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News 2014

News 2014

From the December 2014 Newsletter:

Candles in the park

In the fall when darkness comes so early, people sometimes put out candles in the park. One evening in September, little votive candles were set out all along the walls of the reflexology path, forming an infinity symbol pattern. When the Balfolk dancing group dances in the park, they put candles on the rocks near the cob courtyard. At Night of Dread, Clay and Paper staff define the performance space in the soccer field with a giant circle of candles stuck in sand inside hundreds of little paper bags. And sometimes campfire groups set out candles on the logs and the picnic tables, especially if someone is giving an inspirational fireside chat. All of it adds to the light in the park during the dark months – very welcome.

Book-keeping puzzles at Dufferin Grove:

There’s a popular saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But bureaucracies specialize in fixing things in case they might perhaps break later. They call it “risk management.” Two year ago, when CELOS asked city management to take over the income earned through the Dufferin Grove cafes and skate lending, the managers decided it was time to “regularize” Dufferin Grove to fit better into the Parks and Recreation hierarchy. So they revamped the program. They took away many of the leadership responsibilities of the on-site staff, those who had created the program together with CELOS. They added a new full-time off-site staff person to make decisions and handle the money. The theory was that accountability would improve, and the hypothetical risk of local staff fraud or conflict of interest would be removed.

But fixing what isn’t broken often makes problems. The park book-keeping began to look a little iffy. There were more and more layers of data entry, sent downtown to Finance but no longer accessible locally. So CELOS asked to see the central numbers entered downtown. It took almost a whole year to get detailed access to the city’s book-keeping for Dufferin Grove (including 4 months of delay after we finally submitted a Freedom of Information request).

What we found: in 2013, a total of $10,055 in income was not entered – it had disappeared among the layers of data. How that happened: petty cash was dispensed from Dufferin Grove earnings without being recorded as income, two weeks of income data entries were missed altogether, sometimes income was entered as expenses. On the expenses side, $3370 was wrongly listed as expenses (e.g. due to duplicate entries) – and at the same time, over $7000 was not listed as expenses when it should have been. And the various versions of income documents sent by the finance people each showed different totals. Finance calls that a “variance,” meaning the numbers don’t agree with each other.

Numbers are slippery things! And if you were to lay the 75-cent mini-pizzas, made at Dufferin Grove over the last 20 years, end to end, maybe they would reach the moon. Even careful book-keeping of so many small amounts – shoelaces for the skates, some hot dog buns, a box of bandaids – will have mistakes. The problem with the bureaucratic approach is that the mistakes get bigger, and also more remote. And the additional layers of staffing add expense without improvement. In the case of all the new layers of staff involved in “regularizing” Dufferin Grove, the additional cost is surely getting close to $100,000 a year.

Parks and Recreation management have not been interested in speaking publicly about the new problems. So CELOS recently went to the city auditor for help. We said – surely this way of running a local recreation program at a park is an example of waste. The auditor’s investigator didn’t disagree. But compared to the larger budget issues – for instance the ballooning $70 million cost of buying and adapting the city’s new “FPARS” financial software – we could see that it was not likely that the auditor could get involved with such small potatoes. So there it is. CELOS will keep on reporting to the neighbourhood.

From the November 2014 Newsletter:

Detroit: third visit

Three and a half hours west of Dufferin Grove Park, at the southwest terminus of Highway 401, there is Detroit – a kind of living museum, a post-industrial city where over 10,000 households have had their water cut off, and people gather with buckets at fire hydrants to bring home water for cooking, washing, and flushing their toilets. In city blocks of 10 houses, 8 might be abandoned, with four of those being just burned-out shells. Buying land is a bargain, especially for large buyers: recently a bundle of 6,350 mostly run-down and vacant tax-foreclosed Detroit properties was auctioned off to a developer for barely over $3 million. [Update: the developer changed his mind on Nov.5, and withdrew his offer.] Detroit is Exhibit A for the coming North American version of a “deep-austerity plan.” Shea Howell of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Centre in Detroit writes “Key to those legal frameworks is the elimination of public, democratic decision making.”

Back in 2010, eight people who either worked at Dufferin Grove Park or were doing research with CELOS, or both, drove down to Indiana in two cars to visit with Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize winner for her work on the commons. The route passes through Detroit, and on the way back, we stopped there for a night. The cheap hotel where we stayed had bullet-proof glass protecting the staff at its registration desk; so did the MacDonald’s counter where we ordered fries – a first such experience for any of us! But the people in the streets and in the bars and at community gardens, and in the soup kitchen were we ate lunch, were friendly and keen to talk – in fact we were bowled over by their hospitality, and we made some friends.

Two of us drove down to Detroit again in 2013, this time taking along our bikes, and stayed at the same hotel. This time the bullet-proof glass was still there but it had been moved off to the side of the registration counter, with the centre area open. The two of us biked all over town and were again met with friendliness everywhere, day and evening, nothing scary.

Then this past October, three of us went to Detroit for an ordinary-people conference called “Reimagining Work” – rich in content and in democratic deliberations. We had been asked to give a small session on bake ovens in parks. At that session we met park enthusiast Ulysses Newkirk, who later toured us through a park which had been taken over by neighbours when the city stopped maintaining it. The park was obviously well-loved, with many benches and picnic tables, barbeque pedestal grills and horseshoe pitches. Ulysses’ idea was that the park group would build a brick oven on an adjacent abandoned lot, which they had just bought for $1000, and make the oven a draw for visitors from all over the city. Just down the road, a strip of abandoned houses had been removed and replaced by a substantial market garden, with fall vegetables such as onions and spinach and carrots in long straight rows, and lots of fall flowers.

We hope to visit again next spring, maybe taking along Dufferin Grove’s portable tandoor oven so people could try it out. To find out more about what Detroiters are teaching us, here

From the October 2014 Newsletter:

A walk in the park

Often the most interesting things in a park are those that are not planned events, but rather, people or gatherings that you just come across while walking through.

1. One early evening in September, park friend and anti-poverty activist Lesley Wood was introducing curious park strollers to two visitors from Berlin whom she had invited to a park campfire. The two were on a book tour, with their one-year-old son. Lesley wrote afterwards, “I invited Marina and Dario to Toronto to share their new book, ‘They Can't Represent Us: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy.’ The book is full of examples of moments where ordinary people, abandoned by governments and corporations, build alternatives that are creative and democratic - often in public spaces. Marina wanted to do an event in a public space in Toronto and I immediately thought of Dufferin Grove as a space where people come together in creative, multigenerational and nourishing ways that give me hope for the future. I know Marina from organizing with her in NYC, and knew that she would love the park.”

The park now has a copy of their book, ready for anyone taking a chair in front of the woodstove inside the rink clubhouse, when the snow flies.

2. On another evening, a group had set up candles in glass jam jars on the rock circle near the cob cafe. A person just walking by could stop and watch them doing a kind of folk dancing called Balfolk dancing, to the music of an accordion, a cello, and two guitars. At one point, some of the dancers went over to their bags and got out more instruments – and suddenly four accordions were playing for the dancers and taking solos for fun. The dancers say that now that it’s getting cold, they’re moving into the Smiling Buddha (961 College Street) at 8pm on Mondays, everyone welcome to join.

