Mayor John Tory suffered two small self-inflicted wounds as he pushed his 2017 budget through council. He reneged on a Twitter pledge to teenaged Olympic gold-medalist Penny Oleksiak not to cancel city programming at an east-end pool. And he whipped a late-night vote to ensure that a small staff cut would be made to the city's strained homeless shelters.
Neither cut mattered much to the bottom line of Toronto's $12-billion operating budget. For the pool, only $85,000 was at stake, while the shelter cut was worth $1-million. But both decisions have had ripple effects for the mayor.
Some on council's left, including those who have taken to biting their tongues to work with the mayor, are fuming over both moves. A group of parents trying to preserve city programming at S.H. Armstrong pool, near Queen Street East and Greenwood Avenue, feels betrayed. And the shelter cut, despite assurances from city bureaucrats it would have a "minor impact," had anti-homelessness activists picketing outside Mr. Tory's Yorkville condo.
The two decisions look even more puzzling to some in light of the late-night budget vote that saw council go off-script and cancel cuts to street sweeping, forcing a last-minute motion to drain $2-million from the city's reserves to pay for it.
Mr. Tory and his right-leaning supporters did backtrack on other unpopular proposed cuts, including one that would have affected school daycares. They also advocated for other last-minute spending on the council floor, according to a copy of the mayor's "cheat sheet" of voting instructions on the budget, obtained by The Globe and Mail.
So why didn't the mayor simply pull rank and call for both the pool and the 10 shelter positions to be saved as well, just to spare himself future political headaches? To find out part of the answer, you need to have been at a Sunset Grill in Scarborough on the morning of Jan. 21, where Mr. Tory's budget chief, Councillor Gary Crawford, met with the mayor, alone.
Mr. Crawford, a conservative former school trustee, says he asked for a face-to-face meeting because of Mr. Tory's famous tweet to Ms. Oleksiak.
A day after she had pleaded on Twitter for him to stop the funding cuts to S.H. Armstrong and other pools, the mayor replied: "Gold medal message received, @OleksiakPenny. I've asked Budget Chief Gary Crawford to find a way to save these pools."
This was news to Mr. Crawford.
"I was totally unaware of that, and all of a sudden my staff were saying, 'Did you see what the mayor did?'" the budget chief said in an interview.
At their one-on-one breakfast meeting a few days later, the budget chief ordered scrambled eggs and toast, while both men drank coffee. Their talk was interrupted by patrons wanting to chat or take selfies with the mayor. Mr. Crawford said he needed to make it clear to Mr. Tory that he should not be interfering while the budget committee was still wrestling with its tough decisions.
"Really, should he have done that [tweet]? Maybe not," Mr. Crawford said. "I was caught off-guard."
He said he told Mr. Tory: "It's always hard, in a political environment, I get it. But my role as the budget chief, I have a thousand people asking me for things, so you have to make sure you balance all of those pressures out. … We can't allow you, the mayor, to influence the process."
In an interview, Mr. Tory said the meeting was cordial, and that they discussed the pools and the "legitimacy of the budget process." The mayor said he cannot simply override his own budget chief too often, or it renders the city's months-long budget process "meaningless."
And he said Mr. Crawford convinced him that cutting the pool funding was the right thing to do: City staff say lessons at S.H. Armstrong are undersubscribed – although local activists dispute the numbers – and should be moved to other nearby pools.
Mr. Tory doesn't believe his pool tweet was a mistake, even though he was later persuaded to support the cut and had to write an open letter to Ms. Oleksiak explaining himself. (In the end, a motion to save the pool failed on a tie, with Mr. Tory voting no.)
"I sent the tweet that I did, and if you look at what it said, it said I was going to take this up with Councillor Crawford and try to find a solution or something, which I did," Mr. Tory said, noting that the budget committee did ask city staff for more information before making its final decision.
But local activists fighting to save the pool funding – and who had approached Ms. Oleksiak about tweeting her support – saw the mayor's tweet as a clear sign they had won.
The two men discussed other budget cuts at their meeting, but focused mostly on the pool. The mayor never tweeted a promise to rescind the shelter cut, of course. But he faced intense political pressure to do so, and stood by his budget chief throughout. He did support a motion to have the impact of the shelter cuts given a second look, with a report due next month.
Ryerson University politics professor Myer Siemiatycki calls the two decisions "baffling," given the size of the city budget. But he suggests they may be a sign the mayor remains concerned about a possible challenge from former councillor Doug Ford in 2018: "He may be wanting to demonstrate that's he's got backbone, that he's committed to stringent financial management, that he can't be portrayed as tax and spend."