Archives for category: Toronto City Hall

The pessimist in me has accepted that the video will never come out and that Rob Ford isn’t going anywhere. So, my thoughts naturally turn to the next election; who will run against the incumbent and how Toronto’s political organizers are starting the process of assembling a campaign to take on Rob Ford. I’m thinking I want to see more media coverage that looks past Crackgate (which has spurred some of the best journalism in recent years) and to the next election. And I figure I can’t be alone.

I was talking to a friend about this on Sunday; we were discussing how easy it would be to split the progressive vote among several candidates and therefore allow Ford to win again. We figured many Torontonians are looking past the crack video story and hoping – since Ford isn’t giving up office and has left no doubt he will run again – that some media will start to focus on the next election and particularly the effort to unseat Ford, with his seemingly large and unmovable support. The next election is in 16 months — not a ton of time, politically-speaking.

I’m interested in hearing about the conversation in political circles on whether the imperative to pick one progressive candidate to run against Ford will trump the individual ambition of a handful of potential candidates. I’m equally interested in learning about any efforts to mobilize the enormous potential anti-Ford vote. Who is looking to get out new voters? Who is looking to organize the young, the cyclists, the hipsters, the downtown condo dwellers, the anti-crack voters, the ashamed, the embarrassed and even the cynics?

Yes, much of this discussion is taking place behind closed doors. But, has there ever been a situation like this? And given that the business of the city has slowed down somewhat, what better time to turn our attention to what would be possible without a hamstrung mayor?

So I’m hoping to soon see more stories that look past the current issues and toward the next election.

Because as a voter and news consumer, this is what I want to know.

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Brian Johnston confronts the inevitable media scrum as he leaves his job (Image: Toronto Star)

Normally, the departures of political staff are of little interest to most people; only hard-core political junkies, insiders and observers can take any real meaning from staffing changes.

But these are hardly normal times. As the exodus of staffers from Rob Ford’s office continues, the amount of media attention given to the issue will only increase. Since Rob and Doug Ford are still in blanket denial mode, and since their credibility is in free fall, the media must look elsewhere for clues to what is going on in the mayor’s office. Hence today’s media focus on the exit of advisor Brian Johnston and EA Kia Nejatian. Expect continued media focus on the mayor’s staff and expect those remaining staff members to be asking themselves some critical questions about how to balance their job responsibilities and obligations with other considerations.

I’ve been a political staffer on several occasions, as well as having covered politics as journalist, and I can say that the decision to leave that type of work is often more complex and emotional than a more conventional job, even more so when the heat is on your boss and the media are camped outside your office every day.

Choosing the political life means you need to have certain characteristics. Political staffers must be loyal. That is particularly the case for those with bosses who may try the patience of their staffers. Staffers also must be appropriately deferential. They must be discreet, especially when your boss is accused of drug abuse. Ideally, the staffer should be able to speak truth to power and be able to do it on a regular basis without appearing obstinate and disloyal.

The benefits of working in politics – the network and connections, the understanding of the political process, the knowledge of how to get things done – are partly meant to position staffers for interesting and lucrative work later on. But it’s a trade-off; the hours are long, the tempo is unrelenting, the crises are frequent, the compromises can be uncomfortable.

But there may come a point when you are asked to do something you think is wrong or harmful to the larger political interests of your boss. Or maybe you’re expected to sit by silently as disastrous decisions are being made (decisions that you must help clean up).  Are you more loyal than self-interested? Can you be discreet about the choice you are facing? What if other staff departures might create opportunity for you to advance? You might consider running away in order to limit the damage to your career, but what if potential employers perceive you as being disloyal?

And then, even if you decide to leave, there are questions about how to do it. Not many staffers could imagine doing a media scrum in the City Hall parking garage on their way out, moving box in hand, saying that your former boss is batshit crazy, or has substance abuse problems, or is putting the city and its reputation at risk. But what if that’s the reason you decided to leave? What if you felt that your concern about the city (or your career) outweighs your loyalty to the mayor? What if you felt the only reasonable strategy is to put more pressure on the mayor to step down?

