Eight months ago, I published an essay about the inner workings of City Hall. It was an excerpt from Local Motion, a book I had recently co-edited with Coach House Press. It included a pretty map, that showed generally how the decision-making process is supposed to work:
This is how the essay began:
“City Hall can be a confusing place. But it belongs to all of us, and it’s important to know how it works and to feel comfortable walking through it’s corridors. City Hall is where decisions are made that affect our streets, our parks and our services. Here is a brief overview of how these decisions are made, and how you can participate and make sure that your voice is heard.”
Yesterday, I spent ten hours at City Hall trying to participate in the democratic process. It turns out that I was mistaken in my understanding of how things work at City Hall. So, in fairness to my readers, I present you with an updated version that more accurately reflects the current political culture at 100 Queen Street West:
And here is the revised text:
“City councillors make all the final decisions at City Hall, but most of the research, planning and writing leading up to votes at council is done by city staff. Staff reports include background information on the issue under discussion and, often, a recommendation from staff.”
Update: It seems that staff recommendations carry no actual weight and while a report can take months to research and prepare, the recommendations can be ignored and re-written in just moments. For example, yesterday’s staff report presented positive statistics regarding three bike lanes. On Jarvis Street, in particular, they provided information that illustrated how well the street was working - for all road users. Cycling has tripled as a result of the new lane, from 290 riders in an 8-hour period to 890. Meanwhile, vehicle usage has remained constant, and slight delays in rush hour traffic were going to be fixed with a new advanced green. For the other two lanes, in Scarborough, they also reported that traffic is flowing smoothly, for both cyclists and drivers. Councillors ignored the staff report, and voted to remove all three lanes.
Standing Committee & Community Council
“Before a staff report goes to City Council, it goes to a smaller committee of councillors. The Community Councils and Standing Committees provide the most substantial opportunity for citizens to be heard at city hall: at these meetings, any resident of the city can speak for five minutes about any issue. The presentation is called a ‘deputation,’ and it’s your chance to express your opinion in front of councillors, city staff and the media.”
Update: Citizens can only speak on an issue, if that issue is actually on the agenda. What we’re frequently seeing at City Hall is major policy items being added at the last moment, after the public has spoken. Let’s take Jarvis for example. Councillor John Parker could have put his motion to remove bike lanes on the agenda. That way, the 1,000+ people who ride their bikes on the street would have had a chance to speak and explain why their personal safety is important. But there was no motion to remove Jarvis on the agenda. Nor was there a motion to remove bike lanes in Scarborough. The public was never notified of these motions, and they only appeared at the eleventh hour – AFTER five hours of public deputations. These bike lane removals have been planned for months, but Councillors intentionally withheld their motions, misleading the public and stifling public engagement.
If these motions had been on the agenda I can guarantee you that hundreds of cyclists, concerned about their safety, would have been at that meeting. And that is exactly why the motions were not on the agenda. Councillors are scared of hearing from voters.
“Substantial plans for new bylaws or development plans will often trigger a public consultation process, which is organized by city staff. These events are designed to present a recommendation (or a list of options) to the public and solicit feedback from residents.”
Update: The Jarvis bike lane removal is a major policy proposal. It will affect the lives of thousands of people who live, work, drive, bike and go to school on the street. This is exactly the type of proposal that deserves a public consultation, especially considering that consultation was intentionally stifled at Committee.
But when Councillor Mike Layton moved a reasonable motion asking for a public consultation process, only one Councillor voted with him: Gord Perks. The others voted AGAINST having a consultation. Those Councillors were: Mark Grimes, John Parker and David Shiner. This was shocking to everyone in the room, considering that Parker admitted that he had never even consulted with the City Councillor who actually has Jarvis in her Ward: Kristyn Wong-Tam. Earlier in the day, Parker suggested that the bike lanes in Scarborough should be removed because the local Councillor knows her constituents best, and she is confident that they want the lanes removed. But for Jarvis, he refused not only to ask Wong-Tam for her opinion, but refused her residents the chance to be heard.
At Thursdays meeting, all three of these mechanisms failed. Staff advice was dismissed, the Committee process was circumvented, and consultation was denied.
A few months ago, I stated on the radio that Rob Ford “might end up being a real good mayor – in terms of listening to people’s ideas.” I have no regrets about being optimistic at the time, and going into this Council term with an open mind. I always give people the benefit of the doubt, both socially and politically. I’ve enjoyed getting to know some of the people in the Mayor’s office, and I still think they are decent folks. But when it comes to developing policy and “listening to people”, this administration seems to have proven that they have no interest in listening to anyone – except themselves.
Important: City Council still has final say on this decision:
If you want to help save the Jarvis Bike lanes here are 5 things you can do:
1) Join the Toronto Cyclists Union
2) Contact your City Councillor
3) Sign this petition (and this one too)
4) Come to City Hall on July 12/13 for the final vote. (Facebook event)
5) Contact the Mayor, and Councillors Wong-Tam, Matlow & Parker: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com