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:
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
This past year, I had an AMAZING experience. I visited 12 cities and towns across North America for the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. The idea was simple: see as much of the city as I could, talk to as many people as I could, and ask them all the same two questions.
What is the best thing about this place?
What is the worst thing about this place?
Answering those questions can be surprisingly difficult, but it was important for me to hear about individuals’ values and experiences with their communities. I learned that a small city in conservative western Kansas thinks of itself as “progressive.” I learned that diversity in Toronto is much heralded, but also has a dark side. And I was present for a medical emergency in the desert outside Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The goal was to find out what cities are doing well to make their communities livable for residents. Then, to find out what people want that their cities aren’t providing now.
You can listen to all 12 episodes on the project page. And this week, I bring you the highlights in a special audio episode about the best of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing.” This “best of” is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM and right here:
If you liked what you heard, please give the podcast a five-star rating on iTunes and like our Facebook page. There are other big projects in the works, so keep checking back!
We had a smörgåsbord of “firsts” in September: the first time we saw a husband bring his wife roses at a council meeting. Our first podcast interview with a knight (even though she claims she’s not a knight). And our first “Best Thing, Worst Thing” story that profiles a non-American city.
And hey! We finally marked our territory in one of the three states that City Council Chronicles had not visited: Montana. Now, it’s only Rhode Island and New Mexico that need to get with the program. Check out which states we did profile with our September Month in Review.
And if you haven’t seen the first country music video we’ve encountered that everybody is talking about (well, everybody who watches the Fayetteville, North Carolina city council meetings, that is), plug in your headphones and jam out here:
HUGE NEWS: this is our first international episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project! And the Canadians I talked to could not have been nicer: you’ll hear from senior citizens playing lawn bowling in the suburbs. You’ll sit on the sidewalk as a blues guitarist serenades us. And most climactic of all, you’ll observe a butter tart bake-off at a fancy hotel, listening to judges and pastry chefs alike. (I’ve been told that this is a HIGHLY Canadian thing to do.)
If you’ve never heard of the project before, check out the page here. When you are mentally prepared to discover who won the Great Canadian Butter Tart Battle, click to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.
Episode 11: Toronto, Ontario
Toronto is the most populous city in Canada and one of the most multicultural places in the world. It was amalgamated in 1998 from several smaller cities and is crisscrossed by streetcars and subways–although those are often a target of Torontonians’ frustrations. We will learn about lawn bowling from a senior citizens’ league, sample the merchandise in a sex shop, and experience a play-by-play of the Great Canadian Butter Tart Battle. Along the way, we will hear from an immigrant, a city councilor, pastry chefs, a musician, and an educator.
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?!
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.
3. HUGE. NAME. PLACARDS.
4. They don’t look at each other.
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.
“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.
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.
8. You don’t get to talk forever.
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.
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?
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: