Gardiner debate takes council in weird directions: Keenan
Lone councillor’s tunnel proposal — a likely-expensive idea already dismissed once — gets a bizarrely generous reception amid strange showdown, Edward Keenan writes.
If you want a measure of how democracy in Toronto works, or doesn’t, consider
If you want a measure of how democracy in Toronto works, or doesn’t, consider the case of how Jim Karygiannis tunnel dreams came to dominate the city council debate on Wednesday. The assembled representatives of the city were there to consider two well-studied options before them, to remove the Gardiner east of Jarvis Street (“remove”) or to rebuild that portion to the Don Valley Parkway (“hybrid”).
But Councillor Karygiannis had a different idea, one I think it’s fair to say was legitimately favoured by no one except him. He wants to spend four or five times more money to tunnel the two-kilometre road, or possibly to bury the entire Gardiner east of Exhibition Place. No matter that such a project might take 20 or 30 years to build and the existing road will crumble in place in the meantime. No matter that the cost would be absurd. No matter that tunnelling had been investigated and dismissed already by the city’s staff.
No one else on council, with the possible exception of Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, thinks this is a good idea. But by the end of the day, virtually everyone, including the mayor himself, was preparing to vote for some version of it.
The reason they suddenly all got tunnel vision is that the real vote, on the two main options appeared likely to be a virtual tie, or something very close to it. The mayor needed Karygiannis’ vote. So did the mayor’s opponents.
So the mayor put a bit of gibberish into his own proposal: while his preferred motion would instruct staff to proceed on the hybrid option — rebuilding the eastern Gardiner — it would instruct them to simultaneously prepare a report on burying it underground. He hoped this might win Karygiannis’ vote, and inch the hybrid toward narrow victory.
But Karygiannis’ brand of eccentricity turned out to be not so easy to tame. He said he wanted the report to be specific about studying private ownership of the tunnel, and a P3 option for paying for it. He said he wanted to expand the study area to the entire road rather than the eastern area under discussion. He didn’t say — but it was palpable — that he wanted more attention. So he put his own motion forward anyway, asking council to defer the decision until a report on tunnelling could be prepared in the fall.
At which point many of the opponents of the hybrid option, the people who support getting rid of the road altogether, started getting up and making speeches supporting Karygiannis. These are not people, to be clear, who suddenly decided they’d like to take a second look at digging. They just thought that putting a decision off until the fall might give them the time to come up with a compromise, or win over some wavering fence-sitters who were voting with the mayor reluctantly.
When Karygiannis’ motion came up for a vote, it failed, but in a vote much closer than you might expect, with 14 votes in favour. In losing, of course, Karygiannis still won: Tory’s motion still included his bit of mad fantasy.
It may seem odd that such an important and well-debated issue as the Gardiner — in which hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transportation and infrastructure building will be decided — should be sidelined by a whimsical fart noise from city hall’s gonzo squad. But it is in fact not unusual at all. The more heated a council debate, odds are, the closer a vote will be. And the closer a vote is, the more the votes of loner eccentrics are needed. The more their votes are needed, the more their ideas have to be taken seriously, or their ideas can become useful for someone else’s strategy.
For every bit of lunacy that takes the spotlight for a moment as Karygiannis’ did, you can bet there are a hundred similarly absurd concessions being made in horse-trading behind closed doors to line up votes. And you can bet there are an equal number of absurd threats being made.
I’ve been trying to figure out if this is a terrible thing or not. This is a democracy, after all, and these people were elected. And perhaps the oddballs and misunderstood visionaries of the city deserve representation in our decision-making as much as anyone else.
But it still seems destructive: all these people, the mayor included, voting to pass into law things they think are silly in order to pass (or avoid passing) things they think are important. You never really want to see how the sausage is made, but sometimes at city hall you don’t really want to see the casing it comes in either.
As council broke for the night, the result of the vote seemed far from certain. Who knows what could happen in a new day? Mammoliti had been circulating an old plan of his to turn the Gardiner into a pedestrian and cyclist park. They could wind up banning cars altogether yet.