The city hall committee that deals with bikes lanes got a new member, and her name is Mary-Margaret McMahon; COLUMN: Matt Elliott says by-election or bust; arts organizations get “wake-up slap” when city cuts funding for not meeting diversity criteria

10:30 p.m. May 23, 2018. Roy Thomson Hall at night, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – one of two organizations that had their funding cut this year.
10:30 p.m. May 23, 2018. Roy Thomson Hall at night, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – one of two organizations that had their funding cut this year.

Weekend Newsbrief: May 26, 2018

What happened at Toronto City Hall this week

By Arianne Robinson

Arts and culture organizations got their city budgets cut because they weren’t meeting diversity and inclusion goals. Forget last year’s day-long debate about whether the city should fund the Pride Parade which did not welcome the Toronto Police to march in uniform or have their own float. This year, a motion to cut the $260,000 funding to Pride Toronto did get a moment of airtime at council, but was dismissed by the mover Deputy Mayor Stephen Holyday, before councillors had the chance to make insensitive remarks about people who enjoy and feel ownership over the parade. This year’s big arts funding issue at city council was about the lack of diversity at some of the city’s most prestigious arts institutions and what it means for council to cut some of that funding. The main focus of the cultural grants debates was on reducing the budget of the symphony and opera companies – both organizations that get over a million in funding from the city. Councillor Norm Kelly, who is the City of Toronto representative on the Toronto Symphony Orchestra board, characterized it “a wake-up slap” for the organizations who are aware that they need to change. (Read the story)

Ward races heating up. This week, former NDP MP Matthew Kellway registered his nomination to run for city councillor in the new Ward 37, (most of Mary-Margaret McMahon’s former ward) bordered by Victoria Park Avenue, Danforth Avenue, Coxwell Avenue, Queen Street East, Leslie Street, and the waterfront. Kellway told reporters on Tuesday that he is very excited to be starting the campaign process. “[I’ve] been warming up to it for quite some time now, so [I’m] anxious to get going.” Kellway was a federal NDP MP from 2011 to 2015 for Beaches-East York. During that time, he was the opposition critic for urban affairs and infrastructure, as well as deputy critic for transport. Asked how will his experience in parliament relate to being a Toronto city councillor, he says “I wrote my party’s white paper on cities, and I did it with a view to my own community, but I also had the opportunity to do consultations right across the country with councillors and mayors from different cities. So I’ve got a feel for cities generally across this country and what people want from their cities and the kinds of neighbourhoods they’d like to live in.”

The city hall committee that makes decisions about bike lanes just got a new member, and her name is Mary-Margaret McMahon. This week, following the resignation of Chin Lee from city council (he’s running in the provincial election), council was tasked with finding a new member for its Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. The reason council needed to find a new member immediately was so the committee could go on with business as usual without any threat to quorum. (Quorum is the required number of members that need to be present at a committee in order for it to run). If you know the Beaches-area councillor who was chosen – Mary-Margaret McMahon – you are probably aware that she is a mega cycling advocate. And if you know how committees work at city hall, then you also know that they are the democratic breeding ground for debate and examination of an idea before it goes to council (if it gets there through committee). We’ll see how McMahon’s official role on the committee will play out, but if she wants to leave city hall with a bang, she now has a platform to introduce all kinds of unexpected items to committee for debate. Public Works Committee debates putting bike lanes on every single street of our city.

