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We need to make better use of Toronto city staff, don’t need more politicians

By Allan Bonner      

Citizens in a democracy do need an advocate, just like a lawyer in court. But we have that advocate already on staff. They all just need to get their acts together and stick with citizens until the job is done. Turning another politician into a telephone therapist without qualifications won’t help.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, pictured Aug. 20, 2018, speaking at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference in Ottawa. The Hill Time photograph by Andrew Meade
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TORONTO—What some are calling a constitutional crisis in Canada is not going away soon, or perhaps ever. This crisis involves the province of Ontario’s Bill 5, which would have reduced the size of Toronto City Council to 25 Wards from 47. A judge ruled this an infringement of the Charter rights of politicians’ freedom of expression and voters’ rights to an effective government. Before the Ontario Court of Appeal stayed the lower court’s ruling on Sept. 19, pending a formal appeal, the province planned to use the notwithstanding clause to achieve the same end, and the City of Toronto may appeal its use.

The legal arguments are not all that interesting. The judge’s ruling is the law of the land. The notwithstanding clause is too. The politicians who gave us the clause (Bill Davis, Jean Chrétien, Roy Romanow, Roy McMurtry) denouncing its use is a bit rich, but that’s another column.

What will be with us a while are the political issues, and they may be more important. The Superior Court ruling found it significant that Bill 5 occurred in the “middle” of the election campaign. Bill 5 was given first reading on July 30 and royal assent on Aug. 14. Taking the rough mid-point of the bill’s life in the legislature on Aug. 6, that’s 77 days before the Oct. 22 election. If that’s the “middle” the judge may be implying that a municipal election is normally about 154 days long—more than five months. That’s more than two months longer than the longest federal election in our history. That’s 10 times longer than a provincial election in Newfoundland and Labrador. A touch longer and it may put the start of the election before donations can be made on May 1 or before many candidates have declared. I hope the judge meant to turn a phrase, rather than codify a municipal election period.

The first thing we need to determine in the modern era is how long an election period should be. This has long been debated with holidays intervening, harvesting of grain, bad weather in the winter, holidays in the summer, and so on. At the municipal level, election dates are fixed in late October in Ontario and a similar date in some other provinces. Surely that means that the serious campaign begins right after Labour Day—not the previous May. We could formalize a campaign lasting about 45 days to allow for events on the long weekend. That would put municipal campaigns at about the average length of a federal campaign and a little longer than many provincial ones. That’s enough time, I think.

The Superior Court ruling also noted the workload—“myriad of constituents’ grievances and concerns” which politicians must handle. Fair enough. Politicians do work hard, mostly seven days a week. But it was not that long ago that they had no help. Johnathan Craft has done a thoughtful look back at political staff in his chapter, “Out from the Shadows,” in The Handbook of Canadian Public Administration (Oxford).

Craft notes that it was 1974 when constituency offices were established. Two secretaries for each MP were authorized and budgets have blossomed since. This was about what was happening when I worked as a political staffer in municipal government in the 1980s. Counsellors were just getting a full complement of secretarial and scheduling help.

Citizens were reasonably well served before the staff and budget explosion. Now we have to decide how many politicians and staffers are really needed to run a city. We can also take a peak at our “weak mayor” system. Many American cities have their own constitutions and exist under a historical framework of strong states. They have strong mayors who dominate. We have mayors who have one vote, public speaking engagements, and can help a counsellor or bureaucrat attend a conference in Florida in January. The City of Toronto has more powers than most cities, but it’s still a weak mayor system.

As for the workload, there’s a simple solution—better use of staff, not more staff or more politicians. Most people call the wrong number when they’re trying to get action out of government. Most government people at the other end of the line can’t produce any action, or even the person who might. I mean no disrespect to either side, but I’ve dealt with this a lot. As a staffer to a mayor, I got regular calls and letters about federal and provincial issues. I recently studied the Municipal Emergency Plan of Barrie, Ont. It refers readers to HRDC’s office in town but doesn’t provide a number. The federal ministry in Ottawa referred me to the Toronto office which also couldn’t provide the number, but said they didn’t provide that help anyway.

Toronto has a 311 number for non-emergency matters. I’ve reported a developer who was blowing noxious construction dust around and trespassing. Dialing 311 produces a question—“What’s in the dust?” I guess, but am not qualified to guess. I’m referred to someone who has trouble looking up the building permits and wants an address for a hole in the ground on one small city block. I’m then referred to the provincial Ministry of the Environment, which refers me back to the city’s health officials. My next call is to waste the time of an elected official.

Citizens in a democracy do need an advocate, just like a lawyer in court. But we have that advocate already on staff. They all just need to get their acts together and stick with citizens until the job is done. Turning another politician into a telephone therapist without qualifications won’t help.

Urban planner Allan Bonner is a former political staffer who has subsequently consulted to a half a dozen municipal officials, a dozen Canadian premiers and 100 cabinet ministers. His latest book is Cyber City Safe.

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