Toronto City Council, 2010-2014

It’s finally over, council is finished and the election can really get going. And at last, we can see how effective the mayor has been at controlling the agenda this term.

Okay, so if this is not your first time here (2011, 2012, 2013), then you’ll know that it’s pretty clear the mayor hasn’t been in control of much of anything since the beginning of 2012. So the following pictures will come as no surprise.

Voting correspondence, 2010-2014.

Voting correspondence, 2010-2014.

Vote correspondence, November 2013 to August 2014.

Vote correspondence, November 2013 to August 2014.

Other than a reminder that a black edge is drawn between two members vote the same way on over 90% of the votes, blue with more than 92.5%, and green with over 95%, there’s really not much left to say about this term. All of the analysis about Rob Ford’s term as mayor was done in 2012 and 2013 before the train derailed off the tracks in November last year, bursting through the tunnel lining and sailing off to the moon. After that, well, there really isn’t much more you could add.

Bonus content: Council tier list

This scientifically accurate council ranking is carefully cultivated from my observations over the last few years of watching Toronto City Council meetings.

Seriously The Best tier

Gord Perks (Ward 14 Parkdale—High Park), Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27 Toronto Centre—Rosedale)

Really cool tier

Sarah Doucette (Ward 13 Parkdale—High Park), Mike Layton (Ward 19 Trinity—Spadina), Adam Vaughan (Ward 20 Trinity—Spadina), Janet Davis (Ward 31 Beaches—East York), Shelley Carroll (Ward 33 Don Valley East)

Pretty good tier

Maria Augimeri (Ward 9 York Centre), Ceta Ramkhalawansingh (Ward 20 Trinity—Spadina), Joe Mihevc (Ward 21 St. Paul’s), Pam McConnell (Ward 28 Toronto Centre—Rosedale), Paula Fletcher (Ward 30 Toronto—Danforth), Mary Margaret McMahon (Ward 32 Beaches—East York)

Mostly alright tier

Josh Matlow (Ward 22 St. Paul’s), John Filion (Ward 23 Willowdale), Mary Fragedakis (Ward 29 Toronto—Danforth), Paul Ainslie (Ward 43 Scarborough East)

They’re okay most of the time but I would not vote for them tier

Peter Leon (Ward 3 Etobicoke North), Gloria Lindsay-Luby (Ward 4 Etobicoke Centre), Peter Milczyn (Ward 5 Etobicoke—Lakeshore), Anthony Perruzza (Ward 8 York West), Josh Colle (Ward 15 Eglinton—Lawrence), Ana Bailão (Ward 18 Davenport), Jaye Robinson (Ward 25 Don Valley West), John Parker (Ward 26 Don Valley West) Michael Thompson (Ward 37 Scarborough Centre), Chin Lee (Ward 41 Scarborough—Rouge River), Raymond Cho (Ward 42 Scarborough—Rouge River)

They sound reasonable sometimes but they are actually bad tier

James Maloney (Ward 5 Etobicoke—Lakeshore), Karen Stintz (Ward 16 Eglinton—Lawrence), Michelle Berardinetti (Ward 35 Scarborough Southwest), Gary Crawford (Ward 36 Scarborough Southwest), Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38 Scarborough Centre)

Bad, confused old men tier

Vincent Crisanti (Ward 1 Etobicoke North), Mark Grimes (Ward 6 Etobicoke—Lakeshore), James Pasternak (Ward 10 York Centre), Frank Di Giorgio (Ward 12 York South—Weston), Cesar Palacio (Ward 17 Davenport), Norm Kelly (Ward 40 Scarborough—Agincourt), Ron Moeser (Ward 44 Scarborough East)

Actively harmful tier

Doug Holyday (Ward 3 Etobicoke Centre), Frances Nunziata (Ward 11 York South—Weston), David Shiner (Ward 24 Willowdale), Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34 Don Valley East), Mike Del Grande (Ward 39 Scarborough—Agincourt)

Our city is being punished for its hubris tier

Rob Ford (Mayor), Doug Ford (Ward 2 Etobicoke North), Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7 York West)

Transit dump prompted by ask.fm

Another question from my secret ask.fm which necessitates a blog post!

While I guess I have a ok grasp of your thoughts on GTA transit, just want a more concrete answer on the following: 1) Transit in Scarborough 2) Metrolinx taking over TTC 3) Future expansion of TTC 4) Gardiner Expressway 5) solving Yonge line being at capacity 6) improving commuting and intercity?

