At long last, the City of Toronto found a chief planner.
Even though the job pays about $200,000 per year, it is not surprising that the position took so long to fill. For months the city has been advertising, then inviting promising candidates for interviews. What some saw, turned them off. In one instance, a candidate left after watching council and reflecting on the very public termination of the TTC’s top manager.
But there is more to the vacancy story than worries about the professional environment and job security. And in that story is why the ability of the chief planner matters to all of us.
The position looks after three main functions. Perhaps simplest of all is the challenging responsibility for about 350 staff, plus the daunting task of ensuring planning applications are processed in a timely manner.
Never an easy assignment, there must be additional stress because planning is often first in line when budgeters look for savings, yet last when the city considers investment or recruitment.
Next up the scale in difficulty is the chief planner’s responsibility for transforming our city. We want beautiful but functional buildings, attractive streetscapes that allow easy movement, and an urban form that changes with demographics, economics and vision. Meeting the future requires a host of skills, including resilience and self-confidence. Given the high stakes and powerful interests, a measure of financial security is very helpful.
There is a third part of the job, which is the need to change the application approval process. Presently it is so dysfunctional yet so self-serving, that stakeholders pretend that resolution is beyond the city’s jurisdiction, perhaps so that reform never happens.
Specifically, the problem is reliance on the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to enforce the city’s own rules.
In theory, planning rules should be understandable to anyone with access to the internet or library. Practically, even simple and compliant projects can run afoul of any neighbour with a grudge or a councillor’s whim. On larger investments, fees such like those supposedly for community benefits vary so widely, that making budgets for them is next to impossible. And projects that are especially time sensitive can be hostage to near endless deferrals.
Accountability is made more difficult through the combination of a councillor’s unquestioned domination of his or her fief, plus planning staff who may wish to be agreeable to a councillor with whom they will deal with for years, and who reviews their budgets line by line.
Having so much discretionary power centred in so few for too long is a cause for temptation and a source of weakness.
These difficulties invite so many questionable practices, yet unfortunately suit so many.
Blaming the OMB is easy. Councillors support city wide policies, yet oppose those same rules when applied to their constituents. Planning staff need not accept responsibility for their recommendations. Those unhappy with an application or applicant can make unsubstantiated claims and apply political pressure. The development industry has learned their first two choices are either to pay up, or to appeal to the OMB.
It is no wonder that the chief planner position was vacant for months.
Unlike her predecessors, the new chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, comes from outside the organization and just might take on the toughest challenges.
She may wish begin building independence by regularly circulating her staff. Bankers and auditors learned this lesson long ago.
Next comes the task of convincing council to allow larger projects to be decided centrally. Although populists disagree, they have been unable to prevent the abuse of their own rules. To be fair, planning staff proposed this measure during the administration of former mayor David Miller, but it was refused.
And finally comes the hardest task of all, which is to get executive committee to approve council committees solely for planning applications. Although it sounds so basic, council and planning can only re-establish their credibility by ensuring the rules council itself sets will be the criteria by which applications are judged.
The chief planner’s position in Toronto is a tough job, with opportunities and risks lurking everywhere. How it is filled impacts so much, from signature buildings and how we enjoy our city, all the way to getting approval for home renovations.
We wish her well.