Saturday, July 31, 2010

Royson James and delusions of grandeur

So Toronto Star columnist Royson James has proven that he has delusions of grandeur in his latest Toronto Star column, regarding what he'd do to improve Toronto. And James is indeed delusional (or incredibly ignorant) as he gets so many facts wrong, and neglects reality. This is of course the same Royson James who in a 2007 column advocated hanging city councillors , which of course drew a stern response from Mayor David Miller, blasting James' completely unprofessional, irresponsible, undemocratic, grossly insulting and ludicrous column.

James' plan to make Toronto greater would begin with regaining public trust. He condemns city council for taking pay hikes while cutting the salaries of senior staff, that the city "put workers through a controversial strike, approved tax hikes above inflation each year, and initiated new taxes on cars and property sale." First, this is not the way to forge relations with councillors, as the mayor needs to build relations and consensus with councillors in order to pass legislation and make council work. Second, the city did not "put workers through a controversial strike." The workers chose to strike, as it is their right to do so. Third, Toronto's property tax rate is the lowest in the GTA and is in line with the inflation rate.

If James were mayor, he would be unable to prevent city council taking pay increases. Mayor Miller rejected his pay increase and was unable to thwart city council increasing their salaries (even though councillors in Mississauga and Peel Region make much more than Toronto councillors). But is James somehow alluding that he would be able to prevent this? If so, then how would he do this? By hanging those councillors in Nathan Phillips Square who voted to increase their pay?

James then goes onto deride that "councillors refused to cut their office budgets, using the money to feather their nests, fund pet projects, engage in image-burnishing events, support sports teams, dress up in bunny suits, buy expensive espresso machines and outrageously high-priced Christmas cards."

This is pandering to right-wing populism by taking a few bad examples and casting the entire council in a negative light. This is incredibly disingenuous, cynical, and dishonest. The $53,000 office budget for the 44 members of council is a paltry sum, when compared to say the rising salaries of (1,329 Toronto police uniform and civilian employees earned more than $100,000 in 2009) and the $956 million budget of the Toronto Police Service, or $1.4 billion for the TTC. Even though over a thousand members of the Toronto Police Service earn more than $100,000 annually, James and the right-wing circus whine, cry and scream over the $53,000 office budget granted to city councillors, which is often used to pay staff. I imagine though that James, and the right-wing lynch mob, feel that city employees should be working for mere scraps. James then goes on to recommend that councillor office budgets be cut to between $30,000 and $40,000. I guess an additional $13,000 is an abomination, so cutting it down by $13,000 is much more respectable and acceptable. Right.

Here is where James goes completely off the rails. He writes that "the mayor refused to stand up for the citizens, allowing his council to dodge behind fine legal and policy interpretations. For example, when a Beach family, supporters of Miller ally Sandra Bussin, managed to get an exclusive deal from the city to manage a waterfront food business, the mayor remained mum, even though the deal was clearly not in the interest of the taxpayer." What was Mayor Miller supposed to do? Throw a hissy fit and temper tantrum a al Rob Ford? Of course, that is what James would probably prefer the mayor to do, to make an ass out of himself, seeing as James often appears sympathetic and perhaps mildly supportive of the embarrassing Ford.

James finalizes his approach to improving public trust by writing "that accomplished, citizens may begin to believe that city council is no longer a safe harbour for arrogant lifers with a sense of entitlement. And candidates will no longer gain traction with a one-issue campaign that taps into this discontent." So, James' ideal mayor should regard councillors as "arrogant lifers", coupled with "a sense of entitlement." Except for the mayor, of course, who is there to lead build consensus, forge relations, in order to work productively with council to achieve efficiency and concrete results.

James' next section is entitled "Help us feel better about city spending" which is equally if not more ridiculous than the first. James believes that "a winning mayoral platform would promise to: Give citizens a property tax freeze in year one as the administration reviews programs, tightens the budget and sets the spending template for the term." Right. This would be the correct approach despite a $350 million budget surplus. Regardless, Toronto's property taxes are the lowest in the Greater Toronto Area. Try Mississauga or Vaughan if you want to see high property taxes. This is a total red herring. James then goes onto endorsing the TTC as an essential service and outsourcing or privatization of some of Toronto's garbage collection. It appears that James completely missed the boat here, seeing as unionized private garbage collectors can still go on strike, as the provincial DriveTest examiners and York Region's Viva transit operators have recently walked out. Privatizing garbage collection would cost the city and tax payers much more, and the private sector doesn't abide by the same hiring policies as municipalities, such as ensuring each candidate has a high school education and doesn't have a criminal record.

