Interview #114: Toronto, ON Former Councillor Joe Mihevc (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

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.

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Toronto, ON former Councillor Joe Mihevc

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

10 Toronto City Council Facts to Impress Your Friends and Potential Mates

It was an electrifying week to embark on our first international city council review! Less electrified was my accountant, who has since advised me to “never, ever fly First Class to Canada again, you moron.”

Anyhow, there was waaaaay too much cool stuff about the Toronto city council to mention. So I’ll mention it all here in the form of a handy list.

1. They start very patriotically.

In the U.S., council meetings usually kick off with the Pledge of Allegiance and occasionally a prayer. In Toronto, a choir sings the Canadian national anthem on top of a sweeping video montage. Come on, America, where’s our inspirational stock footage?!

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2. The mayor’s there!

In big cities, it’s unusual for the mayor to be in the room with the council. It’s even more unusual for the mayor to vote on the council. But in Toronto, the mayor is basically the 45th councilor.

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3. HUGE. NAME. PLACARDS.

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4. They don’t look at each other.

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Here’s an odd thing to watch: when councilors are asking questions to city staff, SOMETIMES they make eye contact like normal human beings. But usually, councilors don’t bother turning to look!

“There’s very few councilors who don’t know exactly where their camera is,” Councilor Shelley Carroll told me. “You pretty much get your media training on the job pretty fast.”

5. They can’t talk directly to people.

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“Hey, Michael, what do you mean by that?” you might ask.

And if I were a Toronto city councilor, I would respond, “Through the speaker, they talk to each other by saying ‘through the speaker.'”

Explained Carroll: “You’re not supposed to take somebody on. Canadian cities try to treat themselves like they’re a House of Commons.” Yes, we wouldn’t want councilors to confront each other…any more than they usually do (see below).

6. They vote DING DING while a chime DING DING rings.

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When councilors vote with their machines, they hear a steady pulsating chime–imagine an autotuned version of a garbage truck’s back-up beeper. It’s kind of hypnotic. I wonder if anyone has dozed off while voting.

 7. A lot of people ACTUALLY watch.

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8. You don’t get to talk forever.

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Councilors have a time limit on asking questions. The speaker butts in when they are done to say, “that was your last question.” And then she cuts their mic! Given how Toronto’s council meetings often stretch into double-digit hours, you better believe time limits are necessary. But I have yet to see another council that plays stopwatch cop like this.

9. They are very polite.

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Of course they’re polite–this is Canada! There were so many “sorrys” that I lost count. Like in this exchange between Councilor Josh Colle and the deputy city manager:

Colle:  What has been the increase in property taxes collected?

DCM: $303 million, I believe.

Colle: Sorry, that’s TTC fares.

DCM: No, sorry, that’s property taxes.

Colle: You might have it the other way around?

DCM: Sorry.

On the other hand,

10. They openly bicker.

The council has a “bylaw,” which members invoke if they think someone is behaving poorly–for example, by insulting the staff. Councilors can also challenge Speaker Frances Nunziata on her rulings. In return, the speaker sometimes snaps at them about wasting time and keeping the noise level down. During the Rob Ford shenanigans, antics were even worse:

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Interview #7: Toronto, ON Councilor Shelley Carroll

No one is better equipped to give us the director’s commentary on the Toronto city council meeting than longtime councilor and Twitter powerhouse Shelley Carroll.

She told me the scoop on Rob Ford, council drama, and her fantasy hockey team.

Q: How many people usually show up to watch? And follow-up question: how many moose usually show up?

A: It’s been a while since we’ve had a moose. In terms of how many “municipal nerds” are there–

Q: Your phrase, not mine.

A: We have a lot of bloggers–the councilors call them Twitterati. There’s about a dozen of them. If we’re doing something with taxis or Uber, there’s 500-600 people in there. The lowest it ever gets is around 50-70 people.

Q: You are the deputy speaker. I saw what the speaker does and it looks exhausting. What does the deputy speaker do?

A: In my case the deputy speaker doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot.

Q: Nice!

A: The speaker you saw is very, very possessive about being in that chair. She had a rough time during the Rob Ford years. She asked to be speaker again under a new mayor and it was a tough vote. She almost didn’t make it. She is doing a pretty good job with a pretty crazy council.  But I’m lucky if I get to be in the chair ten minutes a day.

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Toronto, ON Councilor Shelley Carroll

Q: Oh boy, you mentioned He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Obviously the Rob Ford scandal was a tough time for everyone–except late night comedians. After the crack-smoking news got out, were council meetings more hostile?

A: Definitely. Oftentimes he wan’t the most hostile force in the room. His brother was.

Q: When the council was debating what to do with Rob Ford, one reporter tweeted this:

Is that true?

A: Yeah. By the time we were taking his powers away, it was petty on all sides. I’ve been in office since 2003. That two weeks leading up to taking Rob’s powers away were the most “together” council has ever been. He was just completely humiliating us. That was right after he said the horrible thing about his wife to the media.

Q: I saw the video, yes.

A:  I spent a lot of time on Twitter inoculating myself from their bullying.  “Don’t mess with me or I’ll tweet it!”

Q: Are there any councilors you do not like? You don’t have to name–

A: Giorgio Mammoliti.

Q: Noted. Now, suppose the Montreal city council challenged you to a game of hockey. Which five Toronto city councilors would you pick for your team?

A: Oddly, I probably would take Giorgio Mammoliti. He would throw them for a loop the whole time.

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We’d probably match them wit for wit, so we’d have to take Gord Perks.

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I would take Janet Davis. Councilor Davis is obsessed with reading every word of every report. She would read about a year’s worth of every agenda in the Montreal council. She would lay waste to them.

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We’d take Josh Matlow because he’s a part-time Montrealer and he would beat them on their own level.

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My one more pick, I would take Joe Cressy. He’s just the youngest and most nimble person on council. So he would whip their ass athletically.

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Q: I’m a bit surprised that a Canadian just said “ass,” but I’ll let it slide.


Follow Councilor Shelley Carroll on Twitter: @shelleycarroll