Despite the stress, wrath and ridicule, ex-Toronto councillors say they miss city hall

Despite the stress, wrath and ridicule, ex-Toronto councillors say they miss city hall

These days, former city councillor Sarah Doucette enjoys hanging out in her backyard garden with her two chickens, Milly and Roxy.

Since retiring as councillor for Parkdale—High Park in 2018 after two terms, Doucette has rejoined the board of Friends of High Park Zoo. She volunteers for Stone Soup Network, which matches products and services donated by businesses to people in the community who need them most. She’s taking the summer off before looking for work.

Like other former city councillors contacted by the Star recently, there is much she misses about life at city hall, in Doucette’s case after choosing not to run for a third time after Premier Doug Ford’s government slashed the size of council to 25 wards from a planned 47.

“It took me till the end of March to be able to decompress enough to actually sit down and read a book. I did find December, January, probably February rather depressing. It was very difficult to accustom myself to not being down at city hall and helping people and working through issues,” said Doucette.

“When you’ve done, you know, 60, 70 hours a week for eight years and you’re out there helping people, it’s suddenly very different to not be doing that. I found it harder than I thought I would.”

The hours are terrible — councillors work weekdays, weekends and weeknights, for an annual salary of about $117,164 a year (in 2019), plus benefits. They must be prepared to endure public wrath and ridicule, while trying to make the best decisions for a city growing tall and gangly as a teenager, with the attendant emotional outbursts.

The job application process is months long, expensive and funded by the applicant and their supporters. It requires knocking on thousands of doors to win votes, to be greeted warmly or snubbed and sometimes lectured on the ways in which the city is going to hell in a handbasket.

And yet, every election season produces a new crop of hopefuls and a new crop of retirees — some of whom, like Doucette, have chosen to leave the job, and some whom are pushed out by voters.


In 2018, with the province downsizing the number of city wards, more councillors than usual began packing up their bags the day after the election. We checked in with some of them to find out what life has been like since leaving 100 Queen St. W.

The number one occupation for former councillors seems to be consulting — there is no shortage of public organizations and private firms happy to hire former city councillors. However, they must tread carefully — under city rules former councillors are not allowed to lobby current councillors or city staff for one year after their departure.

Josh Colle, who stepped down as the councillor for Eglinton-Lawrence in July 2018 to let his dad Mike Colle run (he won), and was once chair of the TTC, is now senior vice-president, infrastructure advisory, Ernst & Young.

Sidewalk Labs, the Google sister company behind the Quayside project, hired Mary-Margaret McMahon as director of community for the controversial project. McMahon is an advocate of councillors serving two terms only. She retired from city council in 2018 after representing Beach and East York residents for eight years.

Norm Kelly, who served Scarborough for 33 years municipally and who was an MP for one term, said he did some consulting with Hill+Knowlton in the months following his departure from city hall after he lost Ward 22 (Scarborough-Agincourt) to Councillor Jim Karygiannis.

Kelly has also been appointed senior fellow at the Global Cities Institute at the University of Toronto and executive adviser to the World Council on City Data.

He spent part of the past few months going through 175 boxes of paper he accumulated in office, winnowing it down to 20.

He’s closed the side-business he used to run, selling merchandise branded with slogans like “6Dad,” after he became an international internet sensation for defending Drake on Twitter in his dispute with American rapper Meek Mill. Kelly grew his Twitter following to more than 700,000 as a result.

These days he’s focused on family — he and his wife have five grandchildren — and to reading and gardening.

“I tell you I never knew that there were so many weeds in this world,” said Kelly.

In January, Neethan Shan took up the role of executive director of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations after losing Scarborough—Rouge Park by the slimmest of margins.

He misses being able to advocate at council for under-represented communities in Scarborough, and he feels that with larger wards and fewer councillors, these groups will be even less represented.

Shan won his seat under the 44-ward system in a byelection, becoming the first Tamil-Canadian elected to Toronto city council.

He said he hasn’t ruled out a return to municipal politics, but a lot can happen in three years. In the meantime, he too, is glad to be able to spend more time with his family.

“I actually enjoy the weekends more now with my kids,” said the father of two, ages 5 and 8.

Mary Fragedakis, who lost Toronto-Danforth to friend and ally Paula Fletcher, is now the executive director of Greektown on the Danforth BIA.

“I love my new job. It’s a happy place, I’m organizing Taste of the Danforth, I mean, who doesn’t love taste?”

