Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 10)
Talk of a rink board of management 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, continuing into the fall, September 8, 2011, Chapter Ten
By Jutta Mason
Recap: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things all wrong, says the current management of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). The way it is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.” So a new supervisor was placed there. One of her tasks in the summer of 2011 was to dissect out the traditional activities from the many “programs that represent anomalies for PFR.”
If the “anomalies” are going to be eliminated, sanitized, or commercialized, it’s time to write down the story of how they grew up in the first place. Memory is short. I’m writing a record of how the trial-and-error approach shaped Dufferin Grove Park, up until it ran into PFR’s most recent “functional restructuring.” If the anomalies fade away, park users will still have a reference. When the time comes for a new wind to blow from neighbourhoods into City Hall, park users may want to pick up the thread and continue.
In Chapter Nine I began the account of the relations between park friends and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, CUPE Locals 416 and 79. The chapter ended with an odd plot twist: in January 2006, PFR management directed the CUPE Local 79 rink program staff not to speak to their Local 416 co-workers (zamboni drivers). This non-communication protocol was designed just for Dufferin Rink, after one zamboni driver called a health and safety meeting. His action appeared to originate in a perceived insult: he was angry, and had walked off the job, at being asked (by rink friends and lower-ranking part-time staff) to reliably match up his ice maintenance sessions with the public rink schedule. The connection between the “reliable rink schedule” request and a health and safety meeting was a mystery to rink friends, and also to the CUPE Local 79 rink program staff. But no one could find out more –- the meeting had been private.
Most of the Dufferin Rink program staff are young, and young people have not been showing up much at union meetings. There seems to be what University of Toronto Public Policy professor Tony Dean calls a “generational rift.” But when the Dufferin Rink program staff got the order not to speak to the zamboni drivers, they decided it was time to get more active in their union local. So a few of them began going to meetings, and one of them eventually filled a vacancy for a “unit officer” for the part-time recreation workers. She found that she was the one part-time unit officer, for approximately 10,000 recreation part-time workers. So if a Local 79 member had a complaint about their working conditions or their treatment by a supervisor, getting help from the union was not so easy. The Local 416 zamboni drivers, on the other hand, were full-time city employees with more militant representation. There was an imbalance of resources, and so the special protocol to stop the rink program staff from advocating for reliable ice maintenance schedules continued for the rest of the winter.
Rink friends appealed to management, but rink management didn’t respond. We asked some of our union friends, why doesn’t the union turn its attention to making the rinks run better? Don’t they care what rink users think? The union friends explained: making the rinks run better is the job of management. Unions are not supposed to look after the quality of the work. They’re supposed to look after the rights of the workers. So there was no help from that quarter either.
A Dufferin Rink board of management
Neither management nor the union offered a workable remedy for the rink problems. But there was plenty of talk among the rink users. There had been a lot of rain that year, raising another issue: most of the rinks had such thick ice from the addition of the frozen rain, that their compressors were unable to handle it. The top of the ice was essentially insulated from the cooling pipes underneath the cement. So the ice surface was mushy. Rink users and recreation staff tried to get the zamboni staff to do more scrapes, to reduce the ice thickness, but the zamboni operators insisted that wouldn’t help, and refused to do extra maintenance. Some skaters said, “Parks and Rec has shown that they can’t run the rinks properly. We need to have more local control. A Board of Management is the answer for Dufferin Rink – that will make the rink work much better.” But other skaters were worried about setting up a shadow bureaucracy which would demand too much volunteer time, and maybe cause discord in the neighbourhood as well.
I went to a nearby city arena run by a board of management. The arena manager had heard plenty about the troubles of the city’s outdoor rinks, not only at Dufferin Rink. He said he would love the chance to show how well Dufferin Rink could be run. “There’s no need for all the unhappiness and all the stand-offs. The people who work at the rink can pull together. It’s so painful to watch how complicated everything is, the way those rinks are run now.”
