"The nasty meter has gone way up": Five departing councillors on what it's really like inside city hall

The Graduating Class

Bullets through windows, angry encounters on the street, endless hours: these five veteran councillors are stepping down, which means they can finally reveal what life as a city councillor is really like. We invited them to lunch, plied them with wine, and extracted surprising truths about the housing market, the scourge of misinformation, the billion-dollar budget shortfall, and what horrors, headaches and big decisions await their successors

Moderated by Luc Rinaldi| Photography by Sierra Nallo
| October 24, 2022

The five of you have spent a total of—I’m not making this up—100 years in elected office. Now you’re all leaving at the same time. Is that a coincidence? Or is something up at city hall?

DENZIL MINNAN-WONG: I told Cressy that, if he retired, I’d retire [laughs].

JOE CRESSY: I always planned to serve two terms and then leave. This amount of turnover is probably not that unusual. But the role of the councillor changed significantly this term, given the larger ward sizes.

Right. After Doug Ford cut council in half in 2018, you all had to represent twice as many constituents. How did that change the job?

JOHN FILION: As councillors, we were already working long hours. Then everybody started working even longer hours. It became impossible to keep up. To do the job the way all of us would like to do it—while also having any kind of real personal life—became extremely difficult.

ANA BAILÃO: In my first two terms, I attended a lot of business improvement area meetings. This past term, I had 15, maybe 20 BIAs in my ward. It was just impossible. You can’t show up for everything. The committee work has also doubled.

MIKE LAYTON: The role of councillor went from leading on issues—bringing in outside voices, organizing their deputations—to mostly management. Suddenly, there was a lot of new development in my ward but no additional staff for all the meetings that entailed. Behind the scenes of every community meeting, there were two or three meetings with staff, a meeting with the developer and a meeting with the community association.

MINNAN-WONG: I was certainly spread more thin, but we just did things differently. We got more staff, so we had the capacity to deal with more people. Council meetings were also shorter this term, which surprised me.

FILION: I think the meetings were shorter because the behaviour was better. Some of the people who might cause you to go crazy had left.

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MINNAN-WONG: You could look at it that way. But, in my view, council needs to be an arena and a discussion of ideas. That should generate disagreement. There was too much agreement about too many issues this term and not enough vigorous debate. Once city staff wrote a report, it was locked down, everybody worked in favour of it and you couldn’t change anything. That’s not the vital city council I saw at the start of my career as a councillor.

CRESSY: As with most of my time at city hall, I disagree with Denzil. There was a lot of big discussion and debate: the transit upload, public health cuts, Housing Now. Then we had a pandemic. The city had a “come together” moment, which allowed it, in many ways, to become a world leader in its response. The fact that we pulled together was a sign of the times we were living in.

LAYTON: I, too, often disagreed with Denzil, and I usually agreed with Joe. But, here, I’m going to do the opposite. This mayor has enormous power. I don’t know about the rest of you, but any time I wanted to bring a motion that would have actually sparked a debate on the council floor, the response from the mayor’s office was “Why don’t we try to shape this so that it’s approved on consent?”

BAILÃO: Is that “power”? Or is that the mayor trying to bring people together? You probably advanced your cause that way. When you go into city hall, you have your values and you want to get things done, but you also have to be willing to compromise. It’s not like provincial or federal politics, where you have a government in opposition that is going to disagree with you no matter what you say. You have the opportunity to work together, to build consensus. That’s the beauty of municipal politics.


"The nasty meter has gone way up": Five departing councillors on what it's really like inside city hall

ANA BAILÃO

Ward: Davenport Mayor when first elected: Rob Ford Years in office: 12 Proudest accomplishment: “My work on housing.” Worst example of wasteful spending you witnessed: “I have a pet peeve with cheques, and we used cheques for everything. But, in general, the city’s lack of use of technology to provide services.” What you’ll miss the most: “The contact with the city’s people and having conversations about big issues.” What you’ll miss the least: “The emotional drain of the job.”


 

Speaking of the mayor’s power, the next mayor will have “strong mayor” capabilities, which will allow them to bypass council on things like tabling the budget, proposing policy and making appointments. Is that undemocratic or just more efficient?

MINNAN-WONG: It’s democratic in that the mayor is the only person who was elected by everybody.

FILION: I don’t think it will make that much difference next term if Tory wins. But, after that, if you have, for example, Doug Ford coming back and deciding to run for mayor, it could be disastrous.

