A missing committee at Toronto City Hall

Empty Committee Rm 4 Toronto City Hall
There is a critical committee missing from Toronto's governance structure – and there always has been.

Toronto’s newly reduced City Council has adopted a temporary governance structure with an eight-member executive committee and four standing policy committees to consider policy options in specific areas and make recommendations to council. These four committees are:

  • Economic & Community Development Committee
  • General Government & Licensing Committee
  • Infrastructure & Environment Committee
  • Planning & Housing Committee

Read the City Staff report recommending committee changes here

 

In days of yore – i.e. earlier this year

In the last term of council, there was one 13-member executive committee plus seven standing policy committees:

  • Community Development & Recreation Committees – Managed social services, housing & shelter support, Toronto’s Paramedic and Fire Services and, for some odd reason, the recreation half of the city’s Parks & Recreation department.
  • Licensing & Standards Committee – Managed things like business licensing, taxi regulations, the Uber file, etc. It is a committee that attracts lots of public deputations and directly affects small business people’s livelihoods, so is often controversial.
  • Planning & Growth Management Committee – Managed the city’s Official Plan, zoning changes and development approvals. The workload is heavy.
  • Economic Development Committee – This is a largely useless “show & tell” committee which sponsors global travel opportunities for the chair and committee members and features presentations by various community interest groups. It also manages the routine approval of Business Improvement Area paperwork. It can and should disappear. Actual economic development has always been the remit of the Executive Committee and should remain so. BIA paper work can be lumped in with government contracts.
  • Public Works & Infrastructure Committee – Possibly the busiest committee and the one that has the largest budget impact, this one manages infrastructure: roads, highways, bridges, water & sewer, etc.
  • Parks & Environment Committee – This was a lightweight committee with little work compared to the others and minimal budget impact. It could be dispensed with entirely. The “parks” management portion should be consolidated with the “recreation” responsibilities under the same committee as that is how the city department is structured.
  • Government Management Committee – Managed the routine approvals of city contracts that had already been approved by council, and pet projects of the administration and committee members. Lots of paper, but mostly routine rubber-stamping.

A special committee has been struck to review the city’s interim governance structure in light of the reduced council size and make recommendations to council. My comments on changes (both those already made and those that should be made) to the executive committee are here.

 

The interim committee structure is… OK… ish

There is some sense in the way city staff have consolidated the committees, assuming some new strategic direction could be applied to policy. Although, without the procedural changes I’ve recommended previously, that will be hard to achieve.

The new Economic & Community Development committee combines some of the city’s social services related to Ontario Works and other social supports on the same committee with the city’s token efforts to support nascent businesses. The recreation files will probably be managed here, but remain separate from the parks and environment function. Parks & Environment could easily be consolidated in this portfolio. To make room for it, the committee’s traditional love affair with pointless show & tell sessions should be dropped.

The new General Government & Licensing committee will be 3/4 licensing and 1/4 contract approval, with lots of deputations on the licensing items.

The Infrastructure & Environment committee makes sense as long as the parks management function is removed and consolidated with recreation as recommended above. This would leave the environment functions related to stormwater and flood management, etc. which are managed through infrastructure. Makes sense. And infrastructure is a massive portfolio on its own in Toronto.

Combining Planning & Housing into one committee makes sense if the city’s intention is to look at housing more strategically – by creating the conditions to encourage affordable housing. This committee probably should not manage the city’s social housing portfolio. It should probably be managed together with the other social services in the Economic & Community Development committee.

 

One critical committee is missing – and always has been

There is one critically important committee missing from the interim structure.    In fairness, it has been missing from Toronto’s governance structure for some time. By “some time,” I mean forever. It’s never existed. But it’s absolutely needed.

Much of the city’s operating budget and most of its employees are managed through quasi-independent and “sort of” arms-length agencies, boards and corporations: Toronto Parking Authority, Toronto Hydro, Toronto Transit Commission, Toronto Public Library, Waterfront Toronto, Toronto Portlands, etc.

Previously, the city appointed councillors to the boards of directors for these agencies. In theory, these councillors were supposed to ensure the agencies adhered to the city’s plans for them. That never happened. Instead, the councillors on those boards became the agency’s advocates on council – not the council overseers on the board.

With fewer councillors to go around, city staff have recommended the number of councillors appointed to boards be reduced and their vacated seats filled with either citizen appointees or city staff. Putting city staffers on these boards is a terrible idea. Putting citizens in those seats is a great idea – if Council creates the one new committee it has always been missing…

The Shareholder Committee. Toronto Council should have a standing Shareholder Committee, reporting through the Executive Committee, that provides oversight of and shareholder direction to all of the city’s agencies, boards and corporations. This way, the city can ensure the activities, strategies and operations of the agencies it funds are aligned with council’s approved strategy.

The Shareholder Committee would review annual reports from city agencies and corporations and provide council’s direction to city appointees. Currently, city appointees receive no formal guidance from the city. As a result, city appointees have often supported agency decisions that go against the city’s interest!

This would give Toronto Council better control over the agencies, boards and corporations that employ most of the city’s staff and spend much of the city’s money. It would also free up councillors to focus on their real jobs.

Whether you like their politics or not, city councillors in Toronto are extremely busy (or should be.) In past years, councillors frequently missed board meetings and didn’t have time to master the agency files to the extent expected of a competent board member.

Putting citizen appointees on those boards, guided by timely shareholder direction from a standing Shareholder Committee of Council, will improve governance within the agencies, reduce friction between the city and its agencies, and improve outcomes for everyone in Toronto.