After two terms of good government under Mayor David Miller, Toronto is doing much better in many ways. There are some lessons to learn from Mr. Miller's term, but they are not about quality of governance. Consider:
Development in Toronto now makes sense.
Germinating during the decade Mr. Miller served as a councillor and implemented during his term as mayor, Canada's favourite city to hate figured out that if it didn't want to sprawl out any more (and it is hard to imagine how it could) then Toronto was going to have to go up instead. And so the city's lower downtown, once a rail yard with some bank towers perched to the side, is now filling out into a remarkable 21st century high rise cityscape populated by hundreds of thousands of new city-core dwellers. American cities are donuts with dead space at their heart. This city will avoid that fate. In the process, something other than photo ops is actually occurring on the lakefront. In another generation, since these things move at the pace of pyramid construction, Toronto with have a lakeshore of parks, homes, and workplaces with a future.
The city's finances are in good order.
This is true notwithstanding a provincial download by the former Tory government (not fundamentally corrected under the current Liberal one) designed to bankrupt it. Residential taxes are lower than in all surrounding communities. The budget is balanced. As Hugh Mackenzie points out in this Sunday's Toronto Star, the fiscal plans of all of the current mayoral candidates start by taking positions on what to do with Toronto's budget surplus, even while claiming the city's finances are broken.
Something is finally being done about the city's infrastructure.
Toronto is a city living in 2010 on an infrastructure built for 1975. Bridges and roads are crumbling - choked by cars, since public transit doesn't work for too many citizens. The bridges and roads are being repaired, and a sensible public transit plan is funded and under construction.
Toronto is taking steps to heal its pockets of poverty and hopelessness.
In a recent panel on TVO, four of Toronto's former mayors all praised the city's strategy here. It focuses economic development, social services, recreational, and police resources on these communities to help them heal. Here again, Toronto is making good progress avoiding the fate of many North American cities.
Corrupt, backroom deal-making controlled behind closed doors by political staff has been cleaned out of city hall.
This achievement underlines why the former beneficiaries of the previous system were so keen to populate the campaign teams of many of the aspirants to succeed Mr. Miller. They want to get back to business - a good indication of how successful Mr. Miller was at putting them out of business.
This last point gets us to one of the two lessons I think we can take from how Mr. Miller's term is ending.
When David Miller held up a broom on election night in 2003, he had a very specific reform in mind. He intended to end government by the back door - and he did. In the process he built a different staff system than his predecessors worked with. I intend no slur on the many talented, skilled, experienced and knowledgeable people who served Toronto as members in Mayor Miller's office. But I think it is fair to say that he deliberately set out to avoid building a high-octane strategic, political and communications team in the style of a premier's office at Queen's Park or a prime minister's office in Ottawa.
Mr. Miller got was he was aiming for - an end to government by lobbyist and staffer. But he paid a price for this achievement in my view.
The current debate about Toronto's government and future demonstrates a hard political fact. If citizens cannot see what their government is doing, then, politically, to some extent, it is as if those achievements didn't happen. It is extremely difficult for any government at any level to communicate what it doing to citizens. Speeches by the chief executive don't do the job.
Lesson for the future: the next time there is a progressive administration in Toronto, it needs to find a way to clean the dirty boys out of the back door while still operating a muscular and unabashedly political strategic/communications team.
My second point is about Mr. Miller's political affiliations.
David Miller was a long-time supporter of the New Democratic Party. He ran as an NDP candidate in a provincial by-election earlier in his career, and was then thought of as an excellent prospect for provincial leader. He kept a poster of Tommy Douglas in his office and never abandoned his principles.
However, about mid-way through his term, Mayor Miller quietly stopped renewing his NDP membership card and let it be known that he no longer supported his party. Somewhere along the line, perhaps Mr. Miller will write his memoirs and explain what happened there. I'll just point out the effect. Mr. Miller achieved no benefit whatsoever from stepping away from his strongest supporters (not forgetting the tragically familiar story of the municipal unions) and moving closer to fair-weather friends - a good number of whom abandoned him, and the mayoral candidate seeking to carry forward his agenda, when the weathervane tilted.
As long as party alignments remain what they are in Canada, the second lesson for the future is therefore this: achievements will be less precarious and fragile, and succession easier to arrange, if the next progressive administration in Toronto is more determined about its political affiliations, and more determined to advance those affiliations at all levels of government. No matter how much a pain in the posterior some of those co-religionists might be from the perspective of an elected chief executive.
As demonstrated in Vancouver and in Montreal, fig leaves are available to make this possible (progressives and conservatives compete under vague municipal brands there). But everybody knows what the game is.
Being insufficiently political and partisan are forgivable sins. These are "mistakes" born of idealism - and perhaps were a necessary corrective after what Toronto had undergone under the mayor's predecessor. Mr. Miller is paying the price in the grossly distorted debate about his record during the election to succeed him. In the longer term he will be remembered as a great city builder - one whose agenda will bear emulating by any progressive seeking to succeed him, even as the lessons are (hopefully) learned.