Executive Committee Meeting

What it was like to depute at the marathon executive committee meeting

Last Thursday I went down to City Hall first thing in the morning to wait for my opportunity to address the executive committee on the Core Services Report commissioned by KPMG. I have never been to City Hall, I have not been actively engaged in municipal politics and to be perfectly honest, I didn't even know who my city councilor was when I arrived, let alone what ward I live in.

Yet, at the urging of a friend, who convinced me my personal experience was valuable to the process, I found myself smack in the middle of what was both an extremely trying and moving 23 hours at City Hall.

The room was already emotionally charged from the start, the number of registered deputants having ballooned to well over 300. Personal nerves, a motion passed to reduce deputation times and Mayor Ford's insistence that the meeting would go through the night set an anxious tone.

After we listened to the representatives from KPMG present their report, the floor opened to city councilor questions regarding their various findings and recommendations. Disappointingly, many requests to expand and clarify their report were met with vague answers, on many occasions claiming detailed research beyond the scope of their report. Nevertheless, by 11:30 a.m., representatives from KPMG exited the meeting room and deputations from the public commenced.

Expecting to wait most of the day, I had come prepared with work to do, but I never touched any of it because I was immediately drawn in by those speaking, some overcoming significant barriers in order to do so.

Unfortunately, the televised news coverage I've seen since Thursday from most of the major news outlets has almost exclusively been of the most heated and sensational moments and, in my opinion, is not reflective of what I saw and heard in the committee room. The overwhelming majority of deputants I witnessed were knowledgeable, articulate and motivated by a shared desire to find solutions to the economic challenges facing Toronto. Most were not antagonistic, but informed and offered invaluable information in contribution to the dialogue. In addition to private citizens, the list of speakers also contained those who were chief executive officers of leading arts organizations, executive directors of councils, public health, housing and community services, doctors and students.

What I didn't see reflected in coverage of the meeting were deputants such as Jeff Melanson, the mayor's own Special Advisor to Arts and Culture. He drew on countless examples and provided constructive advice, advocating for continued investment in arts and culture services, which the report recommended to be reduced or eliminated.

As the 27th person to depute, I was also there to speak to the future of arts and culture in Toronto, but from the position of an independent performing artist and writer working in the city. Appreciating the very real deficit that faces Toronto, I spoke to my experience individually as well as in partnership with city organizations who have worked tirelessly to build bridges between communities and develop Toronto into a competitive centre globally for arts and culture.

The advice I was given beforehand was to speak honestly from my personal experience and so when I was called to address the committee, although I usually don't have anxiety being onstage so to speak, my heart was in my throat. Not only was it a vulnerable position to speak so candidly, but also having witnessed six hours of deputations before me, it was impossible to gauge the reaction I would receive.

Not long into the process, it became quite clear that certain councillors were more inclusive than others. There were those who had done their homework and were committed to engaging with the speakers and who asked challenging and probing questions. There were other councillors, however, who were bent on trying to undermine and even humiliate unnecessarily, some of those who were there to depute. Witnessing this was one of the most difficult parts of the process.

Although at times the meeting certainly devolved into a circus, what I don't think came across to those who were not there was the collective desire of the majority of councillors and deputants alike to participate in continuing to shape Toronto into an inclusive, prosperous and accessible city.

High points included a 14-year-old girl from Scarborough, who deputed in the middle of the night pleading for the ability to have continued access to her local library branch. Her perspective and experience with Toronto's core services, like many others were moving in their honesty. Low points included Jennifer Arango being forced to endure a raving verbal attack by Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday when, in representing the Toronto Women's City Alliance, she commented on the presence of only two women on the 13-person Executive Committee.

Since the meeting, I've spoken to many people who were not in attendance regarding what went on. One question I've been asked consistently has been do you think any of it really made a difference or that anything will change? There is a distinct tone to such a question, but I understand it to be very valid nonetheless.

I understand how it would be hard to not shake your head, frustrated even, by any or all sides who participated in the marathon at City Hall, if you gathered your information on the process via short news stories from the major television or radio providers. What I learned from being in the thick of it and then stepping back and watching its coverage, however, is that it was nearly impossible to capture adequately, the reality of what actually transpired.

The mood in the committee room was tense to say the least, but in my estimation it was less due to any individual outburst or loss of temper but more as the result of the stakes being so high for so many people. The deficit facing the city is daunting but also extremely significant is how deeply the potential cuts adversely affect so many people from all over the city.

I left City Hall, just over 12 hours after I had arrived, but as I walked out through Nathan Phillips Square, I was energized despite my exhaustion. Regardless of political views, it was difficult to not be moved by the level of civic engagement demonstrated in the diversity of voices, let alone the number of people who showed up to participate. Beyond those who were able to physically be at City Hall, the communication of support from those unable to attend was palpable in the room itself.

I have the deepest respect for councillors, deputants and observers alike, who committed to the process knowing full well its difficulties. It became increasingly evident the collective motivation stemmed foremost from a deeply rooted love for the city of Toronto and a desire to make it the most inclusive, vibrant and extraordinary place to live.

As a citizen of Toronto, I am truly proud of this and believe, despite the challenges, it is something absolutely worth fighting for.

Guest contribution from Marni Van Dyk

Photo by alienbeatpoet on Flickr

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