3. At a recent campfire orientation session, one of the participants said he was a lifelong skateboarder in his forties. He loves Dufferin Grove’s skateboard setup and helps to maintain it. He had lots of tales to tell the other orientation session participants, about skateboarding in different cities. He said that Toronto is one of the best skateboarding cities “because the police get what we’re doing, they get the culture and if they see people skateboarding they don’t treat us like we’re criminals.”

Since parks have no walls, if you’re curious and ready to be surprised, you get to see a lot and hear a lot of stories.

Many more newly painted benches and picnic tables: in the September newsletter we reported that the park program staff had painted some of the park’s roughest-looking picnic tables, with help from some youth and families. A few weeks later, city painters came through this park – and other city parks as well – in a wave, leaving behind not a single unpainted table of bench. Everything is green and protected against the winter weather. An excellent surprise!

What Dufferin Grove’s friends should know about the city’s new Financial Planning Analysis Reporting System – “FPARS” – from the auditor’s report

What Dufferin Grove’s friends should know about the city’s new Financial Planning Analysis Reporting System – “FPARS” – from the auditor’s report The September park newsletter had a story about the park’s messy money reporting. It raised a question: is the city’s book-keeping sloppiness at Dufferin Grove Park a warning sign of bigger problems with the city’s new $70 million “FPARS” financial system, citywide?

It turns out the answer is NO. FPARS has nothing to do with the sloppy book-keeping. Work on setting up this new financial system began in 2006, but the project of constructing it took so long that none of it ‘went live’ until 2013, and even now it seems to be still partly under construction.

Someone sent us the full report on FPARS done last year by the City Auditor. The report was rather astonishing. Auditor Jeff Griffiths, in his executive summary, wrote that at the outset there had been no “clear articulation to Council on the [complete] nature and benefits of FPARS” to the City. He also wrote: “the working relationship [for the FPARS project] between the Financial Planning Division and the Information and Technology Division has been uncooperative, challenging, and unprofessional.” Consultants’ and internal audit reports warning of problems were suppressed or ignored by the city manager. When four upper-level Information and Technology staff sent a report about their concerns to the city’s Director of Financial Planning (Josie LaVita – she is where the buck stops for FPARS), she criticized these city staff for writing a “report prepared without authorization.” But the auditor said that city staff have an obligation to raise such concerns, and that Ms. La Vita’s reaction was “not appropriate.”

The Auditor’s report, about how the troubled new financial system went from costing $7.9 million to $70 million, got limited media coverage, and the issue seems not to have bothered many Torontonians, nor most city councillors including our own -- councillors tsk-tsked but did nothing more.

City Council did ask for a written response to the Auditor from the Director of Financial Planning. They got a cheerful, optimistic restatement of all the promises made at the outset. The director wrote that the management of some city divisions was “starving” for broader information, and that FPARS would do so much more than just give accurate accounting details. The new system will show with a click whether each city program is being “effective and efficient,” and if not, FPARS will help staff with spreadsheets showing where the money could best be moved instead. As for the cost? “Since the project is still in its early stages of implementation, the cost and benefit estimates in this report will be subject to a post implementation review after the systems and related processes become rooted and fully operational.”

Follow-up “post-implementation” is not very common in government, but it does seem like a good idea. This big project seems to be based on the notion that computers can make complex assessments of the “effectiveness and efficiency” of every municipal government activity. That claim can certainly be tested on the ground, for example in the day-to-day of neighbourhood parks. Two examples:

1. wading pools: in the past four years, Parks and Recreation management has doubled the staffing-and-materials cost of wading pools to address the risk of waterbourne illness. The new protocols have caused wading pool visits by families to drop like a stone – wading pools are widely reported as too cold, too often shut down, too high in chlorine. There were no previous reports of illness when the more family-friendly protocols were in force, compared with the new, tighter protocols, so no improvements in “effectiveness and efficiency” can be entered into the system. What will FPARS say?

2. playgrounds: the City has spent an estimated $18 million on new playgrounds from 2009-2013, and proposes to spend almost $24 million more between 2014 and 2018. Much of this spending has been justified as a safety measure, to comply with a non-legislated industry standard.

The fever of playground replacements began in 2000. Since then, playground-injury emergency room visits have increased (by 20% since 2006, the most recent measuring period), and so have hospitalizations. The injury increases are all the more puzzling because overall playground use appears to be going down – a lot of kids apparently find the newer generic 'safer' playgrounds very dull. Meantime the few older playgrounds still standing, like the one at Dufferin Grove, are very busy and very low in injuries. Dufferin Grove playground, built in the early 1980's, was supposed to be replaced in 2007, but park parents persuaded the city councillor not to go ahead. So city staff did some little repairs instead, a bit of welding, a bit of paint, a few slats replaced....and the old playground is in good shape. That cost very little.

There are few rewards for government frugality in a city as rich as Toronto. Nor are the spending numbers even reliable. The $18 million playground spending in the past four years has to be called an “estimate” because the city has no accurate summary of the cost of new playgrounds – there are many different and contradictory reports. CELOS, monitoring Parks spending, asked the city to be specific about the actual playground invoices. Freedom of Information wrote back that we would have to pay $4320 for staff to collect that information. Will FPARS also have to rely on such haphazard cost reporting? And if playground use continues to be low in many new playgrounds, and injuries show no improvement, what will FPARS say?

Park budget information leading up to the election

When our research group, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space, "CELOS," invited city management in 2012 to take over the food and skate-lending programs which we had helped to start, the city’s Recreation management stripped the local recreation program staff of many of their responsibilities (such as keeping accounts). They added a full-time (but off-site) staff person at a salary of approximately $72,000, one of whose primary responsibilities was data entry of the money that comes in with the programs. Also the off-site staff person had to accompany the park program staff on all grocery-shopping trips so that the city’s credit card could be used instead of cash.

This extra expense was in order to ensure that the park’s accounting would be done properly. In 2013, CELOS tracked the city’s Dufferin Grove data entries closely, and found inconsistencies, duplicate entries, income entered as expenses, and missing expense records. It was obvious that the accounting showed no improvement – or even a deterioration – over the former Quickbooks method done by on-site staff who actually worked in the programs and could therefore catch more mistakes. But neither city management nor Ward 18 City Councillor Ana Bailao seemed interested in addressing the problem when they were told about it.

In March 2014, CELOS must have complained about the accounting gaps and errors to city management once too often. Management directed the Dufferin Grove on-site staff to stop letting CELOS see the daily income-and-expense records. So CELOS applied to the city’s Freedom of Information office for those records. Over a period of five months we got four often-contradictory financial summaries but never the straightforward lists we asked for. Finally we decided to make a complaint to the city’s auditor’s fraud and waste office. The issue was not fraud but book-keeping snafus leading to waste, including the adding of a costly layer of staff when there was no evidence of the benefit.