James concludes this section with more blissful ignorance, believing somehow that the city could easily "Secure the essentials of a fiscal deal with the province, tell citizens how much they have to pay to maintain services, and end the incessant squabbling with Queen’s Park over downloading." Right. With one swipe of a magical wand, the essentials of a fiscal deal could be secured with the province. Mayor Miller has been trying for years to reverse the destructive and idiotic downloading of provincial services onto the city's tab by former neo-con Premier Mike Harris, and current Premier Dalton McGuinty has accepted some of the province's responsibility in paying its own tab, but not all of it. But of course James believes that this could easily be resolved.

On "boosting democracy", James favours the alternative vote and makes no mention of proportional representation whatsoever. The alternative vote or instant run-off voting is not a viable solution in terms of electoral reform, as Fair Vote Canada aptly notes:

"AV elections in Australia have shown that the second choices on ballots tip the balance in only a small number of seats. In 21 elections between 1919 and 1996, only six per cent of the leading first-choice candidates were defeated by the distribution of second choices. In Manitoba and Alberta, where AV was used for 15 elections over three decades, second choices changed the outcome only 2 per cent of the time. Regardless of who wins the seats the AV results still leave a large portion of the electorate without the representation it wants and deserves."

The fact is that in the 2006 Toronto municipal election, only 41% of eligible voters voted. Seeing as Toronto uses a winner-take-all voting system (ie first-past-the-post), only 56% of those who voted actually elected councillors. So, the result was that Toronto City Council in 2006 was elected by 23% of eligible voters.

From here, James goes onto advocate more spending for expanding public transit (I thought James thought spending was "out of control" and where is he going to find more revenue, I thought he wanted to freeze taxes), but by adding road tolls, and a 1% sales tax. So James advocates freezing property taxes but wants road tolls and a 1% sales tax. Talk about talking out of both sides of your mouth. James wants to have it both ways. You can either maintain the current levels of taxation, which are covering the costs of the TTC, or, freeze or cut taxes and therefore will eventually have to cut services. This is on top of James advocacy for more spending on public transportation. Oh yes, James supports road tolls and a 1% sales tax. So James, who believes that property taxes are too high, endorses a 1% sales tax. Of course, the overwhelming majority of those polled so far on the issue of road tolls are completely opposed to the concept.

James then goes onto propel another red herring, to of course appeal to the hysterical right-wing, and laments "a sharing of the road, minus the “war on the car.” Put bike lanes where they make sense, not to score political points." The only one here who is attempting to score political points is James, as there is no "war on the car", except in the imaginations of Rob Ford and his followers. But James' then writes "Support laws that give bikes a wide berth, promoting safety; encourage cycling and walking in high pedestrian zones." Again, James is talking out of both sides of his mouth. First, he wants "a sharing of the road" without the fake "war on the car", and not have bike lanes in certain areas in specific areas to "score political points." Then of course, James wants to have laws which allow "bikes a wide berth" and to "encourage cycling." James has to make up his mind, because again, you can't have it both ways.

The most important aspects which James completely ignored, neglected or was completely ignorant of were the following facts and realites regarding the City of Toronto:

• Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone has already pledged to not accept a pay raise if elected mayor. City councillors in Mississauga and Peel Region make much more than Toronto councillors.

Toronto is a top ten city on the rise.

• An audit by Moody Investor Services found that the City of Toronto has low debt and high levels of investment, and fiscally is in much better shape than many other Canadian and international cities, despite a financial meltdown and tough global recession. Of course, you don't see these facts in James' column.

Toronto's spending is the lowest: A survey of spending over the last twelve years deflates a huge talking point of the right in regards to Mayor Miller and the City of Toronto. City spending is far lower than that of the federal and Ontario provincial governments over the last twelve years.

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