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Pam McConnell’s legacy sullied by Toronto councillors seeking political gains: Keenan

The council process of appointing McConnell’s successor broke from tradition, was disrespectful to voters and was anti-democratic.

Former Toronto councillor Pam McConnell, seen here in 2015 with Mayor John Tory, left and Councillor Vincent Crisanti , died in July 2017. Council named her replacement on Nov. 2, 2017 but the process has created a toxic split between council's left and right wings, Ed Keenan writes.

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Former Toronto councillor Pam McConnell, seen here in 2015 with Mayor John Tory, left and Councillor Vincent Crisanti , died in July 2017. Council named her replacement on Nov. 2, 2017 but the process has created a toxic split between council's left and right wings, Ed Keenan writes.

Here’s hoping the custodial staff at city hall have access to some kind of industrial-strength cleaning solvents. They’ll need them, and plenty of hot water, to rid the government chamber of the scummy residue of the appointment process that took place Thursday.

At the end of it, Lucy Troisi, a former manager with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, lifelong resident of Ward 28, and head of the Cabbagetown Youth Centre was appointed to replace the late Pam McConnell as councillor for the remainder of this term until next fall’s municipal election. In her remarks to council, Troisi seemed like a friendly and competent woman — if one also mildly unprepared on some questions about electoral redistricting she admitted she hasn’t even thought about — and her resume certainly appears to qualify her to serve in the role. I hope it is no slight to her to note she was carried into office on an avalanche of slime.

What happened here was disgusting on multiple levels. A bunch of city councillors appointing a representative for the people of Ward 28 rather than allowing them to elect one themselves. A lineup of well-spoken, earnest, qualified candidates making their case to a deliberative body full of people who had already determined their votes before the first speech was made. And a majority of council, shepherded by council’s budget chief Gary Crawford, using the death of a long-serving advocate for one downtown ward as an opportunity to crap on her legacy.

In a nutshell: McConnell was famously one of council’s longest-serving members, and one of its most reliably progressive in her actions and votes, a member of the NDP, a vocal supporter of LGBT rights, and most of all an anti-poverty campaigner who recently spearheaded the mayor’s anti-poverty strategy. She voted, repeatedly, against the Scarborough subway, against keeping up the eastern Gardiner and various other Fordisms, she has never been a supporter of any low-tax agenda.

When council decided to appoint someone to replace her instead of holding an election, a man who had worked closely with McConnell on that anti-poverty strategy emerged as the obvious successor. His name is Michael Creek: an openly gay man, living with a disability, who was formerly homeless and has emerged as a strong activist working with various levels of government to address poverty. He drew the endorsement of McConnell’s family, of dozens of residents' associations and community service organizations in the ward, of the city councillors in the closest neighbouring wards. He had worked closely with her and knew the files.

There is a tradition, and I think a moral obligation, when council appoints someone, to respect the voters they are giving representation to by trying to find someone who will carry on the work of the councillor they are replacing, and stay to the same political leanings. When there was talk of appointing a replacement for Rob Ford (though ultimately an election was held after he died), this was front of mind. When a replacement was appointed for Ron Moeser, ideological consistency and the wishes of Moeser’s widow were cited as highly important by councillors across the political spectrum. I have seen council do the same in the past, replacing Doug Holyday and others after they resigned to pursue other offices.

Frankly, council has no business appointing people to fill vacant council seats to represent wards. Elections should always be held, in my opinion. If there’s not enough time to hold an election, just leave the seat vacant and let staff serve constituency matters.

But if they are going to appoint someone, trying to give citizens a representative who supports the same things they voted for most recently is a minimum obligation. Very basic human decency would dictate you don’t exploit someone’s death as an opportunity to defy voters and turn a political balance to your advantage.

Indeed, Mayor John Tory’s spokesperson Don Peat tells me the mayor felt an “obligation to Pam McConnell to support Michael Creek.”

Budget chief Crawford, representative of Scarborough Southwest, felt no such obligation. He began lobbying for Troisi, a more likely conservative-friendly vote. And convinced a majority of council to go along with him — including almost all of the mayor’s closest allies, even though the mayor himself voted for Creek.

In his own speech, Crawford went out of his way to make it seem like somehow this wasn’t about political leaning — he spoke about McConnell’s proud legacy as his reason for supporting Troisi, prompting someone in the gallery to shout “how dare you.”

Michael Thompson, representative of Scarborough Centre, went further, working himself up into high-raised-voice sanctimony about how McConnell’s legacy demanded a woman replace her.

Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong did everyone the favour of being honest. He asked Troisi “point blank” he said, a lot of questions, and she said she’d “support the mayor’s agenda,” vote for low taxes, support the Scarborough subway extension, supported the Gardiner. Basically, on every question he said he asked her, she directly opposed what McConnell stood for. That’s what Minnan-Wong, a career-long opponent of McConnell’s, liked. “I would like someone who would vote the way I think this council should be going,” he said.

In other words: let me use this woman’s death to overrule what she and the voters who elected her believed in so that my own political leanings have an additional council vote. It’s a vile sentiment. As disrespectful as it is anti-democratic. But you’ve got to admire that at least he didn’t pretend it was about something else, as so many others did.

So Crawford got a majority of council to go along with him — the final vote was 24-19. In the process, he created a toxic split in the city council, with those who supported Creek believing a sacred line has been crossed. And Troisi will now serve on a Toronto-East York Community Council in which only one fellow member voted for her, and the others feel her appointment was a horrible injustice and an insult to the memory of their beloved colleague. And with many residents associations and community groups in the ward she represents feeling the same way.

It’s hard to see why this was worth the anger and rupture for Crawford and his allies — it is very unlikely any vote this budget season will turn a different direction because of this one vote. If anything, it seems the poisoning of goodwill among the council minority will make building ad hoc coalitions harder.

By the end, several councillors — including a few who voted for Troisi — swore they would never support an appointment rather than a byelection again. If they keep their word on that, then at least one good thing will have come out of this.

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