Councillor Josh Matlow

The Grid: Power to the “mighty middle”

Councillor Josh Matlow gives Rob Ford a playful jab at City Hall last May. But in light of Ford’s controversial budget-cut proposals, Matlow and his fellow centrist councillors are starting to put up a real fight.


In his first year as mayor, Rob Ford has attempted to dictate policy without debate or discussion. But as his agenda has become more divisive, he’s effectively shifted the balance of power at City Hall to council’s more centrist voices. BY: Edward Keenan

In the past few weeks, the Ford that’s been driving this city has crashed spectacularly. Whatever the result of this week’s council meeting to determine the future of Toronto’s waterfront, among other things, the governing model in the months ahead is likely to look very different from the authoritarian bullying that has characterized the first nine months of Rob Ford’s term as mayor.

Consider the way in which Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor’s big brother and closest adviser, has been smacked down from all corners for his backroom vision of a waterfront filled with malls and theme-park rides. Last weekend, he was reduced to phoning into fellow councillor Josh Matlow’s radio show to angrily deny accusations that he’s been trying to trade favours for votes from other councillors.


Meanwhile, the man known as the mayor’s “brain,” senior policy adviser Mark Towhey, took to Twitter to complain about the Toronto Star’s “socialist math” and ended up getting drawn into a snippy public debate with municipal geeks, including former mayor David Miller, who pointed out he didn’t seem to understand the simple structure of the city’s budget.


This very public gong show is taking its toll: By late last week, the mayor’s approval rating among the general public was heading into the toilet. More pressingly, two members of the mayor’s Executive Committee, Jaye Robinson and Michelle Berardinetti, publicly broke with him over the waterfront and proposed cuts to childcare and other services.


Those defections were followed by public declarations of opposition to the mayor’s plan by two other key members of his team: TTC chair Karen Stintz and deputy speaker John Parker. Rookie councillor James Pasternak, who has been a steadfast Ford disciple, appeared to make a snide remark on Twitter at the mayor’s expense, and a parade of centrist councillors who have previously supported Ford more often than not—Matlow, Anna Bailao, Mary-Margaret McMahon, Chin Lee and Josh Colle—have been flexing their independent muscles.


This week, after another all-night round of public hearings, the Executive Committee delayed or scrapped a bunch of the proposed, much-talked-about cuts to services. The mayor was forced to formally acknowledge—in circulated talking points and in his own speeches—that people are angry. Most tellingly, at Tuesday’s council meeting, faced with deafening opposition, the mayor and his brother abandoned their ritzy waterfront proposal. The details of the new agreement were still being hashed out as this story went to press, but it was expected to preserve, and accelerate, the existing plan the Ford brothers set out to torpedo.


Aside from the immediate business at hand, the implications of the Ford Nation trainwreck will take a while to become clear. If the mayor can no longer absolutely count on the docility of centrist and centre-right councillors, it will mean he can no longer force through controversial policies at a moment’s notice, as he has been in the habit of doing.


The mayor campaigned on listening to people, complete transparency and no cuts to city services. He has proceeded, so far, to govern by dictating policy without debate or discussion, using backroom deliberation and political threats against councillors. Most egregiously, he has attempted to dramatically slash services in order to solve a problem he helped create with his own tax cuts and freezes. For a while this shocking reversal worked to keep council in line. But it also galvanized his opposition. And just as that organized emergency response crew was taking shape on the left, the focus of much of their advocacy—libraries, the waterfront, childcare services—became front-page material, the subject of water-cooler discussion among normally apathetic citizens across the city.


It’s unclear whether council’s centrist and centre-right councillors have any sense of themselves as a group, let alone a voting block. But if Robinson, Berardinetti, Stintz, Parker, Bailao, Colle, Lee, Matlow and McMahon decided to act as the “mighty middle” that Matlow keeps claiming they are, they could be a powerful force on council. Together, they and a handful of others hold the balance of power on every single issue at council, deciding whether Ford or his strident opponents will carry the day. If those centrists continue to make it clear that their votes are contingent on intelligent discussion, consultation and compromise, Toronto might actually begin to get a city government that uses a reasonable process to come to reasonable conclusions—a happy prospect that seemed like a mere fantasy just months ago.

To read this story on The Grid’s website, please click here.


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