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Doug Ford receives backlash for plan to cut city council

After Premier Doug Ford announced that he would be introducing a bill to slash Toronto’s city council from 47 members to 25, NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Mayor John Tory are criticizing the decision.

On Monday Ford introduced the Better Local Government Act at the provincial legislature. The plan would be to cut city council nearly in half, a move that brought forth criticism from city council, John Tory, and opposing leader Andrea Horwath.

The Premier’s office released further information last Friday on why they’re choosing to introduce such a controversial bill. “At 44 seats, growing to 47 seats, Toronto City Council has become increasingly dysfunctional and inefficient through a combination of entrenched incumbency and established special interests,” they wrote. A streamlined Toronto City Council would empower Toronto’s mayor and help ensure that Toronto taxpayers can count on an efficient and effective municipal government.” They added that the bill could help save Toronto taxpayers over $25.5 million over the next four years but didn’t provide any specifics.

The bill will also extend the nomination period for city council candidates to September 14, 2018, though the deadline for Mayor would remain the same.

Mayor John Tory told reporters that the bill was “absolutely not right” to introduce without consulting with Torontonians. “I’m angry at the process because I think it is disrespectful of the people, most of all, in that I think people, when there’s a major change being made to their civic democracy, deserve to be consulted in one way, shape or form,” he said. “It wasn’t put on the basis that he was planning to do it. He said that he’s talked about it before and I actually sort of dismissed it on the basis of saying, ‘Well, that’s not something that could be done. We’re in the middle of an election campaign,’” he added. “The matter dropped at that stage because I didn’t have the sense he was pursuing it, either.”

Tory also called for a referendum, which was approved by city council. “I will continue to advocate that the province pushes the pause button on this process and let the municipal election already underway proceed,” he added in a Twitter thread on July 30.

Ford received further criticism from opposing leader Andrea Horwath, who released a statement about the bill, saying that he didn’t announce these plans on the campaign trail or consult people. “It’s clear that Mr. Ford wants a smaller number of councillors to have more power, fewer checks and balances, and less accountability. This is obviously a move to make it easier for the premier to control Toronto City Hall. The actions we hear Mr. Ford plans to take not only mean less accountability and transparency at City Hall, but that each Torontonian will have less help and less access to their city councillor,” she said.

Horwath also tweeted about the bill, calling it something Ford “cooked up in a backroom.”

Ford is defending his decision at City Hall and on social media since July 27. “I promised to reduce the size and cost of government, and end the culture of waste and mismanagement. More politicians are not the answer. These changes will dramatically improve the decision making process, and help restore accountability and trust in local governments,” he wrote on Friday.

Ford posted a video of him yesterday addressing the concerns of his bill. “We’re gonna create jobs. We’re gonna create transit. We’re gonna fix the infrastructure and we’re gonna take care of the billion dollars backlogged of housing. People are sleeping on the streets cause too much money’s going to politicians,” he said. He accompanied the 0: 15-second clip with a tweet saying, “We’re going to make government work for the people. We can’t allow political gridlock and dysfunction at City Hall to keep delaying progress on critical issues. By streamlining City Council, we will help Toronto move forward on transit, infrastructure and housing.”

Progress Toronto, an advocacy group supporting democracy, started a petition to stop Ford’s bill called “Stop Ford’s takeover of Toronto politics.” They wrote that Ford is “abusing his power as premier and he is messing with our political system in the middle of an election to try to control Toronto City Hall from Queen’s Park.”

The development cluster-fudge in Toronto

The public would be utterly shocked if they knew the length of time it takes for a building development to get approval from the City of Toronto planning department. The 9-month window that government has designated as the appropriate window of time for project approval never gets met. A report done by the C.D. Howe Institute shows that municipalities ignore this time window. In Toronto developers were forced to take projects to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) in order to get city planning to respond to them. Even with the OMB approval, most projects still took between 3 and 4 years to work their way through the planning department.

With the disbandment of the OMB, developers are scratching their heads and wondering who will hold municipal planning accountable to a time frame. No longer can they appeal to the OMB for help. With no accountability the approval process will likely climb to 6 or 7 years.

The provincial government announced the formation of the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) but their power is limited to issues around conformity to local or provincial plans. The goal was to give more power to the local municipalities, but decision makers seem to have ignored the fact that planning departments have ballooned in scope without the extra investment by local governments.

