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Editorials 2010

Editorials 2010

EDITORIAL: ICE-MAKING AND ICE MAINTENANCE AT CITY RINKS

Last November (2009) 14 city rinks were supposed to open on the Nov.21 weekend. Only two did open then – City Hall and Dufferin Rink. Harbourfront, not managed by the city, also opened. All the ice-making compressors in the 14 city rinks were running, but only Dufferin and City Hall rinks had overnight floods for the first week of ice-making. Dufferin Rink was partly flooded by night-time volunteers, and the Star picked up the story. After the Star story, some City ice maintenance staff were assigned to work until 2 a.m., which was also a big help. In the December 2009 newsletter, I wrote: “Let’s hope that the technique of overnight floods to start ice-making spreads over the whole city for next year, and the disappointment of missed opening days won’t be repeated.”

One step forward, two steps back. This year, city ice-maintenance staff have indeed been doing some overnight floods, with much better success. But that improvement was spoiled by the decision to delay the opening of all the 14 early rinks by a week, not even starting up the compressors. In letters sent around to city councilors, Parks management said that ice-making only works when it’s no more than zero C at night and 5 in the daytime for three consecutive days.

But of course that’s not the case. Harbourfront’s Natrel Rink (not run by the City) made ice, with no problem, in the week that was cancelled for city rinks. Temperatures went up to 11 on several days, and stayed as high as 5 at night. Last year, when Dufferin Rink successfully made ice in mid-November, temperatures were even higher.

The rinks manager was quoted, in the Star, saying that the rink at Harbourfront has better machinery than the city’s rinks. That’s not the case either.

City staff’s determination to go against City Council’s 2009 direction to open 14 rinks two weeks earlier is not really acceptable. (Then-councillor Rob Ford was one who voted in favour of the earlier opening.) Toronto is a winter city, and the outdoor rinks are an existing winter treasure. Keeping the rinks locked during prime skating weather is a decision that needs public discussion, not a top-down call to be made behind closed doors. (One year – not the year of the “budget shortfall” – the planned opening date was Dec.22, causing a revolt.) If it’s too complicated and expensive to work out the staffing, then the city’s staffing arrangements need to be re-worked. The eight board of management rinks are one inspiration. Harbourfront’s Natrel Rink is another. In both kinds of rinks, the zamboni drivers sharpen skates, fix what’s broken, do some basic machine maintenance, and in some cases rent out skates. In contrast, the staff’s responsibilities at the 50 outdoor rinks are narrow and their abilities are underused.

The latest news is that the outdoor rink change houses will be locked, citywide, on two of the most popular skating days of the public holidays – Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. No washrooms, no warm-up, no hot chocolate.
Time for a change of rink management.

THE PUBLIC RINKS CONSERVANCY

Some Dufferin Rink friends are part of a recently-formed group of Toronto rink users who want to explore the possibility of creating a co-management system for running the city’s public rinks. The group is called the “Public Rinks Conservancy.”

The goal is to create a city-wide federation of rink-user groups this winter who
(a) aim to actively share decision-making about rink management with city staff, in locally evolving ways that are not one-size-fits-all, applying the "governing the commons" principles of Elinor Ostrom, who got the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics for that work.

(b) are responsive to their local neighborhoods

(c) will seek the active involvement of their city councillors in drafting and passing a by-law delineating how rink users and city staff will work together as partners in running the rinks.

To find out more, go to http://publicrinks.ca. There will be lots of discussion of this new approach over cups of hot chocolate at various rinks all winter. All help welcome!

“Fertile Ground for New Thinking: Improving Toronto’s Parks” – by David Harvey

The Metcalf Foundation, which has been helpful to Dufferin Grove Park and many other public spaces, this year gave David Harvey a “Metcalf Innovation Fellowship.” His project was to take a close look at Toronto’s parks, to talk to lots of park users and park staff, and propose remedies for problems, if any. Mr. Harvey was most recently a policy advisor to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, and he knows the ropes of government.

The report, when it came out on September 30, created a stir. Mr.Harvey wrote that the city’s parks management is perceived by many of the people he interviewed as having “a culture of no.” He called for a loosening of permit restrictions on picnics and neighbourhood park activities, and much greater local collaboration between park staff and park users. Music to our ears!