LAYTON: The most frightening piece of it is the ability to hire and fire staff. It scares me that their entire livelihood could be based on whether they’ve curried their mayor’s favour. I trust that John wouldn’t take this approach, but a different mayor very well might. All of a sudden, both sides of any debate will have a reason to question the conclusions of city staff. You can claim that their relationship to the mayor—or the consequence of being offside of the mayor—shaped their conclusions.

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“The strong mayor powers were based solely on Doug Ford’s personal experience at city hall and his frustration that, while he was mini mayor, they got out-voted by council and had their powers taken away”

 

CRESSY: I have had a really hard time understanding the purpose of the strong mayor debate. What is the problem we are trying to solve? We need to make cities more effective at building housing, addressing infrastructure deficits, financing all of these pieces. If that’s the problem, is empowering the mayor the solution? Or should we be dealing with actual tools at the city’s disposal to raise revenue? Toronto is the fifth-largest government in this country, and it’s being governed on the basis of 25 individuals who each have 130,000 constituents. It’s not an effective mode of governance. How are strong mayor powers going to solve that?

MINNAN-WONG: There is one thing it solves and that’s accountability. When the TTC breaks down, for example, the chair of the TTC won’t be held accountable. John Tory will be.

CRESSY: “Make the mayor more accountable”? That’s a talking point. If we want to talk about the state of the TTC, we need to address operating revenue—or the lack thereof.

MINNAN-WONG: With new budget powers, the mayor could properly fund the TTC.

CRESSY: With what revenue?

MINNAN-WONG: He can direct money where he thinks it needs to go, and council will need a two-thirds majority to overturn it. Take, for example, the more than $70 million we lose every year because of fare evasion. Maybe he can use his strong powers to collect that money, because the members of council don’t seem to want to do anything about that.

FILION: To Joe’s point, I don’t think there was a problem that needed to be solved. The strong mayor powers were based solely on Doug Ford’s personal experience at city hall and his frustration that, while he was mini mayor, they got out-voted by council and had their powers taken away.

No matter who drafts the next budget, it’s going to be a tricky one. The city is facing a $1-billion shortfall. What does that mean for Torontonian’s daily lives? Are services going to be cut?

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CRESSY: For sure. People are already dissatisfied with the services we have today. And, given the financial challenges ahead, it’s likely to get worse.

LAYTON: We have committed to $40 billion worth of capital projects as part of our housing strategy, our climate strategy, our long-term financial strategy. But we ignore the fact that we haven’t yet figured out how to pay for them. We can always find $60 million to $100 million per year in efficiencies that we’re told won’t realistically change the level of service we deliver, though I think that’s debatable. But, if we want to deliver on these commitments, we’re going to have to find half a billion dollars a year in new revenue.

Any ideas where?

BAILÃO: We’re not going to solve the situation by increasing property taxes. A one per cent increase would raise only $34 million. We need to have a conversation with the other orders of government about what are they going to pay for. We’re the economic engine of this country. We need to attract people, investment and jobs here. We’re only going to do that with good quality of life and good quality of services. Clearly, with this kind of backlog in capital, we’re not going to be able to do it on our own.


“People are already dissatisfied with the services we have today. And, given the financial challenges ahead, it’s likely to get worse”

 

How willing are Ottawa and Queen’s Park to chip in?

CRESSY: It’s pretty hard in this climate. The other orders of government, as we face a moment of economic retraction, are going to be looking inward and turning off the taps. But the city can’t address this kind of shortfall by raising property taxes. It’s not a viable or progressive revenue tool.

MINNAN-WONG: I’m just delighted that my colleagues here are saying that you can’t increase taxes too much, because I’ve never heard this discussion from these folks. I’m glad they’ve all turned into fiscal conservatives.

CRESSY: Must be something in the wine.

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"The nasty meter has gone way up": Five departing councillors on what it's really like inside city hall

JOE CRESSY

Ward: Spadina–Fort York Mayor when first elected: John Tory Years in office: 8 Proudest accomplishment: “The city’s vaccine campaign.” Worst example of wasteful spending you witnessed: “The continued use of fax machines at city hall.” What you’ll miss the most: “The all-consuming sense of purpose.” What you’ll miss the least: “The emotional intensity of the job.”


 

If the city can’t fill the gap in its budget, and if the province and feds don’t help, what services are on the chopping block?