The response from the Fraud and Waste Office was pretty cloak and dagger. We got back a message thanking us for sending them the complaint. They would look into it, but their policy is that “if a complaint is actionable....we are unable to provide a complainant with any details as to the progress or outcomes of a review or investigation.”

Two days after making the complaint to the auditor, the Freedom of Information office finally sent over most of the information we had asked for five months earlier. The new spreadsheets gave us a fifth set of non-matching park income numbers. There were missing data entries for both income and expenses. Messy numbers point to other problems. It seems pretty clear now that the city’s experiment in reorganizing the Dufferin Grove programs needs a new approach. If there’s a change in our political representation at the end of October, perhaps a fresh wind can blow.

Pink umbrellas and blue umbrellas

Last August an argument broke out in the media about Toronto’s $14 million Sugar Beach Park with its signature pink umbrellas. Deputy mayor Norm Kelly was quoted in the Star saying that Sugar Beach is “a first-class investment that gets projected around the world and brands us, the City of Toronto, as world class and first class. And if you don’t understand that, I would argue that you don’t understand the world that we live in.”

Star architecture critic Christopher Hume didn’t want to limit himself to calling dissenters ignorant about the realities of today’s branded photo-op world. He characterised people who question Sugar Beach as “the angry, the bored, the dumb, the cynical, the intellectually lazy, the city-haters…..”

The designer of the pink umbrella park is Claude Cormier, from Montreal, where he previously designed a blue-umbrella park, located along a pier by the St.Lawrence River. Thinking that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” a CELOS researcher went to Montreal in August to see how a Claude Cormier umbrella-park might function after it had been around for three years. The first visit was too early in the morning – the park is gated and doesn’t open until 11 a.m. But you can read two eight-foot-high Rules signs outside the entrance, telling all the many things you're not allowed to do when the blue-umbrella beach is open. Before opening time you can look over the fence and see that the park is divided into two sections -- the non-alcohol strip, with pretty white sand and blue umbrellas but almost all the chairs removed, and a bar strip at the end, where most of the white designer lawn chairs are. From the bar strip, the view of the river with its fast-moving waters is stunning.

The second visit took place on a warm Saturday evening, when the park was open. At 7.45 pm the long river walk along the piers was full of people strolling and eating at cafes. But at the blue-umbrellas park, the non-alcohol strip was empty, the end by the bar less than half full. A DJ at the bar was playing loud uncensored music with lyrics about women being shoved around. Some groups of rough-looking people sitting in the chairs seemed like they were not having a very good time. – In Year Three, it looked like the blue umbrellas were in trouble. We’ll send this newsletter piece to the Star’s architecture critic, to see what he says.

From the September 2014 Newsletter:

Events in September

Saturday September 13, 6 pm: annual potluck and pizza-making for the Havelock Street Fair

This is the 26th year for the annual street fair. Most of the events take place in the daytime in the block between Bloor Street and Hepbourne, but at 6 pm the action moves to the Dufferin Grove bake oven (and of course anyone from all of the surrounding streets is welcome as well). This is usually a delicious potluck, and there’s pizza-making for the kids, run by Dufferin Grove staff.

Saturday September 27: Native Child and Family Services will be presenting their annual “Honouring our Children” POW WOW. This year it's called "The Ninth Moon of Creation." Sunrise and 12 – 5 pm. This event is a very popular, very colourful occasion with many craft vendors, two big tipis, drummers, dancers in beautiful costumes, some free food as well as food for sale, and a big “give-away” of donated goods at the end. The day begins at sunrise with a fire ceremony in the fire circle, lit by an elder. Then there is a pause while the soccer field is set up with tipis, vendors and information tables, a stage, and food areas. The grand entry of the dancers is at noon, and the give-away is at about 4 p.m. Drumming and circle dancing, all afternoon, everyone welcome. Since having over five hundred people in the park all afternoon can lead to some problems, recreation staff will be at the playground this year again to supervise. Tipi poles and shovels will not be available at the sandpit on that day, to reduce the number of loose parts that can cause problems if there are too many kids packed into the playground together. But there’s lots of other fun.

Friday Night Supper continues to the end of September, so do school pizza days on Tuesdays between 11 and 3, and drop-in pizza days on Sundays from 12 to 2. To find out the Friday menus, go to the link on the home page of dufferinpark.ca. To book a school pizza visit, contact Michelle at dufferinpark@gmail.com.

Park campfire program This program goes year-round, and staff are already starting to fill up the volunteer spaces to the end of December. To find out about the program, go to dufferinpark.ca and click on “campfires.” Or call the park and leave the staff a message at 416 392-0913.

From the September 2014 Newsletter:

Surprise donation from the GH Wood Foundation

It’s NOT very common to get a surprise donation from a foundation. Usually you have to send them a long form and plead your case, and if you’re lucky and are good at writing applications, they fund your program. That’s how the park ovens were built, and the zamboni kitchen, and that’s how some of the park youth programs and family programs and the first native-species gardens were funded over the years.

But this past spring, CELOS got a phone call and then a visit from the GH Wood Foundation, asking us if we needed any funds – could we think of anything we might like to do?

CELOS stands for Centre for Local Research into Public Space. Since 2000, when we started our little group out of Dufferin Grove Park, we’ve been doing what we call “theoretical and practical research” into what makes public spaces – like parks – more welcoming and more lively. We’ve been nosy to find out what works and what doesn’t, we’ve documented a lot of what we’ve seen and done on our four websites, and we certainly had no problem making a little list for the GH Wood Foundation, about what we’d like to try next. To our surprise, they accepted almost all of it. They gave us funds to keep printing and posting the park newsletter and pay the yearly web server fees, they said they’d support experiments in making gardens and playgrounds more accessible, they’re willing to let us try making food in parks work better – that is, in other parks that have friends but no kitchen and no oven. They want to support good maintenance for the informal skate park that’s located on the Dufferin Grove rink pad, outside of the ice rink season. The foundation was intrigued by our ideas of how inexpensive areas of sociability are made (the opposite, in our view, of the $13 million pink umbrella park on Queen’s Quay). And the foundation wanted us to document all of it, for others to use as they wish. So here we are, still pinching ourselves a little – did this really happen? But we’ve begun, and over the next months we’ll report on the work as it goes along.

From the September 2014 Newsletter:

Where the new park chairs came from

Moveable chairs and benches in parks are very common in Europe, also in some newer parks in North America – and in Dufferin Grove Park. This summer the park got some fine wooden patio chairs, donated by Maria Remondini (whose daughter is a new part-time recreation staff at the park). Maria said that after a household in her extended family downsized, the chairs were put in storage, and she thought they would be better used at the park. She was right. Around the campfires, at the skateboard park, following the sun or the shade on the park lawns --- the chairs were useful everywhere. So Maria next brought over a sturdy wooden table and stools to use in the rink house in the winter. This is how a gift can build park sociability, six chairs and four stools at a time. Thank you, Maria!