Mr.Harvey proposed five general ways of improving parks, all of them set out with enough specifics to provide plenty of talking points. The report is linked on the home page of the dufferinpark.ca website. It’s a lively read. Here are some favourite quotes:

- All five recommendations centre on one theme: that parks management and decision-makers at City Hall need to unleash the creativity of our parks staff and embrace the communities that are home to Toronto’s parks.
- assign a parks “animator” or “facilitator” to assist with and encourage the development of new “Friends of” parks groups and productive City/community relationships.
- Move from a Culture of No to a Culture of Yes. The City needs to:

  • ''Experiment and embrace differences in parks through new pilot projects

– “different is better than perfect.”''

  • Stop insisting on the need for a citywide policy before allowing new activities in parks. Say yes to pizza and bake ovens, barbeques, and other new ideas.
  • Overhaul the permit system, reduce the number of activities that require permits, and make the process for obtaining permits more user-friendly.

- Toronto is a winter city – cafés, bars, and food stands could be used to draw the public into parks in the off-season and ensure key pathways in parks are cleared of snow and ice.

- Implement a practical approach to park liability issues. The City’s chief argument against community involvement and investment in parks is liability. Challenge City legal staff to work with the community and develop a reasonable solution.

- [From one of the people Mr.Harvey interviewed]... the City should scrap work on the new Parks Plan and instead agree to a two-word new strategic plan – “Say yes.”

Editorial: Follow-up to David Harvey’s Metcalf paper

“Improving Toronto’s Parks” has lots of suggestions, including some that we’d like to argue with. For example, the paper proposes corporate sponsorships as a way to get more funds for parks. But in our observation, that has not always worked well for parks or their neighborhoods. The paper repeats the City Auditor’s suggestion of selling naming rights (“Tim Horton Dufferin Park”?). But it seems to us that corporate donations often give the false impression of great corporate largesse when most of the financial support continues to come through taxes (Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment is a good example). Such “partnerships” are held up as a remedy for the sky-high cost estimate of the city’s often-cited backlog of repairs. But that backlog needs much closer examination before MacDonald’s and Telus get a multi-year cheap-advertising deal. Is it really true that community centres built only forty years ago are on the critical list? Must all wooden playgrounds over 15 years old be demolished and replaced by plastic? And corporate donours are given lots of choice how they’d like their money to be used. They can shape the landscape of a neighborhood, not always with good results.

The disagreements bound to arise from David Harvey’s strongly worded proposals can help to spark some really interesting discussions. He says that’s what he’s hoping for. So are we. We want to take part in the discussions that David Harvey’s paper invites – how can our parks be livelier public spaces? What specific approaches works better than “one size fits all”? How can park users draft front-line parks-and-recreation staff into collaborating on rinks and gardens and cafés and small open-air concerts? Can park uses join their voices to persuade councillors that management’s centralizing, policy-bound approach needs to be re-routed? What are the most promising alternatives?

“Fertile Ground for New Thinking: Improving Toronto’s Parks” is a wonderful starting point for public discussion. There’s a David Harvey folder on the celos.ca website which has the link. We’ll also have a page with a contact list of groups and people interested in parks. Have a look, add your name if you want, and tell other groups and park friends – soccer groups, clean-up groups, landless gardeners, playground users, dog walkers, shinny hockey players, teachers who take their students to the parks. Why the urgency? Read on....

The candidates for mayor, and what they think about parks

From their campaign websites, it’s not that easy to tell. Joe Pantalone is a well-know tree planter and ravine protector, but says little more on his site. Rocco Rossi (the only candidate who took the time to talk to us about parks) says he had “the freedom of the ravines” as a youngster, and cherishes them. Rob Ford says nothing about parks, but he does say that he’ll want an accounting of every dime spent in the city’s $8 billion budget, so no city staff will have time to do any park work beyond itemizing all those dimes. George Smitherman has several pages on parks, with some interesting ideas – showers on Cherry Beach – but on the whole the web text is pretty high-level and flashy. His policy advisor, on the other hand, seemed to have a real interest in how parks work (see p.2), and said that Mr.Smitherman prizes power-sharing with the citizens.

