Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Food for Thought

John Sewell is running for Council in the City of Toronto. Sewell, author, columnist and former Toronto mayor, believes - I mean he really believes - in local government. Hi s book “A New City Agenda (Zephyr Press - 2004) is instructive in framing the issues facing municipalities and is worth a look as we approach local elections on November 13th.

The problem: The provincial and federal governments have the power and the money but can’t deliver the goods.

Sewell argues, our city governments “excite significant expectation” but don’t have the authority or resources to meet them. For most of us significant expectations are reserved for Roll-up-the-Rim-Days, not public policy ideas. Nonetheless Sewell’s, admittedly Torontocentric book, is full of good ideas and insights.

Sewell makes the case for more power at the local level. To the cities he’d transfer control of welfare, childcare and legislative power over roads. He would reallocate “a large chunk” of health dollars so that the “more efficient and less expensive” community health care model becomes “firmly established.“ Drawing on Transitions, an 1988 report which looked at social assistance, Sewell recommends establishing an advisory committee to plan the coordination of delivery of income support programs for women, children and youth.


Looking for ideas? John Sewell has many.

Who could argue with municipalities getting financial tools to respond to the needs of immigrants, reducing vehicular traffic or strengthening the oversight function of police boards? Other arguments, like allowing cities to establish rent controls, as Toronto asked the province to do in 1974, will meet with significant opposition.

You can’t talk about local government without looking at the unfair property tax system. Sewell would reform that 19th century relic so that properties are assessed based on the services they consume rather than their presumed market value.

It is noteworthy that only 10% of all tax revenues generated in the country go to cities. Studies show that the difference between the value of taxes collected and the value of services provided results in cities subsidizing senior government. This very large “tax surplus” means Toronto funds the senior levels by about $10 billion a year (or $4,000 per person). Sewell’s solution would be to return that surplus to the cities or, at the very least, give the locals more taxing powers.

That mainstay of local government - planning and development - would also change by freeing the city of provincial control and allowing the local level to create their own review panel. This “downloading” of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) will certainly pique the interest of those development industry suits who haunt the corridors of local government.

Borrowing from Marshall McLuahan (“Decentralization can’t be done centrally.“) Sewell understands that those with power won‘t willingly give it up. How then would he get new powers for municipalities? Put simply, city huggers must make a “compelling case about solutions they have in mind.” You’ll find the beginning of a case in these pages.

Is Local Government Ready?

It seems though, before embarking on a reform agenda, someone has to make the case that local government is up to the task. Sewell hasn’t done that. To be taken seriously we need more diversity on our councils. Funding needs to be put in place so that potential candidates don’t need huge resources and/or friends in the development business to get elected. If we’re talking about giving more powers to local government we need to find ways to make local politics more accessible and more democratic.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Burlington Election #1

November 13th. Municipal election day.

Burlington’s is guaranteed to be the most interesting race since 1997 when two-term “alderman” Rob MacIsaac defeated colleagues Barry Quinn and Denis Lee and captured the Burlington Mayor’s chair.

Local voters don’t engage unless there is a contest for mayor. There will be a good one this year.

The Candidates

Fifteen-year Council veteran Joan Lougheed is in.

Rick Burgess, lawyer and past Chamber of Commerce President, is running.

Cam Jackson, Burlington MPP forever (twenty-two years), isn’t “official” yet. He’ll announce his candidacy in late September.

There are others. (See the city’s website www.burlington.ca)

Ward races for six Council seats will interest voters owing to the competitive mayor’s race.

We’re number one but we need to try harder

Voters yawned when the top job was uncontested in 2003. More than eighty-five percent stayed home - top in the GTA. Call me na├»ve but I’ll contend that good public dialogue on issues will raise interest and boost turnout?

Issues that Count

1. Our Environment

Local government matters on this file. Hands up, though, if you remember an election campaign when our environment was an important consideration?

2. Intensification

Cities must intensify (i.e., build in previously developed areas) to make better use of urban space. Some citizens don’t agree. They won’t be silent.

3. Waste Management

Regional issues typically fly below the radar. Halton’s plan to consider building an energy-from-waste facility should get airtime. (More at www.halton.ca. Click on energy from waste.)

4. Gridlock

Suburban car cultured citizens are grouchier as that quick trip to the mall gets longer and longer.

Phoney Issues

1. High Taxes

Ever heard a candidate say taxes are too low? Fact is, we are now awaking to the serious harm perpetrated on us by those 90’s tax cut loonies. The issue now: what can be done to repair the damage?

2. Parking

Drivers become hot under the hood when unable to locate a parking spot. Worse, if you can imagine, they may actually have to pay. Councillors learned this hard lesson recently when they raised downtown rates to a whopping 50 cents per hour.

3.I’ve lived here for...

Not an issue really but local candidate’s bonafides inevitably include the length of their residency in the community.

Understanding the community, knowing the issues, and having a plan to act matter more.

Two or three postings per week will amplify the above.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Big Picture?

It is not all big picture stuff at City Hall.

Take last Tuesday night's Community and Corporate Services Committee.

  • Lights at the local soccer field are too bright for neighbours - or one neighbour anyway. Can we shut them off early? A question: If you buy a house beside a soccer field with lights would you expect that the lights will never be turned on?
  • A group from a city advisory committee leaves as the meeting bogs down with questions to staff on a transit report. We'll hear from the advisory committee another time.
  • A Councillor has questions regarding notification to residents about a road race taking place in their neighbourhood.

Snow in August

It is the hottest day of summer and your Councillor is worried about snow or specifically windrow. (Windrow is the pile of snow left in front of a driveway after the plow has been by.)

Staff, after a year studying the problem of windrow removal, have come back with a recommendation: Another year of study.

We move slowly in local government but surely a program such as Oakville's which is designed to be no burden to the taxpayer can be tried. Seniors and eligible disabled citizens will pay $80 for the program.

Some Councillors want seniors left out but after some debate a motion is passed:

That the Director of Roads and Park Maintenance be directed to pursue an agreement with Halton Helping Hands to expand the windrow clearing program currently in place in the Town of Oakville, to Burlington for the 2006/2007 winter season....

Not big picture but, hopefully, a helpful program for some in our City.

Friday, August 04, 2006

What this blog is about

Local politics. Local government. Municipal politicians.

I’ll stretch out a bit to touch on federal and provincial governments as local government interfaces with these “senior” bodies. Local governments around the country do similar stuff. All worry about downtown parking; plow snow; keep the parks clean and green; oversee the City Manager/Town Clerk; hear delegations concerned about declining property values etc..……….If you agree with this premise my experiences as a local councillor in the City of Burlington and a Regional Councillor in southern Ontario’s Halton Region may be of interest.

What, me Blogging?

I’m what the Mayor calls a “retreaded” politician. Earlier this year I answered the call accepting a Council appointment to fill an eight month vacancy in Ward 5. I was deemed a better choice than nineteen other candidates because:

• I had served two three-year terms in the nineties and represented a significant portion of the ward and

• I indicated that I wouldn’t run in this November’s elections.

I’m doing the same work as my colleagues but unlike most of them I’m not chasing votes this fall.

Call it a unique perspective. Is it worth blogging about? We’ll see.

Tough Work if you can get it

Upon my appointment many insiders offered both congratulations and condolences. Appropriate given the tough job that municipal politicians have. Speaking of tough jobs it is Saturday and a first posting seems a good diversion from reading several staff reports on sign variances. Heh, starting isn’t as easy as Biz Stone’s WHO LET THE BLOGS OUT said it would be.But here we go with some reflections from those eight years (98- 05) when there were no evening meetings to attend and no agendas to read.

=======================================================================Last Last year a federal politician made some disparaging and stupid remarks about municipal councillors. It made me mad enough to put pen to paper. Here is a slightly updated version:

Judy Sgro, a former Liberal Cabinet Minister, has taken a cheap shot at local politicians. According to the Toronto Star, Ms. Sgro, in defending her shortcomings as a Cabinet Minister, said:“You can get away with poor judgement at the municipal level, but you can’t get away with poor judgement in Ottawa.”

As a retreaded municipal politician I must register my strong objections to these remarks which slight the many dedicated, hard-working individuals who have served and continue to toil in the council chambers of our great nation. Sgro, a former Councillor ought to know better. Let some of these leaders talk to us of the spirit of democracy that lives in these local halls. Do they exercise poor judgement? You decide.

Allan Lamport, Mayor of Toronto 1952- 1954 understood consensus building:“I deny the allegations, and I defy the allegators.”

But politics is a tough business, one that requires, as John A MacDonald noted, “great coolness.”

Municipal leaders know this only too well. Thomas J. Irwin, former Mayor of Sault St. Marie was noted for his coolness under fire:“Show me the verbal agreement. Show me the verbal agreement.”

His worship Mayor Lamport again:“When you’re talking about me, keep your mouth shut.”

And John Sewell, political guru and one term Toronto mayor, can attest to the talent at local councils:“I only ran for Mayor because the others were dodos.”

And how about a word or two from Mel Lastman who served for nearly thirty years as Mayor of North York and the City of Toronto. “I apologize. I apologize....” Well, perhaps another time, Mel.

But what do I know. Unlike former North York Councillor Sgro I never made it to the show.
Well, I took a shot at the Province - sort of the American Hockey League of politics - but just didn’t have what it takes.

Bill VanderZalm made it to that level and became premier of British Columbia, our third largest province, in fact. And it says here that the Zalm, a former Councillor, would have made to the big leagues until, in his words: “We kind of had the wool pulled out from under us.” But we must look to the senior level to find citizens whose destiny it was to lead. Pierre Elliott Trudeau for one: “I acted on information I have been accumulating since I was a three-year- old..”

In addition to humility Trudeau brought an understanding and affection for the entire nation:

“I just think you Westerners should take over this country if you are so smart.”

And in Trudeau’s tradition, in fact the Liberal tradition, the country always, always comes first.

“I’m not interested in patronage because I’m a Liberal, ” pronounced our 20th Prime Minister, Jean Chretien.Indeed.

But let us not just pay homage to the Liberals. Many Canadians didn’t like Conservative PM Brian Mulroney. We understand some found him devious, a back stabber. But Mulroney listened, changed his ways.

When told, for instance, to curb his name-dropping tendencies he had already given it some thought:
“I know. The Queen Mother was telling me that just the other day.”

My guru is Allan Lamport because “(i)f someone is going to stab me in the back, I wanna be there.”

We wish you well Ms Sgro. To paraphrase former Ontario Speaker Al McLean, your conduct had nothing to do with you.

And frankly we don’t see much difference between the politics practiced in Ottawa, the provincial capitals and city halls.
Quotes are taken from canadianquotations.com and other public sources.
12:41 PM