February 03, 2014

Observations from the Council Chamber

On Monday, January 27, I entered Toronto City Hall’s Council Chamber for the first time ever in order to attend a consultation regarding Porter Plans. For those not familiar what this is, Porter Airlines is currently seeking to extend the runway at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport by 200 metres in each direction in order to accommodate the Bombardier CS100 jet aircraft. The Tripartite Agreement governing Billy Bishop Airport – signed by the City of Toronto, the Toronto Port Authority (the airport’s managing body), and Transport Canada – currently does not allow jet aircraft to fly there. As one of the three signatories, Toronto city council would have to approve the amendment of this agreement in order for Porter Plans to proceed, along with subsequent approval by Transport Canada. The latest city staff report on Porter Plans can be found at http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2013/ex/bgrd/backgroundfile-64318.pdf.

Upon arriving at the Council Chamber, over 300 people were present, which meant there was standing room only and a committee room was needed to accommodate the overflow. The consultation agenda consisted of presentations by each of the three Tripartite Agreement signatories, speeches from members of the public, and closing remarks by city councillors and staff. Unlike smaller consultations where members of the public could raise their hands or line up to speak, city staff required speakers to register beforehand. Given 85 speakers registered that evening, myself included, one could see why this was necessary. This was the longest public consultation I attended and it was likely over five hours, given I had to leave when there were ten speakers left and that was four and a half hours in. Most consultations, on the other hand, are usually between one and two hours. While there was some thinning out during the consultation, there was still a large crowd throughout.

There were three main arguments supporters of Porter Plans presented; those being allowing Porter Airlines to fly to more destinations (Vancouver, Los Angeles, Florida, etc.), Billy Bishop Airport’s so-called contribution to the economy, and the convenience of having an airport close to downtown. A customer service representative with Porter Airlines cited the airline’s contribution to improving attendance at conventions. Two of the supporters’ more controversial remarks, which drew some heckling, included “Toronto needs a vision!” and “Tear down the condos!”

A clear majority of speakers, however, were opposed to Porter Plans. The main arguments opponents presented included environmental concerns, impact on recreational waterfront use, debunking of convenience claims, and next year’s arrival of the Union Pearson Express train linking Pearson Airport to Downtown. A concerned parent brought his daughter to the podium to address the impact airport expansion would have on her and other kids who attend the nearby Waterfront School. Another activist likened the jet debate to the fight to stop the Spadina Expressway in the 1960’s and 1970’s. However, the remark that drew the most laughter was when a speaker mentioned whisper jets were as realistic as heart friendly poutine.
This experience in the Council Chamber, which could be applied to city council sessions and committee meetings, lead me to disclose some tips for others to follow.
  1. Bring snacks and charge your phone before going to the Council Chamber. You will never know how long the meeting could last.
  2. Take every opportunity possible to speak. For public consultations, you can register upon arrival. For committee meetings, you will need to register in advance via the City of Toronto’s website. However, members of the public cannot make deputations at city council sessions.
  3. Keep your deputation as brief as possible. Each speaker has two minutes to mention their questions and comments at public consultations. For some committees, speakers may have up to five minutes to make their deputation.
  4. Keep your comments and questions relevant to the agenda, but make sure they apply to your primary concern. In my case, it would be cycling, in which I brought up the health impact an airport expansion could have on cyclists.
  5. Sentimental touches such as children or tasteful comedic lines can boost the impact of your deputation.
  6. Please be respectful of other speakers’ views. They have the same right as you to have their opinions heard.
If you are not sure where you stand on Porter Plans, you can read the official website at http://www.porterplans.com and get an opposing view from No Jets TO at http://www.nojetsto.ca.

Debate away!
Rob Z (e-mail)

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