Whats on the table for the mayor’s race

Sometimes it seems there may be nothing quite so bad for democracy as an election.[rssbreak]And I couldn't care less about.

Sometimes it seems there may be nothing quite so bad for democracy as an election.[rssbreak]

And I couldn’t care less about how a recently announced mayoral candidate decorates his condo – even if two dailies manage to work the same painting into their leads.

Perhaps such items are inevitable in a city so confused that personality gets in front of principles.

It seems similar concerns led Councillor Joe Mihevc (St. Paul’s) to convene his November 24 Setting The Agenda meeting, hoping, in his words, for “an opportunity to shift focus away from the who’ in next year’s mayoral race and toward the what.'”

The project started as a website, settingtheagenda2010.com, with a few topics on which people could comment. As word spread and site discussion grew, visitors suggested additional areas.

Of course, getting people talking about a slate of issues can only help a soon-?to-?be former Miller camp having trouble figuring out its own “who.” Currently no less than three lefty councillors – Adam Giambrone, Shelley Carrol and Joe Pantalone – are all expected to make a run for the big chair.

By November 24, the foyer of Wychwood Barns, the gem of St. Paul’s, was filled with 15 tables labelled with topics – Affordable Housing, Urban Agriculture, Arts – like a buffet. And written on the face of every civic geek among the 150 chatting and picking tables was the dilemma of the buffet-?goer: you can’t try everything you’d like to.

Opening remarks lent context. Rahul Bhardwaj of the Toronto Community Foundation gave a breezy summary of the TCF’s Vital Signs report: one-?third of Toronto children under five live in poverty the median house price is five times the median income there’s a growing invisible wall between the rich core and impoverished outskirts.

Hugh Mackenzie, economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, followed. “We’re not going to build the city we need by getting into a political discussion over who can better cut taxes,” he said. “We need to force the debate onto better ground than that.”

And then began the group discussions. Mihevc wants councillors to host similar events in their wards, though, interestingly, Paula Fletcher was the only other council member in attendance.

I headed for the table on Democratic Reform. The panel was stacked with members of the Toronto Democracy Initiative, a group with a laundry list of desired reforms to Toronto’s civic structure. Many of their proposals are reasonable – proportional representation, easier voting for the homeless, no more votes for non-?resident business owners – but the group seems largely geared toward the introduction of municipal political parties.

Discussion soon found the lowest common denominator: City Hall “isn’t working,” and the “obscene megacity” is to blame.

The TDI’s worry over “too much government” found traction. I wondered aloud if there isn’t instead too little governance. Rather than too many councillors making decisions, maybe there are too many decisions being made by councillors.

What if community councils were actually made up of community members?

“Many people no longer identify with communities that are geographically ghettoized,” said TDI founder Stuart Parker.

Are we happy with that? And what about those who live in, you know, actual ghettoes? But this may be the power of the night’s discussion model. Rather than accepting the terms of debate as presented in sound bites, people could offer perspectives that may not otherwise have been considered.

But I didn’t come to get recruited by the TDI.

I soon drifted toward Arts and Culture. “How can arts benefit the economy?” someone asked. “How can the economy benefit artists?” I responded. Richard Florida’s name came up. I got antsy.

City Planning then. We need to get rid of the OMB, people agreed. But that goes back to Democratic Reform. Very soon, all roads very clearly led to one sparsely populated table in the corner: Anti-?Poverty.

There, talk was more modest. “People need jobs that can actually sustain them.”

So many of Toronto’s problems are neither of the city’s creation nor within reach of its tools. Resident after resident expressed shock at how powerless city government actually is some of those discussing anti-?poverty issues just nodded knowingly.

All we’ve ever really had, they seemed to say, is each other.

But somewhere in all this, activists will have to develop coherent enough policies and organizations to pick out and sell a roster of progressive issues in the midst of a media frenzy over personality politics.

And find themselves a unity candidate so they don’t simply scatter their bloc voting potential over competing second-?rate choices.

They’ve got their work cut out for them.


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