New councillor meets and greets the issues

Coun. Mary-Margaret McMahon accumulated eight years of volunteer work before earning a seat on Toronto City Council. (MARY-MARGARET_MCMAHON)

It’s Monday night and Mary-Margaret McMahon is busy greeting guests. Some she knows by name. The rest receive warm introductions as they filter in. While everyone settles down she offers coffee and cookies. Despite having all the appearances of an intimate gathering, this is no party.

A woman speaks up, wanting to know why the traffic at a section of Lakeshore Boulevard is not properly enforced.

“For five years I’ve been trying to even just get (the speed limit) enforced, never mind changed,” she said.

Most parents are at home this night enjoying quality time with their families. Mary-Margaret McMahon is not. Instead she’s holding a meeting with members of the Beach community in Toronto.

Answering these sorts of questions is now McMahon’s responsibility as the newly elected Toronto city councillor for Ward 32 Beaches-East York.

Of the 44 people elected in Toronto’s October 2010 municipal election to serve as city councillors, 14 had never held the position before. A third of the council, McMahon included, faced the challenge of navigating through the complex bureaucracy of City Hall for the first time.

“I was pretty nervous. I can do all the community stuff. I’m a big people person and I can usually get people to get along and things like that,” McMahon said. “But all the nitty-gritty policy stuff and the goings on (at City Hall) I was kind of nervous about.”

Toronto has one of the largest civil services in Canada with over 50,000 employees. The University of Toronto’s Cities Centre specializes in research on urban development and policy issues. Prof. Richard Stren, a senior advisor at the centre, understands how difficult it can be to unravel that bureaucracy.

“All this stuff is pretty hard to learn and it takes a long time,” Stren said. “You just have to kind of keep your head down, do your best and use whatever tools and background got you (elected) in the first place.”

For McMahon, that background is over eight years of community service to the ward and a drive to create lasting change in her community.

“I try to be in the ward as much as I can,” McMahon said. “I shop, play, work and live locally; so even when I’m out getting groceries or I go out and meet with a seniors group, if they have issues I’m happy to chat anytime, anywhere.”

She has no difficulty interacting with members of the community; her staff even jokes about her having a velvet tongue. Stren, a former professor of political science and public policy, believes that these are essential skills for a councillor.

“Obviously they have to be a good communicator,” he said. “They have to have had probably experience in some of the groups in their ward and they have to have had some history and local knowledge of what the issues of the ward are.”

The Beaches-East York ward was home to 55,410 people in 2006, according to Statistics Canada’s most recent census, too large for McMahon to connect to each constituent. Laurie Smith, administrative assistant to McMahon, recognizes the problem.

“I think her big challenge is to reign herself in a little bit and address the big concerns and let us handle some of the smaller ones,” she said.

McMahon works from 12 to 15 hours a day on problems both big and small, but it is the sheer number of smaller issues that really take their toll.

“The volume of emails and phone calls is endless,” she said. “I have high energy, but I’m exhausted in the morning. You can’t even pick me up off my bed with a spatula sometimes.”

Dealing with the big concerns is no easier for rookie councillors either because of the political posturing that takes place at City Hall.

“They don’t really have any organization to go to say, ‘How should I be voting on this?’ Stren said. “Unless they form an informal group.”

Disadvantaged or not, McMahon has no intention of taking political sides.

“I don’t believe party politics belong at the municipal level, I don’t feel you can represent your community fully that way,” McMahon said.

Back at the community meeting, McMahon responded to the constituent’s question.

“I met the traffic enforcement officer, so I’ve given him a couple of streets,” she said. “I’m happy to give him this street to get out to and then I’m happy to give you guys his email as well.”