You know you're about to witness a vicious political dogfight when the city's corporate communications office starts a negative advertising campaign against a few citizens who've managed to get under the skin of the mayor and several councillors.Give the supposedly civil servants in that wonderful department of truth (DOT) on City Hall's seventh floor a little more time and they'll be producing attack ads that will make election strategists south of the border turn U.S.-dollar-green with envy.
It was clear the folks from Water Watch were in for trouble the moment councillor Brad Duguid stood up at Tuesday's media briefing on the proposed implementation of a controversial Toronto water board and unloaded on them for messing with what he considers a good thing.
Young Mr. Duguid was some upset that a self-described coalition of environmentalists, labour groups and just plain old members of the general public has been out there poking holes in a proposal that would give control of the city's water system to something the bureaucrats call "a new governance model" dominated by political appointees.
The fresh-faced councillor -- who, with the personal blessing of Mayor Melvin Douglas Lastman, also happens to chair council's works committee -- blasted the dreaded Water Watchers for disseminating "blatant and misleading falsehoods" about a plan that even he admitted won't save the city a penny. It will, however, make it a lot easier for a bunch of unelected private-sector experts to spend the cash raised by hitting homeowners with astronomical water rate increases.
Duguid accused the proposed board's opponents of "fear-mongering" and "manipulation."
"What we have is a document that will be going out that talks about the falsehoods," he warned. And the next thing you knew, a DOT staffer was distributing a reprinted Water Watch brochure with the word "Wrong" stamped all over it. An approved version of the facts was inserted beneath the disfigured "misinformation."
It certainly was a new twist in what's been known as corporate communications hereabouts. But it's all part and parcel of an initiative being engineered by the city's chief administrative officer, Shirley Hoy, in a frantic effort to navigate some very sensitive issues through the approvals maze before next year's municipal election. The water board is right up there with the bridge to Toronto Island Airport and the mystery-shrouded redevelopment of Union Station in the pantheon of pet projects.
"It seems there's an enormous amount of pressure on the civil service right now to produce what the mayor's office wants instead of being professional and independent," councillor David Miller said. "Now they're producing documents that criticize members of the public who make comments about the mayor's position on some things. It's totally inappropriate.
"If the mayor wants to respond, that's fine," Miller added. "But the civil service is supposed to support council as a whole. On this issue council is clearly very divided. I'm worried that we're moving toward the kind of civil service you have in the States, where after every election the heads of the civil service get fired and are replaced with the mayor's friends."
Of course, there are already strong suspicions that the rush to get a "new governance model" in place for Toronto's waterworks is about Lastman getting some of his friends on the board (a proposed nine-member body with only four elected councillors on it) before the end of his second and, quite possibly, final term. There seems to be very little other reason for the move.
"This is a solution running around looking for a problem," was Miller's assessment of the situation. It's hard to argue with that description when deputy mayor Case Ootes opened the media briefing with a statement declaring Toronto's water system "second to none."
"We're very fortunate we have the quality of water that we do, and we want to ensure that is maintained," Ootes said.
And then he, Duguid and Hoy trotted out all the lines about how so much of the city's water infrastructure is old and in desperate need of repair; about how water bills must go way up because "for the past 50 years the true cost of water has not been represented in the water rates"; and about how a water board populated by savvy business people is better suited than politicians and civil servants to recommend how money should be spent on infrastructure improvements.
"The system will be brought up to scratch faster, we believe, than if you left it with council and the bureaucracy and the number of steps that decisions have to go through in the council process," Ootes said.
And Duguid had this to say: "The process they (councillors) have to go through is very long. It's a lot of red tape, and with this board there'll be an opportunity to streamline. Make sure you're well-protected in terms of your tender process, but it won't have to go through all the approvals -- including committees and council -- that tenders have to go through now."
You can't help but wonder if Duguid has heard of the judicial inquiry that was called to find out how $43 million in computer leasing contracts ended up costing more than $100 million. Apparently, it was because the contracts didn't "go through all the approvals -- including committees and council -- that tenders have to go through."
Three years from now, capital expenditures on waterworks projects will hit $500 million annually, and Duguid figures a new board is best suited to spend the money wisely. "It's not going to create more money as a whole, but it will allow us to get the dollars out there a lot more effectively," he said.
Countered John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and a Water Watch member: "The question is, do you want it done in a way that opens it up to corruption? No, you don't."
Councillor Brian Ashton certainly hasn't been sold on the plan for a water board. "I don't understand what the drive is to undergo such a monumental change," he said.
"You don't fool around with water. Accountability is important, and if it means we need to invest money and water rates have to go up, then stand up as a politician and do it," Ashton said. "Don't try to hide behind boards and try to claim private-sector individuals have come in and provided you with more efficiency. You're kidding yourself."
We'll see if the department of truth has something to say about that before the issue goes to council for a decision next month.