In the case of Rob Ford’s office, I suspect that once Mark Towhey was fired, most of the staffers started asking themselves some of these questions and calculating the costs of hanging around – despite the sudden opportunities for promotion. Part of this calculation would involve a wondering how effective one can be when the office is in 24/7 damage control mode, when the mayor and his family are circling the wagons and denying everything and when the Chief of Staff is seemingly tossed overboard without a second thought?

And once your colleagues start running out the door, everyone accelerates the cost/benefit analysis of staying. The trickle then inevitably becomes a stampede and the reasons for remaining become few in number and harder to defend. Then comes the decision about what to say to the media as security escorts me out. Do I speak diplomatically, or do I – out of concern for the mayor and the city – offer some real insight into what’s going on?

Expect more parking garage scrums to come, and expect more cautious media statements covering up the frantic “Should I stay or should I go?” questions being asked inside the mayor’s office.

Image: Cannabisculture.net

I grew up in the 80s and – full disclosure here – didn’t deal hash.

But there were always drugs around, as it to be expected when you have the necessary ingredients of bored young people with spare cash and free time. I’m not suggesting that every Canadian in their teens and early 20s consumes drugs, but there are compelling statistics to show that it’s not unusual.

Unless, of course, you are Rob or Doug Ford. Everything we have learned about the Fords (even before Saturday’s Globe and Mail story on Doug’s hash-dealing days) suggests that they are familiar with drugs and alcohol. So it wasn’t such a surprise to learn about Rob’s alleged crack use and Doug’s history as a hash dealer.

Yet, the Fords continue their damaging and inexplicable denials of any and all allegations. I won’t even bother to list the names they have used to label any reporter or media outlet that dares to report on their encounters with drugs and alcohol.

I suspect the Fords, coming from a wealthy and conservative family, do not allow themselves the freedom to actually acknowledge that they had a childhood that – like many other of the same generation – includes using drugs and alcohol. Barack Obama, on the other hand, openly admitted his use of grass and cocaine before he was president. It is this enormous and obvious hypocrisy on the part of the Fords that is helping Toronto voters decide who to believe. It also shows that the Fords are so blinkered in their approach to these issues that they refuse to accept any reasonable advice from their own staffers on how to communicate to the people who elected them.

It’s a shame that the Fords can’t see that every blanket denial on drug or alcohol use only makes them look more and foolish, stubborn and self-defeating. This is a perfect case of how to prolong the story, destroy your credibility and ensure that the media dig more cases out of the shadows.

The discussion on transit in the GTA has moved past the “what to do” stage and is now in the “how to pay for it” stage. And that’s where it should be.

So why are public officials like Karen Stintz, Glenn De Baeremaeker and Glen Murray not thinking about how it looks when they try to reopen the transit agreement signed last year? Did they not consider how citizens might perceive it when yet another politician tries to revisit a transit deal (Sheppard East, Finch West, the Eglinton Crosstown and replacing the Scarborough LRT) that the region has been waiting decades to see?  I can just imagine the thousands of people, who upon opening the paper in the morning and reading the headlines, saying “Jesus! Enough already! Get on with it!”

Image: Ontario Government Archives

From a political communications perspective, the discussion over transit needs to have a rational and human element to it. This means anyone who advocates for further study, revisions or new ideas needs to explain very clearly why this would be of tangible and practical benefit for transit users and why we should wait even further.

In the case of Stintz and De Baeremaeker, we are wondering why they would be motivated to agitate for a subway to replace the Scarborough LRT? As the Grid’s Ed Keenan wrote in taking apart Stintz and De Baeremaeker’s suggestion, they have ignored the fact that a transit system should primarily serve its users; convenience of service is therefore a key consideration – not, as Keenan points out, the type of technology used.  For example, if a donkey and covered cart pulled up at a Queen streetcar stop and got me to my destination faster than the streetcar, then my needs have been met.