From the September 2014 Newsletter:

Picnic table painting, August 24

Dufferin Grove Park got ten new benches last year, but apparently there were not enough funds left in the budget to repair and maintain the park’s existing heavily-used picnic tables. So the recreation staff got permission to put out a call for a public picnic table repair-and-painting session. In the week before the session was scheduled, recreation program staff sanded some of the most needy tables, but nobody was able to get time or materials to replace bolts or broken boards. On the day of painting, five youth came plus two playground users and their kids. They and the program staff were able to paint 12 tables (sustained by pizza from the bake oven). The paint they used was fast-drying acrylic, which was just as well because as soon as any table was barely dry, picnickers would come and take it to their picnic. And still there were not enough tables for the park users who wanted them. But Dufferin Grove is lucky in the number of its tables – in many parks there are only one or two, or none at all. This is sometimes intentional – in some neighbourhoods there is a worry that picnic tables or benches will attract the wrong crowd. Having enough places to sit certainly does bring people into a park, and if there’s shade and drinking water and washrooms and trash cans, family picnics will multiply. So will the number of people sitting at tables working on their laptops, or reading on a bench, or strumming a guitar. Having more benches and tables in a park makes it safer – and more interesting for people-watching. But then the money has to be found to keep the park furniture in good repair. Maybe after the coming election there will be a change of priorities, with less expenditure for new stuff and more for good maintenance instead.

From the September 2014 Newsletter:

Park friend John Ota on the reflexology footpath


click to enlarge

John Ota is a freelance writer on architecture and design and says he “grew up in Dufferin Park in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.” He sent us these comments:

The path is wonderful.  The walls are not.

With delightful patterns of river-bed pebbles, an undulating curving path and a symphony of rustling leaves in the breeze, the new reflexology walk is a lovely and meaningful addition to Dufferin Park.

Soothing, respectful and visually pleasing, people walk the path with a sense of reverence, honouring the life of a passed neighbour.  Reminiscent of walking along the beach, the path reinforces the quiet atmosphere of what has historically been for decades, a passive part of the park.  The different stone patterns, although not always comfortable, not only massage the feet, but they slow you down, to make you think about who you are, where you are and to slow your breathing.  Delicate and imaginatively quirky – just like everything else in Dufferin Park, the stone path only enhances the magic of the natural, organic character of the place.  A place to get away from a harsh man-made environment.  An oasis.

Unfortunately, the reinforced concrete retaining walls are not so wonderful.  Totally out of character with the rest of the park - both visually and philosophically, they look like they landed with a thud from outer space.  While everything else in the park seems to grow out of the earth, the concrete sticks out like a sore thumb.   Heavy handed and over-designed -- there is no need for the concrete walls.  The site should be consistent with the thoughtful and ethereal path - horizontal, respectful to the natural surroundings and gently meld into the landscape like a dream.

From the September 2014 Newsletter:

Report card for the election: how the bureaucracy is doing at Dufferin Grove Park

In the middle of August, there was a surprise announcement at city hall: two of the city’s top bureaucrats, city manager Joe Pennachetti and deputy manager Brenda Patterson, are retiring.

Before Brenda Patterson became deputy city manager, she spent a few years as general manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation. Under her watch, the transformation of park culture that began with the city’s forced amalgamation 17 years ago was completed. Parks and Recreation changed from its former emphasis on local neighbourhood collaboration, strong support for and encouragement of volunteers and frontline staff, and a culture of flexibility and “let’s make it work” -- to a strict hierarchy with central control, a multiplication of complicated policies, and the discouragement of volunteers through the almost universal charging of permit and insurance fees for any contribution that park neighbours might wish to make to the liveliness and fun of parks.

Dufferin Grove Park lost its long-time “let’s make it work” recreation supervisor, Tino DeCastro, who was moved to supervising city caretakers, and the program staff were downgraded in their responsibilities. The programs these staff had devised and run were put under the authority of a full-time staff person with the new name of “community recreation programmer” (CRP), not placed directly at the park. The programmer now made all decisions off-site, about park programs and staffing. She or he (there were frequent re-assignments of staff) accompanied the park food program staff on all grocery shopping trips, since the programmer was the only one now allowed to pay for anything. The programmer then submitted all expense figures to yet another city department, whose staff entered the numbers into the city’ s central accounting system, called SAP.

Money puzzles: Before the changes, on-site recreation staff used to record every expenditure and every donation (for food and skate lending, i.e. donations totalling between $150,000 and $200,000 a year) into the Quickbooks accounting program, and those numbers were available for anyone to inspect. Summaries were posted yearly, sometimes monthly, on the dufferinpark.ca website. Under the new system, the extra levels of staff in the accounting chain brought confusion. For 2013, CELOS (the Centre for Local Research into Public Space, a little charitable research group founded in the park in 2000) continued to monitor the park’s income and expenses, to see if the numbers matched the City Finance figures. They often didn’t. Expenses were under-reported by about $3000 during the winter season, a mistake partly balanced by mistaken duplicate expense entries totalling over $2000 in June and July. CELOS asked to see the City financial reports to check income reporting, and found that they reported about $5000 less income than CELOS showed in Quickbooks. We asked City Finance to check their numbers, and got a new set of numbers, different than the previous City report. Neither report matched the CELOS records. When we asked about this problem again, the City lowered the boom. An order came down to the Dufferin Grove program staff: they were no longer allowed to let CELOS see the daily income and expenditure counts, to stop us from comparing the locally reported numbers with the central Finance entries.

Hiding information about public income or expenses is not allowed under the Freedom of Information Act. So CELOS applied to the City’s Corporate Access department to get the information. That was in March 2014. The Act gives an institution 30 days to respond to a request. Finally in July and again in August, the city sent back two new versions of their Dufferin Grove income and expenses documents – so that we now have four versions in total, none matching. Neither of the recent FOI responses fully answered the questions we had asked. In the documents that the city did send, again there were duplicate entries, and some numbers were entered as expenses when they were really income. Obvious data entry mistakes that we reported a long time ago had not been fixed. Depending on which city financial report we choose, the difference in the total 2013 Dufferin Grove Park program income between the Quickbooks records and the City financial records might be as little as $2000 or as much as $12,000.

Of course, this level of reporting error is peanuts compared to the city’s entire budget. Who cares about a few thousand dollars’ sloppy financial reporting when the city budget last year was $9 billion?

But what if the details in this grass-roots view show a larger problem in the city’s book-keeping, amounting citywide to a lot more than a few thousand dollars? Certainly there has been concern within the city government for many years, about the level of transparency in their reporting. To improve accuracy and clarity, the city signed a contract for a new reporting system in 2006, called the Financial Planning, Analysis and Reporting System (FPARS). The contract was originally supposed to cost $7 million, but that amount had increased to almost $70 million by March of 2013.

Is the city’s financial reporting about Dufferin Grove the ‘canary in the mine’ – a sign that the new $70 million system didn’t fix the book-keeping?