Whoever is elected on October 25, as mayor or as councillor, will have to figure out how Toronto can shrink its costs. The temptation will be to shutter some public amenities and raise the fees for others, keeping the bureaucracy the same. But if park friends, singly and in groups citywide, are talking to each other, better ways can be found. David Harvey’s Parks paper is very timely – let the conversations begin.

EDITORIAL: The October 25 city ELECTION: who to vote for in Ward 18?

There are eight candidates in this ward, including two former councillor’s assistants, Ana Bailao (to Mario Silva, from 1994 – 2003) and Kevin Beaulieu (to Adam Giambrone, from 2003-2010). The other candidates are Doug Carroll, Frank DeJong, Abdirazak Elmi, Nha Le, Joe MacDonald, Kirk Russell, and Hema Vyas.

Lots of people are asking each other “who are you going to vote for?” When I’m asked, I say “I don’t know yet.” I want to find out more about which candidates are interested in the traditionally female, keeper-of-the-keys virtues of frugality and preserving -- i.e. in maximizing "what's in the pantry."

The way to find out what the candidates intend to do is to ask. But not everybody can handle the talking-on-top-of-each other requirements of all-candidates meetings. So we’ve set up an election section on the celos.ca website. We ask some park-related questions and we’ll post the candidates’ responses.

The questions are on the principle of "If you take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves." That’s an old piece of folk wisdom, and it does NOT cover all that a big city needs. Nevertheless -- in the case of Toronto City Councillors -- if the councillors don't know how to take care of the little things, i.e. the detailed problems that come up in their own wards (and it's not easy), the big things will be in lots of trouble. So the details are a good place to begin.

The first round of questions is about the city’s park-related capital budget, using the tricky case of the MacGregor Park field house Stimulus-funded renovations as the concrete example. Some of the candidates have already sent in responses (posted) about their general allegiance to local consultations. I’ll be posting interviews with the individual candidates, about the details of how they plan to make such consultations work well for everybody (not easy!)

The second round of questions will be about the city’s operating budget for parks and community centres. The detailed example is yet to be chosen. The answers the candidates give can be found at celos.ca, scroll down to the candidate photos. Hopefully, reading these responses will help to clarify for some readers what box to mark with the pencil, at the voting booth.

EDITORIAL PAGE: MONEY AND PICNIC TABLES

The picnic table and bench supply in city parks goes up and down. Lately it’s mostly going down. For example, from 45 picnic tables in 2006, Dufferin Grove Park is now down to 29. What’s more, many of the tables are in bad shape.

Requests for repairs and replacements have seen no results lately, so we asked
– what’s the city’s budget line for picnic table and bench repairs?
It turns out there isn’t any.
That response was a puzzle. We checked the Parks, Forestry and Recreation operating budget, and found that in 2006, when we had 45 tables, the budget was $292 million. This year, when we have only 29 banged-up tables, the budget is $359 million. A $67 million budget increase in four years and no money for picnic tables!

So where’s the money going? Part of it is for more staff: in the last four years, the staff count has grown by 253 to 4258 “full-time-equivalents” (e.g. two part-time staff could make one “FTE”). None of the new staff are carpenters. We were told there is only enough money for two carpenters in the Toronto/East York district, and they don’t work on picnic tables.

But even whether the 253 new positions are Parks plumbers or central strategy planners, their pay wouldn’t cost an extra $67 million.

The lion’s share of the budget increase is spent on pay increases for existing staff. The increases work out to about 3 per cent a year, and that applies to management as well as union wages.

Within Parks, Forestry and Recreation there is a large wage differential, since that Division hires so many cheap part-time recreation workers with low wages and minimal benefits. Their 3% doesn’t add all that much. But for the full-time and management positions, the wage increases mount up fast. So for instance the 2010 “sunshine list” shows 65 Parks, Forestry and Recreation staff making over $100,000 a year. Some are supervisors of grass cutting and litter picking; some are managers in charge of outdoor rinks or of fitness citywide. Many have seen their incomes jump by $20,000 in the last four years. Add the non-management full-time workers and their negotiated wage increases, and we get what the City budget report stresses every year: “a situation that is not sustainable.”

Among the management staff, the central preoccupation has become how to find the money to cover the ballooning budget. Their focus is on programs with fees attached – fees which can be raised, and help to cover the budget for another year. This means that there’s not much attention left for those elements of our public spaces that are covered only by our taxes, not by extra fees.

