Councillor Josh Matlow

Toronto: a model of independence?

February 2, 2013


Ottawa Citizen

Peggy Curran


TORONTO — As Montreal and Laval struggle to reimagine what city politics should be like in the shadow of corruption hearings and the resignations of Gérald Tremblay and Gilles Vaillancourt, folks down the 401 have been experiencing their own political catharsis.


In Toronto last week, Mayor Rob Ford won a reprieve after an appeal court rejected a ruling that found him guilty of conflict of interest when, as a councillor for Etobicoke, he accepted $3,150 in donations from lobbyists and a corporation through a charity that bears his name.


Ford’s victory spared Hogtown the awkward and unsavory prospect of having to hold a $9-million byelection, or appoint someone else to serve as mayor until the next election in October 2014.


Perhaps all cities are dysfunctional in their own way.


Don’t assume Ford has heard the last from the opposition. As anyone in Toronto will tell you, true democracy is messy, unpredictable, occasionally ugly — and delicious.


“Democracy is chaotic, especially municipal democracy,” said Joe Mihevc, who has been a city councillor for 21 years. “You have in Toronto, counting the mayor, actually 45 parties of one. And you have to make decisions.”


For Montrealers, lulled into submission after decades of tightly controlled party politics, municipal government in Canada’s largest city is a wondrous thing, a place where fiscal wars and ideological battles are won, lost, or massaged into a livable compromise on the very public stage of Toronto’s futuristic city hall.


Officially, there are no political parties at the municipal level in Toronto. Granted, many councillors carry the flag, bear the markings, or have the endorsement of provincial and federal Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats. Others run without the stamp of approval of any party, relying on name recognition, the strength of their record and connections within their communities. Once elected, however, they insist they are free to vote according to their conscience and more importantly, the wishes and interests of their electors.


“When the NDP offered to help me, I said: ‘Please don’t expect me to be your puppet. My believes are very much your beliefs, but I have to represent my residents,’ ” said Sarah Doucette, who is serving her first term as councillor for Parkdale-High Park. “So far, we haven’t had any issues.”


Mayoralty candidates ordinarily run on a slate with candidates who share their political philosophy. Once elected, there’s no party whip and no penalty for breaking ranks, something many of Ford’s team have done as his political fortunes have sagged.


As Montreal begins the steep climb out of the morass of corruption and toward reforming city hall, maybe we can learn something from the way Canada’s biggest city governs itself — from the way candidates are chosen and donations are collected to the role citizens play in demanding answers and shaping policy.


Adam Vaughan represents Ward 20, the downtown neighbourhood of Trinity-Spadina, which has been undergoing rampant development, much of it for highrise condo towers. On Toronto council for six years, his name is frequently mentioned as a potential mayoralty candidate.


“I was a journalist so for most of my career, I wasn’t allowed to join parties and didn’t,” said Vaughan, whose father, Colin, also served a term as a city councillor. “I saw my job, and still see my job, as being the advocate of my neighbours, not being an advocate for my colleagues. Or for the city bureaucracy. I got elected by promising to fight hard for the needs of the ward and to deliver. I got re-elected based on my record.”


Vaughan describes himself as a progressive. He said not being tied to a political party is liberating.


“It frees you from having to view everything through an ideological lens. And it allows you to pursue the priorities that are particular to your ward, free of the considerations of what this means for the mayor. The mayor actually has to consider what his policies mean for council. Out of that, I think you get a much more accountable, and a much more representative, form of democracy.”


Without a party machine to help campaigning, Vaughan said, “you knock on every door and you talk to every voter. The person with the best connection with the neighbourhoods is the person who prevails. There are no coat tails.”


A sense of independence in a councillor is exactly what most residents want, he said. “They want their views and interests defended and not the interests of some party structure.” On a local level, that means canvassing residents to find out where they stand on an upcoming proposal.


“You can’t get too far out in front of a parade. You can lead it. … You can certainly play a role in creating that consensus. But at the end of the day, if your ward has an issue with a particular item, you’ve got to stand up and represent it.” Take, he said, the impending vote this spring on a proposal to build a casino in Toronto.


