At exactly 3 a.m., a sock puppet named Roy started speaking eloquently against cuts to community grants, and this was not normal, no, but it was far more normal this morning than it would’ve been at any other Toronto council meeting in recent memory.
Roy, a friend of former council candidate Desmond Cole, made his gravelly voiced case at an executive committee meeting that soon became the longest continuous council meeting in the history of the amalgamated city. The meeting was also unusually festive — partly on account of copious caffeine consumption and sleep-deprived giddiness, but largely on account of the progressive passions awakened by the program-cutting suggestions made by KPMG consultants as part of the city’s core service review.
Some 169 people took Mayor Rob Ford up on his invitation to tell him what they think of the suggestions. It was the kind of meeting where, at 2 a.m. in a glowing city hall surrounded by hushed dark streets, a 14-year-old girl sobbed as she told the mayor how much she loves her local library.
Only three speakers endorsed any kind of cuts. The rest alternately criticized, mocked, pleaded with and reasoned with a placid Ford, who acknowledged the comments of only a few before the meeting finally ended at 8:55 a.m. Friday — 22 hours and 25 minutes after it began.
The anticlimactic committee vote pushed all of KPMG’s suggested cuts to executive committee’s next meeting, on Sept. 19, leaving everything on the table. Before that meeting, the politicians will get the results of separate reviews of efficiency and user fees. After it, the budget process will grind on until a final council vote in January.
Ford thanked the deputants in the still-crowded committee room, saying: “Regardless if you agree or disagree with what we’re going or saying, you’re here and you truly believe in why you’re here.”
The mayor thanked each of his executive committee members by name, including his “idol” Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, and also the visiting councillors fiercely fighting his drive to slash the city budget.
“I respect you for your integrity and for fighting for what you believe in,” he said.
Ford wrapped up the marathon session saying: “You pat yourselves on the back because I think we all did a great job and we are going to get this city straightened out.”
The gallery, primarily packed with opponents, rewarded him with applause.
But earlier many were calling the night a watershed in Toronto politics, an awakening of a new civic activism and organized opposition to Ford’s efforts to shrink the size and cost of city government.
“You have galvanized a giant machine,” Jason Adam Robins told the 13-member committee. Robins, who made one of the day’s fieriest speeches, warned committee members that they would be voted out of office if they endorsed KPMG’s suggestions.
Even he, however, said he believed the meeting was an “exercise in futility.” Though Ford repeatedly invited Torontonians to speak to the committee, he has given no indication that their views might change his mind.
In fact, despite the gracious words in his final speech, Ford seemed to dismiss the deputants in an interview with TSN Radio host James Cybulski recorded Thursday morning or early afternoon.
Before Ford made his CFL picks for the week, he said of the deputants: “I haven’t heard any good suggestions on saving money. I’ve just heard ‘don’t cut this and don’t cut that.’”
Indeed, Ford’s call on CP24 last week for supporters of his agenda to come make deputations fell largely flat.
Lawrence Farbman didn’t express support for Ford directly but drew gasps from the crowd for suggesting that residents in wealthier areas could be made to pay membership fees for their local library.
After left-leaning Councillor Janet Davis told him the province requires library to offer free book lending, Farbman suggested consolidating some of Toronto’s 99 library branches to save money.
Mammoliti thanked him for his “three minutes of suggesting what might be done at city hall to relieve the pressures,” rather than just arguing against cuts.
The all-day-and-overnight spectacle that many in Toronto and beyond followed through Rogers TV, online livestream or Twitter, was primarily an exercise of opposition to Ford that often looked like a party.
Spectators, many of them speakers-to-be waiting their turn, filled the committee room and two overflow rooms. Well-wishers brought them cookies, Timbits and pies; food writer and chefCorey Mintz brought a gallon of leftover chili.
“I really loved seeing the passion and the humanity today,” said Katarina Muir, 18, after she and other members of the Crescent Town Neighbourhood Youth Alliance spoke about the importance of city-supported neighbourhood groups.
Speakers opposed cuts to nearly every program and service singled out by KPMG, including transit, heritage, student nutrition, arts, and school crossing guards.
Mammoliti called the gathering a “socialist party.”
“I am not ‘one of the usual suspects,’ to quote some councillors,” said East York school crossing guard Christopher Salmond, 70, who spoke against suggested cuts to the police service’s crossing guard program.
The spectators clapped and cheered for anti-cuts speeches, loudest for the president of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, Maureen O’Reilly. After library workers walked in with several large boxes filled with petitions against the closure of branches and the privatization of the system — she said 39,000 people have signed — spectators stood, clapped and chanted “save our libraries” for one minute. Ford stood himself, and he and other committee members briefly joined in the clapping. It was unclear why.
The meeting’s emotional high point also involved libraries. Fourteen-year-old Scarborough student Anika Tabovaradan, who had never before made a political presentation and said she hates public speaking, bawled as she spoke at 2 a.m. about her love for her local branch, Woodside Square.
“I’m no taxpayer,” she said, gasping for air, “but when I get to use the computers in the library and do my homework, I’ll be able to get a good job someday. . . and when the day comes to pay taxes, I’ll be glad that you supported people paying the extra taxes to keep the system going.”
University Settlement House volunteer Marilyn Wilcoxen, 60, dramatically gave $55 to the city after her speech: a $50 cheque, representing one month’s share of a 10 per cent property tax increase on her home, and a $5 bill, representing one month of the $60 vehicle registration tax Ford successfully urged council to scrap.
“That’s what it would cost to save — not just save, but expand — the services that we need,” Wilcoxen said.
Executive member Councillor David Shiner said that he is listening to his Ward 24, Willowdale, residents, “the silent majority” that doesn’t make speeches at City Hall.
Ford occasionally betrayed a hint of irritation at barbs aimed at him, but was generally genial. When artist Jennifer Wigmore cheekily told him that she sometimes rides a bicycle to gay weddings, he smiled and gave her a two-thumbs-up gesture.
Before midnight, Ford drank one of the Red Bull energy beverages handed to him and other councillors by Mammoliti. He took two breaks of more than an hour apiece, prompting occasional cries of “where’s the mayor?”
Several speakers complained in interviews that the committee had decided to hold the meeting through the night rather than breaking late Thursday and beginning again on Friday. Prominent activist Dave Meslin said in his deputation that the process appeared to have been intentionally designed to exclude people who had to return home to their families for the night.
Mammoliti later admitted to reporters that going all night with no breaks was “a tactic to get the job done.”
More than 340 people registered to speak. While no-shows are common at such meetings, a dropout rate of more than 50 per cent is high.
Of those that did speak, it was Roy the puppet that particularly rankled Mammoliti, a staunch Ford ally.
“I was disappointed in what I saw” from some of the deputants, he said. “If I wanted to see a puppet, I’d go to a puppet show,” he said, prompting a man in the gallery to yell: “Keeping people around 24 hours is respectful? Give me a break,” before security led away the man, and then others who also started yelling.
Mammoliti continued that he had listened and “absorbed” some of the worthwhile deputations.
“But there were very few in my opinion.”