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Keesmaat kerfuffle not about much

If public officials must not openly debate civic issues, Mayor John Tory should tell his own team.
June 18, 2015
By Edward Keenan

Jennifer Keesmaat has found herself the centre of a controversy this week mostly just for doing her job.

Toronto’s high-profile chief planner was called into the mayor’s office for a dressing down on June 1, because of the way she was expressing her opinion on the Gardiner Expressway. Media reports on that meeting - and public social-media taunting of Keesmaat by mayoral campaign super-id Nick Kouvalis - put a spotlight on tensions between the two. On television this week, the planner abruptly cut off an interview by placing her hand over the camera when she was asked about it. Suddenly there’s chatter about John Tory throwing her overboard (or “doing a Gary Webster on her,” as it might be called at City Hall).

Thankfully for everyone’s sanity, Tory throttled that speculation Wednesday, clarifying that he looks forward to an ongoing professional relationship with her. “The planner and other public officials have not only the right, but they have a responsibility to state their professional opinions on matters of public policy that are in front of city council,” he said.

No arguing with that. That is in fact a big part of their job, and the advice they give has to be given in public, by law in our municipal system. Just as Police Chief Mark Saunders has a right and responsibility to publicly discuss his perspective on carding even though the mayor has now expressed his distaste for it. Just as former city manager Joe Pennachetti was doing his job when he publicly supported Rob Ford’s cost-cutting efforts, and then later publicly sounded the alarm in interviews and speeches about the looming crisis in public-housing funding and his assessment that there was no more gravy to be found and the city needed new revenue.

See, the standard is not whether the expert advice offered supports your own opinion. Sometimes the job of a senior bureaucrat is to tell you things you don’t want to hear. And as a politician, you have the right, and sometimes the responsibility, to make decisions contrary to their advice. Once decisions are made, the bureaucrat’s job is to carry out instructions even if they think they are bad. We’re all pretty clear on that, including the chief planner by all appearances.

So then, what is this whole Keesmaat kerfuffle about?

“I think there is, however, a difference between that and debating elected representatives through media or on social media,” Tory went on in his comments Wednesday. “How many times can you think of an instance in which a public servant has ended up debating a politician at any level of government - federal, provincial or municipal?”

Good question, Mayor Tory. I can think of no instances of this happening. And unless I’m missing something, I can think of no instances of Keesmaat debating any politicians publicly.

A single tweet might be close. Just a few hours before she was reportedly given a talking-to by the mayor, and by her boss, deputy city manager John Livey, Keesmaat tweeted that the so-called “hybrid option” for the Gardiner was actually a “maintain” option because it maintained almost all of the current alignment. Viewed from one perspective, this is a simple fact. From another, it looks like a dissection of the framing of the political debate, and a veiled criticism of the mayor’s chosen position in favour of the hybrid. So that’s close to the policy-politics dividing line, maybe even over it. And if that’s what she was being warned about, fair enough.

But while we’re on the topic, the mayor might also investigate the much more frequent occurrence of political people close to him attacking Keesmaat, especially on social media, while she refuses to take the bait.

Tory’s campaign adviser Nick Kouvalis and his deputy mayor and chair-of-all-trades Denzil Minnan-Wong have long delighted in gang-tweet-tackling Keesmaat seemingly out of the blue.

For instance, Keesmaat tweets that proposed bus-network improvements are “an immediate win for commuters,” and Minnan-Wong replies with a baldly political challenge: “You have such strong opinions on the Bus Network improvements. Shall we pay for this by a fare or tax increase?” Kouvalis hops in, “Saw movie recently called ‘A Bridge Too Far.’ Tragic story of egos & agendas put ahead of overall objectives.” Keesmaat never responded.

In early June, Keesmaat sent out a seemingly innocuous tweet about a ravine strategy on the same day the mayor outlined his Gardiner opinion. Kouvalis apparently felt that provocative. “You just can’t help yourself, can you? I’m on the other side of the planet - & it’s still not far enough away from your ego.” Keesmaat did not reply, even as he went on to elaborate why he thought she showed a “total lack of respect for office of the mayor” and suggested she resign.

So, who is “debating” whom on social media here? And who is politicizing Keesmaat’s policy comments?

Part of a planner’s job is to inform the public and get them involved. For the most part, Keesmaat’s high profile has helped work towards that goal. Maybe she veered too close to political (rather than policy) discussion in one short social media post. But if so, it was after quietly resisting the taunts of Mayor Tory’s close allies trying to draw her into debate for many months. Perhaps, before this disproportionately controversial episode about respect between bureaucrats and politicos fades into memory, the mayor should call a couple more people into his office for a chat.