Controversy over councillor appointment over a cell phone number. The nomination to fill the vacant Ward 33 councillor created  some controversy at a special meeting of council this week, but not for the reasons you’d expect. You might think that council appointing of councillors would raise eyebrows because of the values of the candidate when it comes to big transit issues, protecting trees, or parking pads! But nope, the big controversy about the appointment to fill Shelley Carroll’s vacant seat was whether the mayor’s office had given out Councillor David Shiner cell phone number to a candidate. The issue of communication from the mayor’s office continued online Friday evening, when another candidate, TDSB trustee Ken Lister tweeted “I contacted all councillors + mayor and offered to meet or speak by phone during May at location/time of their convenience to answer any Q’s they might have. Mayor’s office responded he wouldn’t meet with me, and didn’t offer me personal cell ph# for any councillor.” Signal Toronto reached out to the mayor’s office to inquire about communication and Don Peat, spokesperson for the mayor’s office said via email, “The Mayor did not meet with any candidates for the Ward 33 nomination.” Aside from who called who on what phone number before the appointment process, council voted for 31-year-old Jonathan Tsao. What do we know about Tsao? You can read which Liberal premier and cabinet ministers he has worked for here, or take it from Keerthana Kamalavasan, Senior Manager, Communications & Tour in the Office of the Mayor, who tweeted in 2012 that Grahame Rivers called Jonathan Tsao a “cool kid.” Tsao joins a small group of Toronto city councillors who are under 40.

2012 tweet

3:39 p.m. May 22, 2019. Newly appointed Jonathan Tsao speaking to the media after he was appointed.
3:39 p.m. May 22, 2019. Newly appointed Jonathan Tsao speaking to the media after he was appointed.



By-election or bust: council should stop appointing people to fill vacancies

May 24, 2018

By Matt Elliott

Here’s a short list of ways Toronto City Council could have chosen a replacement councillor for Ward 33 that would have been preferable to the appointment process they used to select Jonathan Tsao on Tuesday.

They could have awarded the council seat at random to, say, a lucky person waiting in line at city hall to get a parking permit. They could have given the seat to a local celebrity – with the caveat that it be a celebrity who has time to do the job. So maybe Toronto Blue Jays backup catcher Luke Maile. He only plays a few games a week. They could have bestowed the seat to a cute and deserving dog. Maybe a hero dog. One that dragged a child out of a burning car wreck or barked in the general direction of danger.

Really, almost anything would be less politically toxic than the appointment process that took place at city hall for just under five hours this week.

My issues with the process have nothing to do with Tsao, selected to replace Councillor Shelley Carroll after she resigned to run for Queen’s Park. Instead, my issues are the same issues I had with the process when it played out last fall, when council chose Lucy Troisi to replace the late Pam McConnell in Ward 28.

You wouldn’t think appointing someone to a short-term council gig could sink to the level of toxicity, but council manages to pull it off. On Tuesday, support for appointees amongst councillors once again split largely along ideological lines. Mayor John Tory and most councillors who tend to vote with him on major issues supported Tsao, while most left-leaning councillors went with Divya Nayak, who had the endorsement of Carroll.

According to the latest version of my City Council Scorecard, the 18 councillors who supported Nayak on the third ballot have an average Team Tory score of 49 percent – meaning they vote with the mayor about 49 percent of the time on major items. The 23 councillors who voted Tsao have a Team Tory score of 83 percent.

How councillors voted

Using a runoff system that required the winner to receive a majority of votes cast, it took three ballots for council to choose to appoint Jonathan Tsao to the vacant council seat in Ward 33. He received 23 votes on the third ballot. Divya Nayak, finishing second, received 18 votes.

The left-leaning councillors who voted for Nayak include Councillors John Filion, Mary Fragedakis, Paula Fletcher, Joe Mihevc, Joe Cressy, Sarah Doucette, Gord Perks, Josh Matlow, Janet Davis, Neethan Shan, Maria Augimeri, Anthony Perruzza, Kristyn Wong-Tam, and Mike Layton. They vote with Tory on average 43 percent of the time on major items.

The right-leaning councillors who voted for Nayak were Councillors Paul Ainslie, Michael Thompson, Norm Kelly, and Josh Colle. Their average Team Tory vote is 81 percent.

The right-leaning councillors who voted for Tsao also have a high average Team Tory score of  83 percent. They include Councillors Michelle Holland, Cesar Palacio, John Burnside, Mark Grimes, Jaye Robinson, Gary Crawford, Lucy Troisi, Justin Di Ciano, Giorgio Mammoliti, John Campbell, Glenn De Baeremaeker, Stephen Holyday, Christin Carmichael-Greb, Frances Nunziata, Michael Ford, James Pasternak, David Shiner, Ana Bailão, Jim Karygiannis, Jim Hart, Mary-Margaret McMahon, Frank Di Giorgio, and Mayor John Tory.

