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Why are so many Toronto councilors quitting?

Written by Javed Iqbal

Wanted: Toronto City Councillors.

Must work a minimum of 60 unpredictable hours per week, including evenings and weekends; often attends nine-hour meetings as well as numerous press conferences, ceremonies and social functions, including backyard barbecues and high school commencements.

Must have a high tolerance for abuse and profanity.

Occasional violence.

Salary is a flat rate that is not commensurate with education, experience, hours worked, customer satisfaction or missions completed.

No wonder Toronto councilors are running for the exits — seven of them so far.

While that opens up opportunities for seven fresh faces and new voices, it means Toronto is losing a cadre of seasoned politicians as the city emerges from a pandemic in which revenues and expenses rise, creating an ongoing fiscal challenge that the new council will have to tackle. almost from the moment members are sworn in. Change is fundamental to democracy, but the mass exodus raises the question of whether the city can attract the right candidates. In a time of great resignations and fleeting public discourse, is being a city councilor any longer a coveted role?

Councilors say the amount of work after the number of wards was cut from 47 to 25 in 2018 has been overwhelming, and it comes in the context of troubling changes in Canada’s political culture that have resulted in vicious personal and sometimes violent attacks on elected officials. .

“If you want a life other than your job, you can’t really be a city councilman,” said John Filion (Ward 18, Willowdale).

“Work burns people out.”

And it raises the question of whether it is time to give city councilors a raise.

The basic income for Toronto city councilors in 2022 is set at $120,502, excluding benefits, and $202,948 for the mayor.

It’s all taxable, and Toronto elected officials don’t earn extra stipends for serving on boards and committees, except for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) and the Housing Services Corporation (HSC).

While public service salaries above $100,000 tend to trigger reflexive outrage, pay increases for Toronto councilors have long been limited to bumps no larger than the annual increase in Toronto’s consumer price index, despite the dramatic increase in ward sizes in 2018.

Indeed, many things have skyrocketed dramatically in recent years: Toronto’s population, commercial and residential development, and the complexity of issues such as affordable housing and the provision of services for sudden influxes of refugees and the homeless.

In the private sector, city councilors could earn between $150,000 and $250,000, depending on their education, background and experience, said Randy Quarin, senior partner at IQ Partners Inc., a Toronto-based executive search and recruiting firm.

“They are not compensated at the same level as they would be in other industries, and I would even say at other levels of government as well,” Quarin said.

The basic income for an MP in the same wards, with the same boundaries and number of constituencies, is $189,500.

Salaries for MPPs have been frozen for 14 years and currently stand at $116,500. In June, Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner, J. David Wake, suggested that Ontario should consider lifting the freeze on MPP salaries.

Premier Doug Ford recently got around that by appointing 73 of 83 MPPs in the Progressive Conservative caucus as parliamentary assistants. The appointments come with additional duties and an annual salary increase of $16,600.

Among the seven councilors leaving, Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 13 Toronto Centre) and Michael Ford (Ward 1 Etobicoke North) took the plunge into provincial politics. Joe Cressy (Ward 10 Spadina—Fort York), Mike Layton (Ward 11 University-Rosedale) and Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 16 Don Valley East) said they wanted to spend more time with their families. Ana Bailão (Ward 9 Davenport) said she is ready for a change. Filion, 72, is retiring after 40 years in municipal politics.

Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus of politics at Toronto Metropolitan University, said there is more at stake in the seven departures than idiosyncratic factors.

He and others cite Doug Ford’s decision to cut the size of the council, nearly doubling the size of constituencies, as the main reason why councilors may not be as motivated as they otherwise would be to sign up for another four years of public favor. The amount of work means they are less in touch with the people they joined politics to serve.

“I think a lot of city councilors were starting to feel like they were being cut off from the kind of appealing grassroots, street-level quality of local government,” Siemiatycki said.

Siemiatycki said it’s no coincidence that most of the council members who are leaving have the heaviest workloads because of the amount of development in their departments.

But he does not believe that the current salary package discourages qualified, skilled people from applying

“Most politicians pursue public office, especially at the local level, because of a commitment to service and a commitment to making their communities better,” he said.

“I think what causes most of them to leave is the feeling that they cannot deliver and fulfill the idealism that brought them to public office in the first place.”

Minnan-Wong agrees that people don’t run for office for the money – he didn’t. But he says a higher compensation package could attract more professionals — doctors and engineers, for example.

“You have to draw them away from their other professional duties,” said Minnan-Wong, herself a lawyer.

He said given the number of people leaving at the same time, the city might consider exit interviews to gather more detailed information about the reasons for the exodus.

Siemiatycki and council members said another reason for the loss can be found in the changing tone of political debate in Canada, which is becoming more polarized, resulting in vicious and even violent attacks.

“No one wants to have that much anger directed at you for trying to do a good job and it’s a little out of hand,” said Coun. Paula Fletcher, who is running again in Ward 14 Toronto-Danforth.

Filion has twice been subjected to violence in this last period. In 2019, a man with a pipe tried to force his way into his home. Three weeks later, someone fired bullets into his home and car. No one has been arrested. Filion has since moved.

Siemiatycki cites rocks being thrown at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the 2021 campaign trail and the attacks on Filion as a new and unacceptable risk to elected officials.

“It’s almost as if there is a risk-reward quality to serving in public office and in government. The stakes have been heightened by the level of hostility and vitriol and physical threats against public officials,” he said.

“Those who contribute to that climate, either as politicians themselves or in the mass media or on social media – they bear a lot of the blame for this.”

count Shelley Carroll (Ward 17 Don Valley North) hopes the mayor next term will entertain the idea of ​​a government review committee to look at finding ways to improve the job.

She said her children are grown, and while she is an active grandparent, she has more guilt-free time to devote to the job than others whose children are younger.

“Let’s make this clear to councillors,” she said.

Jay Goldberg, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, opposes the idea of ​​a pay raise for Toronto councillors.

“With Torontonians facing high inflation, a high cost of living and finding it difficult to make ends meet, now is not the time to raise the salaries of councilors who are already firmly on the Sunshine List,” Goldberg said.

The Sunshine List includes all public sector employees earning more than $100,000 a year, a figure established in 1996.

Siemiatycki says the departures provide an opportunity for more women and visible minorities to be elected.

“This time we will have a lot of new faces on the council,” he said.

Francine Copun is a Toronto-based reporter covering City Hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF

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Javed Iqbal

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