The response by Parks and Recreation management so far was to simply pull down the blinds. Our efforts to interest the Ward 18 Councillor, Ana Bailao, in the problem, early on, also came to nothing. The only door left open within the City is the City Audit Department, so a copy of this newsletter will go to the auditor this month, to see if he’s interested.

The book-keeping puzzle is not the only budget problem generated by Brenda Patterson’s departmental changes. Her legacy at Dufferin Grove Park increased the expense of running the park. The additional full-time off-site staff person assigned to the park, added to make every small decision and to cover shopping trips, costs an additional $76,000 a year. The additional levels of downtown data entry staff, centralised food ordering (with complex approval processes often requiring complex changes), and management time for central meetings to control local problems, add up to an unspecified but surely considerable extra expense. So when it’s time to fix the park picnic tables (see the article on page 5), the money is not there.

Seeing this, a question comes to mind: Can thrifty, sensible, open-door government become an election issue in a city as rich and complacent as Toronto? More on the challenges in the October newsletter.

From the September 2014 Newsletter:

A little Dufferin Grove history

Here’s a short tale about how stories play themselves out at Dufferin Grove Park. Back in 1995, when the sandpit was new and permission had just been given to have cooking fires, two park friends, Margie Rutledge and I (Jutta Mason), got a small grant from the Maytree Foundation to do a “practice-your-English-at-the-park” day once a week with families living in a downtown refugee shelter. The parents were given bus tickets so they could bring their children to the playground, where there was a cooking fire for snacks and coffee, and lots to talk about. One day when they were all there, well-known Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy and his wife came to the playground with their two small boys. (I knew Jamie a little because we had once gone together to depute to a provincial committee, in favour of expanding food offerings on street-food carts.)

That day at the park, Jamie was interested in the cooking fire, and watched as we made coffee – only to have the pot tip over on our new cast-iron trivet and fall into the fire. A new pot of coffee was made, and that one fell over too. That was our level of clumsiness when we first brought food into the park. Embarrassing.

We got better over the years, built the bake ovens, and the park got fuller. Then in 2002, farmers from the Riverdale farmers’ market (at that time the only park-based market in the city) asked if they could set up a market in the west of the city, at Dufferin Grove. They chose their spot, permission was given, and despite the lateness of the season (November), the market had lots of customers from the very start.

During the winter, there was often a bad scene (fighting, bullying) at Dufferin Rink, on Friday nights in particular. We reasoned that if we could attract more families, the rink wouldn’t be just a ghetto of teenagers in a bad mood. Two of the rink staff, Lea Ambros and Dan DeMatteis, loved to cook and bake in the park wood ovens, so in January 2003 we made a plan – they would cook a tasty meal every Friday, using farmers’ market ingredients, and advertise it as a time for people to bring their kids to eat and skate at the end of a tiring work week.

We put up posters all over the rink house to let people know. The week before the suppers began, Jamie Kennedy came skating with his now-much-older sons, and he read the signs. We introduced him to the cooks. He was very enthusiastic about the changes at the park – the zamboni cafe, the ovens, the farmers’ market, and now some good meals. We felt like we had got a famous chef’s stamp of approval, before we even began. The suppers flourished, and the Friday Night bad-mood youth-ghetto mellowed right out.

Park staff Dan DeMatteis decided not long after that he wanted to cook all the time, and he left for Italy to apprentice. There he and Jamie Kennedy ran into each other again, at the Slow Food convention in Turin, and Jamie asked Dan about the Friday Night suppers. They talked for a long time, and got on well. At the end of the convention, Jamie offered Dan a job at one of his restaurants back in Toronto.

Dan worked for Jamie, and learned from him, for some years. Then Dan became a chef at another restaurant, and dreamed of opening his own place. Sometimes he came back to the park as a guest cook for the Cooking Fire Theatre Festival, or just to meet friends at Friday Night Supper – which by then had spread over the lawn all around the bake oven during summer, with several hundred people, including many children, coming to eat good food.

Then, in June of 2012, Dan suddenly died, of a blood clot in his lungs. Jamie Kennedy was one of the speakers at the memorial service, very shaky and sad, as was everyone else there. Dan’s friends have gathered at Friday Night Supper on the anniversary to talk over the old stories, in each of the two years since.

Meantime, on Thursdays at the farmers’ market and on Fridays for the warm-weather suppers, the hillside and all around the ovens is full of people sitting together on the grass, eating good food and enjoying one another’s company. Sometimes I have to rub my eyes, thinking back of the earlier times when all this began, before there was an oven or a market, and the hillside was mostly empty.

This year on the last farmers’ market Thursday in August, market manager Anne Freeman invited two guest cooks to the market. They were cooking fries using Ontario organic potatoes. They tossed them in a giant bowl with sea salt and thyme and sold them in paper cones, in the old style. Word got around how good the fries were, and soon there was a long lineup.

It turned out that the two cooks, working away at their deep fryer in the middle of all the farmers and the talkers and the eaters, were Micah and Nile Kennedy: Micah was little kid with his dad Jamie Kennedy at the park on that day way back in 1995 when the coffee pot kept falling off the trivet into the campfire, Nile is the third son, not yet born then. It was great to see these young men cooking at the market (but I could still feel our embarrassment about the coffee, after all these years).

From the August 2014 Newsletter:

Events in August

Saturday August 2 to August 17: Clay and Paper Theatre presents Animal Nature, Wednesday through Sunday at 8 p.m. (See article on page 5)

Tuesday August 12, 8 pm: Rhiannon Archer and Helder Brum present Fireside Tales -- storytelling. The second in a series of free shows at the main campfire circle. For more information: helderbrumcomedy@gmail.com.

Thursday August 21, 6.30 to sunset: Scottish Country dancing at Dufferin Grove Park. This is a program of easy dances -- everyone is welcome to join in jigs and reels like “Highland Fair” and “A reel for Jeannie.” East of the basketball court.

Friday August 22, 6.30 to 8.30: kickoff concert for the Tune Your Ride Bicycle Music Tour From the organizers: The 2014 Tune Your Ride Tour will take four Toronto-based folk musicians from Brockville to Toronto by bicycle. Covering almost 400 kilometres without a support vehicle and carrying their instruments and a full PA with them, these modern-day troubadours will play eight bike-powered concerts in towns along the route.

Building on the success of four consecutive years of presenting the Bicycle Music Festival in Toronto, the Tune Your Ride Collective is thrilled to follow in the tire tracks of bicycle-touring legends The Ginger Ninjas and our mentors SHAKE YOUR PEACE! by taking our show on the road with this second annual bike-powered adventure! http://www.tuneyourride.com/

Drop-in yoga (free):

Thursdays 6 to 7 p.m. in the park during the summer (June to August) and Sundays 10:30 – 11.30 a.m. (July and August).

From the organizers: A free 60 minute yoga class. The class is designed for all levels and abilities to participate. An opportunity for people to stretch, discover the sense of community in the park, and connect with nature. There is something so powerful when we are able to feel the earth beneath our feet, look up to the sky, feel the breeze and give ourselves permission to play.