I talked to the arena’s zamboni driver, as he was sharpening skates for their kids’ hockey program. He reminded me that some years ago when he was younger he had been a rink guard at Dufferin Rink, and at a few other outdoor rinks as well. He was so glad he didn’t work at those rinks anymore! At the board of management arena, where he’s worked for ten years now, he does minor building repairs as well as skate sharpening and ice maintenance. He knows the skaters like they’re his family, he said, and his job is more interesting because he does so many different tasks instead of being limited to just one category. “I don’t have to worry about stepping on other people’s toes” – and he looked at me sympathetically.
After a few more visits to non-City-run rinks, and more grumbling by Dufferin Rink users, some rink friends made a poster. It invited “all friends of City of Toronto outdoor rinks” to a public meeting on February 7, to consider various solutions to the problems of outdoor rinks in general. One possible solution was to “Incorporate any outdoor rink under a community board of management if a neighbourhood requests it.”
The meeting was packed. There were some new faces, including four representatives from the CUPE Local 416 office. The City Councillor was there, as expected, but also – not expected – the Parks and Recreation director of the time, Don Boyle, had come. Evidently we had touched a nerve. He looked grim.
The meeting quickly became a debate about the possible loss of union jobs, with the quality of rink operations pushed into the background. Union Representative Ron Moreau explained to the meeting that no matter who runs the rink, the law requires that they must take over all union agreements with Local 416. He also explained that the Occupational Health and Safety legislation does indeed permit and even require all employees to leave a job site if they see a danger there. He said that what is a danger is decided by the employee, and if ratified by any joint health and safety committee, the decision is binding, since the committee is the legally constituted authority for making health and safety assessments and orders. Mr.Moreau revealed that the new Dufferin Rink Health and Safety protocol had been ordered because Local 79 staff had failed to protect a child from danger. One day a month before, Mr.Moreau said, after the ice had been cleared for maintenance, a ten-year-old boy had skated back onto the ice to retrieve his wallet from the player’s box. The zamboni was just coming onto the ice at the other end. The Health and Safety committee had concluded that recreation staff should have been able to anticipate this boy’s sudden action, and prevented him from going back onto the ice to get his wallet. The fact that the zamboni driver was just entering the far gate, and had an unobstructed view of the ice surface, was immaterial. The boy could have been killed. The zamboni driver was really shaken up when he saw a child on the ice. A drastic new staff protocol was needed to prevent a recurrence.
This was the first time any of us (including the recreation staff) had heard this story. The sudden introduction of danger to a child, as a reason for the rink stand-off, unbalanced the discussion even more than the loss-of-union-jobs issue. Rink friends had hoped to get out of the existing ruts and begin a new conversation, but it seemed like Ron Moreau had come so he could show that escape from these deep ruts was impossible. It was the law. The union representatives in the room, and some neighbours who had joined the issue for the first time, seemed to agree that the only real problem was cutbacks to funding. Rink users, they suggested, should join the union in lobbying all three levels of government for more funding for Toronto.
The meeting ended with a resolve to look into the board of management arrangements more closely, but most people left the meeting with a sense that the rink problems couldn’t be solved.
After the meeting, I told Don Boyle that despite what was said, City management should use Dufferin Rink as an example to learn from, for how to run a rink that works well. The director said, on the contrary, Dufferin Rink had been the squeaky wheel long enough. "No more squeaky wheel," he emphasized, waving his forefinger. He said he was very unhappy to learn how much money was being spent to run the park, and would take steps to cut that amount back to the 2004 spending.
– So union and management seemed to be responding to the objections of rink users with one voice. But, as Yogi Berra famously said – “it ain’t over till it’s over.” For one thing, the City Councillor did not agree that the park budget ought to be cut back. For another, the city’s refrigeration company had agreed, in a letter to rink friends, that the ice was much too thick, and so Don Boyle ordered extra maintenance after all. That meant that the zamboni drivers spent more time at the rink. The CUPE Local 79 recreation staff were a friendly bunch, and it got harder and harder for the CUPE Local 416 zamboni drivers to keep up a “don’t talk to me” posture. Many of them had never liked the protocol in the first place.
So the members of CUPE 79 and CUPE 416, and the rink friends, resumed talking to each other. In the years that followed, better zamboni drivers were placed at Dufferin Rink, and the ice maintenance schedule began to be followed reliably. It never again rained as hard as that winter of 2006, so the ice never got as thick again. As the ice got better and the staff got back to a normal working relationship, ever more people came to the rink, knowing that they could skate or play shinny hockey according to a reliable schedule (and sit in front of the woodstove with their children, and get Mary Sylwester’s good soup at the zamboni cafe, and borrow good skates for a $2 donation, and meet their neighbours – a lovely place). But a few years later another union issue arose, this one relating to park friends.
