Connecting the dots: Exposing the influence of lobbyists at City Hall


Five years ago, Toronto City Council banned all corporate and union contributions for municipal election campaigns. This was supposed to eliminate the influence of big money at City Hall, and give power back to you and me – the voters.

What would you say if I told that the situation has gotten worse since then, instead of better? What if I told you that corporations are still funneling thousands of dollars into election campaigns, but in a way that is harder to track and less accountable? Read on.

Every day, corporate lobbyists roam the corridors of City Hall trying to influence the outcome of government decisions. They’re paid generously for their work, and they’re good at it.

We have three important mechanisms in place to minimise the influence of theses lobbyists and to ensure that politicians remain accountable to the voters.  But these mechanisms are all failing us – because no one is connecting the dots between them.

Here they are:

1) The lobbyist registry.  This program was created under former mayor David Miller. It’s a good program. It requires that each and every meeting or communication between a lobbyist and Councillor must be publicly declared. That way, we know who is trying to influence whom.

2) Election contributions. We all know that money can corrupt the decision-making process. That’s why all candidates running for City Council must publicly declare the source of all of their campaign contributions.

3) Voting records. The accountability of our City Councillors depends on the availability of their voting records. How could we judge their performance, without knowing how they voted? The City’s TMMIS system, provides that data. (Terrible name… great resource)

So – no problem, right? We’ve got the lobbyist registry, a list of all election contributions, and a record of every vote at City Hall. All the bases are covered.  Our Councillors’ work is transparent and accountable.

Except for one problem: No one is looking at most of this data. More importantly, no one is looking for patterns that may exist between these three data sets. Or, in other words, no one is connecting the dots.


Here’s a good way of looking at it:

You’ve probably seen (and used) the mandatory labeling that we see on packaged foods.  It provides you with information about the food’s nutritional valfood-labelsue, including vitamins, sugar content, calories, etc.  These charts are comprised of three pieces of data:

a) The amount of each nutrient contained in the package.

b) The Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for each nutrient.

c) The “Serving Size”.

This is good data to have, but what makes it really effective and practical is that Health Canada forces all food manufacturers to cross-reference all three pieces of data, on one simple label.

And although the Lobbyist Registry and the mandatory food labeling legislation were both introduced in the same year (2007), it’s interesting to note how differently they dictate the rules and formats for disclosure.  Imagine if the food labeling operated the same way as our mechanisms at City Hall. You want to buy a box of cereal, and you have to check three websites to find out the nutrition value. One website tells you how much calcium is in the whole box, another website tells you how much calcium you need each day, and a third website tells you how many bowls of cereal are in each box. Prediction: No one would look at any of the websites, and it would be as if the data didn’t exist.

And that’s what we have at City Hall.  Here’s a real-life example of what I’m talking about:

Last year, a company called Allvision teamed up with Metrolinx to apply for permission to install eight massive digital billboards on highways 401 and 427.  These billboards break every rule in the book: they’re too big, too bright, and are extremely dangerous for drivers (since they are  literally designed with the sole purpose of distracting drivers’ attention away from the road.  It’s insane). City staff recommended against the signs (of course). The citizen Sign Advisory Committee rejected the signs too. City Councillors were presented with all the facts about safety, about neighbourhood impact, about the lack of community consultation, incorrect information used in the application…. but they voted in favour of the signs anyway.

And that was it.  The media pretty much ignored the whole thing.  No one knew it happened.

So – how DID it happen? Why did Councillors ignore the data, ignore science, and ignore the proper democratic process? Well, if you look at the lobbyist registry, you’ll find some clues.  Let’s just take two of the registered lobbyists, and see how many meetings they had about the Metrolinx billboards.

