Having just spent the weekend in a Toronto ridden with pre-election-angst, I couldn’t help but indulge in a little bit of voter Schadenfreude. Only one year ago we Montrealers faced our own depressing, nail-biting election (an unlikely pair of adjectives that none-the-less sum up a growing number of political choices…).
Although the results that came in last November were far from inspiring we pulled through and, now that the dust has begun to settle, I think it is worth looking back and considering how things panned out. Here’s my take on things – feel free to add (or disagree) in the comments.
Competence over cronyism
After squeaking into the mayoral seat with less than 40% of the popular vote, Tremblay did a surprisingly grown-up thing and created a coalition Executive Committee including a member from each of the opposition parties. Projet Montréal’s Richard Bergeron is in charge of the urban planning dossier, a role that probably suits his expertise (he has a doctorate in the field) better than the mayoral chair.
With Projet Montréal taking every seat on the Plateau Borough council (as well as a few elsewhere) both their supporters and the skeptical have been able to see how the “incorruptible” party’s platform translates into action. A number of changes have been put in place at lightning speed with no apologies, not even to old ladies who complain they can no longer play bridge after losing their parking spots.
We’ve seen the speed limit decreased in residential areas, streets closed and other traffic calming measures, sidewalks freed from clutter and terraces spreading into parking spots. We’ve seen billboards banned in the name of beautification and a major crack down on music venues for noise violations in the name of family-friendliness. Although most of us have mixed feelings about at least a few of these initiatives, I think it’s fair to say that Projet Montréal has been unfailingly transparent and committed to their principles.
Cutting down on collusion?
The most surprising news of the year has been the apparent turn-around in the handing out of municipal contracts. While last year’s news revealed scandal after scandal, this year contracts for road, aqueduct and sewer work have come in 36% under budget (leading Projet Montréal to point out that the city has been systematically ripped off for who knows how- long).
Like a teenager who puts on their best behaviour after being busted, I have little doubt that this sudden about-face is rather deliberately calculated. The Canada Revenue Agency is conducting an investigation which will compare what the city paid for various contracts with the contractors declared revenue which might keep contractors on their toes for a while longer, but I hope that the media won’t be lulled into complacency. I would be curious to know whether contracts have actually been handed out to new competitive companies, or whether the same old cronies have simply cooked up a limited-time-only post-scandal special.
Although City Hall has cleaned up their dealings with contractors, they still hasn’t learned that relying on big private developers to revitalize sectors like Lower Saint-Laurent is the municipal equivalent of putting all our eggs in one basket – it has the potential to lead to a big mess. Case in point: after pushing out all the businesses on the block save one, SDA’s plans for the Quadrilatère Saint-Laurent have been “put aside for a few years.” This is just about the worst possible outcome for the neighbourhood as it dooms the heritage buildings to remain lifeless and will inevitably lead them to even greater decay. The developer is blaming bureaucratic chaos at the city and the failure to expediently expropriate Café Cleopatra for the flop. In a part of town that is occupied, I would bet that incentives to revitalize individual properties would be less risky and lead to a more organic, resilient renewal.
Russian doll decision-making
Another hot topic during last fall’s election was restructuring the burdensome structure of the municipal government which includes 103 elected offices at the borough and municipal levels (Toronto is governed by a comparatively modest 45 councilors).
With responsibilities split between the central city and 19 boroughs, the city suffers from a lack of communication, inconsistent services, and redundancy. But last week, the mayor announced that a new service, which will attempt to coordinate things like snow-removal, cleanliness initiatives, the 311 service, and purchasing among boroughs in order to improve efficiency and reduce costs.
Both opposition parties support the measure, albeit a modest one. To be fair, a more thorough restructuring of the municipal and borough council would have to be negotiated with the province.
Leadership beyond the island
Which brings us to the last point: an increasingly important mayoral responsibility is to represent the needs of the city at other levels of government. Tremblay has made some efforts in this department: during his last term he teamed up with Toronto mayor David Miller to demand a better deal for cities at the federal level (thoroughly ignored by the Conservative government). And, although he was initially agreeable to the MTQ’s Turcot project,this year Tremblay changed his tune and strongly criticized the plan to increase the highway’s capacity without including any transit infrastructure. Earlier this year, he went so far as to present an alternative, city-friendly plan for the highway, drafted in collaboration with Bergeron.
But perhaps the mayor who initially got voted in with a promise to decentralise municipal decision-making isn’t the rallying force that we badly need to give our city a voice at the provincial and federal levels.
But, alas, who is?
Like my Torontonian compatriots, I’m already looking forward – with a bit of trepidation – to see what possible heroes the next election may offer.