Hosing the rink to make ice: The steady increase in the number of people coming to the rink brought its own problems. Crowding is not fun for skaters. Fortunately, the City of Toronto has 51 outdoor compressor-cooled skating rinks, and so there are many other places to skate even when the air temperature is above zero. To maximize the outdoor skating season, Dufferin Rink friends tried for years to get the City to restore the rink season to its original timing: mid-November to the end of February. (After that the sun gets too high and strong and the outdoor rinks get mushy ice.) City management, however, found it more convenient to schedule rink staff from early December to mid-March, because that timing fits better with between-season vacations and the end-of-fall and beginning-of-spring park clean-ups. The union didn’t seem to care either way (or at least, they made no comment). However, the later season-opening effectively cuts two weeks off the rink season, since March is usually a write-off even if the rinks are technically open.
Deputations by skaters made no impression on the Parks committee. But in 2009, at a late-night Council meeting, North York City Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong snuck in a provision for fourteen rinks to open two weeks before the other thirty-six. This was against staff advice, and when it came time to flood the fourteen rinks, the start-up flooding schedule was set up to fail. Start-up flooding works best when the first floods are done at night, instead in daytime sunshine. In mid-November, the compressors were turned on to cool down the cement slab, but no staff were scheduled to flood overnight at any rinks except for City Hall. Daytime floods didn’t stick at the other rinks, and PFR management said to the councillors – see?? It’s too warm to open this early.
We knew that Harbourfront Rink (non-City) was making ice successfully, using the overnight flooding method. So some volunteers slipped into Dufferin Rink at night, hauled the fat black rink hoses out of the clubhouse garage, and sprayed that whole huge rink with a two layers of water, section by section. Laying down that water in the middle of the night was a fun adventure, and it froze instantly. The next night we did it again, four or five times. There was enough ice in this base layer that the staff’s daytime floods began to solidify on top of the night-time ice. The temperatures were well above zero, even most nights, but the compressors worked well and the ice kept getting thicker.
By this devious method, Dufferin Rink was the only neighbourhood rink that opened when City Council had directed the fourteen rinks to open, two weeks before the rest. Catherine Porter, a columnist from the Star, joined in the flooding one night, and wrote up the story.
A few months later, we heard that the union had filed a grievance. No detailed information is available from either the union or management. (Now we’ll try going through Freedom of Information.) What we want to know is – did CUPE object that management didn’t assign rink workers to flood overnight, so that volunteers had to do it (we would agree with that – the city has staff to stay up all night and pull heavy hoses around). Or did CUPE merely object that volunteers had access to the hoses, when those should have been kept out of reach of the citizens? In other words, is the Union interested in the problems of the park users?
We don’t know the answer. The wall to keep the people who live in Toronto away from the concerns of their city management and the municipal workers’ union is very high. Our City management describes park users as “external parties.” Our union friends say that their only responsibility is protecting their members. But Torontonians are arguably the reason for the existence of the other two parties. They are the third element, and excluding them works out badly for both the park and the city.
At times in this chapter it seemed like management and the union were working together against the park users. More often, each party pointed to the other as the reason for what ails the city. The union says that the actions of the zamboni drivers in 2006 were the fault of management, which didn’t direct the drivers to keep to the rink schedule nor to cut the ice more often. Management says that when they directed the zamboni drivers to do things they didn’t like, the drivers called a health and safety meeting, or they booked off sick and left management without enough drivers.
When the rink users wanted to find a remedy, they were jumped from both sides. More recently, PFR management has suggested many times that the local collaboration between park friends and the front-line park program staff violates the City’s collective agreement with CUPE. At a recent meeting, the Toronto/East York Recreation manager cautioned Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao that she might be interfering with the collective agreement by raising the staffing issues at Dufferin Grove. (She stood her ground and insisted on continuing the conversation.)
