REVISED: Finding your way through City Hall

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:

click on image for full size • illustration by Marlena Zuber

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:

Staff Reports

“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.

Public Consultation

“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:,,,

14 responses to “REVISED: Finding your way through City Hall

  1. I often use the Jarvis bike lanes when I’m in Toronto, but as a 905er I can’t sign the petition. I’ll spread the word instead, on Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth.

  2. When I tried to post this essay as a link on Facebook, it told me it had been flagged as abusive or spammy.

  3. Dave, you need to get serious (a plural “you”, meaning everyone who isn’t well represented by the Ford bloc in City Council).

    History shows how to effect change. You need to organize protests that directly affect the people targeted. Your links to contact people are going to the WRONG people. You need to target:

    Minnan-Wong, Shiner, Grimes and Parker

    And to a lesser extent, Ford and his cronies directly. There should be protests outside of these people’s houses – not at City Hall, where the councillors can drive into the parking garage and avoid them, but at their homes. Chanting mobs outside of their homes. I’m completely serious. These turkeys from suburbia think that they can screw up downtown and face no consequences. You need to put the consequences on them.

  4. MS: Whatever disagreement there is with public policies of councillors and the mayor, taking protests to their houses is a threatening move that affects the person’s and their families feeling of safety. It’s wrong.

  5. I just started participating in a public consultation that will affect the future of Dufferin Grove Park. If I had concerns about the weight it would have on the final decision, this makes them all the graver. While I’m not convinced (yet) of protesting councillors at home, the issue is broader than the bike lanes or the park – how do citizens stop the City from acting with impunity? In a company, one would get reprimanded – possibly even fired – for ignoring decision-making protocol. What consequences do councillors face for side-stepping due process? How do we create some? Is there a councillor who is willing to propose a new law to prohibit last-minute agenda add-ons for items that have a staff report or public consultation associated with them?

  6. Luckily for us today, historically many progressives have not shared MacDermid’s wimpiness. If you’re not willing to even slightly inconvenience the powers that be, you are utterly irrelevant, and deservedly so.

    • MS: I didn’t say that you couldn’t inconvenience the the powers that be, just that taking the fight to their homes goes to far. Do you want people who disagree with you showing up at your home?

  7. Dave: what happened with Jarvis was not that much different that what has happened in the past on bike issues at PWIC. My previous experience with making multiple deputations about the bike lanes on Annette was that public input at the meeting didn’t seem to be that crucial. Last minute amendments and new motions are not uncommon. What is different this time is the composition of the committee itself. The other thing that was interesting to track in prior cases were the changes that were made in various recommendations in between the PWIC meeting and the City Council Meeting. I think that input to councillors from their own constituents was crucial in this regard. Annette was an important case since the bike lanes went in over the objections of the local councillor (Saundercook) in the face of massive local support documented by City Staff. I do worry that the sections of the Annette / Dupont bike lane that were put in by Perks and Giambrone went in without public consultation, and they may be targets for being rolled back if we cannot reach out effectively to the relevant councillors.

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  10. Alayne McGregor

    Why don’t you launch a formal complaint to the Minister of Municipal Affairs, asking that all decisions where Toronto City Council did not properly follow its procedure bylaw be overturned?

    One of the basics of a procedure bylaw, which cities must have under the Municipal Act in Ontario, is proper notice. Unless the committee explicitly waived that (which requires unanimous or near-unanimous approval), they’re breaking their own bylaws, and can be held to account. See and particularly sections 238 and 270

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  13. Pingback: How the Jarvis bike lanes became collateral damage in a fictitious war | Serendipity

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