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Two years of spinning wheels

As an umbrella for transit and other regional issues, the GTSB is flimsy stuff

— Outgoing GTSB chair Alan Tonks Toronto Councillor

Gail Swainson and Bruce DeMara

The Future of the Greater Toronto Services Board

‘It’s not in the province’s interest to create a strong GTSB. They wanted the appearance of attempting to co-ordinate something on a wider basis, which everyone believes ought to be done, and they wanted the reality of nothing happening.’

- Howard Moscoe
Toronto City Councillor and TTC Chair

The agency created by the province to solve the GTA’s urban sprawl and transportation crisis is stuck in neutral.

Critics charge that the Greater Toronto Services Board, hobbled by a small budget, a fuzzy mandate and internecine squabbling between big-city Toronto and surrounding suburbia, has little to show after almost two years.

“It (the board) doesn’t work because it had no political power and no mandate,” said Councillor Howard Moscoe, part of the board’s 11-member Toronto contingent.

“A sort of once-a-month social tea,” is how Moscoe described the board meetings, which began in late January last year. “We got together, and it was all nice and warm and fuzzy, to meet my counterparts in the GTA and get to know them personally and to share a cup of tea with them. But apart from that, it accomplished nothing.”

The board was assigned only one concrete task by the province: to oversee GO Transit, costs of which were downloaded to Greater Toronto, split 50-50 between the city and surrounding regions.

Since then, the board, led by former Metro chair Alan Tonks, unanimously voted to tackle broader issues of public transit, transportation and traffic congestion and land-use planning in the GTA.

‘You can see it evolving into a level of government. And whatever number of cities the province creates through restructuring, they should remain the service delivery component.’

- Alan Tonks
Outgoing GTSB Chair

And they are working on a report to be handed to the province in March, outlining a new role for the board that would enable it to tackle these pressing issues.

But critics say this is simply not enough to combat the malaise and drift that has afflicted the Greater Toronto Services Board since its somewhat shaky beginning.

Or to fix Greater Toronto’s mounting problems with gridlock, underfunded transit, urban sprawl and a host of competing visions about how the area should look and govern itself in future.

‘You know the old adage: ‘Analysis is paralysis’. That’s exactly what we got. It got to the point where no-one wanted to read those reports, anyway. because they didn’t have much to say.’

- Howard Moscoe
Toronto Councillor

There was no fanfare when 42 of the GTA’s political elite quietly gathered for the inaugural meeting of the Greater Toronto Services Board. Consistent with the board’s modest beginnings, all this political talent had actually been given just one job - running GO Transit.

However, it had also been handed an important mission - to find a new way to knit together a sprawling region stretching from Burlington to Clarington along Lake Ontario and then north to Lake Simcoe.

When then Tory Municipal Affairs Minister Al Leach created the GTSB, he envisioned a group of distinguished political elders working out a better system for setting policy and delivering service across the GTA.

That meant finding a way to link public transit, freeways and water and sewer lines that cross municipal boundaries; to weave Greater Toronto together into one working whole.

As part of the review, the province asked this collection of politicians from disparate rural and urban municipalities to decide among themselves by January, 2001, what the board’s role should be.

‘The (provincial) government obviously doesn’t want to make it another level of government. So that makes it somewhat limited as to the kind of power it’s given.’

- Case Ootes
Toronto Councillor

That’s when the trouble started.

Like most new endeavours, the GTSB was born with big hopes and the best of intentions. Unfortunately, the reality has turned out to be something far different.

“This thing has been a waste of time,” says outspoken Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion. “The legislation was watered down by the province and they didn’t give the board any powers. A lot of money has been spent and we have achieved nothing. Only the consultants have benefitted.”

Members selected from local and regional councils have bickered from day one. Those from the five regions surrounding Toronto fretted that the big city, which controls half the votes, would dominate proceedings.

Some 905ers feared the creation of such a large body marked the beginning of the end for their own local levels of government, something they have fought vociferously.

Many members groused that the board was too big and cumbersome to actually achieve consensus on anything, pointing out that members often sabotaged any halting effort at an accord.

There was a struggle to meet quorum as some meetings. In fact, at the first one, Tonks couldn’t even forge a consensus on when the board should meet.

Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman has rarely attended. It is an ill-kept secret that he distrusts suburban politicians and considers GTSB meetings a waste of time.

