Plus, you can listen to a segment of “Tear It Down,” an eight-chapter audio series about a small town whose government became wildly dysfunctional when political insurgent group formed seeking revenge: www.tearitdownpodcast.com.
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Mary Rita Holland is in her second term as Kingston District 7 councillor and she describes the training that new councillors just received, accommodations for children in the meetings, and the choice she regrets from her first term.
Q: The Kingston city council recently started a new four-year term and one of your brand-new councillors, Robert Kiley, wrote in the Kingstonist, “Speaking of meetings, that’s how we finished our orientation: in a mock meeting, with funny motions, like establishing a public kale bar, which articulated step by step what happens around the Horseshoe.” Were you at that practice council meeting?
A: I was. We focused on introducing some new food options, including real dairy products, at our council meetings. Currently we use powdered coffee whitener for members of the public and for staff and councillors. One of the motions for debate was whether we should move toward real dairy.
Q: What was the final outcome of that debate?
A: We voted in favor of real dairy products in our council meetings and I think we also voted in favor of the recommendation for a kale quinoa bar. That was a little less contentious. We do want to see more people come to our meetings, so the better quality the coffee and milk, hopefully the better the attendance!
Q: On April 7, 2015, you proposed having childcare for certain public meetings. What is this revolutionary, socialist utopian idea of yours?
A: I am a single parent, but I was aware of the fact that I was probably the first member of council in a situation like this–where if our meetings went really late and I had a babysitter, that was a problem for me. So it seems like there are a number of barriers for younger members of the public to participate in our democracy. I thought by introducing childcare at meetings, it might mean that for those families who wanted to get out and participate, they could do that and they could feel very comforted that their children were having a good time in the room next-door.
Q: I want to take the listeners to June 13, 2017. This was the start of what ended up being a 10-hour meeting over two days about a “third crossing”–a third bridge over the Cataraqui River. Right up top, Councillor Peter Stroud attempted to curtail that by moving that the staff presentations get cut so the question time could start sooner. The council defeated that idea. I understand that Councillor Stroud stepped out. Would you describe to me what you recall?
A: He stepped out of the room. I stepped out at the same time, although that was not coordinated in advance. But we had the same rationale for getting rid of that briefing: we’d already heard the information more than once. We thought the time would be better spent hearing from the public. In a bit of an act of protest, we both left the council chamber.
Q: What did you do?
A: I found Councillor Stroud standing at the front entryway. The two of us stood there at the door and complained a bit about the motion losing. We were frustrated with how the entire vote and decision had been proceeding all along. We were talking about it in the entryway. That didn’t seem wise and we don’t really have a private room for our own discussions at city hall. He said, maybe we should go across the street to the pub and chat a bit more.
Q: Did anyone come up to you while you were in the pub and say, “hey, wait. There’s a council meeting and you’re councillors, so…what?!”
A: No. Of course I had it in the back of my mind that it wasn’t wise to be leaving the building, but I guess given the fact that I knew I had to go back to that meeting and be composed, I thought it made a bit of sense to go and calm myself down a bit. It turns out there were members of the media in the pub. When I went back to my seat in the council chamber, there was a tweet going around about the fact that we had left.
Q: Reflecting on that tweet, do you think that take of “walking out on the job” was an accurate one?
A: Yeah, and I’m laughing about it a little bit today but that turned out to be a very difficult time. I care a lot about public engagement and the public trust and I want people to not be cynical. When I realized that this would make people cynical about politics, that it was a bigger deal than getting out for a breath of air, I felt really awful about it. I should have stayed.
This Christmas, we are celebrating the third year in a row that City Council Chronicles (and our other project, Tear It Down) has made the ELGL Top 100 Local Government Influencers list! We are very thankful for the award, and you can read more about the other 99 honorees on ELGL.org.
Simultaneously, you can listen to our holiday-themed podcast episode on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM, and right here:
On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:
Alexa Loo is a former Olympic athlete and current city councillor who has witnessed a pull-and-tug over the maximum size of houses on Richmond farmland. She explains what the root of the issue appears to have been for some people.
Q: I must congratulate you on being newly inaugurated to a second council term. Whose idea was it for the men and the women to take separate oaths of office?
A: What ended up happening is the men ended up sitting on the one side of the room and the women sat on the other side. It just worked out that way. On the women’s side, we even sit in alphabetical order. And that wasn’t planned either.
Q: So is this going to be like a seventh grade dance with the boys on one side and the girls on the other for the next four years?
A: Yes! It is what it is.
Q: On your island, you have something called the agricultural land reserve. About 39 percent of Richmond is farmland. Why were some councillors concerned about how long that would last?
A: There had never been a cap or a limit on the size of house that you could have on agricultural land. House sizes started to get bigger. There were starting to become applications for things as big as 40,000 square feet. You can put a skating rink in 40,000 square feet.
