Musings —07.31.2010 09:30 AM—
James: How do we make Toronto great? Here’s how
July 30, 2010 20:07:00
Good ideas lie trampled on Toronto’s mayoralty track — lost in the stampede of criticism that drives the political rhetoric of an election campaign.
But how do you make Toronto great?
The way forward should have a blueprint that promises a great city — one that values community and equity and respects citizens and their taxes. It does not slash and burn. It does not smash; it builds. But it has no sympathy with ideologues and seeks no partnership with councillors who put their interest above their constituents’.
Here’s how it can be done.
Regain public trust
Before a mayor can ask Torontonians to sacrifice and dream about a city of great transit, social equity and excellent service, the office must regain public confidence.
The past seven years should be a lesson not lost on future politicians. David Miller rode into office on a broom, a symbol of a city’s desire to clean city hall of corruption. That he did. But he also allowed his friends on council to destroy the citizen’s faith in city hall. How?
Council took pay hikes themselves while they cut the salaries of senior staff, put workers through a controversial strike, approved tax hikes above inflation each year, and initiated new taxes on cars and property sale.
Councillors refused to cut their office budgets, using the money to feather their nests, fund pet projects, engage in image-burnishing events, support sports teams, dress up in bunny suits, buy expensive espresso machines and outrageously high-priced Christmas cards.
And when challenged by citizens, the council voted to use tax dollars to defend themselves — even when the city solicitor told them the move was illegal.
Worse, the mayor refused to stand up for the citizens, allowing his council to dodge behind fine legal and policy interpretations. For example, when a Beach family, supporters of Miller ally Sandra Bussin, managed to get an exclusive deal from the city to manage a waterfront food business, the mayor remained mum, even though the deal was clearly not in the interest of the taxpayer.
To end this era, the winning mayor would pledge to:
• Freeze council salaries for four years, as the $100,000 they make is a fair wage; cut the office budget to between $30,000 and $40,000, from the current $53,000 a year; cut off those self-promoting, tax-funded ward councillors’ newsletters at the first quarter of an election year; and, finally, obey the law and not fund legal bills for court challenges to councillors’ election campaign finances.
That accomplished, citizens may begin to believe that city council is no longer a safe harbour for arrogant lifers with a sense of entitlement. And candidates will no longer gain traction with a one-issue campaign that taps into this discontent.
Help us feel better about city spending
The city’s budget is the second arm of the corrosive force at city hall, and the most difficult to repair. Some citizens will never believe their money is being spent wisely. They resent every tax dollar they pay. The aim is, don’t give them any more supporting evidence. And give the rest of us reason to feel good about city hall spending.
A winning mayoral platform would promise to:
• Give citizens a property tax freeze in year one as the administration reviews programs, tightens the budget and sets the spending template for the term.
• Approve inflationary tax increases after that, to maintain services that make Toronto thrive. There’s no need to add more police, as we have enough; maintain ambulance and fire services; bolster areas where we’re falling apart.
• Declare the TTC an essential service. Examine outsourcing of garbage collection (and other appropriate services), holding some levers to ensure the city is not held hostage by the contractor.
• Secure the essentials of a fiscal deal with the province, tell citizens how much they have to pay to maintain services, and end the incessant squabbling with Queen’s Park over downloading.
• Equip the auditor general with enhanced resources to target fraud and wasteful spending.
Citizens report a feeling of disconnection to city hall, especially in the suburbs. A winning mayor must engage the suburbs and bring their representatives into the power positions at city hall. Symbolism is not enough. Electoral reform is needed.
• Set in motion electoral reforms that will be in place by 2014. Indicate some essential elements of the reform that must be studied to deliver a more open, accessible, diverse, representative and equitable city hall.
• Favour a governance model that gives communities more direct control and influence over strictly local decisions, including a budget for local improvement. Eight to 12 such “communities” seem ideal. Elect councillors to represent each “community” on the big city council; and give that politician a seat on the city’s executive committee — along with the mayor’s appointees.