In the case of Glen Murray, he seemed to be thinking aloud about revisiting the entire transit plan. Thankfully for us, he had the poor communications judgement to do it on the same day as the provincial budget – when the government is really only focused on one story – thus pissing off the Premier and forcing Murray to climb down.

Both these cases should be a warning sign to any public official who wants to tinker with the transit deal. Whether for political points, a higher profile, more media coverage or other reason, anyone who decides to indulge themselves by suggesting fundamental changes to the transit plan will be judged harshly.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask Rob Ford.

Part of Porter’s ad blitz

Intuition isn’t much to rely on when it comes to complex decisions, especially if those decisions are up to other people.  However, I have been hearing the same intuitive responses to Porter’s expansion plans in the weeks since they caught most of Toronto City Council off-guard. Many people I’ve asked think Porter will get their longer runways, amended noise limits, new planes and new routes — even if city council is not on board.

Porter, no doubt, is lobbying behind the scenes, and it is still attracting “supporters” of its plan through social media, although they are yet to reach 7,500 people (still a small number when you consider the potential number of Torontonians who would love to bypass Pearson and fly to Vancouver, LA or Miami from the Island). They are also continuing the ad buy that started soon after the announcement.

If you check the language at porterplans.com, it gives the impression that the proposal is going to happen (“… as we’re adding new routes,” “…our take off and approach flight paths will be over water…”), and that the debate and consideration are simply parts of the process that need to be endured.

There is something almost passive about Porter’s messaging and strategy since the announcement; something that suggests they know something we don’t – or least it appears that way. Maybe Porter is heartened by a new poll they commissioned  that suggests a majority of Toronto citizens support the expansion plans.

So, I stop and ask myself: for or against?

I’m pro-expansion, with conditions. I’m guessing that Porter’s confidence comes from the knowledge that convenience and accessibility are very, very appealing. So in thinking that this is a done deal, am I simply giving in to my own biases?

(Image: Torontoist Flckr Pool)

Last week, like others who have flown on Porter, I got an email from the airline that recapped their big announcement (new jets, new destinations,  expansion of the Island Airport’s runway) and put it in the context of improving their customers’ experience.  The email asks customers to visit a website  that provides more details on Porter’s plans and gives customers an opportunity to put their name on a support list and to “share your support” through Facebook or Twitter (5,600+ supporters at this point, not yet a groundswell).  The content of the email was mirrored in print ads seen in Toronto newspapers.

What the email, ads and website didn’t mention was the conditional nature of the entire proposal and the bottom-line need to get Toronto City Council, the Toronto Port Authority and the Government of Canada to approve the proposal.

The federal government, by the way, appoints seven of the nine directors on the Port Authority’s Board – many of whom are Conservative Party members. In terms of approval, I can’t see the federal government getting in the way of this. For the Harper Tories, this is a no brainer; they have no votes to lose in Toronto, they’ll claim economic benefits for Quebec (Bombardier’s jets will be assembled in Mirabel, Quebec – with the parts and components coming from everywhere from China to Northern Ireland) and they’ll provide further evidence of a sensible approach to economic development and growth.

Compared to the 2003 debate about the island airport, this time around there seems to be more favourable consideration of the proposal. A quickly-done poll shows Torontonians are generally supportive and even the Star is in support. After all, the lakeshore is already a noisy place. Pearson – even with a train to and from Union Station – is still big, crowded and expensive. And flying to L.A. or Vancouver or Miami from the Island is hugely appealing in its convenience.

However, the first and biggest hurdle to the expansion proposal is Toronto City Council. Much has been made of the fact that Porter didn’t tip its hat to most of council; in fact, some councillors were caught off guard and were clearly peeved that Porter didn’t give them any advance notice.  Opposing Councillors are already organizing with Toronto Island residents and others to plot an anti-expansion strategy. The Globe’s “informal tally” of councillors shows Porter has an uphill battle to get a majority on its side.

