In a gesture that's being interpreted many ways, David Miller refused last week to support a special meeting of council to talk with Chief Julian Fantino about the increasing incidence of gun crime and gang violence. He was one of 20 council members who voted against Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti's call for the extraordinary session and thus prevented the matter from getting the two-thirds majority needed for addition to the agenda. The mayor's critics were quick to suggest it was a signal that Miller is soft on crime or, at the very least, isn't prepared to make law enforcement the priority it should be. But Miller responds that the message he got from the series of budget consultations he and budget chief David Soknacki recently held with city residents is that Toronto is safe.
"(Residents are) concerned that it's becoming less safe, and the concern in particular is about guns, and gangs who seem to be using the guns," Miller adds. "But on the whole, people still believe our city is safe."
He says people also made it clear they expect council to spend for impact. "What that means to me is trying to marshal our resources to invest in neighbourhoods where kids are at risk," the mayor says. "That's the most effective thing the city can do in terms of crime prevention, and we're working on a strategy to try to do that."
Miller has enlisted Sylvia Searles, a former Metro bureaucrat and past police services employee, to coordinate the public safety file. He expects recommendations from the civic administration to be presented to council's policy and finance committee in April - after the city's 2004 operating budget has been adopted. That's also when the bureaucracy will respond to a number of related recommendations that Councillor Michael Thompson made to the mayor's office last month.
Thompson, who's having his own meeting with Fantino at City Hall next week to discuss the issues of gun crime and gang violence, says he'd have preferred Miller to act on his concerns immediately. "I think it's a significant public issue that needs attention now," the council newcomer from Scarborough Centre argues.
Conservative-minded Brian Ashton from Scarborough Southwest doesn't believe Miller's critics have it right. "I know the mayor is doing a lot of things at the city level to come to terms with gun crimes," the councillor says. And he also disagrees with those who argue that crime summits will somehow convince the public that local government is on top of the issue. But that said, Ashton is adamant that Miller "needs to be seen taking a strong stand on the increasing use of guns on our streets."
And he has a suggestion. The mayor should hire a commissioner of public safety and give that lucky bureaucrat the job of implementing a comprehensive strategy to deal with violent crime in the city. "The mayor needs to stand up, puff out his rugby chest and say, During my watch, we're going to get the guns off the streets in Toronto,'" Ashton says. A public safety commissioner (someone like former deputy police chief Mike Boyd, for example) with the authority to go to Ottawa and Queen's Park to advocate for tougher gun laws and harsher sentences would be a big step, he says.
The mayor doesn't dismiss the proposal out of hand. He's had discussions with Ashton about bringing in a special commissioner on short-term contract, but Miller's clearly not convinced it's the route to go at this point.
"The city has a lot of work ongoing, and the challenge for us is to pull it all together," the mayor says. This is especially critical going into deliberations on this year's $6.5-billion operating budget, which is still in need of almost $300 million.
Councillor Pam McConnell, vice-chair of the Toronto police services board, is adamant that solutions to crime are more likely to be found in boosting social services than in giving the chief public relations opportunities. In fact, she suspects such meetings could quickly turn into an exercise that the police would use to back their demands for an 8 per cent hike to last year's $637-million budget. That's not going to happen, McConnell says.
"Some people think you resolve policy issues by throwing more money at them, but it's not a matter of getting more. It's a matter of making the best use of what you've got."
McConnell maintains that regular increases in the law enforcement budget haven't prevented an increase in gun crimes or the proliferation of gangs. In fact, directing more and more money to the cops means programs that could lead young people away from criminal activity are being shortchanged."