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Fixing Toronto City Council: U of T task force hopes to improve city hall deliberations

U of T's School of Public Policy & Governance launches task force to improve decision-making at Toronto City Hall (Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

At Toronto City Council, meetings have been known to last for days. Agenda items are approved then reversed. Critics say meetings often devolve into a circus.

The University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance (SPPG) hopes to change all that.

To improve decision-making at Toronto City Hall, the SPPG is forming a task force of former city managers, past councillors, academics and civic leaders. The SPPG says it will begin a public dialogue on the issue and release a list of recommendations for Toronto councillors to consider.

“We’re trying to start a conversation about simple ways to improve city council both in terms of the quality and tone of the debate, and some of the decisions that come out of city council,” said Gabriel Eidelman, an assistant professor at SPPG, which is in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

“A lot of people complain that it’s chaotic, it’s messy, and nothing really gets done. If an average citizen in Toronto shows up at a council meeting, and what they see is a circus, that reflects poorly on the quality of decision making.” 

Eidelman organized the task force along with urban public policy consultant Brian Kelcey, principal of State of the City. The task force comprises:

  • former city manager Shirley Hoy, who is chair of U of T’s Governing Council;
  • former city manager Joe Pennachetti, currently a senior adviser at the Institute on Municipal Finance & Governance (IMFG) and the School of Public Policy & Governance (SPPG) and a senior adviser at the Global Cities Institute and executive adviser to the World Council on City Data;
  • former city councillors David Soknacki and John Parker;
  • Adrienne Batra, press secretary to former Mayor Rob Ford;
  • Western University assistant professor Zack Taylor; 
  • CivicAction CEO Sevaun Palvetzian;
  • Bianca Wylie, head of the Open Data Institute in Toronto;
  • Ange Valentini, chief of staff to former councillor Adam Vaughan. 

Long before the task force was even under consideration, Eidelman heard from students in his urban politics classes at U of T Mississauga and U of T’s downtown Toronto campus. 

Students attending Mississauga City Council related seeing organized meetings that would last 1½ hours. Students attending Toronto City Hall would come back confused.

“My Toronto students would report back, ‘Oh my God. I don’t know what I just witnessed. It was crazy. It felt like it was grade school. It was a little silly. No one was listening to anyone,’” Eidelman says.

He believes students are not the only ones left frustrated by the Toronto City Council.

Eidelman will be conducting a confidential survey of councillors and city staff that will inform the discussion. There will also be public engagement through Twitter polls and electronic surveys.

The task force will meet at SPPG on Nov. 16, Jan. 27, and March 31. Those meetings will be open to the public. 

For years, SPPG has been recognized for its expertise on federal and provincial matters, says Peter Loewen, a political scientist at U of T Mississauga and the new director of the SPPG. The school is now hoping to put that expert lens on city government, he says.

“We have collected a group of experts on issues of governance, and so we are keen to help apply this expertise at multiple levels of government, not least the most important municipal government in the country,” Loewen said. 

“Our municipal government, especially in a city as large and complex as Toronto, is asked to do a lot with very little. Not only are the budgetary pressures immense, but so is the range of issues that council has to address. The goal of this task force is to identify practical ways that council can better address its most pressing challenges.”

The recommendations will be released in a report from SPPG in April, summarizing the task force’s findings.   

“We’re looking for things that can be acted on quickly without going to the province and asking for major legislative changes, or new major powers for the city,” Eidelman said. “It’s putting the onus on [city councillors]. It will be nothing that the city council can’t choose to do on its own.”

That means issues like term limits and electoral reform will likely not be addressed.

Eidelman hopes the task force will look at council procedures and the makeup of committees. With city council meetings lasting for days, delegation of authority also needs to be discussed.

Other cities have created other bodies or subcommittees that make decisions on seemingly minor variance and licensing issues, so they don’t need to go before a full council. 

The task force may also choose to address the acrimonious tone of questions from councillors toward city staff.

“Many of these questions are entirely politically motivated,” Eidelman said. “There’s a lot of loaded questions. Having Shirley Hoy and Joe Pennachetti, former city managers who understand not only the responsibilities of city staff but the pressures on them, will bring an important perspective to that discussion.”