She hasn’t ruled out returning to office, but it doesn’t seem to be top-of-mind, either.


“I guess never say never, but at the moment I’m not looking backwards, I’m looking forward. It’s not really healthy to look backwards,” said Fragedakis.

Jon Burnside took some time off after losing to Councillor Jaye Robinson in Don Valley West. He sold a food home-delivery business he owned with a partner and is looking to start a new venture. He has his eye on the upcoming federal election, although he wouldn’t offer specifics.

He said he misses working with communities, and in fact has a hard time thinking of something he doesn’t miss about his life in office, except for some of the long and “often redundant or futile meetings.”

“I loved my job,” he said.

John Campbell even misses the debates at council, after losing the election in Etobicoke Centre to Stephen Holyday by about 1,000 votes.

“I miss the intellectual stimulus and I miss dealing with and working with the professional civil service,” said Campbell, who was appointed to the board of Toronto Community Housing in the spring.

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Campbell said will be joining a government relations firm in the fall, but wouldn’t name the company.

Glenn De Baeremaeker opted not to run for re-election in Scarborough, after the size of council was reduced. He is now working for the Toronto Wildlife Centre, helping them to raise $20 million to build a new wildlife hospital in Rouge National Park.

“I’m also helping them get all of the various 1,001 approvals that they need from city government, provincial government, federal government and other people. That’s everything from getting septic tanks approved, a water supply approved to signs approved to building approvals,” said De Baeremaeker.

The one thing former councillors agreed they missed were the constituents, and the opportunity they had to shape the city — Doucette helped make it possible for residents to keep chickens in their backyard as she now does.

De Baeremaeker sees the results of programs and initiatives he supported everywhere, including splash pads and playgrounds throughout his ward. He points to a new library at the Scarborough Civic Centre that he said Mayor Rob Ford tried to cancel.

“It was an amazing job and I’m very lucky. I left sooner than I thought but in hindsight, I’m very grateful that I had 15 years to do really good work.”

What former councillors think of the smaller city council

  • Among those the Star reached out to, only Glenn De Baeremaeker, who represented Scarborough for 15 years, thinks the new, smaller 25-ward council is working better.

“I actually think it’s working very well. And I’m one of the people who supported the smaller council even though it means I lost my job,” said De Baeremaeker.

“Certainly the council meetings seem to be going faster, smoother, less arguing and harassment is my impression.”

  • Neethan Shan, the first Sri Lankan to be elected to council, in a Scarborough byelection in 2017, said that 2018 was supposed to be the year that Toronto council became more representative of racialized communities, but instead, after the number of councillors was reduced, “what happens is that underrepresentation continues.”

He said that in the new, larger wards, it will be the more highly organized and wealthier neighbourhood associations that will get more attention.

“It’s natural, because they have their newsletters, they have their magazines, and board association meetings and so on. And the ones that have lower incomes, the ones that are not as structured, the ones where families are struggling to make ends meet, so they can’t actively participate in associations and so on, have been left out,” said Shan.

  • Jon Burnside, who served one term before losing to Jaye Robinson in Don Valley West, said he thinks that while the new ward system is probably working in certain quieter areas of the city, like Etobicoke, it’s harder for councillors in busier wards to get things done. Important issues remain stuck in the slow lane.

“Ultimately, whether council is three days or two-and-a-half days, the real issue is that successive administrations change policy, and we’ve seen that with the province getting involved in changing transit policy. That’s where the delays are, it’s the changing of the government’s mind, not the extra half-day of a council meeting,” said Burnside.

  • John Campbell, who lost to Stephen Holyday in Etobicoke Centre after serving one term, said that while the meetings are shorter than they used to be because there are fewer councillors, the 25 remaining are being deluged with documents relating to their new, larger wards and they can’t take as many meetings as they used to with the public and other interested parties.

He points to the irony in the fact that while Premier Doug Ford reduced the number of councillors at city hall, he increased the size of his own cabinet.

Campbell is still interested in municipal politics, but says he wouldn’t run again under the current 25-ward system.

“I think that none of these people will be defeated in the next election, it will be impossible for anybody to mount a challenge against them. The wards are too big, it’s too daunting.”

  • Mary Fragedakis, who served Toronto-Danforth for eight years, said that her sense of things, from speaking with councillors, is that they are overwhelmed by the size of their wards and the work attached to that.
Francine Kopun

Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider

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