Photo by R. Jeanette Martin
Toronto politics certainly isn't boring these days. It has weird personal drama, outlandish characters, conflict, great quotes and over-the-top headlines.
One thing it does not have, however, is tangible ideas for addressing the city's challenges. This is typically an area where the mayor takes the lead, but City Hall is now described by many as a toxic work environment and rudderless.
Mayor Ford's office refuses or is unable to engage in matters outside a narrow field, and all the attention focuses on personalities.
While it's true that city staff continue to provide day-to-day services, they lack the authority, which must come from council, to tackle the big questions and prepare Toronto for the future.
Council met this week and found enough items to fill the time. There was talk of creating a City-Hall-produced TV show (not joking!) and of having councillors exempted from jury duty. But there were only a few major discussions and the only real planning issue dealt with (besides local files) was the ongoing debacle of the Woodbine Race Track development.
There was nothing about making sure the condo boom produces livable neighbourhoods, or about the gaps in the planning process that leave new neighbourhoods packed with residents but without services or green space.
And for a city that was supposed to be a leader in environmental initiatives, there was only limited talk about whether council should support the future Rouge River Valley national park, which would come at almost no cost to the city.
Surely even the right wing of council has some topics it feels are important. But outside of cost-cutting measures (not really policy) and contracting-out debates, we've seen little innovative conservative thinking.
One area fit for conservative thought is the economy, but here, too, not much has been said except for the odd comment on the mayor's radio show about making Toronto competitive and attractive to investors. Certainly our "businessman" mayor would want to focus on such questions.
The mainstream media are also part of the problem, more inclined to cover antics rather than substance, which has caused a lot of people to tune out. Who wants a silly sitcom? Likewise, it's easier to do reactive journalism, more or less covering a story from both sides, rather than proactive journalism, where an unaddressed issue is closely analyzed.
Municipal government's advantage is that it's accessible and allows for an inclusive and wide-ranging conversation between elected reps and residents. This is usually done by councillors initiating consultations at one of the eight standing committees.
The best evidence of a freeze in research and debate is the ongoing absence of substantial items on committee agendas. Committees are where councillors traditionally introduce requests for reports, which in normal times then provide information for a dialogue between councillors, experts, staff and the public.
Today, most of the committees have thin agendas. Gone are presentations by experts, and most reports are info updates or transactional (say, getting permission to purchase a certain product).
For example, the Economic Development Committee recently presented only four items. Similarly, Public Works and Infrastructure had only a few: two one-page updates and two requests for information. No discussion about garbage/recycling, water or transport issues.
A few years ago, these committees regularly dealt with 20 to 35 items, and rather than meeting for one to two hours, they convened all day and heard from many residents.
Even at the TTC, which has been a recent focus of attention, little has been going on. The last three regular meetings addressed an average of eight items, and most were procurement-related or updates on already approved projects. Contrast that to 2008 or 09, when the commission heard three to four in-depth presentations per meeting and dealt with 25 to 35 issues, at least half about new policies or ideas.
Municipal government is not like the federal and provincial, where the majority of policy development is handled behind closed doors by civil servants under the direction of the PM or premier and in conjunction with cabinet.
If the mayor refuses to facilitate more robust city-building, council needs to do more. This month's councillor-initiated discussions about the pedestrianization of Yonge and new rules for food carts were a good start, but we need to go further.