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City Hall Notebook: Colourful Casino Cacophony
A detailed account of this week's Executive Committee meetings on the proposed downtown casino

Monday and Tuesday’s Executive Committee meetings provided a cross section of Toronto politics: all types of citizens and lobbyists from various causes made deputations regarding the casino, of course city councillors were there in droves, Police Chief Bill Blair dropped in, and even Giorgio Mammoliti made a brief and heartening appearance Monday, his first since undergoing brain surgery. Such a wide segment of society was on display that these meetings felt like watching the fifth season of The Wire. Thankfully, there was nothing approaching the Stanfield crew (the OLG had no representatives). Describing what happened at the two meetings is to watch the cast in action.

First, knowing most readers aren’t active city hall goers, I’ll briefly describe the setting itself, as I do think these rooms are like no other I’ve ever been in and they strike me as an appropriate physical setting for what takes place inside. The walls form no geometric shape. It’s kind of like a quarter of a donut, but three wide strangely placed pillars in the room almost always keep some speakers out of view. Strangest of all is the lighting: there are windows, but the blinds are always down, and anyway only the atrium and not outdoors is on the other side. It feels like a basement. The grills that cover both the ceiling and the fluorescent lighting make the room look blurred like when something moving very quickly is captured in picture. It looks like Kafka’s handwritten drawings found at the start of each chapter of the Trial, and Orson Welles used identical lighting in his film depiction of that novel. I only emphasize this because “Kafkaesque” gets used often and imprecisely, but the very room itself reminds me of his world. It’s not a new building, but it does seem tailor made for this administration.

Over 200 people signed up for deputations Monday, so, for the speakers’ benefit, Ford made a motion to shorten each speech from five minutes to three. There’s been so much noise from the anti-casino movement that perhaps it’s surprising to hear many deputants didn’t oppose it. Essentially, the deputations felt like watching commercials, whatever organization they came from equalled their corporation, which in turn determined their pitch. The only difference is each councillor could talk to each deputant for a minute seeking clarification and expansion. Some of the deputants were known by council: the former mayor of Las Vegas who is currently a Caesar’s lobbyist, a veteran King Street restaurateur, Port Land lobbyists, the No Casino people. Basically, almost every impartial person opposed the casino and everyone who had a vested interest in the casino thought it was just a terrific idea.

Highlights included watching Jan Jones and Steve Rosenthal, the Vegas people, in effect plead the fifth when grilled by councillors opposed to the casino. When asked what they thought of Caesar’s laying off 1,749 people in Atlantic City casinos, we were told “that’s categorically absurd.” Other evasions were abundant. When Jones touted the casino’s loyalty program, Councillor Layton mentioned that the city report specifically opposed such a program, as it encourages gambling addictions.

Alexander Greer, a private citizen and a former law professor who grew up in Atlantic City, made a devastating deputation that was cited several times Tuesday. In his admittedly inexpert legal opinion (on this type of law), the 43 conditions that the city wants to impose on the OLG before agreeing to build a casino here aren’t legally enforceable, and so are worthless. They are mere recommendations that can be ignored by OLG at will. OLG can make the casino any size, open 24/7, and pay whatever hosting fee. He described New Jersey’s gambling region: incredibly, there’s a subsection of that city with its own zoning, its own unique tax regulations, and even its own police. Atlantic City literally no longer has any grocery stores. All but three restaurants along the boardwalk have shuttered. Unemployment is high there because casino operators drive in from Philadelphia or elsewhere (there’s lots of free parking).

It is good to see that ever since the mayor’s legal travails he abides by (his own) rules strictly and diligently. Rather than engage in communication with citizens, he confined his role Monday to ensuring no deputants communicated beyond their allotted time. At the outset he had announced a 12:30 lunch break, and even when the next deputant on the list was a sweet, bent over 90-year-old diabetic woman who the crowd requested speak before lunch because her condition prevented her from sitting down any longer, Mayor Ford’s newfound respect for rules kicked in and he declined. What a leader. Dignified as ever, he left the room and proceeded to walk face first into a camera.

Tuesday’s meeting: That our city councillors’ opinions don’t always overlap is the most banal observation imaginable, but to see it in action is at once fascinating and depressing. 

The key is understanding how statistics and platitudes are used. First, statistics. The Police Chief Bill Blair spoke on the relationship between casinos and crime. Much is made of their alleged association, but the pro-casino people believe it’s just fear mongering. The articulate Blair seemed unwilling to say anything that didn’t bear out in statistics. Fair enough. Nobody wants to be the one known for determining the Toronto casino vote one way or the other. Sticking to stats allows him to comment without commenting. Blair said there’s hardly any statistical evidence linking casinos with crime. So it was interesting when Councillor Vaughan dug deeper. Essentially, when a murder related to a gambling debt takes place, it’s not statistically a casino murder. Similarly, suicides are tracked by location, not motivation.

It may be surprising to learn how important convention centre statistics apparently are to this city. We are thirty fourth in North America, which means, according to some councillors, we are not a world class city. When it was pointed out that an already approved project will bring us to fourth on that list, nobody’s mind changed. Herein lies the key: the anti-casino case depends on demonstrably false statistics, and to admit that a stat is wrong and to adjust it is to admit that a casino makes no sense. Along the same lines, Vaughan noted that the city manager’s report estimated the same number of jobs regardless of the physical size of the casino. The number of parking spots required ranges, depending on the source, from 3,000 – 12,000.

Councillor Perks noted a joint report by the medical office of health and CAMH recommending the casino reduce social harms by: limiting hours, limiting games, slowing electronic games down, restricting ATMs on game floors, abolishing loyalty programs, creating stronger self-exclusion policy, giving gamblers monthly statements, and serving no alcohol served on gaming floor. Devastatingly, the OLG said if these were implemented they couldn’t run a viable business. In other words, Casinos need to ruin people to work.

Now, platitudes. My most cherished: evidently influenced by Rousseau, the pro-casino movement repeated the phrase, “Toronto casino social contract.” Councillor Ford denounced Vaughan’s statistics as “disingenuous” without explaining why they were invalid. “This is about building a city.” He uttered “nanny state” and “big brother” (the pro-casino movement’s literary allusions are a joy). After hearing insightful and lucid denunciations of the casino, Councillor Nunziata said, “jobs, jobs, jobs!” She referred to “downtown councillors” who disagreed with her as fear mongers, then, menacingly said that if we don’t get a casino it’ll be placed just outside Toronto, and we’ll deal with all the harm (the harm she denied a downtown casino would cause) with none of the benefits. “We’re going to be paying at the end of the day.” Remember, she denounced fear mongering. In my view, fear mongering is fine so long as the fear is real.

What became shockingly clear was that the city is having an extremely divisive vote on an issue that the province is forcing on us without asking. The “OLG modernization” is the province bullying the province. The Toronto casino is a provincial travesty first, and a municipal abomination-to-be-avoided second. Why does the Ontario government need gambling money, did they close a gas plant or something?

Anyway the real importance of Tuesday’s meeting was Councillor Robinson’s hard opposition to the casino, as well as three other traditional Ford allies–Councillors Minnan-Wong, Milczyn, and Ainslie. Though the executive committee decided to pass this on to council, there it will surely die. Good on these councillors! Perhaps this article could have been much shorter, but I don’t think such a colourful spectator sport as Toronto politics should be reduced to black and white.


Jeff Halperin is a Toronto-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter @JDhalperin.

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