Now, time for some speed writing and let’s see if I can do this from memory.

  1. The Scarborough RT should be replaced by an LRT. Literally the only reason to justify an extension of the Bloor-Danforth line is to save the transfer, which is a problem that can be solved easily with cross-platform transfers. There is no other reason. There’s no reason for it to go underground, since it already runs in its own rail corridor, separated from traffic. The projected ridership doesn’t justify the capital cost and all of the cost projections that have been done so far ignore the operating costs.

    A lot of people are under the impression that an LRT system would fall to the same shortcomings of the SRT. This is wrong. Most of the failures of the current system are because of the legacy ICTS vehicles (which we can’t replace) and trouble with the third rail in winter (which wouldn’t be a problem since LRT power is delivered via overhead wire).

    A lot of people also seem to be under the impression that the subway is a done deal. It is not. There’s still years of environmental assessments and design work and financing and procurement and tendering that needs to be worked out. It still has to go through three council votes (EA approval, financing, LRT master agreement amendment) before a single shovel is thrust into the ground. All of this extra work and these votes become unnecessary the moment council decides to build an LRT after all.

  2. Metrolinx taking over the TTC is a monumentally stupid idea because of what exactly is being proposed. No one is actually proposing that Metrolinx takes control of the TTC, they only want Metrolinx to take control of the rapid transit lines. This is a problem since the rapid transit lines are the most profitable operations in the system. Removing that money from the TTC makes it much harder to run the heavily unprofitable suburban surface routes.
  3. The Transit City plan: LRT to replace the most heavily used bus routes and corridors in the former municipalities, the Whatever Relief Line from Pape to King to Dundas West, increase bus service along identified routes to ten minute headways, implement transit signal priority to improve surface routes, etc.
  4. I don’t actually know that much about the Gardiner, so I’d go with the staff recommendation. Apparently, they don’t see it as apocalyptic to remove the eastern portion of the Gardiner as long as the necessary transit infrastructure is build and based on my admittedly low commuting on that route (taking Lake Shore from the east and down to Queen’s Quay), I’d agree with their recommendations.
  5. There are a bunch of ways to do this but the DRL is the simplest. Obviously, there are ways to try and slow down the problem like automatic train control and the TRs were supposed to help in that respect. In the end, I don’t think there’s anything that’ll make any significant inroads short of creating another north-south route to divert commuters.
  6. High speed rail is obviously the dream, but I don’t think it’s attainable or even necessary. At this point, I’d be really pleased with rail travel being made more affordable and frequent. Does that mean electrification? I don’t really know, but the federal government’s cuts to Via definitely haven’t been helping. It’s unfortunate, because Via could be a decent way to travel if it wasn’t as expensive and inconvenient.

Stolen from ask.fm: who will you vote for in the coming toronto mayor election and why

These are my initial impressions of the campaign so far since it is still rather early, although, if I’m honest, it’s probably going to be Olivia Chow, but I’ll be watching how the campaign unfolds quite closely. I’m hoping to write a (more) substantive blog post about all the candidates for council I like later on. For now, there are a few things to note even this early on.

First of all, I’m pretty sure I’m considered a raging socialist by most typical standards although I can’t say I subscribe to socialism because I am not really familiar with the philosophy behind but anyway, this means that I can be considered your standard urban progressive equipped with some awareness of municipal politics.

There are two basic things which I’m using as a litmus test: taxes and transit.

This is not to say that other issues aren’t important, but because I understand these issues the most so they’re the lens through which I see most of the politics of this city. They also provide a fairly accurate classification of the kinds of positions a candidate will take on a wide range of other issues like housing, social services, and general ideas about city-building.

So, why taxes and transit?

Every candidate is going to claim fiscal responsibility because everyone wants politicians to be spending taxes as little as possible. So what candidates are saying about taxes and how much they’re going to raise or lower them by is something to pay attention to. This is the same in every election, but in this election, there’s something looming ahead which hasn’t been discussed and isn’t really something that people are paying attention to unless they’re boring nerds who watch council meetings for fun.

At the special council meeting for the 2014 budget, the city’s CFO made a presentation. During that presentation, he outlined the operating budget for 2014 and pointed to some challenges over the next two years. There are two things that he noted. The first is that the city is losing a major provincial grant which will place a pressure on the budget outlook. The other thing he mentioned was that even without that loss of funding, property tax increases above the rate of inflation are going to be necessary to maintain the current level of services.

