A smaller city council is easier to manipulate
There’s been more talk lately of shrinking Toronto city council from 44 to 22 members, but it’s a bad idea.
Mayor Rob Ford, who has long advocated for a 22-member council, asked for a staff report at city council last month on making council smaller. His motion lost on a vote, but it renewed the debate on shrinking the number of politicians running the city.
Ford and others who are irritated by the dithering and arguing that often make council meetings a mind-numbing ordeal say it’ll be more efficient at half the current size, and cheaper, too.
And it plays to Ford’s constituency, which disdains all but a few politicians and fervently wish the rest would drop dead.
Allow me an anecdote here. In late 1999, the province was considering cuts to the size of council, while I was a reporter at the Star’s city hall bureau. At the time, it was expected that the Tory government would come with a knife.
I was covering a committee meeting at city hall on the day the province was to release its recommendations, and sitting with Colin Vaughan, the late, great CityTV politics reporter, and father of city Councillor Adam Vaughan.
We were bored and looking to get up to some mischief - always a priority for Colin, and me – and started talking about what the province might do.
I hatched a scheme to whisper into gullible ears that we’d heard the city would be carved into quarters, with four “super-councillors,” one for each quarter, along with a mayor, for a five-person council.
Shrink? We’ll show you shrink.
Colin had so much heft around city hall back then that he could literally snap his fingers and just about any councillor would scuttle over to him at once.
We spotted Councillor Chris Korwin-Kuczynski and started laughing, thinking he’d buy it. Colin summoned him and whispered the news. I put on a serious face and nodded in agreement.
“Get outta here,” said K-K. “You guys think I’m a dummy?”
We selected our next victim, Councillor Norm Gardner, and used the same act.
Gardner listened without expression, then started rubbing his chin.
“I think I could win the north,” he said.
That was the last mischief I got up to with Colin. He dropped dead a few weeks later.
Sorry, where was I?
Now I remember. In a column last week, my old pal and colleague Royson James made the case for continuing with a 44-member council, but steered clear of what I think is one of the best reasons of all:
A bigger council is harder to fiddle.
After reporting on some of the private sector deals that came to city council from 1998 to 2004, it was clear to me that somebody was always trying to get a leg up on the taxpayer, and that many councillors were willing to go along with it.
A lot of the receptiveness to deals that were not in the public interest was aided by the miraculous interventions of Brother Jeff Lyons, as he referred to himself, who was a lobbyist without equal at the time.
A few of the deals Lyons guided through council defied gravity and were breathtaking. But it eventually blew up on him, with revelations about illegal campaign donations and taking fees from more than one client chasing the same business, until he couldn’t get a cup of coffee at city hall.
But not even Brother Jeff or a full court press of other arm-twisting lobbyists could get some deals approved, because it was impossible to bring at least 23 councillors around to the required point of view.
Look at it this way: With a 22-member council, only 12 votes are needed to get anything approved. Anything. Think privatization of our water purification and supply systems, as was lobbied for and turned down in 2003.
If you already have eight or nine votes, you only need a few more to get a deal approved, whatever it is. With a 22-member council, we’d likely be on our way to a casino, even though it was not supported by the public.
With a 44-member council, it is very difficult to affect the outcome of a vote that might not be in the public interest. Even if you have 18 votes, you still have to bring at least five more onside, by hook or crook. That can get messy.
It’s too bad Ford is so ideologically driven on this one. When he was a councillor, he was rabidly opposed to any deal that did not pass his considerable sniff test, particularly a 2002 plan to turn over Union Station to a private consortium for 99 years.
The plum was the right to develop the air space above the tracks, which was worth a lot more to the consortiums trying to land the deal than reflected in the terms they were offering. Ford wasn't having it, and a sufficient number of others eventually saw it the same way, enough to kill it.
I know for sure he hates deals that are cooked in favour of shady operators, but he doesn’t seem to understand that a bulkier council is the public’s best line of defense.
It is unwieldy, infuriating and thoroughly democratic.