The Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG), a U of T think tank that tries to demystify and improve municipal governance systems, has released a paper with some insight on the seismic shifts taking place at Toronto City Hall. The Fault Lines at City Hall: Reflections on Toronto’s local government identifies and describes three pressure points often leading to considerable friction among municipal actors when unduly strained.
The author, Andre Coté, isolates political leadership, accountability and the role of the Toronto Public Service as prominent fault lines at City Hall. He cites numerous local examples (known by most, even if only superficially, with access to talk radio, primetime TV news, mainstream newspapers and water coolers that inspire gossip) of how these three fault lines have triggered bouts of instability for the City.
With regards to the first fault line, political leadership, Coté maintains that it is important to examine from whom and how power is exercised as “contested leadership produces heightened political conflict and policy incoherence.” This sentiment resonates with Torontonians who witnessed a contentious mayoral race in 2010 and an even more contentious term for the Mayor Ford, whose austerity agenda continues to clash against the interests and values of some left and centrist councillors. As this battle plays out in the media, residents are greeted with the rhetoric of new age municipal politics: “Left-wing pinkos” versus “Ford Nation.” Residents watch as councillors draw ideological lines in the sand.
Coté highlights how this friction has manifested over time – councillors have declared ownership of different policy portfolios steeped in controversy like transit and waterfront development, using them as arsenals in the battle to rebuild the city. It is fair to say that Mayor Ford has done little to quash these cleavages among Councillors, thus further deepening this fault line. Some might argue that he has enabled and sometimes leveraged these ideological and geographic cleavages (often pitting the suburbs against downtown), making it even harder for citizens to distinguish between political posturing and political acuity. Ford’s turbulent and uncertain reign as Mayor serves as a great source of confusion and distraction for Torontonians in search of protection from any other seismic hazards on the horizon.
The second fault line, accountability, is “an oldie but a goodie,” especially in light of the recent conflict of interest charges brought against Mayor Ford and his potential ousting from office. The IMFG paper acknowledges the importance of both formal and informal accountability mechanisms in granting citizens insurance that elected officials ethically, openly and reasonably commit to improving the form and function of the city. Coté unearths an important assumption embedded within the concept and vehicles of accountability – “its effective use presumes that voters can reliably make assessments about what elected officials are accountable for.” Upon realization of such a significant limitation, City Hall needs to be more proactive about engaging, educating and empowering residents. Voting is not nearly enough if we are unsure of how to evaluate our elected officials or what they are responsible for. As City Hall’s reach grows in size and scope, decision-making processes will likely retreat further to backrooms and lunch meetings, inadvertently decreasing transparency for those of us watching from the outside. Some might also say that the political games (most often resembling “hot potato” or “duck, duck, goose”) played between various levels of government to avoid or pass off the responsibility of capital and operating investments further incite friction in municipal affairs.
Coté describes the lack of clarity around the roles and responsibilities of the Toronto Public Service as the third and final fault line. He references the impact of progressive reforms, including the adoption of municipal accountability officers, to quell fears that the bureaucracy may have too much influence on City Council’s decision-making or that increasingly complex relations with their political counterparts may compromise their impartiality. Though this fault line may be less visible to the public, most of the electorate would hope, and even assume, that systems are in place to preserve the integrity of those charged with overseeing public assets and services.
The IMFG paper points to several dynamic local and foreign initiatives capable of calming some of the tremors threatening Toronto’s terrain. Such suggestions echo the Wellesley institute’s A Better Budget for a Better City paper, which also describes the need for resident engagement, accountability and transparency in good governance and city-building. IMFG and The Wellesley Institute both point to the Fourth Wall, and more generally, participatory budgeting as supplementary governance tools, offering municipalities varying avenues to meaningfully engage residents outside of elections.
Despite the wide array of initiatives and tools available for calming turbulence stemming from any of the three fault lines discussed in this paper, Coté assures the reader that any feelings of disenchantment or anger experienced during Toronto’s latest bouts of governance dysfunction were valid. Municipal affairs is an emotional business. Though we are encouraged to channel this emotion into local action, we must also gain an understanding of the mechanics of City Hall and how different actors fit into the overall structure. By examining the seismology of Toronto City Hall, this paper takes us one step closer to putting the pieces of our fractured city back together.