• Support the right of all Toronto residents to vote in municipal elections, citizenship notwithstanding.
• Limit councillors’ time in office to 12 years, or three terms.
• Allow voters to rank candidates on an election ballot and deliver a result where winners don’t take office with as little as 20 per cent of the vote.
• Promote diversity initiatives among councillors that mentor under-represented groups at city council. The female politicians are doing this for women. Visible minorities need similar advocates.
Stop shoddy service
Nothing infuriates as lastingly as poor service. The bus should run on time. The garbage must be picked up every time. Fix the potholes. Cut the grass. Paint the traffic lanes. Do as much road construction at night as possible, not during rush hour.
• Hire the Star’s Fixer, empower him to get action, and offer his reports free to all newspapers — just to keep the bureaucracy honest.
• Hold bi-weekly accountability sessions with senior staff to demand service improvements and fixes to broken service reported by citizens. To have kids wait two years to use the water slides at Christie Pits is unacceptable. If it needed to be fixed for G20 officials, it would have been done forthwith.
Build more transit
Do the above and citizens will be in a better mood to shell out the coins needed to build transit in Toronto. Lethargy, wrangling and inaction have put us years behind where we should be. Now transit is the city’s biggest nut to crack over the next 20 years. Depending on Queen’s Park will give us just what we’ve had for the past 20 years.
• Implement a wide range of funding tools dedicated to transportation. These include road tolls, a1 per cent sales tax, fare by distance, and new parking systems that make things easier for drivers. For example, GPS-based systems can track where you park, figure out the fee and end the need to run back and forth with payment. Time of day discounts, or higher rates, can be built right in.
• End the measures that infuriate drivers. Encourage a sharing of the road, minus the “war on the car.” Put bike lanes where they make sense, not to score political points.
• Support laws that give bikes a wide berth, promoting safety; encourage cycling and walking in high pedestrian zones.
• Encourage private-sector ideas on funding and operating subway lines. For example, solicit proposals for the looping of the two north-south subway links along Sheppard. This creates an awesome relief for the Yonge line.
Help struggling neighbourhoods
One of Mayor David Miller’s greatest legacies will be his compassion for the city’s priority neighbourhoods, areas often passed over.
A mayor worthy of support won’t forget such Torontonians — from the homeless to people living in social housing and in less than ideal conditions.
• Support the Lawrence Heights revitalization, trading on lessons learned from Regent Park.
• Continue funding special recreational, employment and community-building programs that engage youth in poorer neighbourhoods.
Plant more flowers
Toronto appears cleaner today than five years ago. But so are the downtowns of all our North American rivals for tourism and business. Returning to where we were no longer scores us points.
What might excite and spark a city-wide collaboration and transformation is a campaign to make Toronto a garden city.
Imagine a civic initiative that challenges every street, neighbourhood and community to double, then triple, then quadruple the flowers they plant over the next term of office.
City hall will set the example by dressing every city-owned building with flowers and shrubs. What if each of the city’s 44 wards were challenged to do five community projects, half with public money, half with private donations, and the entire lot with the city’s encouragement and assistance? Think of the pride, the competition to outdo the neighbouring ward, the public participation, the amazing transformation of our city.
It wouldn’t take much for the city to double, triple, quadruple output at the High Park and Centennial greenhouses, where they produce more than a million flowers and 150,000 native plants each year. Corporate sponsors would gladly chip in.
Any office complex, church, union hall, bank, community centre, restaurant, retail establishment that can, should be urged to participate. Ones that can’t afford to buy their own flowers and shrubs could get seedlings and flowers from the city’s own greenhouses.
School properties — now a disgraceful blight on many neighbourhoods — would be prime targets for the transformation. Citizens could be encouraged to adopt orphan space.
From the ground to the condo balcony, a city in bloom would signal a city at peace with itself. This would improve Toronto’s livability and create a splendid tourist attraction. Best of all, it increases community involvement and civic connection at a time when city hall is far too remote from people’s lives.