It’s been said to me that City Hall is run by engineers and lawyers. The engineers determine whether a given idea is technically feasible. The lawyers, on the other hand, dictate whether the City has legal authority to take a decision and assess whether the liability of a particular decision is manageable or not.
This last piece — the determination of how to manage liability — is what can often make our public spaces and interactions feel like they’ve been suffocated.
Take street hockey. As someone who grew up playing one of the best manifestations of Canada’s national pastime, it didn’t strike me for a moment that I was breaking a by-law. Yet, according to the rules, I was a scofflaw by the age of eight.
Criminalizing street hockey is an absurd idea to most of us but as Councillor Josh Matlow recently found out, to legalize the game means getting through the City of Toronto’s lawyers. As his recent comments suggest, Matlow’s reasonable proposal to legalize a favourite sport of kids across Toronto turned into a bureaucratic nightmare once the lawyers sunk their teeth into Matlow’s ideas. The lawyer-approved process for legalizing street hockey on your block includes petitions, traffic studies and community council approval, a process that is more imposing than the presently unenforced ban.
Though council is not obligated to listen to its lawyers, for fear of exposing the City to liability, council often sides with its legal staff’s recommendations. But the question that continually goes unanswered is whether city council is getting reasonable advice from its lawyers. Is the risk of the City being sued in the event of an accident involving street hockey really so great that it’s worth making the game illegal? As a lay person, I have a hard time believing that the answer to that question could possibly be “Yes.”
I’m not allergic to government regulation but whether it’s street hockey, street food, reasonable cycling laws, or any number of other things, the City of Toronto’s lawyers appear ready to throw a wet blanket on Torontonians at every turn under the guise that even common uses of public space expose the City of Toronto to legal liability. So I think it’s time that, instead of continuing to spend millions on consultants to conduct fruitless “core service reviews,” City Hall hire a team of outside lawyers to comb over the by-laws that govern Toronto’s public spaces to find out which of these bubble wrapped regulations are truly necessary, and which ones keep us from the reasonable enjoyment of our city.
photo by Doug Caribb