The sound of bureaucrats laughing

The sound of bureaucrats laughing

When she met with the media on Friday, City Manager Shirley Hoy, city hall’s top bureaucrat, didn’t mince words about the depth of the city’s financial crisis: even if Queen’s Park agreed to upload the cost of social services tomorrow, she explained, Toronto would still need to raise new revenues of its own. When asked what could possibly have been gained, then, by council’s decision to defer a final vote on the matter, she offered a pregnant pause with a purse-lipped smirk—trying hard to conceal a smile, I thought—before saying, simply, “I can’t speculate.” This was a bureaucrat’s sneaky sense of humour shining through: unable to comment on the ineptitude of her political masters, she let the question speak for itself. There was nothing to be gained by a deferral, and councillors would know that if they’d only been paying attention.

The golden rule of public administration is that bureaucrats never provide elected officials with political advice. In the current crisis at city hall, the rule has played out like so: Hoy and Deputy City Manager/Chief Financial Officer Joseph Pennachetti have been happy to tell council which new revenue tools will be easiest to implement, which will raise the most money, which will cause the fewest administrative hassles, and so on—but they will not advise council on which ones the public will find most palatable. That’s a political problem, which means it’s not their problem.

And once you understand that, then you realize that this June 11 report, prepared by Hoy and Pennachetti, is a real knee-slapper. Pennachetti had just finished chairing four public consultations, at which he had been forced to absorb the wrath of an angry public. The second paragraph of his report plops a very big political problem down in Mayor David Miller’s lap: “there was general opposition [to using any new revenue tools] which stemmed from a lack of trust that the new taxes were justified.” The report doesn’t suggest any measures the mayor might take to address this problem; it just states the problem in black and white before going on to recommend, la-de-da, that council adopt a land-transfer tax and a vehicle-registration tax.

Ergo: Miller and his executive committee either failed to read the report that was prepared for them, or they read it and decided they didn’t care about “a lack of trust that the new taxes were justified.” Either way, it’s not what you’d expect of the man who Thinks Like a Mayor and Talks Like a Neighbour. Today’s news is that the mayor is finally coming around, la-de-da, to this blog’s way of seeing things.

Image of Shirley Hoy from