils; could that process empower the model loosely developed by the Grove?
"You're light years ahead of where the community engagement piece is right now," Straw told the rink meeting. "We don't even have the documents to show where you are."
Well, behind a fence - but maybe near an open door.
Cop board does taser about-face
Strange how things change.
Last Thursday, (September 28), the Police Services Board voted to give 439 controversial stun guns to sergeants and supervising members of the gang squad - even though unanswered questions persist from the last debate on the subject in April.
This was particularly noticeable when it came to the use of tasers on the mentally ill.
At the meeting, the board heard a report on a pilot project that deployed tasers to Divisions 31, 42 and 52 from March 30 to June 30. Most incidents involving tasers ended with "demonstrated force," meaning officers simply had to display the weapon to head off the possibility of violence. And to their credit, there were no reported injuries when officers used them.
The stun guns were primarily used during the pilot - and by the Emergency Task Force last year - during encounters with those classified as EDPs (emotionally disturbed persons).
When an update was presented in April, board member Hamlin Grange asked why the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team, a partnership with St. Mike's Hospital, could not be involved in such calls. He asked again this time around and was told such situations were seen as too dangerous.
That's not the way psychiatric survivor activist Don Weitz sees things. He made a deputation to the board saying it's the police that cause such encounters to escalate. "The appearance of the police, even the badge, can trigger an event," he said. "We need a trained corps of psychiatric survivors, social workers and street nurses."
Grange commented that since the weapon is now being pumped as most useful in EDP cases, officers may see it as a "weapon of convenience," but he didn't press the matter, and the issue appeared to fade.
Nor did vice-chair Pam McConnell - as she did in April - ask if anyone had tried to learn if there was less reliance on the taser by the Emergency Task Force when crisis teams showed up on EDP calls.
Staff Sgt. Peter Button was adamant that training has been rigorous. "Tasers are not to make our day easier," he said. "They are to prevent injury."
Fair enough, but emotional injury is hard to quantify. Sure, there's a policy outlining use of tasers: they're allowed for disarming people, preventing escapes and avoiding brawls, but there's also a worrisome catchall - "for any other lawful and justifiable purpose."
Button said the latter was understood by all to refer only to suicidal people. How theoretically reassuring. How do they know who's who without a crisis team?
No cash for suspended fuzz
Another case of whos who came up when the board voted to allow the chief to suspend without pay officers charged with serious offences. The board and Chief Bill Blair agreed that this will result in better administration (read saving money) and discipline.
But the police union is betting the judiciary will take its side in a potential challenge to this provision. Police Association head Dave Wilson said, "This is nothing short of a direct attack against the rights of officers. We will vigorously oppose you."
Grange asked why this was different from any other professional situation, including that of civilian members of the force, in which such suspensions are allowed.
"The difference is the job we're called on to do," said Wilson. "The necessity [of it.]' Still, maybe we need our officers not on the street collecting paycheques.
Chief Blair downplayed the rhetoric. "We are only seeking this in extreme circumstances that are so egregious as to seriously threaten respect for the service."
But speaking outside afterward, Wilson pointed out that in the wide-reaching police reforms proposed by Justice Patrick LeSage in 2005, this power was investigated and deemed unnecessary.
"Those in public office should be guaranteed a public process," he said.
I thought it best not to ask him if that meant I could vote in the upcoming police union election.