Like any government agency the planning department constantly fights the urge to expand their reach into the public sector, and haven’t had much success in Toronto. The planning department has inflated their authority far beyond the role of ensuring buildings are safe and built to code. Unbeknownst to taxpayers the planning department has taken on the role of architecture and design supervision – a role that belongs in the private sector. Few city planners have a full education in architecture or design and yet they have spread their authority to a point where they can completely change the architectural designs of a building. The amount of time spent by Toronto’s planning department doing work that should be done by the private sector is costing Toronto taxpayers millions of dollars, not just in wages, but in housing costs.

Another problem with this expansion of authority is that when a public servant starts choosing the shade of beige they want for a wall (yes, they do this in Toronto) or imposing the shape, size and design of a building (they think it should match everything else around it) they go beyond the scope of their education or ability and no one can stop them. They literally dumb down architecture in the city and truly magnificent buildings never get built.

In Toronto the process of getting a building development approved is a complete cluster-fudge of repetition, with the plans moving between so many city divisions and external agencies (building, roads, parking, water, heritage, etc.) with each having their own silo of authority.

The problem with this overreach of authority is that it adds time (years) to the building approval process, and time has a direct cost that is added to the cost of housing.

The more time a developer has to put into upfront planning the more expensive the overall cost of a building

As more time gets added the more likely it is that developers will choose not to develop. Add to this the fact that development charges in Toronto have nearly doubled over the past year and the cost of housing dramatically increases. Now add in the fact that property prices in Toronto have skyrocketed and it is easy to see why housing prices have increased so dramatically.  Time is the real culprit. Toronto planning must refine the process a development application goes through, and city planners need to curtail their desire to weigh in on design and architecture (which they are not educated in) and focus on the job of ensuring buildings are safe and built to code.

The bottleneck of development applications at city planning today is increasing and slowing down construction of new homes all across Toronto  Toronto’s new Chief planner, Gregg Lintern, has quite a challenge ahead of him. Not simply because the approval process needs a complete overhaul, but also because there is a “closed-door” culture running rampant at the planning department. It breeds an “us against them” mentality that pits city staff against the city’s development industry. It will be interesting to see if Mr. Lintern is able to change the culture, reach out to stakeholders, and make the changes that will impact housing affordability. If he simply carries on with the status quo and allows even more time to be added to the development approval process, he will push the cost of housing even further out of reach for average families.

Expanding urban revitalization across the GTA

In the last couple of years, Toronto has begun to transform the downtown core into a more liveable and walkable city. Beyond the King St. Pilot, which has increased transit use along the corridor, the city has also approved a bike lane pilot project, the revitalization of the Waterfront, the creation of a new skating trail under the Gardiner Expressway, the proposal of a rail deck park, and the expansion of smart cities with Sidewalk Labs and (hopefully) Amazon.

And now, North York and Scarborough want in.

Residents and city councillors of North York have put together a plan called “REimagine Yonge” – now “Transform Yonge” – that would see the six-lane strip between Sheppard Ave. and Finch transform into a more walkable community. The original proposal approved by city staff suggests the removal of two lanes, the creation of a raised bike lane, and the widening of sidewalks for more public space and foliage, essentially copying the King Street vibe following the pilot study. The plan has the support of staff, local councillors, and residents who are looking forward to being able to safely walk in their neighbourhood; however, it does not have the support of the mayor.

Toronto mayor John Tory announced earlier this week an alternative plan that would include bike lanes on Beecroft Rd., which is parallel to Yonge. In this scenario, there would be no need to remove a lane of traffic on Yonge. According to reports, this “enhanced” plan will cost an extra $20 million. Tory told reporters he believes the area can be beautified without removing lanes in such a well-trafficked area.

“Transform Yonge” (City of Toronto)

North York isn’t the only neighbourhood that wants change. City councillor Paul Ainslie wants to expand the Bike Share program into Scarborough, as the 270 stations in Toronto are currently situated in the downtown core. With potential partners in GO Transit and the University of Toronto campus, Ainslie believes the program could thrive in that region.

It’s not surprising that these two areas want to change alongside downtown Toronto. Too often, the outskirt neighbourhoods are ignored when it comes to growth and development. Residents have indicated that they want connectivity. They want to live in a walkable city where commuters have the choice of walking or cycling safely, or where a sense of community exists beyond the household. They want the same level of investment as those who live in the downtown core.

No one wants to live in an area that doesn’t feel like a community — and if city hall is dedicated to this new transformation towards a sustainable and smart Toronto, it should be for all of it.