Of course, what level of services is necessary is something that’s up for debate. The problem is that candidates who promise not to raise taxes always promise that service levels won’t be impacted. That’s the exact pledge that Rob Ford made in 2010. The problem with this is that the KPMG Core Service review that he launched in order to find efficiencies basically came back with nothing. Toronto was already as efficient as it could be at current service levels. Significant savings won’t be found unless there are some drastic cuts in services.

So what I’m looking for here is a candidate who will address this problem. Either we need to see significant increases in property taxes or candidates have to say what services they consider unnecessary and will place on the chopping block.

The second thing that I’m looking at is what the candidates plan to do with transit. When Miller left office in 2010, he had significantly increased surface transit service levels and had an ambitious rapid transit plan to connect large parts of the city outside of the downtown core. Rob Ford quickly put a stop to both of those things during his first year in office.

The big ticket items that candidates are going to be talking about are the Downtown Relief Line and the Scarborough RT replacement. As a resident of Scarborough (Ward 42), this has been a serious point of frustration for me, because most Scarborough councillors either don’t understand the challenges of using transit in our part of the city or don’t care about transit riders.

Other than the big ticket items, there’s the issue of how to pay for all of it as well as improving regular old bus service. There’s no substitute for better bus service in places like my literal corner of the city. The focus of huge capital projects is to connect the city together but we’ve forgotten that just getting around the same part of the city is still a huge challenge in a lot of places. A subway isn’t going to fix that.

So, these two things immediately rule out three of the five major candidates for me. I’ll assume you are all familiar with Rob Ford. That leaves Councillor Karen Stintz (Ward 16 Eglinton—Lawrence) and John Tory.

During this term, Stintz served as the Chair of the TTC and had significantly more of impact on transit service than the mayor. Her legacy includes following in Ford’s footsteps in reducing surface transit service levels, restoring Miller’s light rail transit plan, and then subsequently placing it in jeopardy again by pushing for a hastily planned and costly subway extension. This single act disqualified her from consideration.

John Tory is a former mayoral candidate and former leader of the provincial conservatives. It’s unlikely that I’ll share his views on taxation and other policy. But it’s his position on the Scarborough RT replacement that is in direct conflict with his stated concern for fiscal responsibility that makes me raise my eyebrows to the ceiling.

That leaves two major candidates: Olivia Chow and David Soknacki.

First, David Soknacki is known as a former councillor who is relatively conservative but served as the first budget chief for High Archcommunist Mayor David Miller. He wants the Scarborough RT to be replaced by a light rail line, which is good. He also seems to be thoughtful about policy and seems like someone who can be reasoned with, which is also good. He comes off as a sincere conservative, which is in contrast to the sort of moneyed political machine atmosphere that John Tory sort of exudes.

But, my support is likely going to Olivia Chow who is the only progressive in the race. There were rumours for a long time about her supporting a subway extension, but she didn’t go there, which, other than something I personally agree with, is a pretty significant risk for someone who is perceived as being a downtowner. Of course, I am concerned about her being adamant about property tax hikes in line with inflation and I don’t really have a good answer for that yet. So yes, I’ll probably have some concerns with some of her positions as the race goes on.

But I also realize that it’s impossible to have someone who presents a plan that I’ll agree with 100%. Rather, I’m trusting her to make decisions based on the lens through which she sees the city and I’m confident that we have similar ideas about that. She’s been representing Toronto as an elected official in various capacities for over twenty years now so she understands the city and the issues it faces. She’s a legit progressive who’s popular and able to connect with a lot of people across the city because of her background.

On a personal level, I’m really excited to have a Chinese woman running to be mayor of my city. Something that Toronto claims to pride itself in is its diversity and the large number of immigrants we have from all over the world. I think it’d be wonderful to have a mayor who embodies that.

Toronto City Council web of shifting alliances, 2013 edition

So in a kind of now yearly tradition, near the end of October I spent a day downloading 45 voting records by hand because I can’t figure out how to do a batch download on the City of Toronto’s meeting monitor. Yeah, I guess I’m about a month late, but luckily, nothing interesting has happened in Toronto municipal politics in the month of November, nope, nothing at all.

