Billboard Tax: Saved by Girls Hockey

This is the second retrospective look at how the new billboard tax and sign by-law were recently won by the Beautiful City Alliance. For some context on my role, see the first post.

Artists and public space activists might have put many years worth of work into the new billboard tax and signs by-law but it was the advocates for girls hockey that saved our hide.

Heading into the first leg of the billboard debate at City Hall on December 1, Beautiful City thought we had our vote count nailed down tightly. Then Councillor Norm Kelly threw a wrench in our plans.

Kelly, chair of the Planning and Growth Management Committee (PGM), moved a lengthy motion that would have permitted about 1,000 video billboards, allowed billboards five times closer to intersections than proposed by staff (and 12 times closer than was allowed in some parts of the city) and cut the tax rates by 40%. Using an incorrect interpretation of Solomon to suggest that ‘cutting the baby in half’ was the responsible thing for Council to do, Kelly sold his package of cuts and regulatory rollbacks as a “compromise” between the needs of the outdoor advertising industry and residents.

Believing that support for the $10.4 million tax and strong regulation was enough to overcome Kelly’s $6.1 million tax and bastardized version of the by-law proposal, Beautiful City wasn’t all that concerned. Then political staffers told us that our vote was weakening and we didn’t have the votes to kill the $4.3 million tax cut Kelly was pushing for the outdoor advertising industry. (Because Kelly had gone too far with his by-law amendments, we knew we likely had the votes to keep those from passing but nothing’s for sure.)

By the end of the first morning of debate our lobby efforts were coming up short. During the 90-minute lunch break, artists and spacers fanned out on the second floor of City Hall to buttonhole the swing votes. It quickly became clear that one of the issues impacting our ability to get votes was a general misunderstanding of the recommendation that concerned allocation of the tax revenues, as I explained in an earlier post.

Even with our proposed compromise on the wording (details in the earlier post) around the arts allocation, it appeared we were going to fall short. I was so convinced of this that I actually conceded defeat on the tax amendment via Blackberry Messenger to a friend working for the industry.

Around 4PM, to our relief, we realized that a vote on billboards wasn’t going to happen before 5PM, the time that Council said it would deal with girls hockey. Since girls hockey was a lightning rod issue, normal practice (waiting for one item to be finished before starting a second) was put aside. We were told that afternoon (Tuesday) we would be stepped down until Friday of that week. This was due in part to the length of the girls hockey debate but Council had already been scheduled to meet on Wednesday to approve by-laws for the 2010 election and on Thursday the Executive Committee was to meet to deliberate on the capital budget (this meeting couldn’t be moved as Council was to consider the capital budget the following week).

Suddenly with a couple more days to mobilize, Beautiful City started working the phones and sending e-mails. We filled Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone’s voicemail within a couple of hours. E-mails continued to flood councillors’ inboxes. High-profile artists were deployed to make personal calls. We were given a video of Councillor Karen Stintz, the billboard industry’s chief apologist on Council, having an overly enthusiastic conversation with billboard lobbyists. But we still weren’t seeing results; we were stuck at 18 votes and needed 22 (health issues were keeping councillors Mike Feldman and David Shiner from the vote).

The debate on girls hockey started up again that Friday morning and in spite of Council forgoing its lunch break all together, the vote on that item didn’t wrap up until almost 3PM. At 3PM Council had to begin debating a deal to buy land for a new TTC yard along the waterfront, as the deal would fall through if the City didn’t sign off by 5PM that day. To complicate matters further, Council’s procedures call for Friday meetings to end with enough time before sundown for a person observing the sabbath to get home in time to do that. That day it mean 4:45PM. Again, billboards was pushed back, this time to Monday morning.

Friday night we finally began to see the efforts of the grassroots campaign paying off. Beautiful City leader Devon Ostrom got an e-mail from Norm Kelly. Kelly didn’t like the onslaught of Beautiful City allies who had given him and other councillors an earful. It was the first indication that the tectonic plates beneath City Hall were shifting back to where we believed they were before debate began four days prior. We still had all weekend to continue activating our supporters and plot out a strategy for Monday morning.

Also adding wind to our sails was the return of Dave Meslin, Toronto’s public space patron saint, from a month-long tour with the Hidden Cameras. Saturday night Mez plugged three times at a packed Opera House. Sunday night the public space reps in Beautiful City gathered with Mez to figure out what message we wanted to use to capitalize on the new momentum. We decided on a few short messages that centered on the idea that the staff recommendations were the true compromise and that Kelly’s motion was undoing two years worth work done by City staff and consultants. Since he had been absent of late and hadn’t formally put his opinion on the record, Mez penned a letter to that effect which was distributed to members of Council.

Come Monday morning there was a different attitude at City Hall. Kelly was glued to his seat and looked to be sulking while councillors like Joe Mihevc and Shelley Carroll worked the room to win back votes. From that point on, three things sealed the vote for Beautiful City. In order: Carroll’s revenue allocation amendment that satisfied some skeptics; Mihevc convincing the clerk to vote on amendments to the staff recommended tax in order of highest tax rate to lowest instead of in the order motions were moved; and Mayor David Miller speaking in favour of the by-law and tax.

After Miller spoke, voting on the more than 30 motions placed during debate began. Beautiful City won all of the key votes, including the $10.4 million tax, most of them by wide margins. On issues like lighting, digital signs on gas pumps and the variance process the successful amendments to the staff recommendations were actually more public space-friendly than what we had endorsed.

To the sea of 10-year-olds, and their parents, who flooded council chambers, I offer my sincere thanks.

photo by Kevin Steele


  1. Great story.

    At the same time I think it’s rather sad that this is what so-called “democracy” looks like.

    I felt the same way during the Jarvis Streetscape/bike lane vote.

    I’m happy with the decisions that were made in both cases, however I wish that they didn’t have to made in this way…

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