Toronto deputy manager John Livey retires

Toronto deputy manager John Livey will be retiring from public service on April 4, 2018.

Livey was responsible for corporate oversight and administrative governance. He has overseen collaborative city-wide initiatives and projects including city planning, transportation, engineering, and construction.

“John is known as a principled leader with a commitment to innovation and excellence,” said City Manager Peter Wallace in a statement. “He has always faced obstacles and challenges head on, with a drive to deliver the best possible results for the residents of Toronto. His determination and hard work will certainly be missed.”

Some of Livey’s notable achievements, according to the City of Toronto, is his role in the Port Lands development and implementation plan, the transit file including Smart Track, Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension, Relief Line, and Scarborough Transit Network. Livey was also responsible for the city’s emergency response during the 2013 ice storm.

He was also a strong supporter of the new motherlode transit network and Rail Deck Park, two initiatives that strived to connect neighbourhoods and regions to the downtown core.

“It has been an honour to work for the City of Toronto,” said Livey. “I would like to thank my many staff teams, senior management colleagues, Mayor Tory and the Members of Council with whom I have had the privilege to work. I know that City staff will continue to advance city-building initiatives through innovation and a commitment to continuous improvement.”

Livey joined the City of Toronto in 2011 after serving as Chief Administrative Officer for the Town of Markham. He also worked with the Region of York.

The city will begin the hiring process in early 2018.

Stick to your knitting Minnan-Wong, Keesmaat is out of your league

“Stick to your knitting.” Reaction to this phrase can be mixed — and it completely depends on the context in which it is used.

For example, using it in a business meeting to indicate that employees should play to their strengths while allowing others to do the same is a commonly acceptable use of the phrase. “Stick to the knitting” when used by a professional colleague to describe an incredibly accomplished woman who has her foot in all aspects of her craft can come across as derogatory, sexist, and downright rude.

Toronto Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong is being accused of sexism for using the phrase in relation to outgoing Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat in an interview with the Toronto Sun last week. Minnan Wong said this in response to Keesmaat’s use of Twitter and how she debates municipal affairs publicly on the platform.

The history of “stick to your knitting” is a bit obscure, but the phrase has been used widespread in the business community since the mid 1800s. Many business professionals use this phrase when giving advice to young entrepreneurs. Stick to what you know and let others stick to what they know. That way you have the benefit of different experience instead of pretending to be an expert in all fields.

And yet, many politicians get in trouble for using this common phrase — and it’s all because of the context. Especially considering most of the time it’s used to describe women.

Despite its history, the phrase in itself is slightly derogatory. The person who uses it is telling their co-worker they don’t value their opinions. As a woman, this is especially offensive because women fight hard to be heard in the first place. In the case of Keesmaat, she has expertise in city building and most of her tweeting revolves around different aspects of this field. To say she shouldn’t have an opinion on how the City of Toronto is run and/or built is a bit farfetched and, frankly, sexist.

There is also the democracy angle that makes the use of this phrase even more strange. Minnan-Wong decided that posting discussion on city affairs on Twitter was not appropriate, but isn’t public discussion a foundation of democracy? Keesmaat has previously told Women’s Post that defending her planning choices and discussing them with the public was a critical step for accountability. In that case, her activity on social media is an extension of her role as city planner and an active citizen.

“If you have planners gone wild you could end up in a totalitarian type of environment, so the due diligence that comes from the vigour of being questioned by councillors and by the public is an essential part of the planning process from my perspective,” she said.

Why shouldn’t Keesmaat, or any person for that matter, use social media as a platform for public discussion? If everyone on Twitter was told to stick to their knitting, then it would be a pretty boring place. The whole purpose of social media is to allow people to share information and opinions.

And then there is the final point — why would Minnan-Wong care about the social media habits of a city staff member who is leaving their position in a month’s time? The only reason to use this phrase is to remind them that once they leave city hall, their opinions shouldn’t matter. Well, what does that mean for the rest of us? I hope Minnan-Wong’s constituents don’t have any opinions they want to share or ideas they want to suggest, because it appears like he won’t be listening to them.

Ultimately, Minnan-Wong made the same mistake many politicians make — trying to create a sound bite using clichés, hyperbole, and commonly used phrases in order to capture the attention of the media and the public.

