Jennifer Keesmaat Has Left The Building

Jennifer Keesmaat’s love and passion for urbanism cannot be doubted. Through her speeches she demonstrated a breadth of knowledge and experience that few possess. That she has made herself into a hero to urbanists, progressives, and the media cannot be denied. But as the Chief City Planner, a civil servant, I am glad to see her go.

Keesmaat viewed herself and her role not as being a Director in the Toronto Civil Service but as a Commissioner in an American style strong mayor administration, along with the publicity and prestige that such a public office holds; think Janette Sadik-Khan. However, because of the way that she ran her office, real damage has been done to the trust and integrity of the planning department and to Toronto’s transit system.

In 2012 when Keesmaat was hired, Rob Ford was the mayor. The very public firing of TTC General Manager Gary Webster had occurred only a few months prior. The City had approached several top candidates, but none accepted the position. Keesmaat accepted, but from what I can piece together successfully bargained for some unusual contractual perks.

Throughout her tenure Keesmaat made herself the centre of attention. Until recently, the City Planning webpage featured a photograph of Keesmaat & a link to her personal blog, the only department to have such a section. Her flamboyant style was widely noted, the joke was often made that if one wanted to guarantee her attendance at a meeting, they should publish material with a photo of Keesmaat prominently displayed.

Her public boosterism had the effect of endearing her with urbanists and progressives – but also of hardening and stratifying the positions of councillors.

Being a civil servant at the level of the Chief City Planner comes with enormous power and enormous responsibility. The civil service can create headaches for politicians by dragging their feet or insisting on following arcane procedure. Conversely the civil service can accelerate political initiatives by pointing out shortcuts or addressing concerns before they become issues. The wording of a recommendation or the interpretation of a political directive can have enormous consequences.

Keesmaat’s public positions rendered many of those levers unavailable and made her susceptible to exaction. Her recommendations and statements to council were widely viewed as being politically tinged and either dismissed or praised depending on which side of the debate one was on. The case for her politicization of planning is made stronger by her endorsement of John Tory’s bid for reelection even before leaving her office, an action that would draw tough questions about professional integrity & neutrality for most career civil servants.

Many of her much vaunted and high profile initiatives resulted in no lasting changes to the city. I’ve previously written about the “Transit Reset” which has had the effect of stalling transit development on the waterfront and losing opportunities. Her “Scarborough Subway Compromise” had the effect of reinvigorating the indefensible Scarborough Subway which was dying a slow death from massive cost increases. After five years under her tenure the city’s zoning bylaws have still not been harmonized with the Official Plan. The development permit system she so publicly championed is mired in appeals at the OMB.

The planning office she leaves behind is a mess. Sorely understaffed and overworked; despite having the funds available to hire more planners Keesmaat failed to convince council to authorize additional employees. Planning is legislated by the province to be funded by fees and the city has been sitting on large reserves of funds for years. It was only after the union raised the issue that council reacted.

While many will say they thought of Keesmaat as a breath of fresh air, the fact is that she was not an effective bureaucrat, the job that she was hired to do. When you consider her record in light of what’s actually changed, and what’s likely to last beyond her departure, the fresh air she brought to City Hall is likely to go stale sooner rather than later.

I wish Keesmaat the best of luck in her future endeavours.