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posted February 20, 2006

Does Anyone Have a Broom?

The City of Toronto has 49 outdoor ice rinks that are cooled by compressors. Many northern cities have one or two such rinks, usually in central plazas or major parks. We have them in neighbourhoods as well, the only city in the world to build such a large number. They're worth more than $60 million. They're supposed to be looked after by Toronto's Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division, but the system for maintaining most of those rinks is a shambles.

Of the 46 neighborhood rinks cooled by compressors, there are rinks which are lucky to get two ice maintenance visits a day, or less. It's often uncertain when the zamboni crew will show up, so skaters may have to leave the ice halfway through a scheduled skating time. Then it's not unusual for the zamboni drivers to run the machine up and down the ice twice as fast as they ought, basically adding a new layer of ice by flooding every time instead of scraping off the rough ice and getting the rink surface smooth. Hurrying up and down the ice like that means they can leave sooner. When the weather is warmer and the ice has soft slush on the top, instead of scraping the slush off the ice, zamboni drivers sit out their shift in their staff rooms. If it rains and there's extra water on the ice, instead of taking off the extra water with the zamboni, the drivers have another down-time. (Except once at Dufferin Rink, when the zamboni driver actually flooded the ice as it rained.) As a result, the ice gets thicker and thicker and the compressors have too much ice to freeze.

There are exceptions. The outdoor rinks at Nathan Phillips Square and at Harbourfront (it's not run by the City) use their zambonis to keep their ice around two inches thick. One Saturday in the middle of January, when the temperature was plus 10 degrees Celsius and the sun was out, those two rinks had good ice and were full of happy skaters. Most neighbourhood rinks, on the other hand, were slushy and closed that day. Their ice is between 4 and 7 inches thick, extending over the top of the dasher boards in many hockey rinks.

Since ice is an insulator, having it so thick also means the temperature sensors on the rink floor don't register the temperature on the coldest days, when the compressors should not be running. When the temperature dropped to minus 16 degrees Celsius in the middle of February, the temperature sensors at Dufferin Rink, covered by that amount of ice, took almost 24 hours to register that cold. Only then did the rink compressor turn itself off. That means a whole lot of energy is wasted, and power costs of running outdoor rinks increase sharply.

And the neighborhood rinks have another problem. Their zamboni drivers are scheduled to work until 10 p.m. but one rarely sees any neighborhood rink ice maintenance after 8.30 p.m.except at Dufferin Rink. There the zamboni rushes up and down the ice even faster on the last run.

That final 9 p.m. scheduled ice maintenance at Dufferin Rink has been a sore point for zamboni drivers (CUPE Local 416) all year. They often come at 8.30 and are upset when the on-site rink staff (CUPE Local 79) ask them to wait until the program is done. One of the older drivers explained it to the Local 79 staff like this: Local 416 zamboni drivers make much more money than the Local 79 rink staff. People who make more money should not be bossed around by people who make less. But the local 79 staff stood their ground, with strong support from the friends of the rink.

That didn't sit well. For years, the position of the zamboni drivers has been that both Local 79 staff and rink friends should stop interfering with Local 416 work. All the nagging about ice thickness and scheduling was making their work situation intolerable. About three weeks ago, a new rink "protocol," applying uniquely to Dufferin Rink, was handed to the on-site rink staff, followed by several revised versions as time went on. Local 79 rink staff were not to interfere with Local 416 operations, in fact, they were not even to speak to the zamboni drivers about any work-related matter. All communication was to be through the zamboni drivers' supervisor, by radio. If even one element in the "protocol" was missed, the zamboni driver had the right to get off the zamboni just where it stood, even in the middle of the ice, and leave the rink. (This drastic measure is based on a very questionable interpretation of "danger to a worker" in the Employee Occupational Health and Safety Act.) One of the "protocol" rules was that no volunteer could be involved in any part of the ice maintenance while the zamboni drivers were "on site," so that took care of the rink friends. Rink maintenance would be run according to formal orders going through the zamboni drivers' chain of command from now on, with "discipline" for "non-compliance."

Unhappily for the zamboni drivers, the schedule was still maintained. But at least there was no longer any nagging about the ice thickness. The zamboni drivers' threat of abandoning the zamboni on the ice got the rink staff and the rink friends to keep quiet when the drivers were at the rink.

The military style of this maneuver was shocking to the on-site rink staff, and they appealed to the zamboni drivers' supervisor. But he cited safety. They asked to meet with the supervisor's manager but he was unwilling. They sought support from their CUPE Local 79 union representative but up to now have been unable to get even a meeting. (CUPE Local 79, formerly the "inside workers," is the poor cousin to CUPE Local 416, formerly the "outside workers.") For my part, as a rink friend I sought help from Parks and Recreation management in this situation, all the way up to the general manager. She didn't respond to me directly but told a Star reporter that she was "offended" by my criticisms of her staff. At our public rink meeting to discuss the situation, Recreation Director Don Boyle said: "you people can't get along with anybody. Every six months I have to deal with a crisis at your park."

So it seems that management sees this issue as one of bad manners. That's certainly one element here, although not everyone agrees on whose manners could use improvement. But what is much more interesting to me is this: does the recreation director check whether the two dozen zamboni drivers on his staff might be stopping work most nights before their hours are done? Does the general manager try to find out whether the sixty million dollars of outdoor ice rinks under her jurisdiction could be scraped thinner by all those expensive zambonis the city owns? Do either of them investigate the extra energy costs of 40-odd compressor plants that rarely shut off? And is anyone at City Hall concerned about a public rink where some city employees make a "protocol" saying that the other city employees can't talk to them about their joint task, under threat of a job action? I mean, is anyone in the city management alarmed enough to say: "start over, this is not the military, it's collaboration that will make this city work"...?

My guess is that at least the Parks, Forestry and Recreation director and his general manager consider these details too trifling to take up their time. Their approach seems to be supported by the mayor. After Don Boyle made his comments about our inability to get along, I sought out Mayor Miller at the end of a public budget meeting. I told him: "there are some real problems at Parks and Recreation, but they have some solutions. Please let me come and talk to you for just half an hour about what I've learned over the past ten years."

The mayor said that he had heard "from a third party" that no City staff people want to work at Dufferin Grove Park, it's too unpleasant. As for a meeting with me, he said he had no time. "Contact my staff and talk to them instead. Then if they feel I should talk to you, they can set it up." But when I left a message with the mayor's staff, my call was not returned.

The mayor is surely a very busy person. So is the general manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation. But if the mayor and his staff are unwilling or unable to attend to disturbing details in city government, and that unwillingness is passed down from general manager to director to local manager to supervisor, it's hard to know how Toronto can dig out of the trouble we're in, in the long run. The situation I describe here with the zamboni drivers is only one piece of a municipal conglomerate of doubtful function, staggering along under the weight of a crippling payroll and not enough to show for it.

The mayor has been going around to both the province and the federal government, hat in hand, saying - "we've cut everything to the bone, and still we're in the hole by half a billion dollars. It's not our fault. You're starving us of money. Toronto is the engine of the economy, and if you don't give us your surplus, that engine will fail." Toronto could certainly use more money, but there needs to be more than tax reallocation. Toronto may be an engine, but the City government is more like a house. It's time to clean house from the bottom up. Does anyone have a broom?

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