City Hall Task Force Report: A Practical Blueprint for Change?

The University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance recently published a review of Toronto Council with a view to improving how it operates.

I disagree strongly with many parts of this report and note that among members of its task force opinions were not unanimous as noted in the body of the document.

This page has been created to hold the link to my response. I know that for many readers this is off of the beaten path of transit commentary, and both the original study and my response are long reads. However, the operation of City Council directly affects transit policy and funding in Toronto, and I felt that a rebuttal of the report was in order as publicity for it increases.

In brief, the review spends too much time “fixing” problems it does not understand. After starting from a premise that the Mayor should have more powers, there is a clear slant in how some of the options are presented. The report notes that on several issues, members of the advisory committee did not agree and recommendations had to be thinned out or removed. This begs the question of how much was taken out, and what disagreeable policy directions did these points entail.

Probably the most ridiculous point in the paper is a citation of a study from the Manning Institute, that bastion of liberal thought, about how Toronto Council works. The author claims that the vast majority of business at Council is “procedural” and implies through this that a great deal of time is wasted on items of little importance. However, the source data for that study shows quite clearly that the substantial majority of business at council is the passing of motions related to report approvals and amendments, the fundamental business of any such body. Moreover, the Manning Institute did not bother to assess the time required for each item, and therefore treats all votes if they were of equal merit as Council business. This is, quite bluntly, sloppy research that any first year student should be ashamed of. The School of Public Policy & Governance has no such qualms, it would appear.

4 thoughts on “City Hall Task Force Report: A Practical Blueprint for Change?

  1. I have been watching City Council on Rogers or the internet for about 8 years now and I couldn’t agree with you more Steve.

    – While it is theoretically a “weak mayor” system, the mayor has significant powers with appointments to the various committees which set the agenda.
    – While there are a large number of agenda items, most are passed in an omnibus fashion.
    – When items are being debated, councilors, who probably weren’t going to talk on an item, add their name to the speakers list, to just add their support to a position without adding any new ideas. They should “call the question” more often.
    – While procedural votes sound like a waste of time, they are there to stop members of gaming the system and have developed over centuries of parliamentary practice. Council’s procedures are Robert’s rules of order with a few changes.

    The one change I would make is on “waive referral” which seems to take 45 minutes after every lunch. Can’t that be done in an omnibus way?

    Steve: “Waive referral” applies only to motions brought to the Council Meeting without notice where normally the business involved would be the jurisdiction of one of the Standing Committees. Some are deemed by the Speaker to be urgent because they involve events that will occur before the next Council session, but some are not. Then it becomes a question of “is this a motion that the majority wish to allow being debated today, or do they want to effectively veto it by sending it to a Committee where it will die”. There is also some game playing here with motions that members hope to slip through that would never stand up to Committee scrutiny. Some of these are a pain in the ass, but the procedure serves its purpose. Today’s agenda had an unusually large number of these items because the next meeting is in early October.

    An omnibus response doesn’t work because the vote could be different for each item.

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  2. Brilliant response Steve.

    Two things jump at me:

    – I know I shouldn’t be but I am disappointed that a school of public policy and governance could produce such a report. Then again I remind myself that professors are human and that being a consultant is an important part of their work beside working at the university. Hence when there’s money involved (there will be later in future contracts) someone will try the hardest to prove a point.

    – Many who worked on municipal amalgamation in both Ontario and Quebec admitted years later that one of the objectives was to create a permanent conflict between the former suburbs and the old city core.

    And it obviously works and I believe explains some of the grandstanding done by municipal politicians. Short of the electorate demanding better from their politicians, and most don’t, I don’t see that dynamic changing.

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  3. If the items were put online sooner the members could for the most part submit their questions in writing before hand…and then receive their answers in writing before the meeting…if all questions and answers were made public in the meeting minder along with the items…similar to what they do with public correspondence…

    There obviously needs to then be time for “political questions”….but the speaker could rule questions that have been asked online out of order and refer the questioner to the item.

    Another thing I would like to see is the ability for the public to ask questions of staff…either in writing or during deputations…

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  4. Hi Steve,

    Thanks again for taking the time to read and respond to the report. We had hoped it would generate discussion and we’re happy to see that happening.

    The point of the report is not to convince everyone that only this group can possibly know what’s best, or that only these recommendations as written can fix what’s broken. We’ve simply put our ideas on the table for discussion — ideas which the group believes, in its experience, are capable of appealing to people from many sides of the political spectrum.

    Two quick clarifications. More details below.

    From a process perspective, I’d like to clarify that the report is a summary of the group’s collective thoughts. Each Task Force member reviewed and approved the final package of recommendations.

    As for substance, the chief concern you raise around centralizing the mayor’s power is one that came up in our debates, yes. But I want to be clear: ultimately, the group did not recommend that the mayor should be given additional political powers relative to Council. In fact, nothing in the report takes away the power of councillors to question, criticize, or reject the mayor’s agenda.

    Thanks again for adding your voice to the discussion.

    Gabriel

    Re mayoral powers:

    As noted on pg. 16, the group was clear on the question of the role of the mayor: the mayor should *not* be given more authority *relative to Council*. Where the group *did* call for additional authority is in his/her *executive* capacity as chief executive. We explain the distinction between political vs. executive authority on p. 17 of the report. Take a closer look at Figure 2, and you’ll see that the budget process reforms we propose would barely register as a notch down the “ladder,” so to speak, toward “stronger” executive powers. By comparative standards, the mayor’s powers as chief executive in Toronto are nominal. What the group proposed — i.e. that he/she make an annual mayoral address to Council, and give more transparent direction to the City Manager and Council as to his/her priorities — does not even qualify as “enhanced proposal authority” along the lines of mayoral powers in cities like Winnipeg, where the mayor presents a “mayor’s budget” to Council for approval. (In fact, we specifically raised the idea of a Mayor’s Budget to the group, and they overwhelmingly dismissed the idea).

    Re consensus among the group:

    The fact that the report acknowledges areas of disagreement is, in IT language you may appreciate, a “feature, not a bug.” These sections are included as a matter of transparency, to show that the ideas presented in the report are *not* part of some secret agenda. I’ll reiterate how the process worked: Brian and I gathered a group of nine individuals who we believe represent not only a variety of professional experiences, but also political perspectives. The group met in public, where anyone was welcome to observe. We landed on basic principles and early language for each recommendations at the meetings themselves. We then circulated more complete drafts to the group over the past month or so to make sure every recommendation was satisfactory to each member, and reflected their contributions to group. Neither Brian nor I added or modified any language without endorsement from the group. Once complete, we circulated a draft to the Clerk’s Office to ensure technical accuracy (i.e., to make sure we cited the appropriate procedural by-laws, etc.). We provided a final, production version of the report to the City Manager’s Office a week prior to its public release as a professional courtesy and for information purposes only, as the group publicly stated it would at our final public meeting in April. At no time during the writing process did we ask the mayor, any city councillor, or anyone from the their offices, to read or comment on the report.

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