Do Toronto’s local politicians agree with Doug Ford that city council is “dysfunctional”?

Do Toronto’s local politicians agree with Doug Ford that city council is “dysfunctional”?

Photograph by Jeff Hitchcock/Flickr

Doug Ford’s attempt to slash the size of Toronto city council from 47 members to 25 is currently before the courts. A judge is expected to make a ruling in the next few days on the move’s legality. Opponents of the cuts say they’re undemocratic—a vengeful overreach by a new premier bent on remaking city hall in the middle of an election period, without consulting Toronto residents. Ford, for his part, defends the hack-and-slash approach as a necessary curb on a legislative body that has lost control of itself. He has called Toronto city council (where he used to work) the “most dysfunctional political arena in the country.”

Those, clearly, are fighting words. While a few city councillors have lined up behind the premier, most of the chamber is opposing the shakeup. In an attempt to find out how Toronto’s city councillors feel about that “dysfunctional” descriptor, we reached out to all of them; 14 replied. Here’s what they had to say.

Stephen Holyday, Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

I support a reduction in the size of council, and I placed a motion proposing a smaller council when we debated ward boundary changes.

I think council is inefficient because of what I have seen and experienced over the last 46 council meetings this term. I have explained the situation as like 45 co-workers trying to pick a restaurant for lunch, each pushing for their favourite spot. With a smaller group, you are more likely to actually reach a decision by lunch.

There are some things that council could do better, regardless of size. We should be making better use of our committees to ensure matters are fully reviewed and debated before coming to council, and avoiding walk-on issues. We should also take a closer look at our delegation of authority to ensure decisions are being made at the right place, with the right people. For example, there is an argument to be made that many planning decisions are best made by the community councils.


John Campbell, Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

No, it’s certainly not dysfunctional. It can be frustrating. It can be excruciating. It can be annoying. But it’s not dysfunctional. To say that it’s dysfunctional, I think, shows an inherent misunderstanding of exactly what city council has been doing.

In terms of what city council could do to improve itself, I was going to move a motion to reduce the speaking time given to each councillor. I started shopping that around, and I was getting a fair bit of support, but I wasn’t getting the two-thirds support I needed. The problem was, you had a number of long-time sitting councillors like Norm Kelly. Norm is one of those guys who, when he stands up, I listen. But he says, “Well you know we’re only here once a month and it’s kind of like our Parliament.” And he says, “I think people should be able to ‘parl.’” When I heard that, I knew I was sunk. By reducing the size of council, we may go from four days down to three for each meeting, but that’s not going to make city hall function any better. The whole notion that this would mean less government is so bogus it’s almost an insult. Because the city would still have 54,000 employees and an $11.5-billion budget.

Any other ways you might improve city council?

Aside from changing some of the rules, I think that the mayor’s office has a role to play. We’ll spend a whole shitload—pardon the expression—of time on member motions, and most of those could flow through the regular committee process. We spend probably a day of each meeting on that stuff.


Maria Augimeri, Ward 9, York Centre

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

It depends on the definition of “dysfunctional.” All legislative bodies require debate and public participation. If an item of importance arises, then the debate and public participation becomes more animated and vigorous. Long city council and committee meetings happen because of debate, and only that. Is that dysfunction? No. That’s the function of council and every democratic institution, by definition. Someone who may not see the value in debate and discussion may see that process as dysfunctional or inefficient. But the most efficient political system is dictatorship. Would we want that instead, simply because decisions can be made fast and easy?

More accountability means it takes more time to get decisions made. Less accountability may be more efficient, but has long-term consequences for democracy and makes our representatives less accountable. Council can’t operate like a factory floor pumping out legislative widgets, with one boss barking at people to do things faster. That’s not the way democracy works—though that may be one person’s idea of how it should work.

Seventy five per cent of the items at every council meeting get passed without much noise. The rest are either held because individual councillors have questions, or because they are items of importance that aren’t fully baked, and that require further public debate. Sometimes 500 items get passed in a few days. It may be boring or tedious to some, but how is that inefficient or dysfunctional?

In the end, the idea about council being dysfunctional is simply a canard to invented to vilify council when some weren’t getting their way. It largely came about during the years between 2010 and 2014. Then, massive distractions that weren’t council-related were perceived to be sidelining the business of council. Some used that as an opportunity to blame council for the distractions. The less publicized truth about that time is that we got plenty done, because we could operate and vote and get staff to assist in important local initiatives without much interference from the mayor’s office. I got a Business Improvement Area started, saved green space that was going to be chopped up and sold to developers, launched a Save Downsview Park campaign, became chair of the TTC and improved service in my ward and others—all without the help or hindrance from the mayor.