So here’s what came out of it:

The above graph represents the voting correspondence for the entire 2010-2014 term to date (which, at the time of writing includes up to the October 11, 2013 meeting). Reminder: black means they voted together more than 90% of the time, blue 92.5% and green 95%. No line means they voted together less than 90% of the time. The following is a snapshot of the past year, from the October 30, 2012 meeting to the October 11, 2013 meeting.

This picture may look familiar to those of you who are familiar with Rob Ford when he was just the councillor for Ward 2.

It’s kind of hard to say what’s up with the rest of council. If you recognize any of the names, it’s really hard to draw a nice circle around any group. I guess you can say this is some evidence of wildly shifting alliances among council, which wouldn’t be too far off the mark.

The one thing the mayor is consistently great at is burning bridges. This is a skill he possessed long before his global debut as crack mayor and is a skill that many predicted would give him some trouble back during the campaign of 2010. Of course, there are others scheming on council and the whole situation is fairly volatile. Before, you could say that council was polarized, but there’s much more of a fine gradient going on here.

Anyway, God only knows what this’ll look like once election season is in full swing. You only need to dig up last year’s edition of this where I started off with “2012 has been a hell of a year” to have a good laugh. Anyway, the last regularly scheduled council meeting is in August 2014. And I mean, really, no one saw this coming. The drinking and coke-doing was a huge rumour among the City Hall folk and all, but no one saw any of this getting decisively revealed ever.

So what can Toronto City Council do about the mayor?

By now, you’ve probably heard about His Worship, Rob Ford, Mayor of Toronto and you probably have questions about whether he can be kicked out of office. The short answer is no.

The long answer is still no. The reason for this is that in most Canadian jurisdictions, whether we’re talking federal, provincial, or municipal legislatures, there is no provision for recall. The sole exception as far as I’m aware is British Columbia.

There are provisions for municipal officials to lose their seats. The first is one that you might remember from around this time last year: contravention of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. Funnily enough, this almost happened to the mayor before he won his appeal. The second is incarceration, which obviously hasn’t happened, but with the way the story is developing, who knows what’ll happen in a week.

However, municipalities are created and governed by the whims of the province. Theoretically, the province can do whatever it wants with a municipal government through legislation. And so if push came to shove, yes, the province can decide to remove a mayor from office. I mean, the province could technically dissolve the entire City of Toronto if it wanted to. But it probably won’t.

Unlike the province, municipal councils do not have such powers within their grasp. This was made clear on Wednesday, when Toronto City Council debated Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s motion MM41.25. Essentially, the motion did the following:

  1. request that the mayor apologize for lying about the video
  2. urge the mayor to cooperate with the police investigation
  3. request that the mayor apologize for writing the letter of reference for Sandro Lisi
  4. request that the mayor answer council’s questions about this debacle
  5. urge the mayor to take a leave of absense
  6. request the Integrity Commissioner to investigate

You’ll notice that the mayor doesn’t actually need to do any of that stuff. A lot of the debate on the motion was over the fact that it didn’t really do anything.

But as it turns out, council can do something, as long as it’s not forcing the mayor to go away.

On the same day that Councillor Minnan-Wong announced that he’d be putting the motion forward at the meeting (which, if we reach into our memory, was the morning of the mayor’s impromptu admission at noon that it turns out he did, in fact, smoke crack cocaine), Councillor John Filion had another motion drawn up that’d do the following:

  1. City Council suspend the power of the Mayor to appoint and dismiss the Deputy Mayor and Standing Committee Chairs under Section 27.40 of the Council Procedures.

The rest of the motion deals with keeping the current chairs and composition of the committees. This is the first motion that, unlike Minnan-Wong’s motion, has consequences for the mayor and removes one of his fairly significant powers. You may recall that when the crack video story first hit, Councillors Jaye Robinson and Paul Ainslie were both fairly critical of the mayor. This resulted in him removing Robinson from the Executive Committee and demoting Ainslie to a less important committee chair (and even later, he’d remove him for his subway vote).

This motion required notice to be given at the next council meeting. That was done and a special meeting was called for Friday to deal with the motion. So, that’s all council can do.

Or so we thought. After the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting, it was announced that a second special meeting would be held after the first one on Friday. During the meeting on Wednesday, Councillor Josh Matlow had asked a question about the mayor’s powers during an emergency during the debate on the response to the July floods. Presumably, this motion was a result of that. At this meeting, this motion will be debated, which will do the following:

  1. Amend Chapter 59, Emergency Management to provide that the Deputy Mayor assume those powers and duties that have been delegated by City Council to the Mayor under its own authority, to be in effect until November 30, 2014.
  2. Amend the selection process provisions of Chapter 3, Accountability Officers, to provide that the selection panels are appointed by the Deputy Mayor and chaired by the Deputy Mayor or the Deputy Mayor’s designate, to be in effect until November 30, 2014.

