Councillor Josh Matlow

Globe and Mail: Ground shifts at Toronto’s city council as the Ford agenda stalls

January 25, 2012


Rob Ford’s hand-picked executive committee has unexpectedly hit the brakes on two of his own divisive proposals, a move that signals a recognition that the mayor does not have the support he needs to force city council’s hand. It’s a policy retreat that some city hall insiders believe could give way to a new era of co-operation.

At a meeting on Tuesday, Mayor Ford and his team deferred a proposal to sell 675 social-housing units and asked for a staff report on a plan to liquidate 10 per cent of Toronto Hydro rather than vote either item through for an inevitable showdown at council. While the mayor has spoken in favour of both schemes in the past year, they will now languish for upwards of a month.

As well, The Globe and Mail has learned that councillors are working behind the scenes on a compromise on the controversial Eglinton LRT that would be a win-win for the mayor’s office and the growing faction opposed to burying the light rail line. The deal being put together by a group of councillors, including Ford allies TTC chair Karen Stintz and John Parker, would see a stretch of the line move above ground as originally planned with the $1.5-billion saved going toward the mayor’s pledge to extend the Sheppard subway to Victoria Park. Some of the savings would also go toward improving TTC service on Finch Avenue West.

As well as the transit plan, some councillors interpret Tuesday’s deferral of the sell-off of Toronto Community Housing properties and part of Hydro as fallout from last week’s budget vote, where a coalition of left, middle and right-leaning colleagues defeated several cuts in the mayor’s budget.

“What the mayor’s office is doing now is taking a step back from some of the more controversial initiatives and approaching us and working with us,” said Councillor Josh Matlow. “I respect him for that and I appreciate that.”

The mayor’s office insisted it’s business as usual, and earlier in the day Mr. Ford left no question he’s not feeling the love, referring to left-leaning councillors as “two steps left of Stalin” during an interview on AM640. He did not speak with reporters following the meeting, but one of his executive members, Councillor Jaye Robinson, warned against interpreting any grander trend from the day’s proceedings.

“Things like Hydro and TCHC are big decisions,” she said. “We’re simply doing due diligence to get all the information we can before making a decision. There were a lot of controversial items and I think it was wise they were all referred and deferred.”

That new attitude of collaboration apparently influenced the decision not to force a vote on selling social housing units. Before the mayor decided on deferring the plan for a month on Monday night, Councillor Ana Bailao, a devout member of council’s middle, met with several members of the mayor’s office and the executive committee pressing her case the plan was far too thin to get past council. Somewhat to her surprise, the executive committee listened.

“Torontonians said very loudly last week that they want more consensus-building, that they want the mayor to work with different councillors, and I think that is starting to happen,” she said. “I’m seeing an openness. I’m seeing a coming-around.”

That spirit of collaboration has affected relations among opposing councillors as well. How else to explain the likes of TTC Chair Stintz and former TTC vice-chair Joe Mihevc – two members whose views on transit often diverge – emerging from a private meeting together.

“It’s a good moment around here, a very good moment,” said Mr. Mihevc. “The second floor has become a place of vigorous debate with unlikely allies going into each other’s offices to solve problems.”

Mr. Mihevc compared the tone to former Mayor Mel Lastman’s second term, when the mayor lost much of his sway at council and councillors began reaching across ideological lines to prevent city business from stalling.

“In the first year under Mayor Ford, this was a mayor-centric place,” he said. “The way to get things done was to appeal to the mayor’s office. Now the mayor’s office is one of the players but they are not the sole arbitrator of what goes forward and what doesn’t.”

The mayor isn’t buying in. Speaking to interviewer John Oakley, Mr. Ford talked of city hall in clearly polarized terms. “I don’t think there is a mushy middle down there at city hall,” he said. “It’s you either vote one way or the other down there. You’re either on the right side with the Conservatives and Liberals or you’re on the left with the NDP.”

Showing polite new tone, left-leaning councillors refrained from knocking for the mayor for his Stalin remark. “I don’t think he meant it,” said Adam Vaughan. “It’s an offensive statement to some; it’s a silly statement to most.”

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