Like picnic tables in the parks. About 50,000 people live in Ward 18. The total number of picnic tables in all the Ward 18 parks, according to the Parks foreman’s count, is 47. Something has to change.

EDITORIAL PAGE: MONEY AND COMMUNITY CAFES IN PARKS

May 24, the Queen's birthday holiday, was a hot sunny day, and people went outside looking for fun. But Toronto's Parks-and-Recreation facilities were closed, citywide, to save paying any city staff time-and-a-half. This happens on many public holidays -- public facilities are locked, or they have very restricted hours -- exactly when most Torontonians are free to enjoy them.

But surely there are ways to open more of these facilities on public holidays.

Here's one way. At the Dufferin Grove Park playground there's an outdoor kitchen and café, public-health approved, built in 2005, by many community volunteers, with substantial help from city staff. (Collaboration, what a concept...)

This year on Victoria Day it was 29 degrees. Two of the city's part-time recreation workers came to the park and turned on the wading pool sprinklers at the playground. Then they took off their city hats (remember, no staff were supposed to work on the holiday) and became non-city-staff cooks. They began preparing some food in the park clubhouse. The clubhouse has a city-built community kitchen. The cooks made salads, mac-and-cheese, veggie-burgers in pita bread, muffins, and cookies. They brought these down to the playground café -- and fruit juices, and pop (yes!) and Fair Trade coffee, and organic hot dogs, and sliced watermelon. They served up the food, at very low prices. They also introduced people to each other, and found lost children, and listened to neighbourhood gossip, and gave out band-aids for scrapes.

They sold enough food and drink -- because the park was filled with families -- to pay for the groceries and the cooks' and servers' time, from 10 am to 6 pm. And they were like a helpful staff presence in the park.

Dufferin Grove Park's community kitchen has been used for preparing good food, to make the park lively, for eight years, both summer and winter. The group administering the funds raised this way is called the "Centre for local research into public space" (CELOS). Our research is about how to make parks work better.

We think our research on food in parks is finished, the results are in -- small non-franchise cafés in busy park playgrounds (and in outdoor-rink clubhouses in winter) work well!

We have other research we need to work on. So we've been asking the city to take this over, and maybe even to open a few playground or community-rink cafés in other parks. It's not rocket science. The Dufferin Grove cooks and servers could put their city hats back on. The money earned can go into the big municipal pot downtown, and be allocated back to pay part-time recreation workers for this tasty way of helping to make parks lively.  At the same time, these recreation workers can keep an eye on the park. So far, city management has been reluctant – but a discussion has begun.

SATURDAY MAY 1: A PERFECT EXCUSE FOR A PARK REUNION

May 1 is a special day at Dufferin Grove, a celebrate-the-park sequel to the recent park troubles that got us into the news again. (See dufferinpark.ca for the various articles.) It’s a kind of park reunion.

The many letters that park users wrote to the ombudsman, and to others, did not yet get Tino back (Tino DeCastro, the recreation supervisor who helped make so many things work well). But they did get the attention of City Hall. And since May 1 is a citywide "Jane Jacobs walk" day, it seemed like a good time to follow up, with a walk in the park, to various “stations” of all the usual activities – but all at once.

There are actually two walks that day, 11 to 1 and 4 to 6. Plus there's pizza-making at the oven from 12 to 2, and a campfire with good farmers' market food from 5 to 7. As well, Isabel Peres, the park's first campfire cook, has agreed to come back and cook Guatemalan dobladas at the campfire beginning in late morning. (Isabel is in the little 1994 park movie that's linked on the dufferinpark.ca website.)

So May 1 is a good day to have a picnic or toss a frisbee, enjoy the various park show-and-tell stations, and catch up on the news (lots). Even recreation manager Costanza Allevato and her staff will be there, wanting to chat about how to work with (instead of against) park users. Help them out with your advice, invite old friends, look behind the scenes of what makes a park lively, rewrite disabling city policies, play your guitar. Be a happy and well-fed straggler at the campfire when the sun gets low -- remember May 1.