What this essentially does is remove emergency powers from the mayor and give them to the deputy mayor. This is probably a good idea if the city fell into an emergency like another freak snowstorm or flood or something like we’ve been seeing last year.

And again, we thought we were done until today. Today, councillors decided to hold a third special meeting to be held on Monday. This one deals with this motion, which is a doozy:

  1. City Council delegate to the Deputy Mayor all powers and duties which are not by statute assigned to the Mayor.
  2. City Council reallocate the operating budget of the Office of the Mayor as follows:
    1. The staff salary and office budget under the control of the Mayor be the same as that of a member of Council.
    2. The balance of the operating budget be reallocated to the City Clerk’s Office to be administered under the oversight of the Deputy Mayor.
  3. City Council authorize that all existing members of the Mayor’s staff be offered the opportunity to continue their employment either with the Mayor or as part of a transfer of staff to be overseen by the deputy Mayor who shall assume responsibility for staffing, including hiring and firing.
  4. City Council suspend the necessary rules and substitute new rules that give effect to the following:
    1. The Deputy Mayor is the chair of the Executive Committee.
    2. The Executive Committee elects a vice chair from among its own members.
    3. the Mayor is no longer a member of all Council committees by virtue of office, and does not enjoy the rights and privileges of other committee members when present at a committee meeting.

So what does all of this mean? Part 1 is simple, it gives all the powers of the mayor to the deputy mayor except those that are legislated by provincial law. So this includes all those powers which are granted to the mayor through council bylaws.

Parts 2 and 3 are more interesting. These reallocate the budget and staff salary of the mayor’s office so that it’s the same as a regular councillor’s. It gives whatever’s left over to the deputy mayor. To prevent staff currently employed by the mayor from losing their jobs, there’s a provision that allows them to either stay with the mayor’s office or to move over to work for the deputy mayor. This is likely partially caused by the revelations in the latest unredacted version of the Sandro Lisi ITO which alleges that the mayor had improperly used his staff for personal errands.

Part 4 removes the last of the mayor’s powers. It removes the mayor from the chair of the Executive Committee and assigns the deputy mayor to be the chair. The vice-chair is then chosen from members of the Executive Committee because the deputy mayor was automatically the vice-chair.

Part 4c deals with a little-known power of the mayor. Technically, the mayor is a member of every council committee and has the right to move motions, speak, and vote. It’s not used very often; Ford himself used it only twice that I’m aware of. Part 4c makes it so that the mayor is no longer a member of any council committee.

If all of these motions pass (and there’s little reason to believe they won’t, otherwise the meetings probably wouldn’t have been called), the end result is that Rob Ford would just be a very loud councillor with a fancy title.

How Toronto’s War on the Church™ ended up going

I should start by noting that I’m by no means an expert on planning or urbanism at all and I’ve only been following this issue whenever it’s popped up. I’ve tried to go through whatever I can of the respective documents and files, but there’s only so much I can understand as an amateur. Basically, the best I can do is read and try to follow what happens at council so that’s what I’ll be focusing on.

So a few months ago, I noticed this thing scary graphic being passed along on Facebook about how Toronto was declaring war on the church or some such thing. Basically the war was conducted on two fronts:

  1. The harmonized zoning bylaw
  2. The Toronto District School Board raising rents on religious groups by some inordinate amount

I’ll be focusing on the harmonized zoning bylaw. First, a bit of history is necessary to put everything in context.

As you may or may not remember, what we now know as the City of Toronto used to be a two-tier municipality consisting of six different cities (Scarborough, North York, East York, York, Etobicoke, and Toronto) and a regional layer of government on top called Metropolitan Toronto. Everyone was happy with this arrangement, so obviously, the provincial government needed to wreck it.

Sometime during the first term of Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution™ Progressive Conservative provincial government, it was thought that Toronto (and a few other cities around the province) could run more efficiently as one giant city instead of a bunch of different cities. And so, in 1998, the Government of Ontario decided to smush all of these cities together even though no one wanted it to happen and here we are today, with one giant City of Toronto. Obviously, having to merge six different governments together into one giant government is not a trivial task and even now, 15 years later, we’re still trying to work out the kinks. One of those kinks is planning and zoning regulations.

