What do Toronto city councillors do? More like, what don’t they do?
|Toronto Star 06 Aug 2018 at 07:30|
On any given day, Councillor Joe Cressy’s office on the second floor of city hall’s west wing is packed with a small army of people answering phones, returning emails, writing motions, planning public meetings and more.
Six staff plus the councillor squeeze into a 700-square-foot space, the size of, these days, a generous one-bedroom condo that includes a small meeting area.
Cressy and this team are responsible — with the boundaries of Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina) stretching generally from Bathurst St. to University Ave., from the Dupont rail corridor to the waterfront — for about 100,000 constituents. In an area about eight square kilometres, it’s more people than all of Pickering, which has a mayor, three local councillors and three regional councillors.
As Premier Doug Ford surprised the city by announcing a cut to the size of Toronto’s, and no other, city council from 44 wards to 25, he said that doing so would make things more efficient, that council would be less dysfunctional, while suggesting that the residents of Toronto would be better served.
Many of those who have been doing the job for the last four years, and some much longer, say the importance of daily contact with residents, the responsibility of keeping up with policy on the agenda and representing their area and the city’s interest on various committees, boards and commissions will mean worse service and a diminished opportunity for residents to participate in decision-making.
“The process of managing change within neighbourhoods so that neighbourhoods have a say in the change in their neighbourhoods is that fundamental role,” said Cressy. “We are the conduit and the outlet for local residents to help shape their neighbourhoods. In the absence of effective representation, local neighbourhoods simply do not have a say and the city is nothing but governed by fiat.”
Today, Toronto councillors represent, on average, more than 62,000 people per ward. In a 25-ward system based on federal and provincial ridings, they would be responsible for more than 109,000 people on average.
The most time-consuming role for councillors, who will each earn $114,306 in 2018, is handling everyday local issues involving those people, councillors said.
For Cressy, he said that means hearing from 17 residents associations, 14 business improvement areas, residents in 202 individual Toronto Community Housing properties, institutions like the University of Toronto, OCAD, the AGO, and stakeholders in tourist destinations like the Entertainment District and the central waterfront.
Issues that matter to neighbourhoods or individual residents range and vary by ward. But generally they include: getting speed bumps installed on local roads, needing new pedestrian crosswalk signals, wanting (or opposing) parking pads on front yards, revitalizing parks, building new playgrounds, late or missing garbage pickup, pest control, requesting (or opposing) tree removals, late or missing snow removal, fixing potholes, protecting heritage properties, persistent noise complaints, opening splash pads, expanding library branch hours, construction of new developments congesting or blocking traffic, fixing drop-off and pickup areas for daycares and other matters.
In wards like Cressy’s — which grew by 23.5 per cent over five years, the most of any ward — there are also dozens of applications for new development which must be processed by the city for rezoning and other provisions before a new condo or office tower gets built. Over four years, Cressy estimates he’s dealt with about 150 development applications. Each involves at least one public meeting, ongoing negotiations with staff, developers and community groups, motions required at both committee and council and then follow up about site plans and other issues.
All of these things are the sole responsibility of the city and it often fall to the city councillor to consult with residents, speak to staff and advocate for or against the developments at committee and council.
On average, Cressy said he is called on to attend four to five meetings every week night. He can typically only physically get to two or three and has to send members of his staff to others. In terms of time spent, the first-term councillor said he works from about 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday to Friday, all day on one of the weekend days and most of the second day. His office gets on average, he said, about 400 emails and a couple hundred phone calls per day.
“It’s like having three-and-a-half full-time jobs,” one councillor’s political staffer told the Star, referring to the staff workload.
Another described the workload as “crushing.”
And the pace of growth in some areas has challenged tremendously what some councillors are able to accomplish. Today, many of the ward populations are imbalanced, ranging from 45,000 people to 97,000, according to the 2016 Census. Changing the ward boundaries, with 47 wards, as approved by council in 2016, was meant to redistribute the number of people each councillor was responsible for with the goal of getting as close to possible as the 2014 average, about 61,000 people, by the 2026 election.
