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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Chief planner's replacement must carry the same torch for Toronto: Elliott

If the new hire takes a 'quieter approach,' it will set the city back, Matt Elliott writes.

Toronto City Hall was 'dysfunctional' when chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat arrived, writes Matt Elliott.

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Toronto City Hall was 'dysfunctional' when chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat arrived, writes Matt Elliott.

It will be sad to see chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat leave Toronto City Hall on Sept. 29.

It’ll be even sadder if the change she helped bring to city hall leaves with her.

It’s easy now to forget just how dysfunctional city hall was when Keesmaat started as chief planner in 2012. Under the late Rob Ford’s administration, chaos reigned. Staff morale was low. Bureaucrats worried — with justification — that they would be fired if they disagreed with politicians. Everyone walked on eggshells.

Then came Keesmaat.

I remember feeling gobsmacked while conducting a phone interview with the new chief planner a few months after she took the job.

In an on-the-record conversation, Keesmaat told me about the need to invest in public transit, even if investing meant instituting new municipal taxes and fees. She talked about the importance of active transportation – walking and bikes — and the need to get people out of their cars.

This kind of stuff was utter blasphemy in the Ford era, especially coming from a city staffer.

But instead of staying quiet or carrying water for her then-boss, Keesmaat plotted a different course. She publicly and transparently offered advice and strategies based on her planning expertise.

Damn the consequences.

It’s an approach she continued through the end of the tumultuous Ford term and into the new era of Mayor John Tory. Over the last few years, she’s challenged Tory on issues like the Gardiner Expressway and the Scarborough Subway.

And while I haven’t always agreed with some of the decisions and compromises Keesmaat made, I have unlimited respect for her ability to speak truth to power.

Even better, the truth thing seemed contagious. In recent years other bureaucrats, like TTC CEO Andy Byford and city manager Peter Wallace, have also plotted a more publicly candid course.

But there are signs that political forces would rather the culture didn't persist in a post-Keesmaat world.

Recent high-profile hires, like Transportation Manager Barbara Gray and Chief Resilience Officer Elliott Cappell have been quieter than the chief planner — and harder to get on the record.

Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, meanwhile, has made no bones about his desire for a chief planner that doesn’t rock the boat. He told the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy last week that he hopes Keesmaat’s replacement can “stick to the knitting.”

I get why elected officials might want to return to the era where staff didn’t speak publicly. It certainly makes their life easier.

But what’s easy for politicians is lousy for the public. The best decisions are backed by evidence. Forcing elected leaders to publicly respond to the advice of hired experts keeps them accountable.

So let’s make the hiring process for Keesmaat’s replacement a litmus test.

If the new chief planner is similarly honest and visible with their views on important issues, I’ll breathe a big sigh of relief.

But if the new hire takes a quieter approach, Toronto will have lost far more than a talented chief planner; transparency and accountability could be gone too.

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