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Behind the scenes of City Hall's quixotic quest to investigate two social media accounts
City Hall Watcher #230: Adin Wagner looks at the FOI documents revealing City Hall's search for the people behind anti-Bradford and Anti-Bailão campaigns, plus LOBBYIST WATCH!
Hey there! There are just 21 days until Toronto elects a new mayor. Advance voting — which accounted for about 14% of the total vote last fall — begins on Thursday. And there are no take-backs. Once a ballot is pushed through the vote-counting machine, it’s final.
In other words, it’s crunch time.
Speaking of crunchy times, in this issue, special contributor Adin Wagner returns to tell us about a trove of FOI documents he obtained related to a bizarre episode in April during which City Hall staff collectively and haphazardly tried to hunt down the identity of some social media accounts opposing the candidacies of Ana Bailão and Councillor Brad Bradford.
It’s a strange tale full of interesting decisions, a relatively heated internal debate, and notable cameos, including one councillor.
After that, I’ve got a quick mid-campaign edition of LOBBYIST WATCH, featuring banned bidders, Kensington Market real estate, the World Cup and more.
Because this is the milestone 230th issue of City Hall Watcher, it’s being sent out FREE to all subscribers. If you enjoy this issue and want to get more just like it, consider supporting independent journalism and becoming a paid subscriber. It’s just $6 a month or $60 a year, plus tax — a bargain and a deal.
⚡️ This issue runs a little long. If it gets cut off in your email client, read it on the web.
— Matt Elliott
“So that to me feels like somebody who is kind of going out on a limb or doing some digging”: a behind-the-scenes look at City Hall’s rush to find the people behind social media accounts
By Adin Wagner
You may have been confused — I sure was — when at 9:30 a.m. on April 12, the official @cityoftoronto Twitter account publicly sent the following reply to a relatively innocuous tweet from @BradfordFactsTO, an account publicly opposing the mayoral candidacy of Councillor Brad Bradford:
An identical reply from @cityoftoronto was sent to the anti-Ana Bailão account, @BailaoBrokeIt, again in response to a pretty unremarkable tweet criticizing Bailão’s voting record.
The accounts link to the websites bradfordto.ca and bailaobrokeit.ca, respectively. These sites and accounts had been disseminating critical content about the two anticipated mayoral candidates for several weeks before the election period.
When the @cityoftoronto account entered the mentions of the two accounts, Twitter exploded in outrage.
It was easy to see why. As journalist Justin Ling tweeted, it looked like the City was “telling social media users that participating in civil discourse could be an election offence.”
Internal City Hall records obtained via a Freedom of Information request shed further light on the process that led to the @cityoftoronto tweets.
Prompted by three formal complaints submitted on the very first day of the “restriction period” for paid third-party advertising, City Elections staff sought to contact the anonymous organizers to inform them that their websites were in potential violation of election laws.
The ultimate decision of the Elections staff — to vaguely reply to tweets that were not themselves in violation of election laws — was made contrary to the advice of City communications staff, who predicted that it would confuse the public and provoke outrage. As media requests and angry messages came pouring in, many levels of City Hall became involved in the deliberations on how to respond, including a City Councillor, the City Manager and several intersecting city departments.
Paid advertisements from unregistered third parties only contravene City of Toronto election laws after nominations officially open, which for the upcoming mayoral by-election was April 3. As soon as that day came, complaints were filed against both anti-candidate sites, BradfordTO.ca and BailaoBrokeit.ca.
At 11:48 a.m. on April 3, a complaint was filed against the organizers behind bradfordto.ca, which alleged that the group was conducting third-party advertising without registration or financial disclosure. Two similar complaints were filed at 12:00 p.m. and 3 p.m., at least one of which pertained to the organizers behind bailaobrokeit.ca. Any identifying information contained in the complaints was redacted in the records provided to me.
Christopher Hubbarde, Project Manager for Election Services, expressed shock at the immediate flurry of complaints in an email the next day.
