Friday, January 25, 2008


On Monday night Burlington City Council will consider spending up to $40,000 to get public input regarding the proposed Performing Arts Centre. You can find that report CC-241-07 on the City’s website.

Your blogger believes in public input. You can never have too much of it.

In this particular instance there hasn’t been an actual poll done on a Performing Arts Centre (PAC) in quite some time. Not since November 2004 actually.

Previous Poll

In that poll only 78% of Burlington respondents thought building a PAC was a "good" or "excellent" idea. When given detailed financial implications the support increased, but only slightly, to 83%. One of eleven respondents was strongly opposed to this idea and, it must be noted, with a margin of error in the survey of 4.9% this opposing figure could be as high as one in seven against. Artsy types will try to convince you that the margin of error could also indicate that only one in twenty is opposed. Well, that can certainly be clarified with another poll. Let’s get on with it, I say.

Next Steps

Doing a survey will add an additional cost of $400,000 in construction related cost escalation to the project (about $120,000 per month); but, as I said, you can never have too much public input.

It wouldn’t hurt to test public opinion on a few more important public issues at the same time. That would be a good use of taxpayers’ hard earned dollars.

Here are a few questions that could be asked.

Should Saskatchewan be required to have daylight-saving time like the rest of Canada?

Did the Leafs do the right thing in replacing General Manager John Ferguson Jr. earlier this week?

Would you be in favour of renting out the Council Chambers on Monday nights so that comedians could perform and raise money to pay for the additional costs to the Performing Arts Centre that will result from this survey?

I admit that I’m not a pollster. These questions could undoubtedly be better worded -but you can never have too much public input.

Wouldn’t you agree?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sprawl - Cause and Impacts

A different take on what ails local government today can be found in Lawrence Solomon ‘s book Toronto Sprawls - A History (U of T Press, 2007).

His theme is this:

Government did not take a supporting role in creating the mess of urban sprawl we have today but rather took “the lead role” and “also directed the show.”

The book, a lean 120 pages, puts forward a well-documented case that citizens wanted to live in more compact cities. Governments “acted not to satisfy the public’s desires but to frustrate them.”

For example, early 20th century local government was antagonistic to the idea of low rise apartment buildings as a dangerous social intervention that ”compromised child rearing, promoted sexual promiscuity and otherwise threatened family life.” Ever wondered how the term “Toronto the Good” originated?

Suburban growth was actively promoted by government throughout the century. First (around 1902) there was the garden suburb movement which addressed the “overcrowding” issue; then an unsuccessful attempt to enhance town life with indoor rural industries following WWI; then the Veterans Land Act that tried to entice veterans into becoming part time farmers.

All these policies were failures as they were not congruent with people’s desires.

The Fifties and On

With the establishment of Metro Toronto (1953) government moved to “partial amalgamation, full sprawl” the very purpose, Solomon argues, being to take taxes from the city (Toronto) “in order to fund services needed in the suburbs” (North York, Scarborough etc..).

This trend continued through the Robarts/Davis years with more partial amalgamations(Halton, Peel Durham and York.)

It has played out with the City of Toronto initially subsidizing the Metro suburbs through various levies and now Metro residents subsidizing the costs of the GTA suburbs through provincial taxes.

The author depends on research from the sixties (Clark - Suburban Society) to make the case that most people who left for the burbs moved there “half heartedly.” Apparently they would have preferred the superior lifestyle of the urban centre. Your blogger has some doubts on this point.

It is clear though that prior to “subsidized sprawl” the burbs were developing compactly along transportation corridors.

What Might Have Been?

The author believes that had governments the will sprawl could have been stopped years ago. The City of Toronto could have achieved densities similar to the desirable areas of the world’s great cities and accommodated the population of Metro and most of the GTA.

What Can be Done?

Solomon says sprawl can still be stopped. Congestion pricing, replacing market value assessment with user fees or other forms of taxation and by allowing widespread deregulation are some options.

Food for thought.


**In spite of legislative restrictions 20,000 new apartment units were created from 1921 to 1931 typically in three and four storey walk ups.

**The four lane Toronto Bypass (the 401) was described as a “motorists dream” providing some of the most soothing scenery in Metro - “a long way from the big city” when completed in 1956.

**Latest density figures (people per acre)

Old City of Toronto 28.0
North York, Etobicoke, Scarborough 10.13
GTA Regions 6.8

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Burlington Council Makeup

Years ago I learned that one could be considered informed on local matters if one read the Burlington Post.

I strive to follow this sage advice but admit to slipping from time to time as I lose sight of the news under the cover of all those ads.

Anyway lately I noticed a front page story capturing the concerns of many of my neighbours. It seems that the leaf collection program has been vanquished by the earlier than usual arrival of winter. Indeed, emerging from my self-imposed winter hibernation I observed piles of last fall’s raked leaves appearing from under the melting snow. Global warming, I guess, but what can I do about it? Leave it to the Prime Minister.

This story though caught my eye as a matter I could sink my teeth into.

“Is city council too small?

Jason Misner, Burlington Post reporter says it is (too small) and we do need more politicians in a “My View” opinion piece (December 28th).

Misner an earnest, hard-working reporter who has covered Burlington Council for nearly two years makes a good case for this much needed reform. I’ll get back to Jason’s argument but first some historical perspective.


Burlington functioned pretty well with a 17-member Council - two per ward (one who covered Regional and city duties, one who was strictly a city representative) until 1997. Our current MP Mike Wallace caught up in the Mike Harris Commonsense thinking in vogue in 1996 saw it differently. Less government was the order of the day and fewer politicians were part and parcel of that now largely discredited and simplistic attack on local democracy.

Wallace took the lead and with the support of then Mayor Mulkewich convinced a majority of Council in a 9 -8 vote to downsize to its current six ward reps and a Mayor. Did any other Council in Ontario downsized itself to this extent?

Back to the Post Story

Misner argues that Council has a heavy workload and handles millions of dollars. He is worried that overworked Councillors may make hasty decisions because they could be tired at the end of a long day. He thinks “that issues that shouldn’t have been pursued” such as fighting Wal Mart would have had a different outcome with more than seven councillors.

More importantly in this blogger’s view is the fact that with the potential of Councillor member absences or conflicts of interest important decisions can be made for a community of 155,000 by as few as three people. (Joan Little has spoken strongly to this point in her Spectator column on more than one occasion.)


Raising the number of Councillors to nine or eleven has merit. However, such a change would impact Halton Region Council where Burlington with about a third of the Regional population has one third of the representatives (7 of 21). Increasing the size of Halton Council isn’t on. Some sort of division of duties so that some Burlington Councillors serve at the Region and others just serve at the City might work.

Or we could just get rid of the Region as a political body. While the services it provides are important and typically well run the Halton politicians spend most of their time debating what to put in letters to senior levels of government all saying variations of the same theme - we need more money.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for the Region to go. Hopefully though, Jason Misner’s column will inspire some dialogue on reforming Burlington Council.