Here’s what I wonder: If Porter is positioning their expansion as a passenger issue, why is it not more concerned with building support with its passengers (and potential passengers) in the Toronto area? Why is it not making a more robust call to action? Why isn’t it putting more effort into mobilizing the hundreds of thousands of passengers they flew last year? Wouldn’t that be the best way to put pressure on city council, particularly those members who are on the fence?

On their way up to crap on the roof (Image: Wilson Lee)

The raccoons are back in my neighbourhood, and I can already hear thousands of Torontonians muttering into their beers and wondering how to manage – or, let’s face it, get rid of – the city’s raccoons. A large family is dividing its time between where I live and the house next door; this photo shows part of their commute.

It’s not surprising that Toronto – the world’s raccoon capital – is home to raccoons so intelligent, nimble and sneaky that they can use power lines to get around.

The city’s web site has a lot of information on how to try to get the raccoons out of your garbage, green bin, lawn, chimney, barbeque, patio furniture, etc. But there appears to be an unconditional surrender from the city when it comes to doing anything to reduce the raccoon population. The raccoon that moves out of your neighbour’s shed will just move into yours. Depending on where you live, you might spend half your week defending your  house and garden against raccoons.

Here’s a question for city hall: Can raccoons in this city be trapped, neutered, and then released? Or would it that cost more than a city hall bike station?

Radio Ford Nation (Image: National Post)

One of the first rules elected officials learn – if they don’t already know – is to not comment on any case before a court. But Rob Ford didn’t get that memo. Or he didn’t listen to the briefing. Or maybe he was driving and reading at the time. Because he called into a CFRB talk show yesterday and offered his unsolicited opinion on what should happen to Richard Kachkar, who is awaiting sentencing for killing a Toronto Police officer with a stolen snowplow. The jury is weighing whether Kachkar is criminally responsible for his actions.

Ford’s on-air comments – which are not worth repeating or even summarizing – were typical of his lack of understanding of complex issues. By the way, Ford was the only person sufficiently motivated to call in to the programme.

Is our mayor so clueless that he thinks it’s OK to make public comments on an ongoing criminal trial? Does he think that his connection with Toronto’s citizens is so strong and all-consuming that he can ignore one of the most fundamental rules of behaviour for public office-holders? Does he have any impulse control? Is there anyone who can control Ford’s outbursts?

These are questions shouted into wind. Clearly, there’s not much that can be done about our mayor. However, CFRB should think about what they can do to stop providing an open platform for Ford whenever he wants to open his mouth. I’m sure the station loves that it’s become the official voice of Ford Nation, but they should remind themselves that they have journalistic responsibilities.

If the journalists at CFRB want an example of a more robust interview with the mayor of a large city, then they should check this out.

Meanwhile – speaking of excellence in journalism – I’m going back to watching the continuing coverage of the Pandas.

I’m not particularly surprised that Rob Ford is being accused of groping Sarah Thomson. He is not exactly the living embodiment of a modern, tolerant man.

Sadly, I’m also not surprised that Ford responded in the way he did: by attacking Thomson’s credibility and suggesting she’s crazy. Specifically, he said, “I’ve always said, I don’t know if she’s playing with a full deck from the first time I met her, and I told her that that night.” Things then got a lot weirder when Thomson mused on a radio show that she thought Ford was on cocaine when said alleged groping occurred. That’s when I decided to tune out of this story – except to make the observations below.

I have no idea whether Ford pawed Sarah Thomson or not – both of them, in an odd way, deserve each other. But what I do know is that a great many people will believe anything bad they hear about Rob Ford because it fits perfectly within the range of behaviour we expect from him. And that should inform how he responds to these types of accusations.

Is anyone giving Rob Ford decent communications advice? Is anyone telling him to stop giving just about everyone – outside of Ford Nation – the impression that he’s a boorish, unthinking man-child who can’t resist insulting those who don’t agree with him?

It’s quite possible that there is someone like that on his staff – but that Ford refuses to listen to the advice. Or perhaps his responses are highly strategic, designed as a call to action for his supporters? In either case, I despair.

Meanwhile, like a lot of other Torontonians, I await the emergence of a self-aware and tactful candidate for mayor.