Lobbyist Paul Sutherland met with:
Paul Ainslie (twice), Michelle Berardinetti (twice), Shelley Carroll, Josh Colle, Gary Crawford, Frank Di Giorgio (four times), Doug Ford (five times), Mark Grimes, Norman Kelly (twice), Giorgio Mammoliti (twice), Peter Milczyn  (four times), Denzil Minnan-Wong (twice), Frances Nunziata (twice), David Shiner, Karen Stintz, Amin Massoudi (Doug Ford’s Executive Assistant), Earl Provost (Mayor’s Chief of Staff – five times), Mike Makrigiorgos (Cesar Palacio’s Executive Assistant), Paul Saracino (political staffer) , Sheila Paxton (political staffer), Deputy City Manager (twice), and the Manager of the city’s Sign Unit.

Lobbyist Daniel Bordonali met with:
Paul Ainslie, Maria Augimeri (twice), Ana Bailão (six times), Michelle Berardinetti (twice), Shelley Carroll, Raymond Cho, Josh Colle (five times), Gary Crawford (three times), Vincent Crisanti, Janet Davis, Glenn De Baeremaeker (twice), Mike Del Grande (twice), Frank Di Giorgio, Paula Fletcher, Doug Ford (five times), Mark Grimes (twice), Doug Holyday, Norman Kelly (twice), Mike Layton (twice), Mike Layton, Chin Lee (four times), Peter Leon, Josh Matlow, Mary-Margaret McMahon, Peter Milczyn (seven times), Denzil Minnan-Wong, Frances Nunziata (three times), Cesar Palacio (twice), John Parker (twice), James Pasternak (twice), Anthony Perruzza (twice), Jaye Robinson (Jaye Robinson), David Shiner, Karen Stintz (six times), Adam Vaughan, plus seventy meetings with senior political staff (aides, Executive Assistants, Chiefs of staff, policy advisors, etc)

Woah.  Can you imagine how much $$ that costs?  There are literally HUNDREDS of meetings happening here, all on ONE SINGLE ISSUE.  Allvision and Metrolinx are trying as hard as they can to influence the process with paid lobbyists meeting repeatedly with Councillors and senior staff.

But let’s take a closer look. What about campaign contributions? As I noted earlier, in Toronto we’ve banned corporate donations to Council candidates.  So… Allvision and Metrolinx couldn’t be trying to influence the process by giving money directly to politicians’ campaigns… right?  wrong. A quick look at the Lobbyist Registry reveals this:



And that’s just the contributions from the 2010 election.  There are many, many more from the 2014 election. And some of those recent contributions were being made at the exact same time that the Councillors were voting. Think about this: A lobbyist can meet with a Councillor on a profitable issue, give that Councillor hundreds of dollars – the SAME WEEK – and then sit in the Council Chamber and watch the Councillor vote, one or two weeks later.  There are no rules in place to prevent any of this.

This is how decisions are being made at City Hall.  And we’re mostly blind to it.

mitchSome political activists have called for NASCAR-style uniforms for politicians, showing who all their “sponsors” are.  This would be funny and indeed useful for voters… but isn’t really a practical solution.  The practical approach is simple: a single website that aggregates all three data sets at City Hall, and produces charts and graphs automatically, for each Councillor, each lobbyist, and each vote, all cross-referenced and interactive.

Better yet, the two pre-vote data sets (lobbyist visits and financial contributions) should already be posted online, cross-referenced, BEFORE each vote. There could be a live-feed of each Council meeting, with charts being automatically produced before each vote.  How many Councillors were lobbied on this issue, how much money was spent, and who received that money?  This would be an amazing tool for citizens (and media), but could also perhaps have an impact on how politicians behave.

After all, the mandatory food labels don’t just inform shoppers, they also act as an incentive for food manufacturers to make healthier food. Knowing that the calorie count and sugar quantity is going to be prominently displayed, forces the companies to reduce the amount of sugar and calories in their food.

So perhaps politicians would behave differently as well, knowing that their meetings with lobbyists, and the dollars they have accepted directly from those lobbyists, was all publicly displayed clearly – before each vote.