FILION: Almost everything. Right now, the research shows that many people view their most recent interaction with the city as a negative one. Going back to a time Denzil and I would remember on North York council, nobody complained about tax increases because they felt that their interactions with the city were good. People will pay taxes as long as they feel they’re being looked after. When they start to have negative experiences, even on little things, they get angry and resentful toward their government. That’s how a Rob Ford gets elected and says, “I’m going to dismantle it all. I am going to punish them all.” I worry about that happening again because of the lack of funding and a bureaucracy that has become increasingly less interested in keeping customers happy.

CRESSY: There is a self-fulfilling prophecy here: you invest less in government, so government delivers less service, and then people have less faith in government and don’t want to fund it. We’ve had 12 years of revenue at or below the rate of inflation, and services have gotten worse, not better.


“The housing issue has never been this bad. We’re in a constant state of catch-up. It will get worse before it gets better”
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The people most in need of those services are already struggling to get by. Look at housing. Shelters are full. Rent is bananas. Buying a home is out of reach for many. Are we going to catch up? Or is the housing crunch just going to get worse?

BAILÃO: The housing issue has never been this bad. We’re in a constant state of catch-up. It will get worse before it gets better, because it takes time to build things out. Any buildings that we approve now are going to take two, three years to come.

MINNAN-WONG: Two to three? Try six or seven.

BAILÃO: This is such a complex issue. It touches every order of government as well as the private and non-profit sectors. There’s no one mayor who can solve this, I don’t care who they are. And you can’t solve this issue with market and supply solutions alone. The market will never create housing for incomes of $16,000, which is the average income that we have among Toronto Community Housing tenants. You need governments to invest money.

LAYTON: In the short term, I’m most worried not about those struggling to get by but about those who aren’t getting by. We’re losing hotel shelters. We are converting a couple, but the rest are closing down. The number of encampments has grown in the last couple of months. There is nowhere for them to go. They are living in parks out of necessity, not out of choice.

BAILÃO: And one-third of shelter users today are refugees. We should be doing better than having refugees in these shelters.

LAYTON: We don’t have a stable funding source to create the housing that’s needed. So we pass budgets with big holes in them, and then we spend months expending resources to lobby the other levels of government to hand over money. The repercussions here aren’t that people can’t pay their bills; it’s that people die on the street in the middle of winter.

FILION: There’s another fundamental issue we haven’t talked about. The cost of housing has been driven up significantly by the fact that housing is being treated as a commodity. There needs to be government policy at all levels to penalize that, to both bring in revenue and, more importantly, discourage the behaviour. We had a rooming house fire in Willowdale, and when they checked the ownership of the property, they found that the owner had 22 other properties in the neighbourhood. That’s not uncommon. It’s all because people accumulate properties as safe haven investments or to flip them.


“The repercussions here aren’t that people can’t pay their bills; it’s that people die on the street in the middle of winter”
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How much power do you as individual councillors have to change these kinds of intractable problems?

BAILÃO: I think we have great power. For example, when the pandemic hit, Joe and I were talking about how crazy it was that we were spending so much money on shelters. We got the mayor and a whole bunch of other people together, and we made the case that we had to pivot to supportive housing. We pitched the federal government to create a program using our land, and that’s how the first rapid housing units came in. Today, we have 21 pieces of land that are going to be used to create affordable housing.

CRESSY: Now, as opposed to sheltering the homeless, we’re providing pathways out of homelessness. By the end of this year, we’ll have created 3,200 units.

MINNAN-WONG: How many units do we need, though? Council has approved 65,000 units that aren’t being built because it’s just too darn expensive right now. Interest rates are too high. Especially with a looming recession coming up and high inflation, it’s going to be very challenging. I think it’s really important that the new council manage expectations of what they can actually achieve. There should be balance in a fiscal plan. We’ve been moving so much money over to transit and housing. Has that come at the expense of other things that we would otherwise spend money on?

BAILÃO: If you talk to any major employer in this city, they say that the biggest driver of corporate turnover right now is housing. You can’t get the human capital, you won’t get jobs, you won’t get all the other taxes, all the other things that we need. So this is not just about housing and dignity. It’s also about the future economic and social growth of our city.


"The nasty meter has gone way up": Five departing councillors on what it's really like inside city hall

JOHN FILION

Ward: Willowdale Mayor when first elected: Mel Lastman Years in office: 40 Proudest accomplishment: “Creating a lot of facilities: child care centres, community centres, new parks.” Worst example of wasteful spending you witnessed: “When we first got elected to the amalgamated city council, there was crazy excess. We had drivers and boxes at the SkyDome.” What you’ll miss the most: “The sense of purpose and doing important things.” What you’ll miss the least: “Having to be diplomatic with people when I really don’t feel like being diplomatic.”