Gabe Sawhney from Wireless Toronto is coming, so are the Morris Dancers, so are some circus school acrobats, musicians, theatre people, shinny hockey players from the winter – to picnic, to talk to each other, to enjoy the park, and maybe even to write down some better policies that can help enable the development of liveliness and friendship in city parks all over.

PROPOSED POLICIES ABOUT OPERATING THE BAKE OVENS

Somewhere, in a room at the Etobicoke Civic Centre, there’s a Parks staff person trying to write a bake oven policy. Or maybe several Parks staff people. None of the park cooks or bakers know who they are. These policy devisors have been working on various drafts of this policy since 2007. During that time, they have never yet asked to talk to any of the city’s front-line bakers (staff or volunteers). This is a problem, since the draft rules coming out of this far-away room don’t fit well with how park ovens are used.

The latest draft, dated February 2009, says many remarkable things. Among them: “the bake oven shall be used only for the purposes of producing baked goods. (E.g., bread, cakes, pies)” – so no cooking of Friday Night Supper (according to this policy). “Bake oven may be operated between the hours of 10 AM and 10 PM only, unless otherwise posted.” So no baking for the farmers’ market, for which the ovens have to be lit at 5 AM. “Bake oven use shall be attended, controlled, and supervised at all times and shall be completely extinguished before the bake oven site is vacated.” So even when the coals are four feet back in the oven, somebody has to be standing by, with nothing to do. Volunteers won’t do that, and the city can’t afford to hire staff to do it.

This is a disabling policy. Let’s fix it on May 1.

ARE DUFFERIN GROVE STAFF IN “CONFLICT OF INTEREST”? (Editorial #1)

Although both the general manager and the recreation director told reporters in February that the current Ward 18 offerings of snack bars, skate rentals, etc. are in no danger of elimination, management pronouncements over the past year suggest otherwise.

Some background: last rink season I was told, and Dufferin Grove rec staff were also told, that staff must find a way to stop handling cash outside of city policies (i.e. at the zamboni cafe, skate rental, and Friday Night Supper). To drive the point home, the recreation manager (the one before Kelvin) sent everyone the auditor's fraud policy. Recreation staff made considerable efforts to adapt the existing, workable Dufferin Rink cash handling system to that of the city. The city's policy is designed for registration and events payments, but it doesn't work well for food or skate lending at all. In March 2009, the staff sent in a detailed report on possible workarounds, but that report seems to have been shelved without comment.

Attempts in winter 08/09 to continue the previous years' involvement at Christie Pits outdoor rink (working with the “Friends of Christie Pits”) were stopped by Recreation supervisor Kim Brown, saying that recreation staff must not handle cash, for food or skate lending.

Then at a meeting in September 2009, Malcolm Bromley, the Recreation director, spent some considerable time explaining conflict of interest to part-time Dufferin Rink staff Sarah Cormier. He warned her that her contributions to the a rink bulletin, recommending improvements for Giovanni Caboto Rink, put her in real danger of being fingered for conflict of interest by the city auditor. He emphasized that he was quoting from a conversation he had with general manager Brenda Patterson. As a follow-up to the meeting, Parks director Andy Koropeski sent me the city's Conflict of Interest Policy: "please see attached 'Conflict of Interest' policy which all members of the Toronto public Service must govern themselves."

And finally, Recreation manager Kelvin Seow told me in late February that he felt the staff were acting in conflict of interest, and that he intended to call them together to discuss this.

Back in 2005, the Parks and Recreation director of the time asked Tino DeCastro to work with Dufferin Grove part-time staff to prepare a report on what these staff do at the park. This report also went unacknowledged when it was submitted. But it’s a very useful document now. It’s time to ask management – again – to highlight those tasks that are against policy and therefore prohibited. That will help clarify the future of the park programs.

MEETINGS ABOUT “CONFLICT OF INTEREST” with Recreation manager Kelvin Seow.

Since the end of February, Recreation manager Kelvin Seow has met twice with Dufferin Grove part-time recreation staff and CELOS. To his credit, he made it clear in these meetings that he didn't mind people disagreeing with him. There have been two animated conversations about what actions of the Dufferin Grove Rec staff might put them in a situation of conflict of interest. Kelvin said that the first problem with Dufferin Grove activities is that staff might be doing work not in their CUPE Local 79 collective agreement. Staff pointed out that part of their job description is "other duties as assigned." Kelvin said that this sentence probably protects Dufferin Grove activities at the moment, but it may disappear when the process of job harmonization is complete.