One of the formal complaints accused a specific woman of being associated with the anti-Bradford site, and Elections staff sent an email to that woman on April 4. The email explained that Toronto Elections had received a complaint identifying her as associated with the anti-Bradford site and that the site may be in violation of third-party advertising rules. It also directed her to an online guide for third-party advertising. The email contained no action items and did not request that the recipient get in touch with Elections staff.
A final edit made prior to the email being sent was to add that the woman had been named in the complaint to avoid the email sounding like an “unfounded accusation.”
“I want to say that I think that’s pretty messed up”
The woman named in the complaint was Britt Caron, who confirmed to me in an interview that she received an email on April 4 from City staff which matched the one in the FOI records.
Caron has been involved in the anti-Bradford and anti-Bailão content from the beginning.
“The initial kind of Bradford stuff that happened before the election, was a group of Bradford’s constituents who were unhappy with him as a City Councillor and who wanted to get ahead of the election and kind of share information that we thought was damning based on his public record,” Caron explained to me.
Some of the people involved in the anti-Bradford work who had either been former Bailão constituents or who were just unhappy with Bailão’s work at City Hall then launched the anti-Bailão site, said Caron.
Weeks after the @cityoftoronto tweets, the organizers of the two groups registered as the third-party advertiser, Toronto Citizens Collective Corp. The registration was certified on May 4, 2023.
Caron is named as the public representative of TCCC.
Caron made clear to me that she is not the leader of TCCC, as the group has no official leadership. She says that she only volunteered to take on a public role because her self-employed status insulates her from career repercussions.
But at the time the complaints were filed, the organizers were still operating completely anonymously and Caron had not publicly identified herself as involved with the anti-Bradford site. The fact that she was somehow identified in one of the complaints irks her quite a bit.
“I want to say that I think that’s pretty messed up. Just because [there was] no indication that I [was] part of those websites”, Caron told me.
“So that to me feels like somebody who is kind of going out on a limb or doing some digging.”
Caron says that she and the other organizers understood ahead of time that the restriction period for paid third-party advertising began on April 3. As they weighed whether or not to register as third-party advertisers, Caron says that they made sure to stop paying for anything that could be considered paid third-party advertising and “archived” the websites prior to the day nominations opened, to avoid potential violations.
When Caron received the April 4 email from Elections staff regarding third-party advertising violations, she did not reply. She says that the email contained no action items, and besides, she thought that they “did not have a leg to stand on in terms of indicating that [she] was involved” with the anti-Bradford site.
By April 6, Elections staff had moved on from attempting to contact Caron specifically. Caron told me that she received no follow-up messages from City staff and there is no further mention of her in the records provided to me.
“But I hate this plan — just being honest”
Still, Elections staff remained intent on making contact with the organizers behind the two sites. The problem was that neither the sites nor the accounts contained any contact information. It was therefore decided that staff would contact them through their public Twitter accounts, @BradfordFactsTO and @BailaoBrokeIt.
This approach complicated matters because the accounts themselves were not a potential violation of election law. Registration as a third-party advertiser is only required for advertising activities which cost money, and social media is free (though costly in many non-monetary ways). It was the websites associated with the accounts that concerned Elections staff, as they presumed that the sites cost money to operate.
With that in mind, a mix of Elections, Social Media and Communications staff messaged back and forth on an internal instant messaging platform about how best to contact the group organizers on Twitter. Neither of the two Twitter accounts had opened their direct messaging feature, so staff concluded that their only option was publicly tweeting at the accounts.
This, obviously, complicated matters even further.
For one, it appears that the strategy was unprecedented.
It was also unpopular.
City staff debated how best to navigate the awkwardness of the situation. Andrea Martinelli, City Hall’s Senior Communications Director, suggested a more direct approach: replying to a tweet which likely violated the rules and pointing to a webpage which explained the violation. But the publicity of the entire thing made others gun shy.
Elections staff ultimately landed on a less explicit approach, because they did not “want to go the route of accusing anyone, especially publicly.”