The Campfire program is running low on summertime slots

As of the middle of July, all summer Saturday campfire slots had been booked. There are still some openings on the other days. Look up the available spots online at dufferinpark.ca/campfires.

From the August 2014 Newsletter:

The new “Reflexology Footpath” at Dufferin Grove Park

Many people who use Dufferin Grove Park either knew Jenna Morrison personally or heard about her tragic death in a bike accident in 2011 at the corner of Dundas West and Sterling Avenue as she was riding her bike to pick up her son from school.

Jenna’s husband Florian Schuck, her family and friends, undertook to memorialize Jenna by putting a “reflexology footpath” in Dufferin Grove Park. From Florian: “When Jenna came back after a trip with her mother to South Korea in 2001, she was enthusiastic about her discovery of the reflexology footpath. The reflexology footpath consists of a bed made of concrete in which cobblestones of various shapes and sizes are embedded to various degrees. Some are upright while others are flat, protruding the surface of the concrete at slightly different heights. As one walks the path barefoot or in socks, the acupressure points of the foot are massaged.”

Construction began in June, and for most of the time was focused on the walled gardens in the centre of the two loops of the path (the path is shaped like an infinity symbol). On July 26, Jenna and Florian’s young son Lucas cut the ribbon with his father’s help, with Jenna’s mother Darlene standing beside them, as well as Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao and mayoral candidates Karen Stintz and Olivia Chow. The opening received wide media coverage both locally and nationally, even overseas.

Since the opening, a wide variety of uses are being made of the path. Most people walk on it in their bare feet or socks, but some walk it with shoes on, some kids cycle along the loop, and someone was even observed walking their old dog around it – and the dog seemed to like it! The big boulder in the middle of one of the loops has quickly become a climbing destination for little adventurers as well. More information about how the path works is posted nearby.

From the August 2014 Newsletter:

Public spending on park design

An interesting public discussion broke out in June in Toronto, about the cost of park projects in general and “Sugar Beach” Park on the waterfront in particular. City Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong announced that after his office spent four years trying to find out the cost of the Sugar Beach project, Waterfront Toronto had finally released the numbers. The park, just east of the foot of Yonge Street on Queen’s Quay, cost $14.1 million, including two granite rocks from Quebec for $529,800 and three dozen pink umbrellas for $11,565 each. The councillor felt that cost was extravagant.

But deputy mayor Norm Kelly disagreed with him. Here’s a quote from a June 27 Toronto Star article by Paul Moloney: “It’s the photographs of Sugar Beach that count,” said Kelly, chair of council’s executive committee. “It’s those photographs that tourists take, it’s the photographs of that beach that go into brochures and websites.
“It’s all of that first-class investment that gets projected around the world and brands us, the city of Toronto, as world class and first class. And if you don’t understand that, I would argue that you don’t understand the world that we live in.”

Star architecture critic Christopher Hume didn’t want to limit himself to calling dissenters ignorant about the realities of today’s branded photo-op world. He characterised people who question Sugar Beach as “the angry, the bored, the dumb, the cynical, the intellectually lazy, the city-haters….. Like Minnan-Wong, they are comfortable settling for second-rate.”

The Star linked Hume’s piece to a 2011 article quoting Robert Freedman, at that time the director of urban design for the city’s planning department. Places like Sugar Beach, said Freedman, “… help residents connect in an often impersonal urban centre…..It’s the space where everyone gathers, and that’s crucial for a city. You need spaces where people can come together in public to socialize.” Sugar Beach got a Toronto Urban Design Award the year it opened.

Not quite everyone in the world agrees that people who question designs like Sugar Beach are just foolish. Rosie DiManno, writing in the Star a week after Hume’s article, called it “profoundly condescending.” And there’s a broader skepticism about the religion of “award-winning design” in public space. Fred Kent, the director of the Project for Public Spaces in New York, after a visit to Toronto a few years ago, wrote a piece in his blog called “Whom does design really serve?” It’s about the park just down the road from Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common. The park features an experiment in treating storm water with UV raditation, and therefore it cost even more than Sugar Beach: $28 million. (Waterfront Toronto declined to tell us how much of the budget was specifically for the park as opposed to water treatment – that information is not meant to be public.) Here are Mr.Kent’s comments after his visit:

“On a recent trip to Toronto, I visited Sherbourne Common, a waterfront park designed by Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg. Walking around the park, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were actually passing through an elite museum’s pristine sculpture garden. Everything is placed just so, in a way that has created an environment so totally uninviting and ignorant of how human beings want to use public space that I knew, within moments of arriving, that what I was seeing was undoubtedly an “award-winning” design.

Indeed, Sherbourne Common received a National Honor Award from the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects—Canada’s highest honor for landscape design—earlier this year.

Something is desperately wrong with a system in which a place like Sherbourne Common is deemed worthy of this kind of adulation. This is a place where pieces of play equipment are separated by vast stretches of grass and pavement, siloing different modes of play and neutralizing their capacity for sparking children’s imaginations. Watching the handful of youngsters that were there trying to play on aimless gravel strips and concrete steps was almost painful. Imagine if you will a single swing poised, absurdly, alone; yards away, across swaths of pebbles and stone, some “sculptural” play equipment; and harried parents trying to keep track of their children as they dart between these far-flung art pieces….

The contrast with Dufferin Grove Park, another stop on this trip (and many trips before), is breathtaking. Dufferin features a mix of activities and types of spaces: quiet groves, bustling playgrounds, campfires, a farmer’s market, and one of the most amazing sand pits you’ll find anywhere. Unlike the visitors to Sherbourne Common, most of whom looked confused or simply lost, the people in Dufferin Grove were beaming. It’s one of the best places I’ve ever been, no question.

Park friends and program staff at Dufferin Grove have never tried to connect with the professional design world. They adapted and modified what was available –finding old benches when there were not enough places for sitting and chatting (and starting friendships), making sand and water and wood available for children’s play, encouraging the gifts of neighbours who wanted to put in more flowers or build a cob kitchen or enliven the park in the evenings with campfires. All of it was done piece by piece without any architectural design. Does that mean that those who prefer Dufferin Grove over Sugar Beach could be described as “comfortable settling for second-rate,” as the Star’s architecture critic seems to suggest? Or does it mean that park friends, citywide, who prefer their local parks over elaborate designs costing millions, know that despite the professional awards and media enthusiasm, the pink umbrella emperor may have no clothes?

From the August 2014 Newsletter:

Picnic-table painting party

update Aug 18th

The Dufferin Grove picnic tables are in need of a touch-up for the fall. We hope you'll join us on August 24th, between 9:00 am and noon next to the pizza oven to paint picnic tables. Paint and brushes will be provided, though if you have your own brushes we encourage you to bring them. There will be free pizza and juice for volunteers during the public pizza time, 12:00-2:00. If you would like to join, please confirm by emailing anne.anne.white@gmail.com or calling 416-392-0913.