You see, because Toronto used to be six autonomous cities, this means that all of those cities each had their own sets of planning regulations. This is obviously not ideal. So in order to try and simplify things (or at least make them less unwieldy), the city tried to work on harmonizing the bylaw across the city. This has been a work in progress for many, many years and almost happened in 2010 but it kind of blew up and everyone went back to the drawing board and here we are again.

Now a few months ago, someone found out that the newest version of the proposed draft zoning bylaw turned out to severely restrict the zones where places of worship could be established. Even though the immediate reaction was over the top spiritual war rhetoric, the concerns weren’t unjustified. Essentially, places of worship were limited to select commercial and institutional zones and that was all, no residential or industrial zones. Was it intentional? Was it a mistake? Who knows? But it’s helpful to remember that planning staff was trying to go through an incredibly complex set of regulations and trying to make everything somehow work together.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with how City Council works, essentially, stuff starts out in the various committees before heading out to the council floor. And so, religious leaders and groups went and got in touch with their councillors with their concerns and went and deputed at Planning and Growth Committee meetings and the bylaw was revised into something much more reasonable before being shipped off to council. In other words, there was something that was overlooked by someone, interested and concerned parties gave input and worked with their representatives, changes were made, and civic governance worked as intended.

With that done, we fast forward to the April 3 meeting of Toronto City Council. At this particular council meeting, the mayor made the zoning bylaw and Hero Burger at Nathan Phillips Square his two key items. Most people will remember the second one because councillors basically argued about whether to put a Hero Burger in Nathan Phillips Square for two or three hours and it featured the deputy mayor reading a selection of items from the menu of Hero Burger among other things. But before the Hero Burger shenanigans started, a pretty healthy chunk of time was spent dealing with the zoning bylaw and within that debate, there was a substantial amount of stuff dealing with places of worship.

As was mentioned earlier, initially, places of worship really were significantly impacted negatively by the proposed changes. However, all of that got significantly reworked and when it hit the council floor, it was something much more reasonable. The proposed bylaw now allowed for places of worship in all residential and commercial zones, various institutional zones, and industrial office zones. This was mostly fine, except for some fighting over whether to allow places of worship in light industrial zones.

The context behind this particular scrap is that a common thing for smaller churches to do is to rent or establish their church in areas which are zoned for industrial use because the cost of doing so is a lot cheaper. However, this puts them at odds with the city’s attempts at trying to preserve its industrial lands. What tends to happen is because the land value in these zones tends to be cheaper, condo developers often buy up these lands and try to get zoning changes on the lands. The result is that there are fewer and fewer places in the city where industry can set up operations.

Of course, churches don’t tend to be huge developers or speculators buying up cheap land to flip over to developers, so what’s the problem with letting them on industrial lands? The problem is that places of worship still negatively impact the use of industrial lands for industry. The reason for this is because a place of worship is classified as a sensitive use under provincial regulations and so the surrounding industry has to restrict their industrial activities, even though they’re in an industrial zone.

The particular motion (Motion 3, Part 3) to allow places of worship on light industrial zones was eventually lost and the initial recommendations from Planning and Growth Management were basically passed. Of course, this doesn’t meant that churches are suddenly getting booted from industrial lands. Most churches that are already there legally based on whatever bylaw was in effect before gets grandfathered and gets to stay there. It’s just new churches won’t be able to move into industrial zones.

So tl;dr, everything worked out in the end and it’s going back to staff for one more go-over before being finalized for reals.

Twitter bots, twitter bots, twitter bots, folks

After the incredible success of @SomeHonMembers, I decided to create @HonSpeakerBot, which was not nearly as popular, but whatever.

The lack of any transcripts or any data made a bot for #TOpoli difficult. But now, there are two. You may have seen them around as I was testing them.

Mayor Robot Ford hates streetcars

This idea is based on a popular Japanese twitter bot by the name of @akari_daisuki. What Akari does is takes a random Wikipedia article title or something from her timeline. Let’s call this thing $x$. Every fifteen minutes, she tweets the Japanese equivalent of “Yay $x$, Akari loves $x$”.

The idea behind @MayorRobotFord is similar. He takes a random Wikipedia article title or something from the #TOpoli stream and tweets, in his familiar way, “$x$, $x$, $x$, folks. We’re getting $x$.” or “People want $x$, folks. $x$, $x$.”, depending on how long $x$ is.

