Stig Harvor Jan. 2012 on Mayor Rob Ford

Stig Harvor: There is deep public concern about the direction our Mayor Rob Ford is steering our city. Another indication of this anxiety was the attendance on Dec. 12 at the first public presentation of the current state of planning for the large, defunct industrial waterfront Port Lands. Waterfront Toronto had arranged for an expected 400. More than 600 showed up. Some had to be turned away when the hall was filled to fire safety regulations.

Citizen questions centred on any negative effects of speeding up development as pushed for by the Fords. Waterfront Toronto Pres. John Campbell assured that goals and standards will still guide development. A thorough public consultation process will continue. The next public meeting will be held in February with a final report to city council next June.

Riding his gravy train in the election campaign, Ford grandly promised: “No service cuts. Guaranteed!” After considerable effort and expense, Ford only found tiny droplets of what he calls gravy. He now proposes budget cuts to the tune of $88 million, instead calling them “efficiencies.” The Occupy Toronto message of the 99% and the 1% has not sunk in with him. His cuts don’t affect the privileged 1%. They live in another world insulated from the real world of the 99% who will be hurt.

For Downtown, the cuts mean fewer and more crowded streetcars and buses. Library hours will be reduced. Fees for recreational and educational programs in community centres will limit access. Day-care services will be more expensive. The city museum/gallery in St. Lawrence Market will close and possibly also Toronto’s First Post Office at 260 Adelaide St. E. The St. Lawrence Centre and the larger Sony Centre on Front St. are in jeopardy as are citywide cultural assets and local economic ones.

Considerable public angst is simmering below the surface. In the face of unresponsive governments, concerned people often throw up their hands and say: ”But what can I do?” 347 citizens knew what to do when they testified at two long and sometimes raucous days before the Ford-dominated Budget Committee on Dec. 7 & 8.

These citizens remembered the words of the famous cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978): “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Individual persons can still influence events by keeping informed, talking to friends, attending protest actions, contacting political representatives, even writing letters to the editor of small and large newspapers and publications.

Budget Committee members were belligerent rather than conciliatory. Some tried to belittle many speakers as professional disputants. Tellingly, they gave a spokesperson for the 1%, Toronto Board of Trade Pres. Carol Wilding, first place on the long speakers’ list. Her board supports the slash-and-burn approach of the Ford budget with only a few minor reservations. While the Ford administration is not listening to the 99%, the Mushy Middle of council is. It is now the Mighty Middle holding a slim balance of power at City Hall.

In his approach to the new 2012 city budget, Mayor Ford has adopted the tactics of his mentor and supporter, former Conservative Premier Mike Harris.

When taking office in 1995, Harris drowned the Opposition and the public with a deluge of radical measures giving little time for detailed examination and debate. Ford has similarly proposed an extreme, sweeping budget to be considered during a period almost four months shorter than usual, also at a time when the public’s focus and attention is deflected by the holiday season.

Another Harris tactic is also in play. His infamous first Education Minister, John Snobelen, intentionally created a crisis atmosphere in the school system. It is a management tool to force radical change. Ford has similarly followed suit by first cutting taxes and then trying to frighten voters with an exaggerated deficit. He wants to privatise everything he possibly can lay his hands on. This would lead to serious labour trouble at city hall with its attendant public inconveniences, more unemployed workers and lower wages and benefits for others. Happy New Year, everyone!

The next official consideration of the budget will be on Jan. 12 by the Ford-dominated Executive Committee. Full council debate will be a short five days later Jan. 17-19. Some indications of unease and wavering even by hard-line Ford supporters are surfacing. Look for a move by Ford to dip into the projected $139 million budget surplus to avoid some cuts, but not all.

It is like a developer offering zoning officials to reduce a proposed 50-storey skyscraper condo by 3 floors when the allowable height is 8 floors.