Once, the State of the Union was essentially a piece of paper. Woodrow Wilson changed that by making it a speech in front of the Congress, and then Franklin Roosevelt took it to the next level by making it a joint session of both houses. Radio and TV made it an annual appointment, and the rest, as they say, is history. At least until 1975, when Gerald Ford did something radical: He told it like it was.
“I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good: millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow,” Ford said. “Some people question their Government's ability to make hard decisions and stick with them; they expect Washington politics as usual.”
When it comes to the Guelph version, the State of the City, I didn’t expect “politics as usual”, but I also didn’t expect Mayor Cam Guthrie to throw out compromise and negotiation. I didn’t expect him to throw out the regular democratic order, and I didn’t expect the city’s business community to applaud it like it’s just a thing that was supposed to happen.
Mayor Guthrie used the occasion of this year’s State of the City to announce his intention to use so-called Strong Mayor Powers, but it’s totally okay guys because he’s only using them to impose his will on the city in three very specific areas.
First, he’s going to sign a mayoral order to direct staff to shave six per cent off the 2025 budget to get the increase under four per cent, and I know what that means: Say goodbye to Guelph Transit and the Guelph Public Library, which, in council’s estimation, are the only acceptable places to cut.
Second, Guthrie is going to use his super special strong powers to issue another mayoral order, this one to “identify strategic real estate partnerships on underutilized city-owned assets, specifically focused on city-owner surface parking lots, which can be transformed into housing for our community.”
Good luck with that.
You see, the vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of Guelph drives everywhere! And they drive everywhere because the 10-minute trip in your car takes 50 or 60 minutes on transit along the most circuitous route possible and an unavoidable stopover downtown.
It would easy for me to believe that the mayor supported less dedicated space to parking if I ever saw his face on a transit bus when there’s no one there to take his photo, or if he didn’t vote in favour of draconian transit cuts above and beyond what staff recommended or calling things like electric signs with real time route information “nice to haves.”
Also, and not for nothing, but all parking, public and private, is an “underutilized asset” because that’s the nature of parking. It’s also worth noting that some properties like the Fountain Street municipal lot are used for parking because, as the kids say, they’re toxic AF.
Third, Guthrie’s going to direct staff to present to council a plan for a temporary structured encampment, which is good because Guthrie wants to evict all the unstructured ones, but, you know, with a human rights lens and free of stigma. Those people are going to need somewhere to go, but not to a house because that would really be an abuse of power, I guess.
As well-meaning as I’m sure these three directions are, they’re a product of the mayor’s failure to lead. In the past, he’s blamed this on the electorate for not giving him a “council he can work with”, he’s blamed regulatory limitations and government structures, he’s blamed a lack of co-ordination and direction, and he’s blamed the provincial government for shirking their responsibilities.
Some of this is fair, but then I think back to last summer and the announcement that Guelph was getting Strong Mayor Powers. Mayor Guthrie was literally on stage at the announcement, and even though he said nothing there, he said nothing afterwards for three days and then released a pitiful statement that was only a few lines long and pretty ambivalent about the implications for Guelph.
Now we know why.
Mayor Guthrie, reared on the pablum of the monoculture, sees issues in overly simplistic terms: Everything’s black and white, there are good guys and bad guys. We have big problems, seemingly insurmountable, so what we need is a superhero to fix them, and what is a superhero without superpowers?
In this context, Strong Mayor powers are not a hammer coming down, they’re a hand helping you up, which is the most dangerous framing of all.
If these are good ideas, why not bring them forward in a motion and get the endorsement of council? The same council who were gobsmacked with the announcement on Thursday because they got no advanced warning from the mayor that he was apparently so disappointed with their work that he was going it alone.
Doing spin control on local news, Guthrie said that he’s just trying to accelerate the pace of policy, but city staff drafted a whole bylaw on encampments in two-and-a-half weeks so don’t tell me that governance is slow. And barely one month into the year, we already have deep and concerning questions about the local government’s dedication to transparency.
Whole motions come out of closed session with no public disclosure of supporting information and documents, council had just one meeting all last month, a whole housing symposium took place with no public participation and disclosure, and I walked into committee of the whole this week 15 minutes before the start time of the open session, and the CAO was presenting a report.
What’s the point of a public process anymore? What’s the point of the State of the City? The mayor has clearly decided that he’s going to do what he wants and those of us with different ideas be damned. He announced it and he was applauded by the business community, a rubber stamp from the one group whose opinion Guthrie probably cares about the most.
This was not a good week for democracy, between this announcement about Strong Mayor powers, and the elimination of more local news by a media conglomerate. Guthrie could have used his speech to affirm that good governance and regular order could help resolve our toughest issues, instead he declared that he knows better, and proved all his worst critics right about him in the process.
The State of the City is not good, and the state of our leadership is even worse.