“I don’t know. I find it very difficult meeting with some of them, very difficult,” Lastman said. “They say one thing and then they do something else.

“No matter what it is … if you have a hidden agenda, I don’t want to talk to you,” Lastman added.

Others said the board didn’t pack enough clout. And because it didn’t have a real job or real power, it failed to capture anyone’s imagination - even that of its own members.

“It’s fine to sit there in a room and talk about these things and say, ‘Send a copy of this to so-and-so,’ ” said Toronto Deputy Mayor Case Ootes. “But we have to have some really focused lobbying going on that grabs public attention, the media’s attention - and it hasn’t happened. We have to put this issue on the front page.”

Ootes maintains that GTA politicians can get what they want and need from the province only by banding together.

“I think that’s the leverage the city has, to work with the 905 and the politicians of the 905, and the fact that the provincial government gets its votes from the 905,” Ootes said.

“We represent 5 million people together. That’s half the population of Ontario, and the wealth is created here. They (province) would have to listen.”

Former Toronto mayor and waterfront czar David Crombie, who coined the name GTSB as head of the Who Does What Panel, says the politicians need to take responsibility for making the board work.

“I cast no stones, but it’s only going to be as strong as the leadership from the chair, the support from the province and the participation of the municipalities,” Crombie said.

If the board doesn’t work, he said, all those involved must shoulder the blame.

“The province gave them the opportunity to come together to solve their issues and carry out their responsibilities to their communities,” Crombie said. “They didn’t do it, and it’s not Alan Tonks’ fault, it’s not the province’s fault. It’s their fault.”

Municipal Affairs Minister Tony Clement has made it clear he will await the board’s spring report on its future before deciding anything about municipal restructuring in the 905 regions.

Despite this, Moscoe has no faith the province will create a level of government that could rival Queen’s Park in size and influence, even if it is the best solution to the GTA’s woes.

“It’s not in the province’s interest to create a strong GTSB,” Moscoe said. “They wanted the appearance of attempting to co-ordinate something on a wider basis, which everyone believes ought to be done, and they wanted the reality of nothing happening.”

Tonks believes the province will make the GTSB another level of government, collecting tax revenue for the entire GTA and setting policy, while municipalities deliver services.

“You can see it evolving into a level of government,” Tonks said. “And whatever number of cities the province creates through restructuring, they should remain the service delivery component.”

Crombie says he, too, sees the province using the spring report as the first step toward a stronger GTSB.

“It is now clearly time for the province to go forward to step two,” Crombie said. “To give it more power, more money and more responsibility.”

Ootes disagrees that the province is poised to give the GTSB real political clout.

“The (provincial) government obviously doesn’t want to make it another level of government. So that makes it somewhat limited as to the kind of power it’s given,” Ootes said.

McCallion also has little faith the province will act on the board’s recommendations.

“They ask us what we want to do, then they turn around and do something else,” McCallion said.

While the board has had little difficulty managing GO Transit, members have been roundly criticized for spending too much time closeted in committees with platoons of high-priced consultants.

They have worked on state-of-the-union reports that identified problems but came up short on workable solutions, say the critics, many of them members of the board.

“You know the old adage: ‘Analysis is paralysis’,” Moscoe retorts. “That’s exactly what we got. It got to the point where no-one wanted to read those reports, anyway. because they didn’t have much to say.”

Tonks agrees finding common threads between city and rural communities has been tough.

Getting everyone in the same room to hash out issues was, at least, a start.

Tonks defends the board’s first two years, saying it has achieved almost everything it set out to do in that time. Also, the report will be delivered in March and important blueprints for transit and planning strategies have been issued.

Tonks is stepping out of the fray next month - he is currently challenging John Nunziata in the federal riding of York-South Weston.

Gordon Chong, who is retiring from Toronto City Council, is so far the only candidate to put his name forward for board chair.

If the GTSB is going to tackle traffic and transportation issues, Chong said, it must expand its mandate to include planning powers, something local municipalities will resist.

“Some of the people who are resisting the services board getting involved in planning are being a little short-sighted,” Chong said, “because how can you talk about relieving traffic congestion if you don’t talk about planning?”

But the issue of politicians clinging to their power bases isn’t a problem confined to suburbia, he said.

“The 416 (politicians), just like the 905, are going to have to set aside their parochialism.”