“We said we were going to reduce the size and cost of government, and that is exactly what we’re doing,” Premier Doug Ford said in the legislature last July. “We’re going to make sure that we get the city of Toronto — the dysfunctional city of Toronto — back on track.”
His words came just days after the surprise move to cut the size of Toronto city council drastically part way through an election, which threw that period into political chaos and has left lasting challenges for the city.
Since then, Ford has continued to claim the reasons for making the cut was to make the body he once sat on as an Etobicoke councillor more efficient and less costly.
Now, nine months into a new term — with 25 councillors where 44 used to sit — a Star analysis of available city data as well as interviews with city officials and residents has found that while some aspects of official business appear to be chugging along at a faster clip, councillors feel more stretched to address residents’ concerns along with broader city issues, while residents feel more disconnected from their representatives, and, as a result, city hall itself. Meanwhile, the cut has failed to reduce costs at nearly the level Ford claimed it would.
The Star looked at Ford’s claims of dysfunction and cost by focusing on measurable data provided by the city clerk’s office and other sources as well as interviews with both current and former council members and residents to assess consequences of the cut that cannot be quantified. The vast majority of those the Star spoke to said the cut has left council less capable of dealing with complex issues, whether citywide policies or neighbourhood concerns.
This is what we found:
Is council more effective?
Not really. And there have been negative consequences associated with the councillors’ work as a result of the cut.
While councillors are spending less time in meetings — there are fewer meetings overall — those numbers don’t necessarily mean council is doing better at representing their communities or deciding policy, and it’s not enough of a time savings to compensate for the higher needs of their much larger communities councillors represent.
In fact, residents report they feel less connected to city hall than in the previous term as a result of having significantly larger wards and more constituents. Councillors and their staff worry they have less time to focus on important policy fights, or creating new policy — everything from local planning studies to affordable housing to the city’s massive operating budget.
The Star looked at two major aspects of a councillor’s workload — official council and committee meetings where councillors are expected to come prepared to debate both local and city-wide items; and the work they do in their own communities that consume the bulk of their time.
When it comes to city business as part of monthly meetings, the city clerk’s office provided the Star with newly-collected data on the first eight months of the term — from Dec. 1, 2018 to July 31, 2019 — compared to the same period in the previous two terms.
That data shows there have been fewer meetings so far this term, 93, compared to 109 meetings in 2014-2018 and 119 in 2010-2014.
A major factor is the number of standing committees — bodies that meet monthly to deal with major policy on specific topics — that was cut to five from eight, because their are now few councillors to sit on them.
So, what about the time spent in meetings?
The reduced number of standing committees is also responsible for a decrease in meeting hours this term. The same goes, it appears, for community councils which deal with local issues by district. There are fewer councillors now on each community council to ask questions, make speeches and introduce new items.
It’s also worth noting that in recent years, the mayor’s executive committee has not held marathon meetings to hear from hundreds of concerned residents, as was the case during Rob Ford’s administration, specifically an infamous budget cuts meeting in 2011.
Full meetings of council have seen a decrease in overall hours — 108 hours this term compared to 137.1 in the 2014-2018 term.
That works out to 17 hours per meeting in the last term compared to 12 hours in the current term. At a difference of five hours per meeting, the effect is not a sea change in the length of council meetings that typically last between two to three days during which councillors are usually stationed at city hall.
There has been similar amount of business before council in this term and the last. But council is dealing with items slightly faster this term — disposing of 10.1 items per hour compared to 7.5 items last term. Committees are spending about the same time dealing with items.
There are some possible explanations for the current pace of council that have nothing to do with the size of council.
For example, former mayor and councillor Rob Ford often insisted on recorded votes, which involves the clerk calling for a vote, tallying the result and reading it out. Assuming everyone is in their seat when the vote is called, this can take a minute or two per vote. But if a recorded vote was called on dozens of items it can easily add an hour or more of time to the meeting.
The number of recorded votes has dropped dramatically from those days — from 655 recorded votes so-far this term compared to 967 in the same early period of the 2014-2018 term (when Rob Ford remained a councillor) and 1,164 in the 2010-2014 term (when he was mayor).
Part of the speed may also have something to do with the nature of the items.
A closer look at the types of items that have been most heavily debated this term, as recorded by the clerks, reveals they have been less controversial compared to items in the previous term, such as the future of the Gardiner East debated last term.
There is another factor related to council decorum.
During the first eight months of the 2014-2018 term, the Star calculated there were 38 more interruptions in council meetings when a member got out of their seat to make a point of privilege or point of order — which is sometimes to welcome a visiting dignitary or school group but is often to argue with the speaker or another member about something just said. Nearly one-fifth of those disruptions, the Star found, involved former councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, who lost his bid for re-election in 2018.
