09 September 2009

An interesting post on How to Fix City Hall...

Comment: David Miller has broken city hall, here's how to fix it
Posted: August 28, 2009, 4:26 PM by Rob Roberts

Comment by John Mraz

In last week?s New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg detailed California?s ungovernability. It seems the Golden State is bogged down by an unwieldy constitution and a paralyzed legislature. Special interest groups run amok, free to manipulate the legislative agenda to their own ends. Aghast at the state of their state, a coalition of unlikely allies ? from left to right, from green to greedy ? have banded together to end the impasse. Apparently inspired by Thomas Jefferson, they seek to ?nullify [their] government and institute a new one? by referenda. Simply, they want to start from scratch.

The dysfunction of California sounds eerily familiar. Toronto?s city council similarly fails to deliver, mired in a poisonous, broken political environment. Say what you might about Mel Lastman, on his watch -- for better or worse -- things did get done. Importantly, there was much less partisan alienation and thuggery. These days, Mayor David Miller is reported to not even publicly acknowledge some councillors at city hall. By comparison, socialista Olivia Chow once worked for right-of-centre Lastman as the City?s Child and Youth Advocate.

As a citizen, I have absolutely no idea what Miller?s actual plan for my town is. I?ve heard him articulate a vision of cleaning up city hall and building a green, prosperous gem on an airport-free lake, but I?ve never seen him act on the rhetoric. He and his gang bounce from bike lanes to plastic bag taxes to car registration taxes to strike negotiations in a single week. What I have discerned is a decrease in the quality and quantity of services, and a significant draw on my wallet.

So why the increased costs and diminished results? Most city hall veterans and pundits point to three principal crises.

First and foremost, city council is too large, and quietly polarized along unofficial party lines. Loose coalitions of councillors lacking any cohesive vision for the city play a daily game of attack, maraud and suppress. Deals are made behind closed doors and votes exchanged to the benefit of councillors? local interests. A functioning council must either enforce absolute partisan neutrality (impossible), or institute a functional party system like Montreal or Vancouver. And 22 councillors (about half the current total) should be more than enough, thank you very much.

Secondly, the city lacks senior, experienced, non-partisan civil servants who know how to complete a project. In 2008, Toronto Life reported the loss of many of Toronto?s most effective senior managers, going so far as to call our city corporation ?the McDonald?s of municipal governance.? It seems that the city?s best mandarins found current working conditions impossible, so entry-level applicants now rule the roost. Such grey owls are not likely to return until the explosive political environment is defused.

Thirdly, Toronto needs a mayor who is capable of building consensus in council to ensure efficient provision of services. David Miller has proven he cannot. He has, however, demonstrated a real ability to suck new money out of other governmental coffers ? while he raises and invents taxes every year. As long as council remains systemically broken, and the bureaucracy diminished, few qualified mayoral candidates will rise to the occasion and take this city on their back.

Perhaps we should take a page out of the Californian experience. Maybe, by petition and referendum, we should force the dissolution of our current city government and create a new system from scratch. The advantages of incumbency our current councillors enjoy would be neutralized. The civil service could be revitalized. Special interest groups -- from some unscrupulous unions to a host of preferred vendors -- would be forced to compete in open tenders for the right to serve our city. Nepotism and corruption might be curtailed.

Toronto has little time to lose. By referendum or not, we need a new mayor and a new municipal government, before the current cabal bankrupts us all.

? John Mraz is an international political consultant.

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