“It’s like the smoking issue. There are people who can normally be relied upon to see the economic merits of any development who will vote against the casino because of the social impact. They will break ranks with their normal voting bloc and cast ballots accordingly and will do so in public. And people will respect the fact that it is a principled position or it is a position which respects the community’s view on the issue. And there is no recrimination.”


As councillor for St. Paul’s West, Joe Mihevc speaks for voters of all political stripes and economic backgrounds, from the affluent Forest Hills district to neighbourhoods sprinkled with social housing projects.


“I’m an NDPer. But at city hall, I’m Joe Mihevc,” he said. “I am responsible for my decisions at the end of the day. The folks in my community know that and relate to me as the local decision-maker. It’s just a higher degree of democracy that plays out in this system.”


Mihevc, who has a background in theology and social ethics, said he relies on support from Liberal, Conservatives, NDP and independent voters. “The wise councillors build support from across the political spectrum.


“I want to preserve the ability for me to make up my own mind and not be subject to the party dictates. And my residents expect that of me.


“If you are responsive to the party, your interest is in making sure that your leader or the mayor is looking good. You are looking at large city-wide trends that may or may not play out at the local neighbourhood level. So there is a degree of neighbourhood accountability that you running on your own and being your own person provides.


“In a party system, your fortunes rise and fall on the success or failure of the leader.”


Without guaranteed support of a majority of councillors, Mihevc said politicians have to work harder and talk to one another. He points to his recent victory on a motion to fund school nutrition programs, something he’d been pushing for years. “I got 37 of 45 votes. Eight opposed. I feel very proud of that. But it is a lot of yikkity-yakkiting.”


Janet Davis spent years as a neighbourhood activist, campaigning to save neighbourhood pools, fight the megacity and champion childcare issues before she was first elected to represent Beaches-East York in 2003. Dynamic and engaged, she is an unapologetic New Democrat who relies on support from the party. But she understands the importance of having a profile in the community.


“People are looking for someone who they share values with, who actually makes the city work better for them, and for their neighbourhood. They want local issues addressed and they want some people who are going to work hard. These are all characteristics that, if you demonstrate them, you are likely to get re-elected. And you’re not hindered by a label of a party or helped by a label of a party.”


Without a party system, Davis said councillors forge alliances on council based on specific issues.


“Most people do align in favour of the mayor or opposed to the mayor. In reality that is what happens. You either support the mayor’s agenda or you don’t, she said.


“If you support it, that’s fine. If not, you still have the ability to … potentially build a coalition around him. But that’s because of who this mayor is.


“Our previous mayor, David Miller, never lost votes on the floor of council. But he knew how to build coalitions with people. He had a pretty broad agenda and he was smart, very smart, very skilled. This mayor is way over his head.”


Josh Matlow was 26 the first time he ran for provincial office as a Liberal against Conservative veteran Ernie Eaves. He was convinced he’d win, but lost. After that, he put his political ambitions on hold for a while, working as an environmental activist before jumping back in the political ring as a school board trustee. Two years ago, he was elected to Toronto council for Ward 22 (St. Paul’s in mid-town Toronto.


An independent who describes his politics as “centrist,” Matlow said getting elected without the backing of a party machine is not for the weak-hearted.


“My team said, ‘Write down everyone you’ve met since childcare. Every friend you’ve had, everyone you’ve met who might like you at all.’


“Then I basically sat in a room for a couple of days straight and did nothing but just call people. You need a little gumption, too, to call somebody that you haven’t spoken to in 10 years.”


Matlow isn’t part of a caucus at Toronto council. Instead, he consults with people in his district and talks with people from different voting blocs to hear their views.


“I like the ability to be able to be open minded,” said Matlow, 37. “I would find great difficulty in being told by the centre that the leaders’ office that there is something that I am supposed to agree with and I have to go and tell my residents that it is a wonderful thing, whether or not I actually believe it.”


As for those partisan rifts between Rob Ford’s Conservative faction on council and the lefties, Matlow said they are as much a part of Toronto’s way of life as the Maple Leafs, peameal bacon and butter tarts. “This has been happening in Toronto since the first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, between the Reformers, the rebels, and the family compact loyal to the monarchy. There were very clear divisions, that at times became violent. This is nothing new to Toronto.”


What does shock Matlow is the deteriorating tone of the debate.