How does it work? Well, the Wikipedia portion is easy enough. We just get access to the API to grab a list of ten random pages. The more complicated part is pulling stuff off of #TOpoli.

Since this is a twitter app, it’s not too hard to get a bunch of tweets off of #TOpoli. We just use the API and we’ve got the fifteen latest #TOpoli tweets ready to be used. The difficult part is extracting noun phrases, or NPs, which is where that graduate class on computational linguistics comes in handy.

So how do we do this? Well, first of all we have to identify the parts of speech in a given tweet. So we tokenize it first and split it up into words and punctuation. Then, we use a part-of-speech tagger to go through and figure out what each little piece is. The POS tagger that I used was the default one that came with the Natural Language Toolkit. Normally, you’d need to train a tagger on a corpus. This default one was trained on the Brown corpus, which is a body of text which was hand tagged for training purposes.

So now our tweets are all tagged and we assume that they’re properly tagged. There’s obviously going to be some slight errors here and there, but whatever, we want to make a twitter bot, so it’s not that important. But we only have our parts of speech. We want to be able to relate the different parts of speech into phrases. So we need some kind of parsing or chunking to put these pieces together into larger phrases that make sense.

For this, I used a bigram chunker trained on the conll2000 corpus. Like the Brown corpus for tagging, the conll2000 corpus is manually parsed and chunked for training purposes. What a bigram chunker does is it analyses every consecutive pair of words in a sentence to come up with a statistical model. It uses this to come up with the most likely NPs to arise from the sentence. We can then just pluck out all of the NPs the chunker identifies.

Once we have all of our NPs, we stick them in a list with our Wikipedia titles and randomly select one to use in our tweet. The Wikipedia API has a limit of 10 titles per call and the twitter API grabs 15 tweets per call. Thus, the chance of getting a Wikipedia title is at best somewhere around 2/5 of the time. However, that’s not taking into account removing entries that are too large. That quick calculation also assumes that there’s only one NP per tweet when there could be many, so in reality, the chance of grabbing something from #TOpoli is much more likely, which might be for the best if you want weird accidental metacommentary.

The Core Service Review

One day, I decided to look through the City of Toronto’s open data catalogue and happened upon an interesting entry called the Core Service Review Qualitative data.

Lo and behold, it was exactly that.

After some fiddling around with an Excel module for Python and figuring out how to split tweets that are larger than 140 characters, I let it go.

@TOCoreService will tweet one entry, randomly chosen, from the 12000 submissions, or close to 58000 answers. These range from short answers like “transit” or “taxes” to fairly lengthy responses.

So what’s the point of this bot? Well, the data is up there for anyone to read, which is nice for transparency and engagement. Of course, whether anyone who’s not city staff would want to read 13000 responses is another matter. But here, we pretty decent collection of opinions on what our priorities should be from real citizens. It’d be a shame if the only people who read them were city staff.

Toronto City Council, 2012

2012 has been a hell of a year, especially if you’re into the city council scene in Toronto. Basically, the year in Toronto politics can be summed up by the following neat graph.

Ford, 2012

Yikes.

What you’re looking at is a similarity graph of recorded votes in city council, from October 2011 to October 2012. An edge is drawn between two councillors if they voted the same way 90% of the time. The edge is coloured blue if they voted together 92.5% of the time and it’s green if they voted together 95% of the time. Remember, the last time we did this, the graph looked kind of like this:

Ford, 2011

Let’s refresh our memory of the first year of the Ford council. Most councillors were willing to work with Ford in the face of his relative popularity at the time. Right-wing and centrist councillors tried to position themselves to gain the mayor’s favour and the mayor had a pretty easy time getting his agenda through. With little effort, he was able to repeal the vehicle registration tax and put an end to Miller’s Transit City plan. It seemed like we were in for a long four years.

But then, something happened over the summer. In his quest for efficiencies, the mayor had actually dove into the realm of cutting services. People didn’t like that. After all, the mayor had promised he could reduce spending without cutting services. And it’s here where the mayor and the citizens diverged, on where the line between finding efficiencies and cutting services was drawn. And so, the mayor’s popularity dropped.

And then there was the hilarious Port Lands thing, but whatever.