Harmonized job descriptions for part-time recreation workers are being hammered out between the union and management. The question arises: "what about the third interested party, the public, do they have any input?" Kelvin said no, but "management is the agent on behalf of the public. We advocate on behalf of the public." It did seem very likely that in the new harmonized job descriptions, there may be specific prohibitions against part-time staff preparing food for the zamboni cafe, or Friday Night Supper, or skate lending, or pizza days. Nobody knows for sure (including Kelvin), since the negotiations for job harmonization are being carried on privately. Kelvin says he’ll see if the process can be opened up to the third element, the public.

In further attempts to define what activities put staff in conflict of interest, Kelvin was asked whether part-time staff involvement in CELOS, researching city practices and writing reports, was on the list of “conflict of interest.” Kelvin said that using knowledge staff have acquired as a city employee was not permitted under the policy. He cited this line in the policy: “Employees may not engage in any outside work or business activity...which use their knowledge of confidential plans, projects or information about holdings of the corporation.”

CELOS researcher Belinda Cole is working on an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant to explore how laws, regulations, policies and guidelines may affect citizens’ abilities to shape our public spaces. She countered Kelvin’s interpretation, referring to Malcolm Bromley’s warning to Dufferin Grove part-time staff Sarah Cormier. In Belinda’s evaluation, “Sarah has no confidential information; in fact, she is often not even given the information she requests to do her job well and to keep park users informed about park activities such as scheduled rink clearing, picnic permits, etc.” Conflict of interest policies are an attempt to prevent insiders with power from having undue influence on city decisions, Belinda wrote. “To date, in Sarah’s five years of work for the City, no one in the corporation has ever sought her considerable experience or opinions about what makes parks and rinks work well for the people who use them. She is, in fact, in no position to influence city decisions in any way at all.” Stay tuned.

WHAT’S NEXT: CITIZENS’ HALL (Editorial #2)

The B.C. town administrator and writer Andre Carrel writes that what’s needed to run cities is “Citizens’ Hall” more than “City Hall.” His phrase prompted park friend (and CELOS board member) Jane LowBeer to draw the picture on this months’ newsletter cover. Parks are good “citizens’ halls” because they have no walls, so conversations can happen at any moment, and debates about public space can be observed and joined as people are inclined.

Dufferin Grove Park is one of Toronto’s current hot spots for the contest between centralized control versus local shaping of public space. Working this out is not a matter of professional mediation between two squabbling parties. Nor is it a matter of people using their imaginations to devise an idyllic park. Nor is it a matter of constructing a local bureaucracy to pick between centrally-pre-digested options: would you like this blue plastic slide or that red plastic teeter-totter?

It might be a matter of centralized power winning over local resistance, but that’s still up in the air.

There are some complicated issues in public spaces, and people who want to participate in a “citizens’ hall” need to learn the details. Judging by the letters that went to the ombudsman (many are posted on the clubhouse bulletin board), popular understanding of the way this particular park works is already diverse and interesting. The participants in the discussion are park users of all ages, local park staff, local and citywide politicians, Parks, Forestry and Recreation management staff, reporters, the ombudsman, CELOS researchers, friends of other parks, neighbours who don’t like what happens at this park, candidates for all levels of government, academics, Facebook users....a crazy-quilt of actual and virtual discussants.

The weather’s getting warmer, the park will soon be green, nothing has yet been forbidden, and Tino DeCastro’s removal has tripped the switch. This is the summer for public discussions, little and big, at Dufferin Grove. Several years of general warnings and raised eyebrows need to be made explicit enough that they can be debated, by people enjoying the shade of those big trees, sharing a meal beside the bake ovens, or pushing a swing. Policy documents developed in distant meeting rooms need to be held up to the light and examined by the people affected. “Citizens’ Hall”..... maybe it will work, and there will be some energetic, engaging arguments, and enough plain talk to make it fun. Might as well try it.

Park bulletin boards are fair game for contributions too, and the virtual bulletin board of the dufferinpark.ca website. (Send comments to mail@dufferinpark.ca, so that Aseel Al Najim can post them.)


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