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If you had the power to magically change one thing about how things get done at city hall, what would it be?

FILION: I would make the bureaucracy more accountable. There are fantastic people in the civil service who do a wonderful job, and there are also a lot who don’t, and there are no consequences for that. They hardly ever get shown the door. There needs to be a much better handle on people’s performance and outcomes.

CRESSY: On the whole, I found that the city’s 30,000 public servants were the cream of the crop. If I could do one thing to change or improve the city, I would elect better city councillors. I’m not kidding. I would do that by, one, implementing a term limit to ensure that we break down the incumbency advantage and bring in fresh perspectives; and, two, increasing councillors’ pay to ensure that we’re bringing in quality people.

As councillors, you make $118,000 a year. How do you sell the idea of giving yourself a raise given the public’s general dissatisfaction with the city?

MINNAN-WONG: When I leave, there may be only one lawyer left on council. There are no engineers, no accountants. Those very skilled people demand a certain compensation for their services, and they’re not running for council. But do you think that council would benefit from an accountant, an engineer, a lawyer? Absolutely.

BAILÃO: I don’t think we should be paid as much as the private sector. That’s not the point. But it has to be competitive.

How demanding is the job, exactly?

LAYTON: When I was elected in 2010, I was not married. I didn’t have kids. I was working six nights a week, sometimes double duty in the evenings. When we had kids, I told my office that I couldn’t work more than four nights a week. Prior to Covid, by the time I got home, my kids would have been picked up from school, fed and put to bed. I missed more than half of their bedtimes. Then the pandemic hit, and we started doing online meetings. I could cook dinner, go upstairs to my evening meeting and then immediately be home for bedtime. I realized that, if I did another term, my kids would be 11 and eight by the end of it, and they may not want me around. They’ll be—

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MINNAN-WONG: Busy attending a Young Conservatives meeting?

LAYTON: Don’t break my heart.

MINNAN-WONG: It’s almost impossible to leave work at work. You’re invested and you make emotional arguments about things you care about. You can’t just go home and say, “Forget about it.”

FILION: I unfortunately have this way of problem-solving in my dreams. I was literally working out city issues in my dreams for two or three years. It was kind of ridiculous.

BAILÃO: To do this job properly, it’s really important to achieve emotional balance. I have a tattoo on my wrist to remind me of that because I feel it’s so important.

CRESSY: When people ask, “What’s it like to go into politics?” I tell them three things: one, you will never learn more than you do in this job; two, you will never have more impact on people’s lives or capacity to effect change; and, three, you will never have a less emotionally balanced life. It’s more than the hours you put in. I wasn’t around my child nearly as much as I wanted to be, and even when I was there, I wasn’t totally present.


"The nasty meter has gone way up": Five departing councillors on what it's really like inside city hall

MIKE LAYTON

Ward: University–Rosedale Mayor when first elected: Rob Ford Years in office: 12 Proudest accomplishment: “The Reconciliation Action Plan and my work on climate, including TransformTO and the city’s net-zero-by-2040 plan.” Worst example of wasteful spending you witnessed: “There was a story years ago about a staircase in a public park that cost much more than necessary. There are projects that we can do more efficiently.” What you’ll miss the most: “I couldn’t know more about the community I live in than I do now. I’ll miss having that deep knowledge.” What you’ll miss the least: “The disagreements and arguments between neighbours about relatively inconsequential things.”


 

What has been the lowest point of your career at city hall?

CRESSY: The first two months of the pandemic. It was the moment of greatest uncertainty, fear and concern that I’ve ever experienced. Plus, I was separated from my family. I choke up about it every time I think about it.

BAILÃO: For me, it was the defund-the-police vote. Everybody in my ward wanted me to support the motion. I called the mayor the day before and told him I wasn’t voting with him. But, when the vote came, I just couldn’t do it. Even though I had already told the mayor, I decided it wasn’t the right way to go about the issue. To get results, I believed we needed reform. After the vote, people didn’t understand. They’d say, “You’re racist.” People were targeting me personally, and that was emotional.

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“By and large, the nasty meter has gone way up. People are far more demanding. They don’t want to listen”

 

You’ve had some scary interactions with voters, Ana. Your constituency office window was smashed twice. John, someone fired bullets at your home. Is the relationship between the public and elected officials getting nastier?

