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Feb.6 meeting follow-up post #8

8. The councillor's role in the Dufferin Grove project

In her Fall 2016 newsletter, Ward 18 city councillor Ana Bailao announced a public meeting about the “Northwest Corner Revitalization Project.” At the meeting's start, the councillor introduced the team, which included Lura (community consultation specialists), city planners (Parks Capital Projects), and Parks and Recreation management. Many neighbourhood people said they didn’t know what needed to be revitalized - why fix what isn't broken? Councillor Bailao said there were building-code issues to address, and she suggested that people apply to join the consultation group that Lura was putting together, to give local input. About a dozen people signed up.

At the May 17 2017 meeting of this new “community resource group” (CRG), Councillor Bailao made a pitch: “Staff came to me and said there was a list of work to be done on the northwest corner, and maybe it could be rolled in with other improvements….[It could be] an opportunity to maybe add a second floor, maybe make some artist space for groups like Clay and Paper…groups like this one know how to run this space…do we want to decide beforehand what we want, or have it all decided for us?”

Suggestions were all over the map. After that meeting, the community resource group was not asked to meet again until well over a year later, on Oct.17, 2018. During that time-gap a design team was hired and various alternative plans were drawn up. The budget increased from $250,000 to $4.5 million. The election came, the ward boundaries were changed, and Councillor Bailao won handily in the new Ward 9 because of a last-minute withdrawal by her main opponent.

In November, after the election, I booked a meeting with the councillor to talk about the proposed plans. I suggested an alternative: since we now knew that there was so much money available, could those funds be used to fix long-term problems all over the park (nasty washrooms, crumbling paths, slippery wading pool, not enough storage), instead of totally redesigning the Northwest Corner? The councillor reacted with enthusiasm, saying that since the park was often called a "community centre without walls," it made sense to consider all of it. I sent word around the neighbourhood, about the joyful news – "the councillor supports fixing the whole park." But at the next Community Resource Group meeting, the “fix the whole park” proposal didn’t make it onto the table, and the councillor didn’t make eye contact. I felt like a chump for sending around nonsense.

In January of this year, Councillor Bailao put out an invitation for a second public meeting on Feb.6, 2019 (more than two years after the first one). This time, she provided a link to a city web page about current construction projects. The link made it clear, although with confusing syntax, that there was going to be a new addition, alteration, or replacement of the following: a new commercial kitchen/baking area, a multi-purpose room, a refrigeration facility for the outdoor ice rink, public washrooms, a snack bar and a skating rental booth.

Did the councillor notice that her invitation at the first meeting two years before ("do we want to decide beforehand what we want, or have it all decided for us?”) now looked like make-believe? The basic plan was already decided.

The Feb.6 public meeting was fractious and confusing, with no consensus in evidence. Lura is tasked with providing a summary of what was said. By today (one month later), no summary has been posted on their information website. Councillor Bailao, though, sent out a message two days after the meeting, promoting the Northwest Corner project as absolutely necessary:

"The City of Toronto has identified necessary repair and upgrade work at Dufferin Grove Park's aging clubhouse and skating rink in order to keep these facilities in good condition to serve the community…..It is important to note that while the repair and building code upgrade work is necessary to keep the building safe, no decisions about the designs or improvements have been made and the City encourages community members to provide their input."

The “repair and building code upgrade” work for this 26-year-old (aging?) rink that’s actually required by law or regulation is minimal (and has mostly been ongoing). Ordering and installing a new refrigeration plant (probably a good idea) takes three months at most. Beyond that, all of the long-overdue and long-requested improvements to the rinkhouse that have been made by on-site staff and park friends over the years could be carried out in a month.

Question: So why would the councillor keep pushing for the whole 2-year project?

Answer: Most likely because city councillors take their cues from the bureaucracy. (The councillors are nominally in charge but in fact the bureaucrats hold all the cards.)

Here's an example: A friend in Etobicoke recently shared a copy of an internal email that the Parks Capital Projects manager, Daniel McLaughlin sent to a city councillor. The email came via Freedom of Information. At issue was a plan to build a pavilion in Humber Bay Park. Park users said they wanted repairs to the crumbling boardwalk and better care of the man-made pond instead – they wanted the city to fix the whole park instead of adding a rentable building. Sound familiar? A questionnaire, administered by Lura (which has community consultation contracts in other parts of the city as well, not only for Dufferin Grove), found most respondents opposed to the Capital Projects plan.

The internal email obtained by the Etobicoke group was sent by the Capital Projects manager to the assistant of the Etobicoke ward's city councillor. Mr.McLaughlin explained that the park neighbours had misunderstood the project, and gave the city councillor the language he ought to use in responding: “The following is the general script for responses to enquiries regarding the project.” The script consisted of four reassuring paragraphs that could just be dropped into the councillor’s community bulletin to his constituents, ending with: “The project team understands the importance of public input in a project of this significance, and takes your feedback very seriously.”

And for good measure, the manager sent a reminder about the limits to the councillor's power to stop the project: “City Council approval is not required for the….Pavilion to proceed [since it is] within the current approved capital budget.” Three years later, the pavilion has been redesigned and approved in a slightly smaller version, and the boardwalk is still crumbling.

The “Dufferin Grove new community centre” and the "State of Good Repair" (SOGR) allocation for replacing the Dufferin Rink pads are both within the current "approved capital budget" too. Sometime during the long silence between the “community consultation” meetings, the two items appeared as a small budget line in the massive and confusing (for councillors too) city budget document. Maybe the message from the Capital Projects manager to councillors and to citizens is “resistance is futile.”

As many people know, the same thing happens all over the city. There may be one, or many, community consultations, and yet the sequel often doesn’t match what people said. Here's a nearby example, from Christie Pits, where an expensive new outdoor oven was built:

“We never asked for a new oven," Jode Roberts, who has organized public events using the Christie Pits oven for years, told me. "What we wanted was a covered area with harvest/prep table and benches. The project manager decided (without consulting anyone) that we would get a new oven. Then we were told there was no budget for a table or covered area. When the manager was repeatedly asked why we couldn't simply have kept the existing oven and used that money for new elements like the covered table….it was asserted that the oven built in 2000 was 'not to code.'"

In fact, no code exists for outdoor bake ovens, as long as they're more than 10 feet away from other buildings. Most of the codes invoked or hinted at for Dufferin Rink don’t apply to the existing building either, and where they do, the necessary repairs can be made quickly. So: Why do city staff say things that are not true? Why do the staff feed the councillors incomplete or misleading information? Why do councillors feel that they must stick to the script? Why are small-scale sensible maintenance projects postponed year after year in favour of the Big Shiny Plan That Will Fix Everything All At One Blow?

Back to front page of Feb.6 meeting follow-up

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