Looks like he did — just not in the way he expected.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

Spike in drug overdoses in Toronto continues

Toronto Mayor John Tory held an emergency public health meeting in early August after a spike in deadly drug overdoses in the city. There have been 20 overdose cases since July 27, with six occurring in the same week. The mayor said these deaths were preventable and are causing devastation to families and to various Toronto neighbourhoods. But, what exactly is the culprit behind this deadly string of overdoses?

The suspected drug is thought to be fentanyl. Police suspect people may be buying drugs laced with fentanyl without the buyers knowledge. The rise of fentanyl drug use in Toronto is all too familiar in other parts of Canada like Vancouver, that have been dealing with the rise of this deadly drug. This opioid, often manufactured In China, has made its was to the streets of Toronto. The effects offer a bliss-like state similar to heroin, but with fatal consequences.

Fentanyl is often mixed in with other drugs like cocaine or molly, and people are none the wiser. People assuming they are partaking in casual drug use can find themselves with the highly addictive fentanyl in their bodies.

Fentanyl hydrochloride is an extremely potent pain reliever and has been used in the medical community for decades. It is even offered in some pharmacies in patch and lollipop form. Because fentanyl is so potent, the white powder can be easily mixed with cocaine, powdered sugar, and can be passed of as heroin or even OxyContin tablets.

It is clear there is a drug problem in Toronto that is causing deadly harm. The next step is addressing the issue and possible solutions. The most commonly used opioid receptor and reverse overdose drug is Nalaxone. Nalaxone will be offered at safe injection sites in the city at safe injection sites set to open this fall. Toronto Public Health has set up an interim site at their downtown office for safe injections, where drug users can be monitored and take their drugs in a safe environment. Future permanent sites are planned at various spots in the city and will be granted federal exemptions from the Controlled Drugs and Substance Control Act under the Health Minister.

Harm reduction and outreach workers applaud the effort in establishing safe injection sites, but many feel the City of Toronto is too big for the number of sites being proposed.

Over the weekend a pop-up overdose prevention site appeared in Moss Park to start offering assistance. Zoe Dodd, a harm reduction worker said 24 people visited the site since the tent opened and workers even helped save the life of one man who overdosed in the tent.

What are your thoughts on the drug overdose epidemic taking place in the city? Leave a comment below.

Toronto launches #KissesforBees at city hall

Toronto is buzzing about bees. A new art installation popped up at city hall Friday — a giant pair of red lips with milkweed plants inside of them. The idea is to attract native bee pollinators and promote education around the importance of protecting these buzzing critters.

The City of Toronto, along with Burt’s Bees, Wildlife Preservation Canada, and Live Green Toronto, were at Nathan Philips Square to reveal the art installation and promote bee pollination in the city. “Some people don’t realize how important bees are, but like we heard today, every three mouthfuls of food is pollinated by bees and without them we aren’t eating,” Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon said. “It is important that we plant pollinator gardens and educate people on the importance of bees.”

Sustainable T.O. executed the design of the art installation on behalf of Burt’s Bees and it took a large team to complete the project. “Burt’s Bees created the conceptual image and I worked with a fabricator to produce what we see here,” Environmental Designer at Sustainable T.O. Joel Anderson said. “There is an internal skeleton that supports the design and there are hundreds of hexagonal tubes that formed the shape. Then holes were carved into the installation to put the plants in.”

Pollinators such as bees need native plants to thrive and the entire plant ecosystem depends on bees to grow food and flowers. “There are 15-20 species of bumblebees that are native to Ontario and are currently endangered. There are many species of bees that are crashing and we are trying to stop it. Pollinators are important so that plants can have sex. This is one of the most critical elements of our ecosystem and a lot of plants rely on bees,” Executive Director of Wildlife Preservation Canada Randal Heide said. “Monarch butterflies will also benefit from the milkweed. Unfortunately, farmers hate milkweed and use pesticides to kill it, but disseminate monarch butterflies. In the cities, we have banned these pesticides and we have green spaces. Cities are probably a safer place for bees and butterflies.”

The art installation is a part of a larger campaign that Burt’s Bees is running to promote pollination in Toronto. They have launched the #kissesforbees campaign and for every lipstick sold, their partner Wildlife Preservation Canada will plant 100 wildflowers. The art installation will be featured until the end of June and will then be a part of the pride parade in July.

After that, the perennial milkweed plants will be donated to the David Suzuki Foundation who will distribute them to locations around Toronto to help further promote bee pollination for years to come.

Tory threatens to stop Yonge extension until relief line funded

Toronto Mayor John Tory has threatened to remove his support of the Yonge North Subway Extension unless the province agrees to provide funding to help construct the relief line.

