Q&A: Brian Kelcey, the policy consultant with a plan to fix Toronto’s city hall

Q&A: Brian Kelcey, the policy consultant with a plan to fix Toronto’s city hall

In the fall of 2016, the School of Public Policy and Governance at U of T brought together a group of political veterans, policy wonks and civic leaders to form a task force. Their mission: figure out how to fix Toronto’s slow-moving, easily distracted and frequently dysfunctional city council. In a recently released report titled “A Practical Blueprint for Change,” the group makes several radical (by city hall standards) recommendations. Here, Brian Kelcey—an urban policy consultant who led the project along with U of T prof Gabriel Eidelman—talks about what’s wrong with city hall, and why fixing it all may not be as impossible as it seems.

How did you and Gabriel meet, and what made you decide to take on what many would consider an impossible mission?
Like most people in politics these days, we first started talking on Twitter. We met for the first time in 2015 to have some beers and discuss land use policy. A year later, we were having lunch on the patio at Hemingway’s. The conversation turned to our mutual frustration with the process at city hall. In Gabriel’s case, he had been bringing U of T students to see city council firsthand, and his students were walking away baffled and a little bit dumbfounded by what they were seeing.

Such as?
Well, the lack of focus and how council was spending so much time on minor procedural issues. One of the biggest challenges is that everybody in Toronto’s local government is used to extremely long committee meetings. And then you have these very long full council meetings that can feel endless: two, three, four days with late nights. You have situations when councillors are making decisions on multi-million-dollar amendments after 11 p.m., when even the youngest of them would be punchy and tired. For the most part, Canadian city councillors elsewhere in the country are able to get through their sessions in less than a day. And legislatures like Queen’s Park have started looking at their procedures to make them more reasonable in terms of the time.

The task force consisted of 11 members. How did you decide on the group?
We knew that nobody would be willing to consider procedural changes unless they were perceived to be fair on all sides of the political spectrum. So our priority was to reflect that. We had Ange Valentini, who’s a progressive liberal activist [and former assistant to Adam Vaughan]. And, on the other hand, you had Adrienne Batra, who’s a staunch conservative and who was a press secretary to Mayor Ford. We wanted anyone on council who read this report to see somebody around that room who was representative of their own take.

You mentioned that city council meetings have become days-long marathons. Why is that?
The number-one reason is amalgamation: we haven’t figured out how to prioritize. It’s not unusual for council to spend as much time on an individual tree or traffic light as it does on a major new program or initiative. In our report, we’re encouraging a sense of priority by delegating more decisions down. There were at least three tree-removal items on the agenda at the last council meeting. We joke about how the amount of time people spend debating a particular item is inverse to its actual importance. You’ll get a $50-million change order on a construction project and everyone will raise their hand and say “aye,” and then somebody wants to put two trees on a lawn and you’ll get hours of furious debate. That’s not a problem that’s unique to Toronto. What is unique is that Toronto has been resisting the steps you would take to diminish the likelihood of that happening.

What are you proposing to fix this problem?
The biggest change we’ve proposed in the entire report is that the city delegate many more decisions down to the community council level. Toronto has community councils for Toronto East York, Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke—individual community councils that are supposed to be dealing with local issues. City council is meant to be for the whole city. So what issues have a citywide interest? There was a lot of fuss in the last few months when Trinity-Spadina councillor Joe Cressy was trying to get a traffic light on Richmond Street. Denzil Minnan-Wong, who is a councillor for Don Valley East, was continuing to put a hold on this light. Is a traffic light downtown a local issue, or is it an issue of citywide interest because it’s on a major thoroughfare? That’s a fair question. The point of view you get within city hall is that if we delegate, then suburban community councillors won’t ever consider bike lanes, or downtown councillors will put bike lanes everywhere. What we’re saying is, there has to be a way to draw that line. We’re trying to create a situation where councillors are showing up to the full council meetings with their “what’s in the city’s best interest?” hats on.

It seems like a lot of councillors enjoy wearing their “local hero” hats, instead.
My personal view is that councillors are always going to do some local politicking, but ultimately they are there to be legislators, not to micromanage city operations.

Is general incivility a problem?
In the report, we recognize political theatre as something that can distract from focus. The kind of thing that made members of the task force most frustrated was when a councillor shows up at the last minute and says something like, “Let’s propose to do design work on a new subway line.” And they do it with an amendment that nobody has talked to staff or other councillors about.

What about a three-strikes policy for bad behaviour?
Well, with all due respect to the speaker, councillor Nunziata, one thing that pretty much everybody agreed on is that council—and therefore the speaker—could be sterner in terms of the enforcement of basic rules around frivolous motions, decorum and frivolous questions.

Speaking of civility: how heated did things get on the task force?
Not at all. There were some issues where there was strong disagreement, but everything was very collegial. We had an advantage in that our goal was to be balanced and politically neutral. People weren’t going to war over any particular proposal.

Your report came out just before last week’s council meeting. Any reason to think people are paying attention?
Yes. Probably the most popular recommendation we had was that there be some mechanism for council to regularly review the mandate, the governance and the operation of all of the city agencies, boards and commissions. Right now, you have these large and small agencies that sometimes never get a look. Their operations may be disconnected from city priorities, and yet there are no procedures to check that. With the parking authority controversy that’s underway right now, that’s the first recommendation that council has actually adopted. At the meeting last week, the mayor stood and moved a motion to adopt rolling reviews of agencies, and the language was more or less taken from our report. That’s the first sign that somebody at city hall has actually read this and is paying attention.