Maybe we should call off the November 10 municipal election and just let big business run the city from now on. I mean, what does Toronto need a mayor and council for when the corporate sector has already taken over the job of planning the city's future? What do you think that Toronto City Summit over at the Metro Convention Centre back on June 5 was all about? You only had to read the communique issued at the end of the well-heeled get-together to understand that the venture capitalists and high-priced consulting firms were taking over.
Enough Talk: An Action Plan was the title of the report that promised an enlightened new era where the board of trade and its members play a leading role in setting the city's social and economic priorities. Major initiatives in the fields of research, tourism and immigration were announced. Strategic plans were drawn up. And a bunch of banks made "an initial contribution" of $1 million to put the summit's spawn - the Toronto 03 Alliance - into the business of telling a city that's been virtually rudderless for the past six years what's good for it.
So impressed was the federal Liberal government with the New Toronto Compact that it handed consultant David Pecaut, chair of the summiteers, a cheque for $10 million. The money's supposed to be used for a post-SARS advertising campaign to lure U.S travellers with Yankee dollars back to town.
Not to be outdone, Premier Ernie Eves and his provincial Tories came up with a SARS secretariat to help the city's badly bruised economy recover from the devastating effects of sudden acute respiratory syndrome. Word leaked out earlier this week that Paul Beeston, the former Blue Jays president, had been picked to head the organization that will advise the province on how to best spend the tens of millions it has set aside for SARS recovery.
But current Jays boss Paul Godfrey was so over the top in his praise for the man who put together baseball teams that won back-to-back World Series championships a decade ago that Eves was said to be considering someone else for the job, just to punish the municipal Machiavelli for shooting off his mouth in the press.
Whatever. Somebody other than an elected official at City Hall will be deciding how Toronto should respond in the aftermath of a health care crisis that will probably be found to have cost the local economy more than $1 billion by the time all the losses are added up.
City council has only itself to blame for the situation, of course. And councillor Brian Ashton is among the first to admit it.
"The city stage has been vacated by local politicians, so there's a huge vacuum," he says.
It's been easy for the corporate sector to step in and assert itself while the retiring Melvin Douglas Lastman seems happy to play the role of the lamest of lame duck mayors. At the same time, survival-minded councillors are concentrating on issues in their wards as the clock ticks down in the final few months of the current term. So the alliances, corporate compacts and secretariats have had little trouble setting an agenda they have no electoral authority to set.
"This is not just about SARS," says Ashton. "This is about a weakness of the city in painting its own future. This should be about getting the private sector to realize it has something at stake - not the private sector just coming in and taking over how you design your future. It should be a true partnership."
There's been talk aplenty on both sides in recent years about the value of private-public partnerships. Yet the involvement of city councillors was minimal in the extreme at the June summit. Federal and provincial politicians were invited to interact with financiers and marketing company CEOs on panels and in discussion groups. But the pols from City Hall had little more than observer status.
"What was started as a partnership with the private sector has simply become the private sector speaking on behalf of the city with the provincial and federal government," Ashton advises. "So you have to believe that the politicians at the other levels of government are getting all these mixed messages about who's in charge, what the city wants, how you get the best value for tax dollars and what role the private sector should play.'
"It's bizarre," says Councillor Kyle Rae. "Money is being handed over to people who know nothing about dealing with the issues. There needs to be a coordinated strategy, but it seems to me that what we're doing is creating more heads and no substance. I don't know where we're going. I'm flummoxed."
Yes. "This city is in a horrible mess," Ashton maintains.. "We've got to get some discipline in our own internal operations. I don't see a long-term plan for solid, rooted partnerships between the senior levels of government and the private sector. I just see a bunch of chaotic decisions being made for political reasons, and my sense is that the general public sees things the same way. I mean, who's in charge?"
Perhaps we'll find out after the November election. Or maybe the corporate hold on the body politic will be so secure by then that it will take over as the de facto civic government.
If it hasn't already.