This announcement was made following a report that was released for approval by the Executive Committee on both transit projects, seeking approval for the alignment and design/planning stages. This new report also included the cost estimate for the relief line — $6.8 billion for the construction of the first phase of the project. There is little doubt the cost will continue to rise as the design of the line continues.

As of now, there is no dedicating funding from the federal or provincial government for the relief line. The Ontario Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca, has promised $150 million for the planning of the project, but that’s it. According to a press statement released by the minister, the province has also notified city officials of a budget freeze in 2018,” which would leave no room for funding either of these projects at the municipal level.”

Del Duca doesn’t see this as a problem. “We’ve been at the table right at the start for both of these projects, by contributing $150-million to the Relief Line planning and design work, nearly three times the amount the City has committed, and $55 million towards the same work on Yonge North,” he said in the statement. “However, Mayor Tory just can’t take yes for an answer.”

What Del Duca fails to realize is that $150 million for the planning of the project will do nothing to help move the relief line along. It’s small change for a project as large as this. By 2031, the Yonge Line (Line 1) will be at capacity, unable to carry new riders. It’s important to remember the development of SmartTrack will not offer relief to Line 1. The many transit extensions being built prior to the relief line will actually drive traffic towards this central line, increasing capacity until it’s no longer feasible to operate.

That’s why Tory said at a press conference that he would not support the development of the Yonge North Subway Extension until the province changes their mind on funding this important project. The extension is a project supported by many Liberal candidates in the York region.

“We might have to consider just diverting our resources to other work,” he said to reporters. “If we are uncertain that the relief line will be funded or not, then why would we be devoting our time working on the Yonge Street North Extension because the two are very much interconnected.”

Tory emphasized that without provincial or federal funding, there is no way the City of Toronto can afford to build this critical subway line.

The new relief line, if approved by city council, will travel down Carlaw between Gerrard St. and Eastern. The next phase of the work will be to accelerate the planning and design of the southern part of the line, including developing the next budget estimates.

Trudeaumania takes over Toronto

Photo taken by Katherine DeClerq

Trudeaumania is real.

Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a visit to Toronto’s city hall to meet with Mayor John Tory. It was the first time in 18 years a prime minister visited the institution, but that wasn’t why people were so excited. It was because they had the opportunity to get close to the celebrity politician.

The media struggled to stay up with Trudeau and Tory as they walked from Queen St. up to city hall. People sporting bright unicorn Trudeau sweatshirts were running through the crowd, trying to get a selfie with the sexiest head of state in the world, while scores of young women stood in his path screaming his name.

One cameraman made a wrong step and slipped on the skating rink in the square. Reporters ran — and I mean sprinted — around the crowd to get better view of the prime minister, just to run face-first into a father holding his kid, trying to get a glimpse of the people at the center of the spectacle. Personally, I was elbowed in the head and shoved into a snow bank.

“Oh my god, it’s Justin Trudeau!” screamed two jumping girls as he made his way into city hall. I have to say I was impressed with the strength of the prime minister’s security force, dawning the stereotypical sunglasses and earpieces, trying to keep everyone at bay. What a job.

After the screaming died down and the swooning stopped, the prime minister got up on stage with the mayor and opened his mouth to talk. And talk he did — although he didn’t say much. In fact, he hardly said anything worthwhile.

It was obvious the prime minister didn’t want to make any promises during this visit, despite the mayor’s attempts to indicate otherwise. There was no mention of a commitment to the SmartTrack or the Yonge Relief Line, and he didn’t even touch on the $2.6 billion promised to the city for transit.

“We are in the middle of pre-budget consultations.” Trudeau said when a reporter asked when we could expect a cheque for infrastructure. “The infrastructure investments that the mayor is counting on are not a problem, they are part of the solution that Canada is facing.” What that means…no one knows.

Really, the only thing Justin Trudeau reiterated was his government’s pledge of $60 billion over the next 10 years towards green and social infrastructure, and public transit. There was no elaboration. Where will the money go? What are the government’s priorities? All are excellent questions that remained unanswered. The rest of the 10-minute question period included the Prime Minister dancing masterfully around each media inquiry, citing what seemed to be election promises and vaguely mentioning the Liberal’s commitment to job creation, economic growth, and international relations.

But, that didn’t matter to the fans. As one grown man standing behind me in the crowd said: “Wow, his hair really is great!”

And I guess that’s all that mattered.

Photo by Katherine DeClerq