City management has recently given permission for park users to paint the park’s peeling picnic tables themselves. The painting party will be scheduled as soon as Parks maintenance staff send over some brushes and green paint.

From the July 2014 Newsletter: From the June 2014 Newsletter:

The 2014 municipal election, continued...

An interview with Alex Mazer

Alex Mazer is one of the candidates seeking election for City Council in Ward 18. We asked him about his ideas regarding parks. Here was his lead-off:

“The overriding goal of parks administration should be to get people into parks and using them. Other goals – preservation, financial sustainability, enforcement of rules and by-laws – are important but I believe they should be secondary. When people use parks, they become healthier, more active, and more engaged. The public life of our city is enriched. Community ties grow stronger, social isolation declines. People from different walks of life are more likely to meet one another.”

We asked him for specifics:

- about permit fees: “we need to make it easy for community groups to use parks. This means making the permitting process simpler and more affordable, in some cases getting rid of fees altogether. I think insurance and permit fees for volunteer groups should be scaled back or eliminated. These groups help maintain and enhance our parks and community life. They should not be seen as a source of revenue. I suspect that they actually save the city money, when the value they provide is looked at in a holistic way. I would be quite open to taking another look at fees for volunteer-run soccer groups as well. As an active soccer parent, I know the difference this kind of volunteerism makes in the lives of kids and the life of our parks.” 

- about information: “I’m a strong advocate for open data and open government – when the city is transparent about its operations, budgeting, and decision making, it improves accountability and creates more opportunity for community participation. That’s why I helped start Better Budget TO (www.betterbudget.ca), which champions a more accessible, visionary, and participatory budget for Toronto.”

- about local control: “I think park administration and regulation needs to encourage local innovation and creativity. We need to be careful about imposing top-down frameworks on parks when the character and community of each park is different. The better that park staff know the particular communities they are serving, the better that they know the local volunteers, the better positioned they will be to encourage use of the park and support proactive outreach and community engagement efforts.”

Alex Mazer links: http://www.alexmazer.ca and alex@alexmazer.ca  

Mayoral candidates’ ideas about parks:

Of the mayoral candidates, only one, David Soknacki, has so far issued a specific position paper about parks.* He did this after visiting parks all over the city, including Dufferin Grove, and talking to park users. In his introduction he writes: “The best way to improve our parks service is to open parks to more community leadership, more community participation, and more community action. Park space is public space, not government space.”

Here are some of his specific plans if elected:

- Access to information: “By year-end 2015, signage in every park will identify a specific contact in the public service who is responsible for that park. The Parks, Forestry and Recreation budget will also include annual open data disclosures of park-specific budgets by 2016.....[W]ith this data, we can support participatory budgeting at the level of the individual park, and even create conservancies for key parks or park networks.”

- Liability: “Liability risks have been exaggerated, onerous rules put in place, and barriers built to keep the government in and volunteers out.”

- Permits: “we will adopt policies to completely eliminate any future call for costly special permits for volunteers working through registered “Friends of” parks groups, and to eliminate any remaining insurance barriers for volunteers working to improve Toronto’s parks.”

- A Toronto Parks Board: “as Mayor, I will support the creation of a Toronto Parks Board to lead an “Our Space” strategy for our Parks. The Board would be modeled on the Toronto Library Board, with a few differences. As its primary goal, the Parks Board would provide leadership to help refresh our existing parks network, especially in priority neighborhoods across Toronto. It will lead the process of identifying and eliminating “park deserts,” and it will work with City Hall, other governments and other agencies to identify alternative park opportunities. It will also work with the public service to ensure that other goals – like clearer lines of accountability for individual parks – are met swiftly.”

- Parks conservancies: “The Parks Board would be charged with designing a process to negotiate conservancy agreements no later than year-end 2015; citizens and stakeholders would be consulted in this process. From that point forward, the Board would lead assessments and negotiate with individual “Friends of” groups seeking to operate a conservancy on a priority basis.”

David Soknacki links: www.soknacki2014.com/ourspace and David@soknacki2014.com.

*CELOS has recently contacted the other candidates to ask them about their park ideas.

From the May 2014 Newsletter:

A little park history from the sixties

On Easter Monday, near the end of April, John Ota came for a walkabout in the park. He was a long-time resident of Gladstone Ave, just north of the park. John said that his Japanese-Canadian family moved onto the street in 1955. At that time Gladstone Avenue was continuous right through the park. John remembered that during his youth it was a speedway, with young drivers gunning their engines and racing through the park, right past the playground, at high speed. Kids were sometimes hit. But the road was kept open until 1973.

In the 1960s there were plans to tear down the Gladstone houses north of the park and put up more high rises like the ones at Dovercourt and Bloor. A developer began to assemble land, but some of the residents refused to sell. Protests against replacing houses with high-rise developments spread through various areas of the city, including this one.  So in the end the houses remained, many of them becoming multi-family or rooming houses until the 1980s.

John said that a fair number of Japanese-Canadian families moved into this neighbourhood in the 1950s. Anti-Japanese sentiment was sometimes hard for those families during and right after World War Two, but around here, he said, they were made to feel welcome. And the park was one of the best things in the neighbourhood for him as he was growing up.

The day after his visit, John sent word that he “had a wonderful time walking and talking about the past, present and future of the park I love.”

Election Year: 2014.

In an election year, it suddenly becomes easier to get the politicians’ attention. They want to talk! And new candidates arrive, with new ideas (some of which might make it past election day). Problems that have been languishing unaddressed finally make it onto the radar. So, dear park friends, don’t despair of democracy: this is the year to try again, see if some good changes can actually be accomplished.

At the end of April, mayoral candidate David Soknacki toured Dufferin Grove Park, visited the farmers’ market, and asked a lot of questions about how the parks are working. Mr. Soknacki was a city councillor for Scarborough for three terms, and he was the city’s budget chief from 2003 to 2006. When he left politics in 2006 to put his attention back into his spice importing business, the Globe’s municipal columnist wrote "[Soknacki] took on one of the toughest jobs in city hall, which he professionalized to the point where it almost seemed easy... he's not really a politician at all."

Mr. Soknacki was known as a fiscal conservative who could work with any side, no hard feelings. He’s now putting together a parks platform, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with. In conversation at the park, he said he wanted (1) much less of the current “one size fits all” approach and (2) more staff support for local community projects. He felt that (3) parks should not be regarded primarily as a financial asset that could generate permit fees. In a more general way, on his website, he promises (4) less secrecy at City Hall, (5) open access to city financial data and (6) less red tape.

