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CITIZEN DAVE: Thoughts and ideas about city building from Madison's former mayor
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Citizen Dave: Mess involving Toronto mayor Rob Ford suggests caution on regionalism
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So, how did Toronto get a mayor who essentially hates Toronto?
So, how did Toronto get a mayor who essentially hates Toronto?

I'm writing this as I return from Toronto, where I gave a talk at the Ontario Bike Summit about Madison's Ride the Drive. The open streets festival returns for a fifth year this Sunday, June 2.

Toronto doesn't have an event like Ride the Drive where streets are opened up for a few hours, usually on a Sunday, for use by bikers, walkers, inline skaters, artists, kids, or, in short, anyone not in a car. Torontonians would probably go for this kind of thing big time, but their mayor won't consider it.

Toronto's mayor is the now infamous Rob Ford, who is battling claims that there is a video (for sale) showing him using crack cocaine and making homophobic and racist remarks. There's a new revelation pretty much every day. Today's is that Ford may have ordered the destruction of evidence tying him to the video.

But this is just the most recent example of Ford's embarrassing tenure as Toronto's mayor. Just one small example. While in the city. I stayed on Jarvis Street, a major thoroughfare connecting Ryerson University with the heart of downtown. The street could badly use a bike lane and it had one briefly. But when Ford got elected he had the lane removed, which resulted in the waste of over a million dollars in taxpayer money.

It was just another example of Ford's attack on bikes, pedestrians and mass transit. The appropriately named Ford (no relation to the auto family, though) got elected in part by ranting about an alleged "war on cars." That, of course, was and is silly. There's no war on cars in Canada or anyplace else. But Ford used the issue to drive a wedge between suburban voters and central city residents. It was a cynical political ploy to capitalize on a manufactured perception of "elitism" in the city center.

So, how did Toronto get a mayor who essentially hates Toronto? The simple answer is something called "amalgamation." The idea was to create a more coordinated, regional government. It was touted as a cost-saving measure when it was imposed on Toronto-area municipalities by a conservative provincial government in 1998. As a result, the city's suburbs were lumped together, against their will and Toronto's, with the actual city itself.

Urbanist Jane Jacobs, a Toronto resident at the time, opposed amalgamation because she said that the city would lose its voice and that urban values would get lost. It took awhile, but she turned out to be right. The suburbs elected Ford, who has been a blustering, bullying, anti-urban disaster of a mayor. And now he's an international embarrassment. Torontonians I know hope this latest circus will lead to his resignation, but Canadian law makes it almost impossible to remove him against his will.

This all leads to some reflection on how we govern ourselves here in the Madison region. It has long been a tenet of good government types, editorial boards and the business community that regionalism is a good thing. I was on that train for quite awhile myself. But Toronto's nightmarish experience with Rob Ford should make us all rethink regional approaches.

Certainly, it's not working here with regard to economic development, where the entity that used to be known as "Thrive" (recently renamed the "Madison Region Economic Partnership") is doing positive harm to the city of Madison precisely because it includes counties outside of Dane and gives them a disproportionate voice. On the other hand, a regional transit authority would be a good thing as long as Madison controlled it, and regional approaches to water quality make sense.

The lesson of Toronto's amalgamation is not an argument against all forms of regionalism, but it is a reminder that the central city should maintain its autonomy and surrender it only carefully, with safeguards and for very good reason. And in many cases smaller units of government are preferable, especially when the alternative is to be governed by a region that doesn't understand cities or is actively hostile to them.

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