“I don’t know of any other administration that has been more rhetorically divisive than Mr. Ford’s. The kind of language that is used today has never been more deliberately divisive and mean-spirited,” Matlow said. “The so-called opposition is demonized as a bunch of Commies who just want to blow money. And that’s unfair and it is, frankly, factually untrue.


“There are right-wing libertarians, and there are left-wing former members of the Communist Party. But between those two radical divisions, there is a whole range of shades of viewpoints in between. In my view, I think that’s wonderful.


“You need diversity of opinion to have a healthy democracy. If we all belong to one party and we were all seeing things with one view, we would essentially be a Politburo.”


Even if he tried, it would be difficult for rookie councillor Mike Layton to deny his political allegiances. The soft-spoken son of late New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, the councillor for Ward 19 freely admits he had help from NDP volunteers when he campaigned for office in central Toronto. At city hall, he’s part of a left-wing caucus of about 15 or 16 councillors that meets regularly to discuss proposals and strategy.


Layton said there’s no ignoring voting blocs that exist in council, especially between councillors at opposite ends of the political spectrum — the NDP on the left and Ford’s conservatives on the right.


“There are occasions when something as small as the installation of a traffic sign or a stop signal will get held up by someone who wants to influence you on another file, which is very unfortunate. For the most part, though, council has not responded well to those types of threats, even when the mayor does them,” Layton said. “There are these rough affiliations, but there is nothing formal. And when you get on the council floor, you see people from some particular political stripes voting together. It’s something to see.


“It’s what Ottawa and (Ontario’s legislature) Queen’s Park could be if maybe those lines were a little bit less formal,” Layton said. “I think it makes it a much more rewarding job if you can actually try to build some consensus and you are willing to talk to others about their position and try to find something that works. You can’t always do that, but you do your best.”


Two years into her first term on council, Sarah Doucette has been feeling pretty good after a successful campaign to save the Parkdale fire station, which was originally slated to close in this year’s budget squeeze.


After more than 15 years working on school councils and local environment projects, Doucette said she was eager to push for her community’s concerns at city hall. “People knew me as a person who, when I set my mind to something and we needed to get it done, I wouldn’t take no for an answer,” said Doucette, who identifies herself as one of the “friendlies,” shorthand for the 15 or 16 councillors who make up Toronto’s left-wing caucus.


“As a brand new person running against an incumbent, it is good to have a party behind you to help you learn how to run a campaign and have volunteers accessible to you.”


Doucette estimates she spent three months campaigning on her own before the NDP volunteers kicked into action for the late-October election. “I had been told it’s grassroots, the more doors you knock on, the more hands you shake, the more people are going to vote for you.”


In council, she said, there are three key blocs — the left, the right and what she calls the “mushy middle.” But Doucette said even councillors who are part of a caucus are free to vote as they see fit.


“I like not having a party. I would find it very difficult being told how to vote. I am elected by residents to represent my residents. I like that,” she said. “If my residents told me to support the mayor on something, I would look at it. I don’t vote against the mayor just because he is the mayor. I vote against his motions because they are usually idiotic.”


“I don’t know if this would be a model for others,” Layton said. “Sometimes we get pretty dysfunctional. Typically, that comes from the leader not taking the leadership role that they need to take.”


Yet Vaughan argues there’s something vibrant and energizing about Toronto’s wide-open style.


“It is easy for the media to call it dysfunctional, because it is composed in public. The back and forth and the drama of some votes, particularly the budget vote, are all there for people to see. People see the physical representation of a deal being made, who is talking to who, who is being influenced by who … You can tell who is talking to the lobbyists and who is talking to the citizens and who is talking to staff.


“That transparency and that blowing open the doors around how agreements are reached in politics, is the best way to keep it clean and accountable.


“It looks sloppy, it feels awkward, it’s totally exposed, but I think it also creates a level of transparency and accountability, which make it understandable and transparent to the public. … It may be bad theatre for the politicians, but it is good governance for the public.”


“Toronto prides itself on being a city of neighbourhoods,” Mihevc said. “I don’t think we would have that character and quality of city if we didn’t have local, non-party representatives who are passionate about the city, but passionate about their ’hood.


“There is a certain element of chaos to democracy that we should not be afraid of. We should embrace its complexity and the complexity of the decision-making process.”


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