Anyway, fast forward to January 2012, when the vote on the budget is taking place. Via some fascinating political manoeuvring, a majority of councillors were able to reverse some of the mayor’s planned cuts. In February, a majority of councillors, again, reverse the mayor’s plans and performed some necromancy on the Transit City LRT lines. Council had realized sometime in the preceding months that the mayor was no longer the threat that he was at the beginning of the term and his refusal to compromise on some very reasonable points made him look worse.

And so, 2012 has played out, with Council taking the task of governance into its own hands, without the guidance of the mayor.

So how different does the dynamics of council look after 2012? Here’s a graph that takes all of the data from the beginning of Ford’s term up until the last council meeting on October 4, 2012.

Ford, 2011-12

What will this graph look like by the end of the term, in 2014? It’s hard to say. Remember, we were all expecting 2011 to be the new normal, until 2012 hit. Who knows what could happen in another year. The alliances at council are always shifting and there’s always the temptation for some councillors to go out on a limb and inadvertently blow something up in the process.

Well, there is one thing, which is that the data could look significantly different because of a structural change made at the last council meeting. In Ford’s council, the mayor insisted that every single vote be a recorded vote, in an effort to improve accountability and transparency. Of course, what this means is a blowup in the number of recorded votes for things like speaking extensions. During the last council meeting, it was decided that speaking extensions would be done away with. This will likely affect the data because most councillors usually just vote yes. Well, except for the one councillor who always votes against speaking extensions: the Midnight Mayor, Mark Grimes.

Bonus: Miller, 2009-10

Toronto’s council voting records go all the way back to the beginning of 2009. Since I was already clicking endlessly to download the voting records for the year, I thought it’d be neat to see how different council was back in the final days of the Miller council. The time period represented here is from January 2009 to the final council meeting in August 2010.

Miller, 2009-10

The most striking thing is, of course, where the former councillor for Ward 2 can be found.

It was kind of tough to figure out a good threshold for this dataset because the differences in voting were much, much greater, almost certainly caused by Ford’s insistence on recorded votes for speaking extensions. Here, an edge is drawn between two councillors if they voted together at least 75% of the time. If they voted together more than 85% of the time, then the edge is orange, and the edge is red if they voted together more than 90% of the time. Of course, the colour scheme was chosen to reflect the evil New Democratic Communists running council at the time. Since I didn’t really pay attention to council during those years, I don’t have much to say, but I’m sure that if you did, you’ll find some interesting quirks.

Correspondence data

Some hon. members: Oh, oh!

A while ago, someone said something on twitter and replied with “Some hon. members: Oh, oh!” For some reason (probably because I am a gigantic nerd, I thought this was hilarious and looked up what other interesting tidbits or convention were transcribed into Hansard.

If interjections give rise to a call for order by the Speaker, they are reported as “Some hon. members: Oh, oh!”
Hansard — Wikipedia

For my computational linguistics project I wanted to play around with Hansard as a corpus. I used the openparliament.ca database, which has all the statements made in the House that are available online (so since 1993) and has some convenient metadata. So I proceeded to dump the statements in the database, categorized by stuff like party or whether it was the Speaker speaking. Each statement had some metadata indicating who spoke and openparliament.ca has a ton of information about each Member of Parliament that’s scraped from PARLINFO.

While I was doing this, I remembered the “Some hon. members” stuff and wondered whether they had an id so I could dump all of those statements out. It turns out that statements by “Some hon. members” or “An hon. member” aren’t linked to a particular member or politician, even a placeholder one. That’s okay, since it was possible to grab all of that stuff with a query on the name instead of an indexed id.

Now I have all of these statements sitting around without context, so the obvious thing to do is to make a twitter bot.

How it actually works isn’t complicated at all. Everything just sits in a giant text file and a script pulls a line from the file at random once every hour. Since the vast majority of things that Some hon. members say are things like voting (yea or nay or agreed) or interjections (oh, oh or hear, hear), that’s what’ll show up most of the time.

I’ve also included things that An hon. member will say, so occasionally, there will be random heckling showing up. Because, you know, non sequiturs on twitter are hilarious. These are sometimes longer, so I made it randomly pull out a chunk of the statement, which has questionable results.

To be honest, I wanted to do something for Toronto City Council at first, which was why I asked around #TOpoli for something Hansard-like for council. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist, so unfortunately, all of the amazing possibilities for council bots will go unrealized. On the other hand, there are a few more ideas I have for all of this Hansard stuff. And of course, there’s my actual project to hopefully look forward to as well.

Anyway, I’m glad people are enjoying it.