Some say, “Well, transit isn’t being built.” First, transit is being built. The new Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension opened this year, and the Eglinton Crosstown is soon to follow. Some transit projects were slowed down, but that’s simply because political expediency around the nonsensical Scarborough subway drove some to try to take money away from existing plans and funnel it into that. The only thing preventing transit from being built is money. City council voting doesn’t make a new subway or LRT appear. Money does. Toronto is in a unique position in that it cannot rely on dedicated transit funding like its other big city counterparts around the world. That’s because the federal and Ontario governments like to do these piecemeal funding offerings, so they can make splashy announcements and cut ribbons. That makes every project highly political and leaves Toronto constantly begging for expansion money. Want more transit? Get on the backs of your provincial and federal representatives to come up with dedicated, reliable, sustained transit funding.


James Pasternak, Ward 10, York Centre

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

By almost any standard of measurement, Toronto city council is a thoughtful, effective and efficient democratic institution. Its decisions affect the daily lives of the city’s residents, more so than the other two levels of government. We approved more than 5,000 items this term in about 145 days of sitting, making the chamber a hardworking and low-cost institution. Debates are thorough and reasoned on large, high-cost items and quicker on smaller items. We are the lowest paid councillors in the GTA, our speaking time is short and our policy production and financial oversight is rigorous.


Sarah Doucette, Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

Doug Ford is talking about one meeting we have a month: city council. He doesn’t talk about what goes on at community councils, at the other standing committees we have, at the other boards we have. Most of that stuff doesn’t come to city council. A lot of stuff goes on in the background. I will, though, agree that some councillors do take the opportunity, particularly when we’re live on TV, to stand up and talk to their residents with some wacky ideas which have no reference to anything on the agenda. But that’s not council, generally. That is a few individual people who have done that as long as I’ve been at city hall.

What are some ways council could improve itself, beyond reducing its size?

Maybe give us some food in the evening so we’re not on low sugar and we don’t get into silly season People get tired, and that is, I feel, when you may get a longer session, because people are tired. Which is fine. That’s our job. We are meant to be there.


Gord Perks, Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

No. We’re the most functional order of government by far, in terms of the amount of business that we carry out and the amount of transparency we do it with. I would also say we’ve gotten even better at it since Doug Ford left council.

As a quick estimate, I’d say we conducted 10,000 pieces of business this term. Every single one of those pieces of business was conducted in plain public view. The advice from staff was available to the public. We left not one single item all year incomplete because we were unable to get around to it. That, in every way, is better than how either of the other orders of government functions.

The federal and provincial governments, you don’t see them make a decision. It’s all at the cabinet table, which is behind closed doors. The advice from the public service is secret. You don’t know who had what argument with whom. You don’t get to see them yell at each other. Instead, what you get are these pointless, non-decision-making legislatures. What is the purpose of Question Period in terms of better governance? They never make a decision there. They don’t do anything to improve your life. It’s just theatre. I would argue that government as theatre is far more dysfunctional than watching debates—which, admittedly, get lively.


Christin Carmichael Greb, Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

I ran for City Council in 2014 because I felt that it was dysfunctional. And although we have made some progress over the last four years, I still feel that city hall does not operate as efficiently and effectively as it could. While lowering the number of councillors may have an effect, what we really require is a streamlined approach to the way things get done at city hall. This includes looking at implementing a “strong mayor” system and reviewing the way our committees work.


Mike Layton, Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

Toronto city council is not “dysfunctional.” Every month, city council, its subcommittees and its agencies regularly meet, make decisions, and provide services to the city of Toronto in an efficient, straightforward and cohesive manner. At any given city council meeting, hundreds of items pass unanimously with limited debate. Some items are more carefully considered. The structure of council allows for debate and consensus to be developed.

Shrinking city council will not only limit resident access to local decisions, but it could paralyze city business because of the role city councillors play on standing committees and other boards that provide services in Toronto. If Premier Ford wanted to reduce the number of local politicians in Ontario, why did he focus only on Toronto?


John Filion, Ward 23, Willowdale

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

A few bad decisions aside—none of them at all related to the number of councillors—Toronto city council functions very well. This was most notably demonstrated during the period of extreme dysfunction caused by the Fords, when council responded by removing the powers of a crack- and alcohol-addicted mayor, which had the added benefit of reducing the influence of his bullying brother. If only the provincial legislature could be so functional!


Jon Burnside, Ward 26, Don Valley West

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

I don’t think it’s any more dysfunctional than any other level of government. The big difference with city council is that there is no leader to tell us how to vote. We have two to three days per month of debate. I thought that was what democracy was all about.

What are some specific ways council could improve itself, beyond reducing its size?

The biggest issue with city council is that you have politicians who are elected on local issues, but then they decide on multi-billion-dollar, multi-generational city issues. Unfortunately, many decisions are made without any sort of research team, and they’re made through a local lens. This often results in poor decisions. I think there is a way to appease the people that want to reduce the size of council: reduce it to 25, but those councillors are elected to deal with local issues. And then add eight councillors, elected at-large, who are accountable to the entire population of the city, and who have the time and the resources to research the big issues and make better informed decisions.


Mary Fragedakis, Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

Toronto city council is not dysfunctional; it’s democracy in action. Unlike with party politics at the provincial and federal level, at city council every vote is a result of councillors making independent choices. Some find democracy very frustrating, because you don’t always get your own way—but that’s its essential beauty. No one person gets to decide.

Every item is up for examination and improvement. This results in better decisions, and fairer decisions, but it does take a lot of work. You have to listen to opposing viewpoints, understand them and work with those who disagree with you to come up with the best possible decisions. If you read history, you know municipal politics in Toronto has always been a tumultuous affair. Decisions forged through a tough, demanding democratic process over many decades have though made this a better city.


Paula Fletcher, Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

I think council is pretty functional. If you watch CPAC, or if you watch the provincial legislature, it’s a lot of yelling, it’s a lot of accusations, it’s a lot of banging the table. City council is actually a pretty businesslike organization. When we get into our monthly meeting, we have in front of us hundreds of items that we have to pass for bylaws, the majority of which pass on consent. And then we have thorny, big issues that we tackle, and a lot of people have opinions. We had a big argument at the last meeting on whether or not to give a tax break to five large developers downtown. That was a good three-hour debate. As it should be.

Of course there are going to be long debates on the Scarborough subway, or the relief line, or SmartTrack. That makes sense. Transit’s a very big issue in people’s lives. Council was very functional in 2011 when Mayor Ford and his brother thought they should just turn the Port Lands plan on a dime. We agreed to accelerate development in the Port Lands, but maintain the existing plans. We’re pretty good at getting to compromise without a lot of fighting and acrimony and name-calling and nastiness. If you cut council down to 25 people, you can still drag things out with 25 people.


Janet Davis, Ward 31, Beaches-East York

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

Absolutely not. Doug Ford—as usual—is ignoring the facts and creating his own version of the truth.

Toronto city council is one of the most productive governments in Canada, and certainly more efficient than the provincial legislature. Our government passes more laws in one month than the province passes in a decade. In 2017, council sat for 28 days and considered 1,947 agenda items. The Ontario Legislative Assembly met on 95 days in 2017 and passed 34 bills.

Council approves 40 per cent of its items all at once at the beginning of the meeting by “consent.” Another 40 per cent are disposed of throughout the meeting as “quick items” with no debate. Only 10 to 12 per cent of items are debated. Toronto’s government is open, transparent, accessible and effective. Municipal government is required to debate its business in public and can only go behind closed doors for very specific and limited reasons. The provincial government frequently debates important matters behind closed doors in cabinet meetings, then rolls out its decisions as carefully managed media events.

Toronto delivers many more on-the-ground services than the province. Reducing the number of councillors won’t reduce the number of residents or the level of service they expect. It will only reduce the help councillors can provide to people who need those services.

I’m proud that our municipal government is more democratic and effective than the current provincial government is proving to be. The City of Toronto Act recognizes the authority of our city to govern its own affairs. Doug Ford should focus on taking care of his.


Mary-Margaret McMahon, Ward 32, Beaches-East York

Do you agree with Doug Ford that city council is dysfunctional?

No, we are not dysfunctional. We actually vote together on a vast amount of items that help make Toronto an even greater city. But we could definitely improve city council and standing committee meetings! Here are my suggestions:

One: Shave speaking times down to three minutes.

Two: Have proper repercussions for chronic absenteeism and failure to achieve or maintain quorum.

Three: Insist that media scrums be held outside the council chamber.

Four: Ban rhetorical questions.

Five: Term limits!

Cutting the size of council is not the answer, though.