So, do Toronto’s citizens have the skills to create this tool?  I think we do.  Here’s some good examples of good data work we’ve already seen about municipal issues:

So we know how to play with data in Toronto.  I’m hoping to pull a team together to look at this issue, and to try to create some new tools for citizens and media to use!

The movement for Open Data has been very successful at getting raw information available.  And the creation of the Lobbyist Registry and the banning of corporate election contributions were important steps.  But it’s time to connect the dots, and put all of this data to work!

If you think this is important, please share this post. And if you want to get involved – please let me know!


Under new management: Meet the 2015 RaBIT team!

Layout 1Eight years ago, I printed 500 copies of a flyer called “Let’s bring Instant Runoff Voting to Toronto”. I was tired of seeing distorted results after each election and I was frustrated by the negative campaigns, the lack of diversity and all the chatter about ‘splitting the vote’ and ‘strategic voting’. I was hoping to spark a discussion about our local voting system and simply let people know there was a better way to run our elections.

I never imagined that within a few years we’d be on the verge of becoming the first city in Canada to abandon the so-called “First-Past-the-Post” system, creating a new election culture that will be more fair and friendly.

PrintAlong the way, hundreds of volunteers have helped out with RaBIT and some have become part of our core team. This week, that core team is formally taking over the entire project!

Today is my last day with the RaBIT campaign as I’ve decided to step away from the project to focus on a book I’m writing about democracy, to work on a national campaign for proportional representation, to continue my work on the Reform Act and to coordinate a new provincial network of ranked ballot campaigns across Ontario.

nwvLkUVwKN2ULjYs1kWw4u_7zNAjxPgWBVKmRlCDc5o,Wf25X-ZHSGWbQqjanUuwOrfr1uP2GpUB-GNyHQBYwTo,mNAo3oYKC5Yb3gb58TVsvP4SWzKZC-67AjmuSHZzmPYRaBIT is moving forward from our grassroots beginnings and we’re formally registering as a non-profit organisation with a Board of Directors. The new board will be lead by our two top organisers, Katherine Skene and Desmond Cole. Together with the other ten board members (listed below), they’ll guide our campaign through the next stages.

I just want to take a moment to thank everyone who has helped out with this campaign, even in the smallest ways. Hundreds of you have e-mailed your City Councillors and many of you have attended our public events or volunteered at one of our information tables. Some of you have donated money to our campaign and over 8,500 of you signed our petition to the province.

I’ve learned so much on this campaign and your support has inspired me every step of the way.

I hope you’ll stay connected and involved. If we can maintain this momentum, we’re guaranteed to see ranked ballots being used in the 2018 municipal election.

2015 RaBIT Board of Directors:

    Desmond Cole (co-chair)
    Katherine Skene (co-chair)
    Chloe Doesburg
    Chris Drew
    Evan Dean
    Jeff Dennler
    Katherine Janicki
    Marjan Farahbaksh
    Michael Urban
    Miriam Fine
    Rodney Merchant
    Sarah Rimmington

Social Media Coordinator:
Michael Wheeler

Metrolinx continues to push for increased driver distraction

accidentThis week marks the National Day of Remembrance for Road Crash Victims.

Every single day Canadians of all ages die on our roads.  Surprisingly, the leading cause of fatal collisions is not speed nor alcohol.  The #1 cause of death on our streets is driver distraction.

That’s why governments, health agencies and community groups are trying desperately to reduce driver distraction.  Yet stunningly, Metrolinx remains the only government agency that is actively trying to increase driver distraction on our provincial highways. Continue reading

Colour in the streets • Bringing street murals to Toronto!

Across North America, neighbours are coming together to paint murals – on the road! The idea was born in Portland Oregon and has now spread to cities from coast to coast.

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The idea is simple: Street murals are a great way to slow down traffic, make the road safer and also to engage neighbours in a creative process to beautify the community and build stronger connections.

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Inspired by the folks down at Intersection Repair, we’ve started a street mural project in our neighbourhood, Regal Heights.  We’re hoping to paint our first community street mural during 2015, but for now we’re promoting the project and building local support with temporary chalk installations.

This weekend, we took over the intersection of Regal Road and Westmount Ave, in front of Regal Road Public School, and we created our first full-scale intersection mural.


Continue reading

Diversity our strength?


That’s the official motto of Toronto.  “Diversity our Strength”. 

We love to brag about our it.  The whole world, on our doorstep.  You can see it wherever you go.  Well, almost.  You don’t really see it at City Hall.

The corridors of power are still – in 2014 – dominated by white men.  Here are some charts showing how bad the discrepancy is, between who we are and who leads us (below).

women_2014 minorities_2014

Desmond Cole wrote a good piece about this today as well, check it out here. [Note, his numbers are a little different than mine.. I think because he only looked at the 44 Ward seats, and I included the full Council which is 45 seats].

One part of the problem is our voting system.  There’s a tonne of data showing that voting systems have a huge impact on representation and diversity.  Learn more at RaBIT, Unlock Democracy and Better Ballots!

But to be honest, there is no simple solution.  It’s a problem that is fueled by cultural barriers, media bias, voting systems, economic realities, and many other factors.

The main thing, is to keep pointing it out.  To ignore the lack of representation is to normalise it – and legitimise it.  Only by raising awareness and speaking out, will we be able to spark some change.

You know something’s wrong, when your City Council representing “The Most Diverse City in the World” …looks like a lot like the Maple Leafs.


Did you ever have to make up your mind?

This is it folks!  Nine months after nominations began, election day is upon us.

Tomorrow, we get to choose a new mayor, 44 City Councillors, and our local school trustees.  They will shape the city around us for the next four years.

Lucky for you, a whole bunch of folks have gone out of their way to make it easier! Take a few minutes to check out these amazing community-driven election resources:

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Picnic update: David + Dave!


So four weeks ago I wrote a blog post about my birthday picnic, scheduled for October 5th, 2pm, at Trinity Bellwoods Park.

Since then, I’ve learned that some other guy named David is ALSO having a party on October 5th, at 2pm, in Trinity Bellwoods Park!

It seems that the Logistics Team at the International Davids Schedule Coordination Centre was asleep at the wheel.

Luckily, it looks like it’s gonna work out fine! Continue reading

Who wants to be Mayor?

Who wants to be mayor?  A whole bunch of people!

Take the time to find out why these folks are running, and what they’re proposing for Toronto.

[Each photo links to their website. Listed alphabetically by first name]

GoldkindSoknackiLee Continue reading

Birthday picnic ~ $40 for 40

Forty days from now, I’m turning 40.

If you’d like to help me celebrate, please put aside one dollar each day between now and then, and join me for a potluck picnic at Trinity Bellwoods Park!

The donations will be split among these local all-star organisations: Social Planning Toronto   •   SOY   •   Urban Alliance on Race Relations   •   Unlock Democracy   •   Women in Toronto Politics   •   Toronto Environmental Alliance   •   Gerstein Centre  •  Cycle Toronto  •  Art Starts  •  Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance

The picnic is on October 5th, at 2pm, in Trinity Bellwoods Park.  We’ll be in the south end of the park.  Look for blue balloons.  : )

RSVP on Facebook

thank you!

painting by Liam Rainsford.  Check out his amazing video showing how he painted it.

If a billboard falls in a forest….. (Part 2)

[note: this is cross-posted from spacing magazine]

Five weeks ago, I wrote the first installment of this saga which I described at the time as a “shocking tale of procedural inertia, bureaucratic confusion, and a broken democracy.”

I have some updates to share on this story, updates that provide a glimmer of hope while at the same time illustrating how deep the systemic problems at City Hall are.

I’ll get the good news out of the way first: The city’s Sign Unit has agreed to “re-open the investigation” into these signs. City staff are actively exploring whether the billboards are legal or not, and they are helping guide me through the entire process.

Now, the bad news: Continue reading