Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ana Bailao's First Town Hall Meeting Report

So What Happened?

Kudos to ward 18 Davenport City Councillor Ana Bailao for holding her first Town Hall meeting as was promised in her election campaign. There was a mixed bag of about 60+ people at the Wallace Emerson Community Centre at Dupont and Dufferin on Saturday, January 15. There was really not enough room for everyone to see the slide presentations and it was cramped. A better venue is needed, although there was Tim's coffee, doughnuts and cookies.

*** Update: Inside Toronto reported on the meeting weblink here
*** Update2: Bloordale Press reports on meeting here

The meeting started a little late but included a rather over-long presentation of slides by a senior staff bureaucrat, Josie Lavita, the Director of Financial planning. Lots of figures, pie charts and great detail - pretty much all of which could be found on the city's main website here

This was followed by a rather lengthy, ponderous defence and sell job by right wong Ford supporter ward 39 Scarbourough-Agincourt councillor and Chair of the Budget Committee, Mike del Grande. Trying to appear folksy and comparing a nine billion dollar city budget as being similar to how anyone would do their home budgets: "There is no more free lunch in Toronto"... "We did things differently in Scarborough... 'pay as you go', You have to have the money before you spend"... A lot of effort to subtly blame the previous administration for the fix we're in and to pacify the mostly lefty ward18 audience. And perhaps, run out the clock to avoid a public consultation where the public actually gets to speak. An audience member (me) reminded Mike he was not in Ford country now - the ward like all of downtown did not vote for Ford, and it was suburbia that put Rob Ford in power.

Finally, we got to only 10 questions from the 60 people there before it was cut off by Ana citing lack of time.
(about 25 minutes out of 2 hours for questions?)

There were a lot of hands up and people who never got to ask their questions. Ana had intended on the agenda to have small group breakout sessions where neighbourrs were supposed to discuss ward 18 issues together and then present to the larger group. Definitely overyly-optimistic when you allow bureaucrats and other politicians (del Grande) to talk so long. So this 90 minutes of the two hour scheduled meeting never happened.

Insteand, Ana had everyone write out their concerns which were collected as people left by her staff. Presumable she will look at them and perhaps respond to individual concerns, but is was too bad the public did not get to engage much with each other. Good intentions but poor implementation.

Overall, it was 90% a spectator event where you sit and are told what is good, then have a scramble to ask a question - or not. Only a fair grade on public consultation, but at least Ana unlike other councillors is taking this extra step to involve the consituents in some small way.

The Questions:

1.  Given that Mr. del Grande explained that the budget process has a number of filters: first, staff creates it under Mayor's guidline, then it goes to committees, then it goes to the Mayor's Executive Committee, and then to City Council where it is voted on in late February (23rd) and that public consultation is the last filter to make sure priorities are right, would you consider for the next 2012 budget process to reverse that? In other words, why don't we do a Values Exercise where we put the public at the start of the process and ask what are the 10 or so things in your ward that is important, by priority? Questioner (me) commented that this year's budget is incredibly rushed, has been shown up to have been made up on the fly and this year we have so many rookie councillors just learning, but can it be changed for NEXT year?
Answer: Not really answered. Mike del Grande pointed out that he had sent an email to all councillors asking precisely that, what are the priorities in your ward, and was attacked in the media for having ulterior motives.   Followup: I asked Ana if she had responded to that email with priorities and she said, "No".
I really wonder why not?

2. Another person asking why there were service cuts in the budget since no cuts were promised during the election campaign.
Answer:  No answer. Some dancing by del Grande about how budgets are very detailed and they are still looking at it.

3. A woman was visibly upset about how user fees for child/day care are done. Full fee is $35 a day but people who are subsidized only pay $6 a day. Cannot afford to save for a down payment for a home and felt it was inequality.
Answer: Ana noted that the subsidies are for those on low income to provide equality precisley because of that.

4. A woman asked how come the Mayor who has only one vote has such power to set the agenda for the budget. It seems like a tyranny.
Answer: Mike del Grande said that Mayor Rob Ford had a mandate becuase of his election and it is normal for mayors to set the tone, just as Miller did. (I challenged him that his mandate is not that detailed, people cote for him for different reasons)

5. Another woman complained that the city seems to be wasting money what with the roads at College and Dovercourt frequently being dug up, filled in, only to be dug up again and repaved many times. Concerned that money is being wasted there when the TTC is in such need. She asked what could be done to make other levels of government (province, federal) pay a greater share.
Answer: Ana responded to last point - elections are coming for those levels. Make yourself  heard.

6. An elderly gentleman said property taxpayers are being hit too hard. Why doesn't the TTC have a fare system that charges for the distance travelled like in England?
Answer: Ana pointed out that a lot of low paid people travel farthest just to get to work and it is a service they need.

7. A woman said we should thank former Mayor Miller for the surplus in the budget and asked what the big chunk of the budget that just says "Other" means.
Answer: Financial staff will get back to you on that. ???
-------      Actually is almost $700 million or 1.74% of the total budget, not sure what it means either.

8. A fellow named Franz said he liked paying property taxes because it makes for a better and healthier city. He pointed out that each budget seems to go from punishing one group at the expense of others. Example: Now the vehicle registration tax is dead but it is going to hurt the TTC and bus routes are being cut. This led to him directly asking Ana about the TEA (Toronto Environmental Alliance) survey and whether she would support or vote against cutting 48 bus routes.
Answer: Ana said it was intended to increase ridership and that she supports anything that keeps ridership. (?)

9. Another woman on the Vehicle Registration Tax: I have 4 kids, keep my car in the garage most of the time, but most of my family uses the TTC. What will be the actual cost of giving rebates to people for the cancelled tax? (the process)
Answer: Not answered, staff and Ana seemed unsure of what the question was.

10. Last Question: Woman was mystified and said cancelling the vehicle tax was a slap in the face to the public. It is a fact that most calls to councillors offices are about parking issues. Since that's the work cars are not taxed nearly enough.
Answer: No real answer other than Ford made it an issue and we listened to the people.
Final grade for Ana's first town hall? 

A+ for good intentions
C- for Implementation

Side Note:  I have been unable to find the TTC budget anywhere and it represents about $1.5 billion, the largest peice of the city $9.3 billion budget. Ana though she had it in her binders but it wasn't in the 4 or 5 that councillors get to work with. It is also not on the city budget website. She promised to get back to me on that.  As of January 16th, Sunday 3:30pm there are still no briefing notes on the budget available to the public on the city website.
Update: Received copy of TTC pdf budget brief from Ana's office at 2:42pm Monday. Reviewing it now.
               A little hard cto find on the city website but it is HERE now....