How Mr. Soknacki’s ideas might help Parks and Rec work better:

1. less “one size fits all” – central control and the resulting micromanagement have produced some real bottlenecks at Parks and Rec. An example: the citywide “one size fits all” community bake oven policy was years in the making, with staff-only meetings at city hall and minimal local input. The few existing ovens now get less use (except at Dufferin Grove, which is fortunate in being “grandfathered”) and only one new oven was built in the last ten years.
2. More staff support for local projects: if park friends (individually or as a group) want to organize community campfires or play music for their neighbours or put on small local events, that should not be an occasion to charge them a fee and insurance. An example: people who have campfires at Dufferin Grove don’t have to pay insurance, and they get some staff support, because campfires are an important asset to the park – they help make the park friendlier and more sociable (and safer at night). It’s an inexpensive way to make the park better. Dufferin Grove should be a model for this kind of collaboration, but right now it’s an anomaly – staff support of that kind is rare in other parks.
3. Less emphasis on permit fees: The park advocacy group Toronto Park People has been asking councillors to stop charging park friends permit fees and insurance for doing volunteer-run community events in their local parks. At Trinity-Bellwoods, park friends had to pay insurance for doing a park planting day. Groups in some parks are charged for doing a neighbourhood pumpkin parade the day after Halloween, lighting up the late-fall darkness and bringing people together. Toronto Park People has pointed to the natural skating rinks as the best model for encouraging park friends to make parks better: there’s no permit fee, no insurance fee, and very short and clear paperwork, and there’s some staff support from park maintenance crews. (That leaves only the fun part for the park friends– standing out in the bitter cold spraying water many nights, and shovelling mountains of snow after snowstorms.)\\ 4. an end to City Hall secrecy, and
5. open access to information: An example: from 1993 to 2012, there was an active if sometimes contentious partnership at Dufferin Grove Park between the City and park friends. In 2001, some park friends formed a charitable group called the “Centre Local Research into Public Space,” CELOS for short (pronounced “sea-loss”). CELOS worked with park staff to help park friends realize their projects, to channel money raised back into the park, and to make sure the accounts were accurate and publicly available. After City management took over the programs in 2012, it became harder to track the financial details. CELOS alerted management in January that a problem with city book-keeping meant some park expenses and income were not showing up in the city’s system. That alert made the door shut completely: on-site park staff are no longer allowed to let CELOS check the park’s income and expense numbers. Such secrecy is unacceptable. The City should provide open access to all their financial data, treating citizens as equal partners in the project of making things work.
6. Less red tape: An example of red tape: a neighbourhood movie-in-the-park night in Scarborough was connected with so much paperwork and fees – for bringing in a projector, screen and a popcorn machine – that the group had to cancel the park event. They held the event at an outdoor spot beside the local Toronto Public Library instead – with little paperwork and no fees. Another example: in a downtown corner parkette there has been a community “party in the park” for five years, very well attended. This year the organizers were told that for the first time, they have to pay $100 for an official “noise assessment” – because a small neighbourhood jazz group always plays at the park event. Mr.Soknacki just rolled his eyes when he heard this story – unacceptable! “Less red tape” at Parks and Rec will be very welcome.


Two former park staff star in a new comedy, now until May 18

Dufferin Grove Park has had a long run of some pretty remarkable staff. Former park staff Christina Serra and Dan Watson are starring in a two-hander comedy about the romantic history of Christina's grandparents, Ralph and Lina, who moved to Canada in the 1940's. Park users may remember Christina and Dan's droll and tender antics for the Cooking Fire Theatre Festival at Dufferin Grove a few years back. "Ralph and Lina" is one of their best plays yet, and it's being performed at the new Theatre Centre (the former public library) at Queen St. west of Dovercourt. : More info

 

From the February 2014 Newsletter:

Dufferin Grove Park staff with disabilities

Dufferin Grove Park has three city staff with disabilities that require one or more particular accommodations under the “Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act” (AODA). What that means is that a guy who’s cooking Friday Night Supper might need help lifting heavy pots. Or a woman who’s trying to follow a set of instructions for keeping things orderly in the rink house might need extra oversight from colleagues when she loses the thread.

The park has received a lot of gifts from the talents of these staff. The disabled staff, and sometimes their friends and families, have been extra-involved with the other park staff to help make things work. The challenges that come with a disability can be a struggle for everyone on the staff, disabled or not. When a difficulty is worked out, the accomplishment feels like a shared triumph.

The Disabilities Act aims to support shared triumphs of this sort. It’s an uphill struggle, though. A recent editorial in the Toronto Star said that the reporting requirements in the Act – for businesses and institutions to demonstrate that they are carrying out the law – are not close to being met (70% are not reporting, and until very recently no one at the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment was following up). The Act was passed in 2005, but the deadlines for getting the ducks in order are really just arriving now. The City of Toronto has a published plan for supporting employees with disabilities, but the management support hasn’t always worked out on the ground (at Dufferin Grove, for example). In particular, disabled workers can ask to collaborate in a written accommodation plan individual to them, but there seems to be some blockage in getting such plans made. At Dufferin Grove, requests made half a year ago or longer are still in some kind of limbo.

At a Disability Issues Committee meeting on January 24, it was unclear whether anyone is keeping track of how many such employee accommodation plans actually exist. We asked Councillor Adam Vaughan’s office (he is the chair of the disability issues committee) but his staff said they needed to do more research. There was no response at all from the media office.

At the Disability Issues Committee meeting, Barbara Shulman, director of Human Resources was unable to estimate how many employees with disabilities there actually are at the city. A 2011 survey asked staff whether they considered themselves to have a disability. But the response rate to the survey overall was so low that the information was not considered reliable. Moreover, no part-time staff were included in the survey.

Another round of surveying is coming up soon. Hopefully, this round will included the 8000 part-time staff that work for the city’s Recreation division. Recreation programs have such a broad range of activities that they’re one obvious gateway for employees with disabilities to contribute their talents – as paid workers, not just clients.

A little Dufferin Rink history from the Toronto Archives

In 1955 the City of Toronto ran six permanent outdoor artificial ice rinks (High Park, Earlscourt, Alexandra, Greenwood, Eglinton, and Dufferin) and 4 portable (?) artificial ice rinks (Rosedale, Ramsden, Queen Alexandra School, and Kew). The average annual operating cost of the portable rinks was $4000, permanent was $5000.[Ed.note: in 2014, the Globe says it costs $6 million to run 51 outdoor rinks.] They charged kids 35 cents to skate in 1955 (adults 60 cents). Attendance at Dufferin Grove on Sunday Dec.11 1955 was 800. (High Park, Eglinton and Earlscourt were higher at 962, 958, and 861). January attendance was a bit lower. There was a request to provide concessions at Earlscourt and Dufferin rinks. But the request was denied – “no food at rinks!”

A Toronto Star editorial Jan3 1958: "If Sardines Skated They'd Choose Toronto."

"Skating is not much fun when people have to wait in line outside for half an hour or more, and then go on an intolerably crowded ice surface…It is true that the parks department operates 58 natural ice rinks for skating and 23 for hockey - or will do so, if and when there is enough frost. For all the freezing weather we get here most winters, the department might as well spare the trouble and expense, and get on with the job of multiplying the number of artificial ice rinks."

And they did. By 1978, the city had 21 of these rinks. "With the exception of City Hall rink, which commences operation on the last Saturday of October and carries on until April, the artificial ice rinks are operated from November 15 until the first Sunday in March. Hours are 9 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. except 10 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. Sundays.”


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