MINNAN-WONG: I received some of the sweetest notes when I announced that I was retiring. But, by and large, the nasty meter has gone way up. People are far more demanding. They don’t want to listen. One woman started going off on me while I was walking my dog. She knows where I live, so she went after my wife too. Like, what the hell?

FILION: About 15 years ago, I noticed an increase in the number of people who were uninformed or misinformed yet adamant about their positions. I used to love to having community meetings and consultations because you could assume that the collective wisdom of the people you were meeting with was probably greater than your own and that you’d come out of it with a better solution or conclusion. That’s changed. Now, half of the community meetings are either explaining Planning 101 to people who don’t want to hear about it or just trying to counter misinformation. It creates this kind of us-versus-them environment that some people then use to justify being aggressive toward you.

BAILÃO: This last term, there was a mixture of things: the pandemic, people at home using social media more. It was very easy for people to express their frustrations. Because we worked from our homes, people came to our homes. They saw us on TV, and they said, “I’m going to go there.” They automatically felt that liberty, and I think we need to push back.

CRESSY: Olivia Chow once said to me, “Going into politics, you need really thick skin.” As a racialized woman, she bore the brunt of the hate in a way I never did. And I agree, you do need thick skin. But what we really need is deep empathy. Not for the haters and the trolls and those who protest in front of our homes. But beneath that resentment and frustration, there’s an issue that needs to be resolved. We need to somehow get beneath the anger and understand what the issue is.

The harassment, the long hours, the relatively low pay—no wonder there are fewer people running for council than ever before. We’ve talked about ways to attract great people. What happens if you can’t?

CRESSY: I recognize that I grew up in the Annex with parents who were both elected officials. But we desperately need a council that truly reflects this city, from a diversity perspective, an income perspective, a personal experience perspective. We’re a city where half of our population are renters, and we did not, in the last city council, have a single councillor who rented. We need representation that reflects the population, and in the absence of that, we’re not going to make correct decisions.

BAILÃO: I never thought I’d go into politics. I never saw myself there. But I had a city councillor who asked me to come work for him. It was the first time I’d entered city hall. We need to make people see themselves in these positions. And that’s why it’s great that we open our offices. We have internship programs now for the Black community, the Muslim community.

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CRESSY: The problem is that people don’t see a pathway to victory. The advantages of incumbency are so great that people with new voices can’t get in. You can’t fundraise your way in. You can’t get name recognition.

MINNAN-WONG: I just ask people why they want to run. How can you get more fundamental than that? If they can’t answer that question, they probably shouldn’t run. The next question is: Who else believes in the same thing you do? Because you have to bring along a whole bunch of people from the community to support you. That’s going to form the basis of your campaign, fundraising and everything else. I don’t think anybody needs to necessarily come down to city hall and get an internship program. They have to be inspired to want to achieve something.


"The nasty meter has gone way up": Five departing councillors on what it's really like inside city hall

DENZIL MINNAN-WONG

Ward: Don Valley East Mayor when first elected: Mel Lastman Years in office: 28 Proudest accomplishment: “Historic labour agreements, contracting out garbage, saving $80 million.” Worst example of wasteful spending you witnessed: “$1.2 million for city hall’s underground bike storage facility, with showers, a hot towel service and a concierge.” What you’ll miss the most: “Discussing citywide issues.” What you’ll miss the least: “The monumentally long committee meetings where you go from morning until night pretty much talking about nothing.”


 

After this election, council will have at least five new members: your replacements. What are you leaving them?

CRESSY: To tell you the truth, there is no formal transition procedure. It’s entirely up to individual councillors to decide whether to provide anything. Things were smooth when I arrived because the interim councillor before me left a 200-page binder.

BAILÃO: I got half a box of paper clips. I’m preparing a transition binder—info about projects that are on the go—just to give the next councillor a heads up. And I’m going to offer them a tour so we can talk about those projects.

What other advice do you plan to pass along?

FILION: If you want to get something done in your four-year term, start in year one. Whether it’s a park improvement or a child care centre, it takes at least two or three years to get through the process.

CRESSY: It’s so easy to just work all day. You can attend meeting after meeting without ever asking yourself, What do I want to achieve if I’m only here for four years? Don’t worry about who’s up or who’s down. Decide what you want to do and then do it. Make it count.

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This discussion has been edited and condensed.

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