While the question of efficiency may be somewhat of a wash, councillors say the cut has had negative consequences for residents — both because of the amount of face time they get with their representatives and because of the lack of time councillors have to address issues that matter to them.
The Star spoke to several downtown and suburban councillors about their workload, all of whom said they are finding it more difficult to address individual resident concerns as well as challenges facing the city, including oversight of the bureaucracy.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 13 Toronto Centre) said she and her staff have been emotionally exhausted by the change.
“For us, even though we have a very small geography — I don’t have to travel kilometres from neighbourhood to neighbourhood per se — but the issues we are facing are so complex,” she said, noting the documented issues of homelessness, addiction, crime and poverty concentrated in the downtown east.
“It has taken an incredible amount of energy.”
Mayor John Tory said the meetings have been faster because of “fairly broad consensus” on most of the items, and that following the “bruising” experience of the council cut, councillors realized they needed co-operate to get back on track.
He also acknowledged the cut has impacted his councillor colleagues.
“I have noticed how much demand is on these councillors now in terms of just the challenges, notwithstanding how many staff they have,” he said. “You can have as many staff as you want, but people still expect you to show up at the meeting and they expect you to return phone calls and to do various things yourself and not delegated to a staff person.”
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Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 4 Parkdale—High Park) disagreed that council going quicker means there’s been more consensus or that it is beneficial to residents, saying peoples’ quality of life is dependent on the quality of decision-making at council.
“When 20 different members of council would get up and speak last term, the fifth person up might say something or take a position that would alter the tenor of where we were going,” he said. “What’s happening is that the ability to move from one centre of gravity to a more nuanced and thoughtful centre of gravity on an issue — that’s gone.
“We’ve moved further away from that.”
The Star also spoke to some former councillors, most of whom thought the new system was not working well for most people.
Former Scarborough councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker was the exception, having originally supported a smaller council.
“If somebody had a problem with a driveway widening or the volleyball courts weren’t being maintained properly, I’d literally drive to their house and look at their driveway or walk to the park with them and look at the volleyball court,” he said. “I think the councillors are doing that but maybe instead of meeting four people a day, they’re meeting seven people a day.”
The Star spoke to nine residents groups in all corners of the city. The overwhelming sentiment was that they applauded the work their councillors and their staff did but lamened the amount of face time their councillors now had with them.
“Certainly our continuing Councillor Paul Ainslie has been less available himself to us since the change with respect to our associations meetings and personal responses to emails,” said Jim Whitney, president of the Guildwood Village Community Association. “Scheduling events around his very busy calendar is certainly more difficult than in the past. It is clear that he is spread very thinly over this much bigger ward.”
Many of the groups reported staff in councillors’ offices are doing their best to make up the difference, with more tasks delegated to them but were concerned about the pressure they were under.
Steve Dewdney, vice-president of the Bloor West Village Residents Association said there had been a “significant reduction in service levels” as a result of the cut.
He said residents groups act as an important conduit between staff, councillors and the community.
“Now I think we feel kind of cut off under the current regime.”
Has the council cut saved the city money?
Ford’s second claim was that cutting the number of councillors would save the city $25 million over four years.
But the math hasn’t worked out that way.
In terms of savings, there are 19 fewer councillors who will earn $117,164 this year before benefits — savings of $2.2 million. The city said the average benefits for councillors was at a rate of 23 per cent in 2018, meaning there are additional savings of about $512,000.
Council increased their office budgets from $34,000 to $50,000 at the start of the term to adapt to the larger wards. Council spent 59 per cent of the allowable $1.5 million in 2018. Assuming at least the same level of spending in 2019, there could be savings of $150,000.
Tallying other expenses charged by councillors in 2018 at $846,000 and assuming a similar rate of spending this year, there could be additional savings of $365,000.
As for costs, council also voted to double their budget for staffing, which will be a large ongoing cost. In 2018, the staffing budget for councillors was $238,000 per office, now increased to $482,000 per office for a total budget of $12.1 million.
Assuming councillors will spend at a similar percentage of the allowed budget as they did in 2018 — 84 per cent — the staffing could cost around $1.3 million more in 2019.
There have been other one-time costs as a result of the sudden change.
According to a report from the city clerk on the 2018 election, $1.95 million in costs can be “directly attributed” to the ward boundary changes as a result of Ford’s council cut, including having to print a second version of the ballots.
As a result of the cut, the city also had to renovate the second floor of city hall where councillors’ offices are to accommodate the smaller wards and bigger staff, budgeted at $650,000.
With those significant expenses considered, it’s likely the cut will have saved $5.1 million over the next four years, or $1.3 million annually — a small fraction of the city’s $13.5 billion operating budget.
The annual savings work out to about 43 cents per Toronto resident.