The debate got testy. Accusations of behind-the-scenes lobbying and deal-making were thrown around. On the council floor, Councillor David Shiner complained his personal cellphone number had been given to a candidate by the mayor’s office, for the purpose of winning his vote of support. Councillors later grilled Tsao during his deputation in council chambers about whether he had received contact information from the mayor’s office.

This isn’t how it should go. This process should be innocuous and largely apolitical. The City of Toronto Act generally gives council two options to fill vacant seats: by-election or appointment, though on Tuesday councillors were further limited by the Municipal Elections Act, which stipulates by-elections can’t be held after March 31 of an election year. But whatever the legislation says, it does make sense to consider alternatives to holding a by-election to fill the seat. Each by-election, after all, costs Toronto taxpayers between $200,000 and $250,000.

With that kind of cost, there’s logic in appointing a community member to the city who can take care of pressing business and represent the neighbourhoods. You find someone who is well-known in the community but who isn’t overly political. Someone who won’t run in the next election.

But that isn’t what actually happens. Instead, the process – and it seems to have gotten worse this term under Tory – has become increasingly divisive.

I don’t think there’s a way to change that. The process itself is broken. It doesn’t reflect the reality of politics and politicians.

For one thing, forget about finding someone who you can trust not to run for a council seat in the next election. On Tuesday, every candidate was asked if they would run. Most, but not all, said they wouldn’t. There was even a homemade contract floating around, which some candidates indicated they would sign as a kind of extra-special-pinky-swear-no-take-backs pledge not to run.

But the truth is that there is no guarantee. No pledge made on or off the council floor can be legally binding. If an appointed councillor wants to run again, they can run again. And the advantage granted by their incumbency is significant. It creates an uneven playing field in what should be a race for an open seat.

For another thing, for all the talk of constituency work and responding to resident requests, a city councillor’s most important job is as a person who votes “yes” or “no” on the issues that affect the city. These issues can involve billions of dollars. They can have life-or-death repercussions. They tie into mayoral campaign promises and election strategies and political legacies.

And so forget, too, any notion of an apolitical “caretaker councillor” who exists only to fill in for a few months and handle constituent needs. That doesn’t line up with what the job actually is.

What was really up for grabs on Tuesday wasn’t a council seat and an office budget – it was the right to vote in the council chamber. The person wielding that vote can make Tory’s political life a little easier, by voting with the mayor on most issues, or the person could buoy the fortunes of council’s opposition left.

The only fair way to find a person who can do that job is through a democratic election.

This is understood at other levels of government. No one would seriously suggest a policy that fills seats at Queen’s Park or in Ottawa by appointment. Municipal politics in Toronto should be no different – by-elections should be the only way to fill a seat. If the vacancy occurs too close to the next scheduled election, the seat should remain vacant, with local duties handled by the former councillor’s office staff and the City Clerk’s office at City Hall.

This isn’t a change council can make themselves. It would require a provincial amendment to the City of Toronto Act to allow council to keep seats empty after March 31 in an election year, and always have a by-election anytime before that. But it’s worth asking Queen’s Park to make that amendment. Because after this term, I don’t want to watch more hours-long appointment meetings. I don’t want to hear more empty promises not to run. I don’t want to see more seats become battlegrounds for politicking between ideological wings of council.

I’d rather see democracy. And if not democracy, then, hell, I’ll take the hero dog.


Matt Elliott is a columnist, blogger and City Hall watcher in Toronto. After starting out as an independent blogger, he later became the city columnist for Metro News. He mostly writes about local issues, often with a nerdy focus on municipal budgets and urban policy. The winner of two Canadian Online Publishing Awards for his writing, the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has called Matt “one of the best political columnists anywhere.” You can follow Matt on Twitter at @GraphicMatt.