Time to rein in Toronto’s petty despots

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
December 3, 2005

Two years after he was elected to office on a pledge to clean up government, Toronto Mayor David Miller continues to preside over a corrupt administration. This corruption is not limited to the high-profile cases for which Toronto is making a name for itself. Petty corruption is the stuff of daily life at city hall.

It could be no other way under the system of governance now in place. This is a city ruled less by principled laws than by local despots dispensing favours in their tiny fiefdoms. Under reforms proposed last week by the Governing Toronto Advisory Panel, a three-person panel overseen by Miller, these despots’ powers would be reined in.

The local despots – in Toronto they’re called councillors – do more than curry favour through their power: As the advisory panel points out, they act to blindly stop development, discourage business, and otherwise harm the city through arbitrary actions that cater to special interests and political allies.

At root, the panel describes a dysfunctional system in which councillors wield minor powers that yield much harm to maximize their political influence. Any Torontonian needing to deal with city hall is liable to be ensnared.

Take the case of my friend and neighbour, recently afflicted by an illness, who requires a handicapped street-parking spot. There is no question about his entitlement to this spot – his difficulty walking any great distance is evident and his doctor has filled out the requisite government forms – yet this is not enough. Under Toronto’s system of governance, the decision to allow him a parking spot in front of his home in a residential district rests on a vote of the entire Toronto City Council. There is only one reason that councillors have not abandoned this and other powers that should properly be left to a non-partisan clerk in an administrative department: Councillors want leverage over their constituents, to reward friends and political allies who have performed a service for them and to exact gratitude when they have performed some service for others.

One example of the trivial ways in which councillors use their office-holder muscle on behalf of friends and political allies can be seen in a case involving Councillor Olivia Chow, the high-profile wife of NDP leader Jack Layton (and now a candidate for federal office), and Green Beanery, a small non-profit company located in a downtown residential neighbourhood (I am a director of this non-profit).

Chow’s friend, a woman who lives next door to the building that houses Green Beanery, imagines that coffee roasting is occurring at all hours of the night, despite assurances that no such activity is taking place. Undeterred by the failure of other neighbours to detect any overnight roasting and unimpressed by logs from Green Beanery’s security company that confirm no one was present in the Green Beanery building during the hours the friend claimed roasting was occurring, the neighbour sought Chow’s aid.

Chow obliged by triggering investigations that would otherwise never have occurred. Many thousands of taxpayer dollars have by now been spent on a series of frivolous government investigations to appease the imaginings of her chum, a long-time fellow activist and former campaign worker.

These are not isolated examples. Some city services are so politicized that city civil servants often care more about the views of the local councillor than of their own superiors. In fact, civil servants often work for departments that are themselves organized along the lines of city electoral boundaries, rather than logical service territories related to the concern at hand.

The Governing Toronto Advisory Panel wants councillors to lose control over what should be routine and apolitical matters, and to instead become policymakers able to act on the city’s behalf. The mayor, eager to clean up the city’s image and himself shackled by obstructionist councillors, not surprisingly endorses the plan. Also not surprising, many councillors, protective of their petty powers and uncomfortable in the role of policymaker, will fight it.

Torontonians who want a city government that’s clean, let alone efficient and capable of dealing with the policies that confront Canada’s sixth-largest government, should pay heed.

Lawrence Solomon, author of the forthcoming book Toronto Sprawls, is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.; http://www.urban.probeinternational.org.

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