Cressy’s ward, for example, between 2011 and 2016, saw the population increase by nearly 18,000 people. That is the equivalent of adding the entire population of Niagara-on-the-Lake — where there is currently one mayor, eight local councillors and one regional councillor — into an already bustling area with complex needs.
Suburban councillors, who represent areas that have generally grown at a less intense pace (with the exception of areas such as Etobicoke’s lakeshore), also speak of a heavy workload.
Councillor Stephen Holyday (Ward 3 Etobicoke Centre) explains the problem of gypsy moths from his west-end constituency office where he is fielding calls and emails when a reporter reaches him for this story.
He’s had to read up on the seasonal, destructive creatures and consult with forestry staff to become an instant expert of sorts to respond to recent constituent concerns. Those kind of “customer service” calls are about half of the job, Holyday said, requiring councillors to go out to area of concern, often take pictures and report back with solutions.
“You really have to love what you do,” he said. “That’s what we signed up for.”
Though Holyday strongly supported the 25-ward plan at council last week, he also said he would need to hire more staff to represent more than twice the people he does today — from just over 53,000 to 118,000.
All councillors are allotted the same budget to hire staff, equivalent to three staff paid at the top of their respective salary ranges. For example, the range for an executive assistant, the top-paying position, is $47,502 to $89,234. The allowance totals just over $238,000 per office. Under the current policy, councillors can only get extra money for the equivalent of a fourth staff position if their ward population and the number of households meets a certain threshold, 50 per cent more than the median of all 44 wards. By that standard, only four wards currently have the extra budget for staffing. And some, like Cressy’s office have stretched it to get even more staff to help with the work.
An earlier Star analysis found the savings of getting rid of 19 councillors and their office budgets, including travel expenses, equals less than $5 a year for every city of Toronto resident 15 or older. That did not account for the costs of adding additional staff for most of the 25 councillor offices.
Councillor Justin Di Ciano (Ward 5 Etobicke Lakeshore), who has been chiefly pushing for a 25-ward system, earlier told the Star that even he would have to reconsider if he plans to run with small children at home and an already large workload.
Holyday said that dramatically increasing the number of residents each councillor is responsible to represent would not diminish the work he is able to do.
“There’s no doubt that it will be more work,” he said. “If you have the right people there to help you with this and you are effective and efficient at dealing with issues that come up, I’m confident this can be done.”
On the floor of council on July 30, Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32 Beaches-East York) challenged Holyday on whether he understood the work required in other parts of the city compared to “sleepy Etobicoke.”
“I’ve heard more than once from some councillors in this chamber, ‘You just need to work harder.’ Work harder? I am never home,” she said. “I got my kids a dog in 2010. That dog doesn’t even know who I am. It’s friendlier with the postman. I work 12- to 15-hour days. I am borderline heart attack most days.”
The other core responsibility, councillors said, is a citywide duty. Councillors sit on various boards and commissions — Cressy, for example, said he had 18 appointments including to the board of Toronto Community Housing and the board of health — as well as community councils that deal with dozens of items each month for an entire region, like Etobicoke or Scarborough, standing committees that handle major infrastructure projects and other matters, and council as a whole. Many meet monthly.
This term, policy issues up for debate have included pedestrian safety and a Vision Zero plan to significantly reduce injury and death, the city’s role in fighting climate change, whether or not to build a $3.35-billion Scarborough subway extension, creating new bike lanes, regulating companies like Airbnb and Uber, privatizing garbage pickup, raising property taxes, expanding gaming at the Woodbine Racetrack, creating an anti-poverty plan and building new affordable housing.
Minnan-Wong, who had 12 appointments including to the board of billion-dollar operations like Toronto Hydro and Waterfront Toronto, agreed.
“To be a responsible board member, there is a lot of work involved meeting with staff there and reading all of the reports for each of the meetings that they have,” he said.
Cressy said councillors must do more than just show up to push the red or green button at their desks in the council chamber.
“It’s to know the files, engage with the files, discuss with key stakeholders and help to shape policy. And you cannot do that off the side of your desk.”