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Shirley Hoy’s small potatoes

That’s one hum-dinger of a memo City Manager Shirley Hoy sent to city staff in response to my January toilet-bowl cover story. It paints a far bleaker picture of what’s going on inside city hall than anything I wrote. The cupboard has to be pretty bare if the greatest success she can point to is amalgamation, which everyone else agrees was a scorched-earth disaster, and which lies at the heart of everything that’s gone wrong since.

To an outsider’s eye, the memo reads like the opposite of faint praise—it’s high praise for faint accomplishment, casting the delivery of basic city services as an against-all-odds victory. There’s lots of this sort of talk in the clamshell these days. This past year, many councillors have complained to me how complicated it is to manage a big city like Toronto. They say that new developments get stalled because planners get bogged down co-ordinating with multiple city departments—waste, water, emergency services, etc. To resurface a road you must factor in storm drainage, transit and the like. This may be true, and it may even be trying in current circumstances, but it’s not lamentable. Managing this complexity is city hall’s basic job description.

Indeed, the most striking aspect of Hoy’s memo is its utter lack of ambition. The heroic efforts she speaks of don’t produce grand new civic initiatives. They just get the trash off the curb before nightfall. This, surely, is the root of the morale problem, not just within the public service but across this entire disaffected city: people with ambition for themselves and for Toronto who are tired of the sinking feeling that they’ve got little to show for all the hard work.

Epilogue: In council chambers yesterday, Mayor David Miller and Budget Chief Shelley Carroll spoke eloquently and passionately about the plan to revitalize Union Station. They cast it as a symbol of civic ambition, defying everything I’ve just written above. But it’s going to take money from other governments and private sector partners and coordination with a wide range of city services to make it happen. Hope it doesn’t get too complicated.

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