But the game can’t go on forever. It’s not a two-party game, for one thing. And the boundaries between the parties are sometimes permeable – which is what my serial story is about.
The dictionary page
A new vocabulary has grown up within the City bureaucracy to accompany the “functional model” used for the most recent restructuring of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). (1) There are institutional ways of bending common words like “action,” (2) there are words which have one meaning in the community letters to Councillor Bailao but a very different meaning when used by PFR management, like “food,” and (3) there are other words, like “compliance” and “authorization” which are almost never used in ordinary talk. But they can act as sticks to whack people with. There are so many of these words that although I used up the whole of Chapter Seven for the dictionary, I only got to the beginning of the “F” words. Since then I’ve been adding one dictionary page for every chapter. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to get through the alphabet.
Interview selection tool: When candidates for part-time City of Toronto recreation jobs at Dufferin Grove Park were recently interviewed by full-time staff, the Recreationn supervisor told me they would be using the City’s “interview selection tool.” This turned out to be a list of standard questions administered to all the young folks who approach the city for a summer job. There was no chance for the senior Dufferin Grove staff to ask about skills or interests relating to this park. PFR management says this interview format is the only one that’s acceptable to them.
Human resources: if you work for the City, you’re a unit of human resource. If you work part-time, you’re a very cheap unit of resource. It’s not a good idea to ask for too many days off from the schedule that management assigns. The city’s message is: if you can’t fit yourself to the schedule, don’t ask to work here. And don’t promote your great education or experience or resourcefulness – they fundamentally don’t matter. You can be replaced by any number of teenagers.
Harmonization: this is the word used for integrating all the job classifications from the former separate cities of Scarborough, Etobicoke, North York, East York, and Toronto. It’s a particular problem for PFR because the part-time workers do so many different activities citywide. There are new activities that become popular, for example Pilates fitness, which still have no existing category. There are activities which are multi-dimensional, such as the community programs at Dufferin Grove Park’s “community centre without walls,” which don’t fit any existing job description. Recognizing this problem, former Parks and Recreation Director Don Boyle asked Dufferin Grove staff and friends to give him a more accurate description of the work that staff do at the park. He got the report in 2006, but it appears that it was never integrated into the new job list. The harmonized jobs are currently in arbitration (not public). For now, though, Recreation Director Janie Romoff has told Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao that the minimum wage category called “Community Activity Planner” is the only one that fits most jobs at Dufferin Grove.
The Money Story
In Chapter Eight I gave some background on how CELOS came to administer the donated funds that go back into programs at Dufferin Grove Park. Since the mandate of CELOS is doing “practical and theoretical research into public commons,” it makes no sense for us to keep running park food operations once our research has shown they can work well. The City should take them over, but the question is: how can city policies be adapted to park food without stalling the food programs? That’s one of the issues that will need working out this fall.
As a first step, PFR has taken over the staffing of all the programs. That’s a good beginning, but it still needs more public input to make it work well. CELOS has begun posting the weekly income (all food is PWYC donations) and expenditures. That way everyone can become knowledgeable about how much it costs to run the park programs. Here is the accounting for the week ending Sept. 4:
-- a pizza day cheque (birthday party donation) for $165 (August 31), made out to the City of Toronto
-- Campfire donations for August, totalling $587.50 cash (and a list of names and dates)
-- a CELOS cheque for $1043.58 (for food-related donations from August 29 to Sept.4, minus expenses).
The breakdown is:
Income: Donations $5655.98
- Groceries (incl. bread supplies): $3201
- Supplies (incl. firewood): $791.40
- Contracts (incl. website and youth program): $620
Total expenditures: $4612.40
The City auditor recently presented an audit of the East York Curling Club to City Council. The Curling Club is jointly run by city staff and community volunteers. Responding to the auditor’s recommendations, PFR issued a “request for proposals” to external service providers to take over the food/drink operations at the club. However, there were no suitable applicants. The city plans to try again next year, and also hopes to introduce many of the auditor’s recommendations at Dufferin Grove. The auditor says this will lead to “improved operating efficiencies.” The next few chapters will tell the story of how money has been raised and spent at Dufferin Grove over the past 18 years. Real-life situations may be more complex than the auditor realizes. More interesting, too.
Fall Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer.