Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 15)
Parks department restructuring continued 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, continuing into the fall, October 27, 2011 , Chapter Fifteen
By Jutta Mason
Recap: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things that don’t fit the city’s policies, says the current management of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). The way the park is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.” So a new supervisor was placed there last May. One of her tasks was to dissect out the traditional activities from the many “programs that represent anomalies for PFR.”
Now this supervisor, Wendy Jang, is about to be replaced by a different supervisor, Glen Synowicki. The current recreation manager, Kelvin Seow, is also being moved, to Scarborough, while the Scarborough recreation manager, Sue Bartleman, will now be the new manager in Toronto/East York. When general manager Brenda Patterson took over PFR, she said that she intended to move staff around frequently, and she was as good as her word (including moving the long-time Ward 18 supervisor Tino DeCastro away from recreations programs altogether). Ms. Patterson has recently moved to the job of deputy city manager. Jim Hart, formerly the Executive Director of Municipal Licensing and Standards, has been moved to being the PFR general manager.
As the rink season approaches, Wallace Rink and Campbell Rink will be staffed by the same part-timers who run the programs at Dufferin Rink. But those are the only familiar faces. At the supervision level, it gets more complicated. Until Tino was moved, he was the recreation supervisor for all three rinks and the other Ward 18 recreation centres. The new Dufferin Grove supervisor Glen Synowicki is in charge of Dufferin Grove Park, Wallace Rink, Campbell Rink, the St.Lawrence Recreation Centre downtown, and recreation programs on Toronto Island. Another supervisor, Peter Lewis, formerly in the Rosedale/Forest Hill area and then briefly moved to Parkdale, is now supervising Wallace and McCormick Recreation Centres and MacGregor Park, but not the rinks. Wendy Jang is in charge of standards and compliance at all the downtown outdoor rinks. So she’ll be involved with the three ward 18 rinks as well as Glen. Direct supervision of the part time rink staff will be done by Community Recreation Programmer Margaret Tavares, who reports to both of the new Ward 18 supervisors. Are you confused?
Former downtown recreation manager Kelvin Seow said at a meeting that this approach to staffing is called a “matrix system.” I looked up that term on Google. I found this: Matrix Systems is an industry leader in access control and security management solutions. Committed to protecting people, property, and information. But that doesn’t sound quite right. Maybe this version of musical-chairs management is so new that google hasn’t even picked it up yet.
In some ways, the story of Dufferin Grove Park illustrates many of the larger issues affecting civic public spaces citywide: how city funds are spent, whether the talents of city staff are put to good use, whether “proper procedure” is ranked higher than results, how the gifts of work and talent that park users may offer can be maximized instead of being pushed away, how both staff and park users can be encouraged to try things rather than be forced to comply with an ever-expanding list of “thou shalt not’s.”
In the last chapter of this “Fall Story” I wrote about the 2003 PFR “restructuring” crisis and its aftermath. Right after the election, Jane Jacobs and many others persuaded then-Mayor David Miller to suspend the radical staffing changes that PFR management planned to make, citywide. I had been given a draft copy of the restructuring plans anonymously just before they were to be launched, and I added my voice to those who were trying to stop it. The mayor said the plan would have to wait until more citizens and front-line staff had been consulted.
But management, having worked on the restructuring plan for almost two years, stuck to their guns. Soon after the mayor-ordered public “stakeholder” consultations began, I heard that the last remaining PFR director from the former city of Toronto, Mario Zanetti, was moved from downtown to Etobicoke. Then his job was abolished, forcing him into early retirement. Zanetti had been helpful to Dufferin Grove in the past, but it had been years since I’d talked to him, so I couldn’t ask him if the rumour was true. I was sad to hear that he might have ended his career like that, and sadder still that he wouldn’t be around any more. It’s possible that he was the last person in upper management who would have been critical of the abandonment of place-based staffing (“form”) in favour of task-based staffing (“function”). Meantime, the “stakeholders” were encouraged to think big thoughts together. Staff told meeting participants that 400,000 Torontonians were registered in recreation programs and 2.6 million took part in swimming, clubs, or skating. These numbers were impossible - unless indeed every man, woman and child in Toronto was engaged in a city recreation activity. But they were in the PFR publicity reports anyway.
Lofty aims matched the numbers, in the handouts given to meeting participants: Parks and Recreation will bring all of Toronto’s diverse communities together on our common grounds. We will provide diverse leisure and recreational opportunities that welcome everyone. Our parks, playing fields and recreation centers, our trails, forests, meadows, marshes, ravines, will be beautiful, clean, safe, and accessible, meeting all communities’ needs. We will be the lead advocates for life in motion.
PFR Director Kathy Wiele emphasized management’s extensive staff consultations, reporting that there were hundreds of returns from a written staff survey, and that about 750 front-line staff took part in consultations.
The stakeholder meeting participants were dunked into a kind of management word soup: A ferry ticket price or a summer camp fee was a "consumer product category." Parks and Recreation, the meeting leaders said, needed a transformation, allowing their planners to think big at the top. Staff were going to "position themselves" to promptly analyze city-wide trends, easily identify costs and implement changes, flexibly place staff and match them to new portfolios, seamlessly accomplish change at the same time as minimizing disorientation and above all, repeated on almost every page, "move the division forward." Staff would devote themselves to "a dynamic process that requires continuous evaluation and fine tuning."
As the weeks passed, the attendance at the stakeholder meetings gradually diminished. People’s eyes glazed over as the concepts kept on coming. Someone had run a cost-benefit analysis on the city’s trees. “The trees set into Toronto’s streets are worth almost $2 billion....Over a 50 year life span, the average tree makes: $31,250 worth of oxygen; $62,000 worth of air pollution control; recycles $37,500 worth of water; controls $31,250 worth of soil erosion.....:” – followed by, incongruously “More trees can help soothe a neighbourhood locked in strife.”
The general manager of the time, Brenda Librecz, tried to keep the tone informal and upbeat. As spring warmed up, she came to the meetings in sandals with little pictures painted on her toenails. She said that the mayor had seen them and laughed, despite all his cares. In early June, Ms.Librecz announced that her Division had hired journalist Elaine Dewar to “toughen up” the PFR restructuring proposal and get it ready to present to Council. Dewar said she would put in some “wows” and “big asks” so the council had something to reach forward to.
By the end of June, City Council had the document in hand. Entitled Our Common Grounds, it was enthusiastic about Toronto’s ability to “market” itself to the world: “London, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Seoul….These cities are Toronto’s new competitors. They are leaving behind the heavy industry that brought them to world prominence, marketing instead their citizens’ skills and ideas, becoming what economist Richard Florida called Creative Cities….As Council has recognized, that puts Toronto in a great competitive position: cultural diversity and quality of life are Toronto’s best features.”
The report gave a little dash of history lite: “In 1990 there was a hard recession, forcing the City to let go thousands of talented people who’s made Toronto known as New York run by the Swiss, or, the City That Works.….The homeless overflowed from the shelters to the streets. They took up their posts on our splendid boulevards and parks, built tent cities, camped under bridges and in the ravines.”
Was it the thousands of talented City staff, without jobs, who overflowed into the boulevards and pitched their tents in the ravines? The relentless beat of the report didn’t specify, there was no time. PFR was in charge of the problem of the inactivity of youth too. If youth didn’t get recreation programs to keep them active, society would soon have to pay “billions…. to take care of this inactive echo….It’s not in the common interest to let the future take care of itself. We have to turn the river of the city’s youth in a new direction. But first we have to understand where it’s flowing….We need to offer youth inclusion into something larger than themselves.” The language evoked a military-style youth corps. And new accommodations would also have to be made for the expected one million seniors in the GTA by 2021. “Expect bingo operators to take their cue from the movie exhibitors and instal luxury seating, good food, and classy cocktail lounges where musicians will perform ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and other golden oldies.” In the end, the report applied equal-opportunity condescension to all age groups: “With high levels of education and a lack of social consensus or shared values, the public is demanding a greater role in decision-making. Protesting change and being part of the ‘public process’ has become a new leisure activity.”
These rather shocking caricatures of citizens floated in long lists of “big asks” and “wow” items. The lists were so extensive that they overwhelmed any questions about PFR staff restructuring. Here are some of the recommendations:
The report recommended increasing the city’s tree canopy to 40% (from 17%) by 2010, with 16,000 more trees to be planted every year; setting up an “Eco-fan club” to do tours and tree care; setting up a Parks renaissance program to increase irrigation and turf care, redoing garden beds and replacing old park furniture citywide; developing a dogs-in-parks strategy, making eight spectacular new “world gardens” to reflect Toronto’s diversity; “letting Toronto’s landscape designers shine” by getting their help to prepare a Parks Master Plan; expanding trails and creating a Park Ranger program; setting up a professional gardener certification program for disadvantaged youth; setting up a natural area apprenticeship program to hire 60 students; increasing the capital maintenance budget by at least $40 million a year, for repairs and renovations; increasing sports fields by 10% and increasing youth sports activities; hiring youth outreach workers to explain parks and rec programs to newcomers; lowering the hiring age to 14; setting up special PFR drop-in centres for homeless youth; setting up youth training programs and having a youth council at every community centre; increasing the number of physically active Torontonians by 10% by 2010, and increasing children’s registration in recreation programs by 20%; “Parks and Recreation be the coach for the whole city”; making service plans, organizational design, stakeholder engagement plan, training and skills plan, and a three-year business plan, to be completed by year end. And that was only half the list.
An overwhelming, impossible to-do list. In the background, the move toward the “function over form” staff restructuring resumed, with stakeholders too limp – after all those planning meetings and that enormous list – to really take much notice.
Park users who had worked together with staff on neighbourhood projects for years found that they had to start building relationships from scratch, with staff they’d never met, who had no loyalties to their neighbourhoods. Recreation supervisors had categories assigned to them (for example arts and crafts, or aquatics, or “active living”) instead of community centres. In parks, different supervisors looked after trees, or gardens, or turf, or washrooms. Far-off downtown officials gave permission, or withheld it, for running local events.
Changes rarely happen all at once, and in the case of Dufferin Grove Park, not so much shifted at first. The Ward 18 City Councillor, Adam Giambrone, let it be known that he wanted continuity of staffing, and so Tino stayed as Recreation supervisor, assigned to regional “Arts and Crafts” but helping to make the park work too. The Parks supervisor was also a familiar face.
The front-line staff kept busy trying new things. There was beading, clay-building and storytelling at the wading pool. Friday Night Supper was in its first summer. The Clay and Paper puppets were back. From the June 2004 newsletter: Lilith' –This show is a re-mounting of what Clay and Paper call their "most extravagant show ever," and indeed, the glowing giant puppets for that show, performing under brilliant lights in the grove just north of the baseball diamond two years ago, were unforgettable. There are some new puppets and the show has new material, but the Lilith puppet and the "God Giants" will also be back. Park friends will remember that these puppets were expelled from the rink house by order of the health and safety inspectors on December 18 last year. Now they've returned, and are rehearsing every day beside the field house. (Feel free to watch!)
The newsletter that month also contained an item titled “Please complain”: If you find a picnic table that's wobbly or a mess of trash in the gardens or a nail sticking up in the playground, please tell the park staff (you'll usually find them at the playground or near the ovens). They want to keep things in good order and everyone's eyes can help. The same goes for destructive or scary behaviour. If it happens at night, leave a message on the park phone at 416 392-0913 and the staff or park friends will pay extra attention to that spot on the following nights. The city can and will issue trespass letters to people who make trouble in the park, prohibiting those folks from returning until they've cleaned up their act.
The June Dufferin Grove newsletter provides an interesting comparison to the long list of “big asks” in the Our Common Grounds report. Almost all of the suggestions on the citywide list were being carried out by Dufferin Grove’s program staff, in a small, local way, without any fanfare. There were sports clubs, gardens being added, trees being planted and watered, young kids working for honoraria and acting as hosts for newcomers to the park, youth hanging out at their chosen “drop-in” (the basketball court) and being consulted, homeless people being fed and sometimes sheltered, benches being fixed. There were even dogs off leash:
Dogs off leash: This is not legal but it's common practice at our park. Most of the dog owners are fine and sensible people, and their irregular, often late-night presence makes the park safer. However, sometimes dogs can be scary and owners can be oblivious. If you find a dog intimidating, and the owner is not interested in your friendly request for them to control their dog, talk to the staff. The staff will be glad to talk to the owner or the owner's friends, and straighten it out. This includes the owners of pit bulls. Some of them are friendlier than they look but everyone can use a hint if they unwittingly make people in the park uncomfortable. If you can't find the staff, leave a message about a dog concern on the park on the park phone: 416 392-0913. Please leave your name and number: anonymous messages are annoying and usually don't get action.
No one at City Hall would have compared the “big asks” of Our Common Grounds with the plain-Jane programs that the staff were establishing at Dufferin Grove. Neither would the young staff at the park have thought of themselves as producing “wows” for Dufferin Grove. They were just trying things as their time and their abilities allowed. Their recreation supervisor (Tino), whose own motto was “let’s make it work,” gave them the freedom they needed to experiment. There was no public to-do list and PFR management downtown didn’t attend much to what the staff were doing, but park users noticed. The same June newsletter worried about the crowds: It will be obvious to many people that the park was very event-filled and crowded during the last two weeks of June. There were wonderful things happening, but sometimes it seemed a bit TOO lively. There are some more very nice events coming up during the rest of the summer, but not so relentlessly. Parks should also be peaceful places, for people to just read and talk and have family picnics, and throw a frisbee around. Hopefully during the rest of the summer, there will be plenty of such peaceful times.
It wasn’t until five or six years later that PFR management began to feel that Dufferin Grove had too many anomalies, and that the staff, including Tino DeCastro, ought to be reined in. By then, Our Common Grounds had vanished from public discussion, to be replaced by the new, policy-and-compliance-oriented Recreation Service plan and Parks plan. I’ll describe those plans in another chapter, but for next week I want to tell a bit more about how city staff, working in small local ways, bring different results than central, citywide restructuring plans do.
The dictionary page
A new vocabulary has grown up within the City bureaucracy to accompany the “functional model” used for the two most recent restructurings of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). These are its characteristics: (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.
This week, I’ll take a break from the grumpy bureaucratic dictionary entries to make a list of some words that come up repeatedly in park users’ letters. These are the letters that went to various officials and elected representatives on occasions when the park was in trouble. We printed and bound the letters into a couple of fat booklets for rink users to enjoy in the winter (best read in front of a warm fire in the rink house woodstove, maybe with a cup of good Fair Trade coffee). I picked out words, and a few phrases, that are used in reference to the park, at least twice – most are used much oftener.
Love, used many times. Also frequent: fun, lovely, wonderful, joy, innovation, community spirit, flourishing, mini-ecology, safe and happy, thrilled, accomplishment, enjoyment, gathering place, doesn’t cost much, helpful, welcoming, healthy food, responsive, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” participatory, creative, treasure, unique, vibrant, public-community partnership, long-term relationships, community engagement, responsible, rich resource, civility, highlight, heartening, existing working relationships, community-driven, community-built, inspiring, empowering, connection, community based activism, citizen participation, grass roots, community that evolved, utilizing limited resources, community hub, locus of neighbourliness, cheerfulness, highly participatory community, meaningful connections, creative, collective thinking, great economic value.
A very friendly list.
The Money Story
Cash-handling: On Friday October 21, the third “transition” meeting was held at Wallace Rink House. Councillor Ana Bailao was there, as well as Recreation manager Kelvin Seow, Recreation supervisors Wendy Jang and Peter Lewis, five Dufferin Grove program staff , and me (Jutta Mason) for CELOS. This is an attempt to transfer cash handling (for food and skate loans at Wallace and Campbell rinks) from CELOS to city staff (good), adapting the city’s cash-handling protocols (tricky) so that they don’t make the food and skate programs impossible. The meeting lasted over three hours and was pretty frustrating. The outcome was promising, though – it looks like management will allow staff to begin the skating season with the same staffing setup as last season, and then the city’s cash-handling methods can be tested in real life instead of just discussed hypothetically at meetings. It’s surprising how complicated grocery shopping can be if cash is not allowed and food is regarded as “inventory,” which must be guarded. Mistrust is usually expensive, when financial arrangements are based on mistrust. So the question is: can the Ward 18 program staff work together with rink users and management to devise a cash-handling method that’s based on pay-what-you-can donations, food-as-hospitality, and skates-as-community-resource? Can mistrust be replaced by transparent accounting, posted on the web every week and open to all to see? Can the auditor be persuaded that the city’s current cash-handling methods are not the only ones possible?
In the last chapter I mentioned that CUPE Local 416 has retained a firm of forensic accountants, Rosen & Associates, to help untangle the city’s finances in ways that were beyond the capacities of KPMG. On the Rosen Associates website, there’s an interesting introduction:
Contrary to popular belief, accounting standards leave much room for discretion. The sheer amount of litigation involving accounting and financial reporting is testament to the degree to which accounting can be manipulated and abused in the wrong hands. Our firm was founded on the premise that accounting choices exist, and can influence decision-making. Hence, we don’t just ask what accounting treatment was applied. We ask, “why?”
So the project for the winter is finding the right way of doing small, local, community-based accounting. It’s going to be really interesting, and all ideas are welcome.
Fall Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer