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With municipal elections coming on 25 October 2010 here in Toronto, I’m starting to get — over coffee, in corridors — questions about my views of the various declared candidates.

No, I won’t bore you with that. Having only moved to Toronto near the end of last year, I can’t honestly say that I know anything useful about any of them, yet! Instead, I’d like today to talk about why municipal issues matter — goodness knows, with an average turnout on election days of around 30% there’s no shortage of evidence that municipal issues don’t matter to the majority! — and what kind of questions we might want to ask the candidates, and ourselves, before making choices.

Municipal Funding

Most of us hear the annual whinge from the Mayors of the country’s various cities about funding issues. Whereas provinces are their own masters when it comes to raising funds, just as is the Federal Government, Canadian municipalities are creations of the provinces. Their ability to raise funds is limited, and rather than being a part of the constitutional structure of the country can be granted and removed by Order in Council alone at the provincial legislature.

Meanwhile there’s no shortage of mandates imposed with minimal or missing funding, and no shortage of investments that may be required for which funds are an issue.

Let’s be clear: our cities, towns and villages all need to take the steps that they need, in their situation, to deal with their challenges. There are also no shortage of studies, proposals and promises out there.

The key question, then, is: how will this be paid for?

As an example, Toronto has put forward a transit plan — Transit City — which will require billions to be achieved. (There are many with specific criticisms of elements of this plan. I cite it instead to use it as an example: the “greening” of cities, the reduction in automobile congestion, etc. often cites extensive rapid transit development as a necessary step.)

How will this be paid for? (We needn’t ask a stupid question such as “who will pay?”, for whether it’s “federal money”, “provincial money”, “regional agency money” or “municipal money” that’s involved it’s all “taxpayer money” — and there is only one taxpayer. Those who answer “how it will be paid” with “the province will…” or “the feds will…” are not answering the question and should be discarded from consideration.)

“How” involves three different factors:

  • Capital costs, plus the operating expenses to handle all the mandates of planning, assessment, etc. — and as those of us who lived through the chaos unleashed in Vancouver through the Public-Private Partnership that built the Canada Line (with the private partner’s changes from original specification in the RFP) know, it’s both the money sources and the means we’ll have to ensure our objectives are met.
  • Operating costs once this is built. The TTC, for instance, has been crippled ever since the Sheppard Subway was opened for business: as underground heavy rail, it is a line to nowhere in terms of the cost to run it annually. An honest assessment here talks about the impact on operating costs, shifts in the percentage to be handled through the fare box, and what might be done if these estimates, or estimates for growth, are wrong.
  • Dependency costs. Every new line that is built — from busway, through light rail (preserved right of way trams/streetcars or like Calgary’s system), through medium rail (RT technology like SkyTrain in Vancouver or the Scarborough RT), to heavy rail technology like the existing subways all change patterns which, in turn, lead to demand changes. Extending lines may, on a fiscal basis, make more sense with a lower level of technology, yet the dependency costs of forcing change of vehicles into the network can affect ridership.

These aren’t sound-bite answers, but neither are they answers from studies, or professionals at the transit system. Anyone seeking political office — and the person who seeks to be Mayor of Toronto is the individual in this country who is directly elected by the greatest number of people — ought to be prepared to say “I stand here” on these three questions.

Now, if one expresses a preference for public-private partnerships, while another says “we only move forward when the province and feds step up”, while a third says “we’ll just finance it and get it started”, the voter can start to sort out who they think has the issue right. The one who goes on and deals with the cost of having the solution offered is adding important reasons to vote for/against them.

This sort of dialogue with voters is what is needed, not the tactics of spinmeisters. Voters are not stupid: the candidate that levels with them may not sound attractive, but they will have a mandate to proceed if elected.

Fixing Emergent Problems

The other main issue in municipal affairs is how existing issues are to be fixed. Prior labour negotiations, for instance, may have too much of the current spending tied up in salaries and benefits to make a portfolio of new actions possible. (This is certainly an outcome in BC municipalities of the “regional negotiation model” favoured by the province, and underlies the immobilization of its school boards, health authorities and cities.) Prior planning approvals may have destroyed the fabric of neighbourhoods by virtue of what is being built there. Business may be moving out due to special charges, or the city may have become unaffordable, or shifts in immigration may have created broken civic services based on a different model, serving a different number or types of communities.

Every candidate ought to be prepared to disclose what they think the problems of the day actually are, and to prioritize them. It is this second point that is key: political capital is not unlimited, and in office it can be expended quickly. Focus, and public reasons for that focus, will be required to wield that power (City Councils are far more like the “what’s in it for me and mine” of the US Congress, where party loyalty must often be purchased, than like Canadian Legislatures or Parliament, where party discipline rules the day).

At the same time, certain issues are so large, so difficult to tackle, that they can only be taken on periodically. A candidate might truly believe that outsourcing is the answer and that the municipal workers’ unions must be broken. If this battle last occurred only a few years earlier, the timing — despite any justifications to be found — may not be right. Again, citizens may not agree, but there is respect for a candidate who levels and treats them as responsible.

Also, again, this is not sound-bite country. I can recall, in 1971 in Québec City, seeing a public debate between Québec politicians not unlike our all-candidates meetings. (This was a simple debate: it was not an election period.) Long chains of logic and example, designed to persuade the thinking listener, may well have stretched my command of French, but I appreciated the intention to treat the listeners as responsible and capable. Political consultants, managers, operatives and advisors have counselled against this in today’s media climate. No wonder politics has become about pretty faces, fast quips and shouting!

Why Municipal Affairs Matter

What lies ahead for us is the Great Unravelling of large scale structures. As it does, life will become more local, and the locus of government that matters will be the municipality first, with declining relevance to upper levels. The “centre will not hold”, despite the many attempts that will be made to hold onto it: peak energy, fiscal collapse and other factors like this are the reason for us to see localization coming, whether by design or as an outcome of the attempt to resist it.

Yet our municipalities are poorly equipped to carry this load. Nor are they prepared for even deeper localization, a real restructuring to be living communities (neighbourhoods) that make a municipality into a regional service set.

Those who would seek office should be expected to have some vision of the future, and of the challenge of transition involved. Again, the candidate may not agree with my view of where we’re going, but I expect him or her to have a well-developed sense of the whole and an ability to relate their promises and plans to it. In other words, their agenda is (a) out in the open, (b) thought through and (c) integrated to a vision of the future.

We are highly unlikely to see this sort of honesty at provincial or federal levels: provinces and countries are too big, with too few electeds, to risk the truth in dealing with citizens. Municipalities, on the other hand, are of a mostly manageable size — and can be known well enough by those who run, and those who vote.

The reform of our politics to make “the system work” will begin close to home. That, at the end of the day, is why municipal matters matter.

Let’s see who — if anyone — steps up to the challenge.

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