Q: In a meeting, your council decided to put a cap on the size of a house on farmland to around 11,000 square feet. I don’t know a lot about farming, but I’m assuming that with my bedroom, my children’s bedroom, my tractor’s bedroom, my wheat thresher’s bedroom, and the bedroom for my livestock–even with bunk beds I’d be pushing it with 11,000 square feet.
A: Well, a wheat thresher is so big, you can’t even drive it on a standard road, so–
Q: I would need a really big bedroom is what you’re saying?
A: You would. There’s a whole bunch of rules that still protect the farmland, so at some point, does it matter if they have a three-car garage or a four-car garage? Does it matter if you have six bedrooms or five bedrooms? Why is it anybody else’s business what they’re doing?
Q: The fact is some people were unhappy with the limit. They thought 11,000 square feet were way too many–
A: And there’s a lot of people that don’t want a proliferation of South Asian people living on farmland.
Q: Their outrage was specifically aimed at limiting a racial or ethnic group from building these houses?
A: Typically those are the people building it. It’s easy to go after the size and shape of things if you know it’s gonna stick it to that group, I think.
Q: You referred in council meetings to the “good old boys” and fairness. Why in the meeting did you couch your language like that?
A: Because standing up at a council meeting and calling other people racist is a bold and dangerous move. Throwing names around like that–we’re not allowed to call people names.
Q: Were there any other councillors who felt the way you did about the racial aspect?
A: Oh, everybody’s well aware of it. The 23,000 square foot house that had been built, it had been built by a Caucasian person in Richmond. And he had a bowling alley in it. So when people are like, “what do you need a big house for?” He needs a bowling alley, apparently. But nobody seemed to have a big problem with it. They were more in awe at the time. But now if somebody else builds one, there’s a problem around it.
Joe Mihevc was a councillor for over 20 years when Ontario’s premier suddenly announced in the middle of this year’s election that he was cutting the size of Toronto’s city council from 47 wards to 25. This prompted several chaotic council meetings and even more chaotic provincial legislative sessions.
Q: Where were you on the night of July 26, 2018?
A: All councillors were in council session. That’s when we heard rumor on the second floor during the council meeting that something big was happening. We very quickly understood that the premier was going to be making an announcement the very next day that he was going to reduce our council.
Q: You said the word “premier.” For our American listeners, you’ll have to explain what that is. I’m assuming the premier is some sort of demigod? An authoritative mystic with the magic of Dumbledore and the charisma of Barack Obama?
A: Well, the equivalent to premier is “governor.” Here if you win the premiership, you also run the political party that has charge of the legislature. So it’s a pretty neat gig if you can get it.
Q: Councillor Paula Fletcher used the term “Trump tactics” to describe Premier Doug Ford’s council cuts. Do you agree with her description?
A: Absolutely. When we use those words in Canada, in this context it meant that the premier was acting in an authoritarian way. He was not consulting the folks that were impacted. It basically came from his head and he felt he needed to act, which is our perception of how things flow these days at the presidential level.
Q: During the July 27 meeting, you took a dinner break. And after councillors came back, the tone was completely different and more confrontational. What changed during that break?
A: As the day went on it became clear that the threat was real. I would suggest that what Doug–a part of him wanted us to fight it out. He actually provoked a “Hunger Games” at the city. Forty-four councillors recognized that if we did go to 25, there would be a fight for many a seat. Every councillor positioned himself to be active on the issue partly to show the community how strong they were going to be opposing Doug Ford.
Q: Help me understand the types of councillors who were in favor of the province’s action. You mentioned there were Doug Ford’s allies, but were there also people who really could not stand the way your council operates?
A: I think the people who were supportive of Doug Ford’s actions–all of them were on the right-wing side of council.
Q: What do you make of the notion that as a councillor, you don’t have to have 12-hour days and do everything for everyone. With fewer councillors, your focus should be on taking votes in meetings, legislating, and not micromanaging everything that goes on in your neighborhoods?
A: That’s a very good point. It depends on your philosophy. If you want to put it on a spectrum, you can say on one side you are the board members of this $12 billion corporation called the city of Toronto and you are there to make decisions. That’s your job and that’s it. Others feel–and I would be one of them–that you have face time with residents. To double the size [of wards] means to get half the amount of face time.
Q: You knew Doug Ford when he was a city councillor. I take it he was a stickler for efficiency, effective governance, and moral rectitude?
A: [chuckles] Doug Ford was a stickler for trying to grab the limelight and score political points on how he hated all government. The word “dysfunction” that Doug Ford labeled city council–it was dysfunctional for many years when he and his brother [Rob Ford] were here. He was willing to go up into the audience. There was once when he was taunting them to come down and take him on. I remember those times as really tumultuous. Once they left, guess what? A new calm. I would suggest right now that provincial parliament is highly dysfunctional, and he’s at the center of that dysfunction.
Follow former Councillor Joe Mihevc on Twitter: @joemihevc