ULI Terwilliger Centre for Housing - Annual Conference
Housing Opportunity 2013 is taking place in Seattle, WA this March 20-22.
February 10, 2013
An impending late-winter mega-storm was not enough to curb the opinions – or the attendance of those who wanted to hear it – of equally stormy Hazel McCallion, Mayor of the City of Mississauga. On February 27, “Hurricane Hazel,” as she is affectionately known, sat down with Jennifer Keesmaat, the Chief Planner at the City of Toronto for ULI Toronto’s Fifth Annual Fireside Chat. For over an hour, the 200+ attendees at the Toronto Board of Trade were riveted by this rousing conversation between two of the GTA’s foremost leaders in the areas or urban development, transit and job creation.
Serving for 34 years as mayor and in her 12th– and she claims her last — consecutive term in office, McCallion has helped lead Mississauga from its sleepy dormitory suburban beginnings into Canada’s sixth largest city and one nearly bursting at the seams with new growth, including the birth of a new downtown. As the new Chief Planner of Mississauga’s neighbour to the east, Toronto, Jennifer Keesmaat is facing similar issues of growth and downtown development. Her experiences as a partner at the Toronto-based integrated design firm DIALOG, where she worked with many mid-sized cities to develop downtown, cultural and strategic plans before accepting the position of chief planner in September 2012, made her ideally suited for the task.
The overarching theme of the Fireside Chat was the challenges of effecting meaningful change as a public servant in today’s highly scrutinized environment. Mayor McCallion spoke of her relatively quick rise from joining the Streetsville Planning Board to becoming the Mayor of Mississauga and bringing a more business-oriented approach to the City’s government. She quickly realized that if being the Mayor was going to prove to be a rewarding experience, she needed to shift from the role of a “complainer” to that of a proactive agent for the changes she felt were necessary. She did this by creating policies and procedures for achieving the City’s objectives including creating a low-tax environment for businesses to relocate to the City.
Ms. Keesmaat was clearly inspired by the Mayor’s approach to effecting change within an organization. However, she wondered whether such an approach was possible in an environment where there is increased scrutiny from the media, a more divisive political culture, stricter conflict of interest policies and the public impact of social media such as Twitter. Unfortunately, Mayor McCallion believes it is more difficult than ever for someone to effect change as a public servant and both Mayor McCallion and Ms. Keesmaat agreed that fewer talented people would be interested in entering the public sphere unless the environment changes. They both lamented a culture where perhaps it was better to do nothing than to face the scrutiny that comes with pursuing and achieving change.
The Mayor and Ms. Keesmaat agreed that it is not productive to have an environment where every step and every decision is subject to public scrutiny. It is critical to have municipal staff be well qualified and make the professional recommendations that are appropriate and best for the City. The staff should not make such recommendations to cater to the Mayor or Council. It will then be up to the Mayor and Council to accept or reject such recommendations and face the political consequences of such decisions.
The Mayor recognized that mistakes had been made in the past by every level of government regarding transit in the GTA, and that there should have been a focus on developing around transit many years ago, rather than developing around land use. Mayor McCallion believes that Metrolinx may be the right agency to address the current transit woes of the GTA, but that it is best run by private individuals, rather than controlled by a particular political agenda. In particular, she was concerned about the City of Toronto’s historical attempts to control transit development in the GTA. A more collaborative approach was needed, in her opinion.
Mayor McCallion also emphasized the importance of pursuing the idea as opposed to the ideology. She gave examples of working with all levels of government and leaders from different political parties to ensure that the objectives of the City of Mississauga and the GTA as a whole were achieved. Mayor McCallion clearly feels that this is not done enough in today’s political spheres.
As she approaches the end of her tenure as Mayor, Ms. McCallion is glad to be developing a more vibrant core for the City of Mississauga and no longer being labelled as the “queen of sprawl.” This has proven to be a long-term challenge, given that the City centre was a hayfield less than 40 years ago and that the City does not own much land, and thus has challenges in dictating its ultimate development. However, over this time, through deliberate planning Mississauga has now developed the second highest density in the GTA, other than the City of Toronto.
Those in attendance at this special event were treated to an energetic, challenging and thought-provoking discussion. Ms. Keesmaat indicated at the beginning of the discussion that she saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain insights from one of Canada’s political legends, and when the Fireside Chat was over, it was clear that most in the room were of the same opinion.
Partner, BLG LLP
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