This panel of buttons is found on the council chambers desks of Toronto councillors and is used to ask questions and cast votes.
PHOTO: JOSH MATLOW/SPECIAL TO THE STAR
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned as a new city councillor is how to push the right button.
I’m certainly not suggesting I should be pushing other councillors’ buttons — I like my colleagues. I’m talking about the nine big, bright buttons we press to speak or cast our votes at city council. They can be confusing, sometimes fail and come with their own mystery.
And the buttons are so archaic and boxy they look like they could be from a 1960s’ Star Trek set. Here’s how the yes-no part of the system works.
To vote in favour of a motion, we have a green button with the word “yes” written below it. There’s also a button for voting against a motion — it’s red, accompanied by the word “no”. Sounds simple enough, but it’s amazing how often councillors have become confused.
In 2006, then-mayoral candidate and councillor Jane Pitfield pushed the green button in favour of Toronto buying a garbage dump when she intended to oppose the purchase. Since then, pushing the wrong button at City Hall has been known as doing a “Pitfield”.
Last year, Councillor Paula Fletcher, a passionate bike lane proponent, did a Pitfield when she cast the deciding vote against the proposed University Ave. bike lane. Naturally, she wants to see the system changed to prevent future mishaps.
At our latest meeting, it was revealed that Mayor Rob Ford and his brother voted against each other for the first time after a debate over a sole-source contract. Councillor Doug Ford, a smart and savvy guy, announced that he had pressed the wrong button.
Then, the buttons actually stopped working while we were in the midst of a vote. Each councillor resorted to the fail-safe method of standing to show support or opposition for a motion.
Next up are buttons for asking questions of staff or a fellow councillor who has moved a motion. The button pressed most often is the one councillors use to indicate they’d like to make a speech. Councillors love making speeches. To ensure everyone hears us, we even have a yellow button that turns on our microphones.
There are also three mysterious, unused and untitled white buttons. Some of my colleagues and I have mused about their purpose; to eject a misbehaving councillor, to call a bellhop or to order pizza delivery now that free food has been banned from our meetings?
In fairness to those who slip up, there can be hundreds of complex items on the agenda during the course of a typical council meeting. Motions can be created on the fly. And sometimes, when a motion’s been written using a double negative, it’s understandably difficult to figure out if one is for or against not doing something.
Seems democracy in Toronto really does come down to a simple push of a button.
Josh Matlow is the councillor for Ward 22, St. Paul’s
To read this column at thestar.com, please click here.