On April 11, after the Easter weekend, Elections staffer Kazia Fraser messaged the group chat that the Elections department had decided to reply with the following message, in response to tweets from the anti-Bradford and Anti-Bailão Twitter accounts:
Toronto Elections would like to contact you about communications regarding candidates. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fraser and the social media staff began suggesting different tweets from the two accounts as reply options, but Martinelli again questioned the approach. She stressed that it was the websites, not the Twitter accounts, that were in potential violation, and that sending a message to the non-violating Twitter accounts would confuse the messaging.
Martinelli’s advice was apparently ignored, and the @cityoftoronto account replied to the two Twitter accounts the next morning.
And then all hell broke loose — or at least as much as hell as can possibly break loose when you’re dealing with municipal politics.
Angry emails demanding an explanation flooded the Elections Services inbox. Some emailers accused the City of infringing on free speech and censoring Twitter activity. Other messages were less heated, but questioned how tweeting could possibly violate election laws. Media requests
“The increase in distrust in public servants is a growing problematic trend”
But things really picked up when Councillor Alejandra Bravo emailed City Manager Paul Johnson, expressing concern about how the tweets may contribute to a “growing lack of trust in democratic institutions.” Bravo wrote that it was “crucial” for public clarification about the City’s intent behind the tweets.
Johnson forwarded Bravo’s email to several senior staff members in search of an explanation. Chief Communications Officer Beth Waldman then reached out to members of the communications team, and Martinelli replied with a summary of the events.
Bravo later met with City Clerk John Elvidge and Deputy City Clerk Fiona Murray, where she continued to push for the City to publicly explain the tweets. Elvidge and Murray corresponded with several higher-ups about whether to take any action on Bravo’s suggestions, but from the records provided to me it appears no action was taken.
The only subsequent messaging from the City was communicated either directly to those who had emailed in their concerns or indirectly through the media, and it left out some key details.
The Toronto Star, for instance, sent in a short list of questions with respect to the tweets:
Why were they sent out?
Were complaints made by the candidates or the public?; and
Is there concern about any third-party advertising rules violations?
In answering the first question, the City failed to mention that they had the contact information for Caron, the woman named in at least one of the complaints, and that they had already contacted her by email. The City just said that they were without “any other contact information provided on the campaign websites.” The Star reasonably but incorrectly took this to mean that the City had “no other contact information available,” per the paper’s April 17 article.
The City also refused to confirm whether the complaints were made by candidates or the public, as the Star reported at the time. The City also clarified to the Star that their concern was related to the websites as potential violations of third-party advertising rules.
Ultimately, whether City staff were successful in tweeting their way into contact with the websites’ organizers is unclear. Several individuals emailed Elections Services following the tweets advising that they were connected to either the @BradfordFactsTO or @BailaoBrokeIt accounts, but Caron, who is involved with both, is not aware of who sent in those emails.
Elections Services replied to those emailers with a stock response directing them to a website explaining third-party advertising rules, as the initial April 4 email to Caron did. The response also stated that, though it may have appeared otherwise, it was not the City’s intention to comment on individual social media posts, but rather to contact the organizers behind the sites.
I asked Caron if the tweets or the organizers’ subsequent registration as third-party advertisers changed their operations in any way.
“Not really,” she said.
Caron did tell me, however, that the organizers decided to register as third-party advertisers so that they would have the flexibility to raise and spend money as part of their operations. The site bailaobrokeit.ca currently accepts donations on behalf of the Toronto Citizens Collective.
For its part, City Communications staff appear to have made a strategic adjustment to avoid any further confusion going forward. They intend to apply a firmer hand and make sure that when other departments communicate in public they listen to the public communications team.
Lobbyist Watch for May 2023
Lobbyist Watch is City Hall Watcher’s monthly summary of activity on Toronto City Hall’s Lobbyist Registry. In May 2023, I reviewed 664 registered lobbyist communications and 238 new registrations.
Disclaimer: Toronto’s Lobbyist Registry requires lobbyists to register and record all communications they have with politicians and staff, but it does not require them to provide much detail about the extent of those communications. As a result, a meeting noted below could be a long conversation with some deal-making or a passing chat of no real consequence.
Karygiannis tries to smooth over pavement company bidding ban
Former councillor-turned-lobbyist Jim Karygiannis has taken on IPAC Pavement as a client. The file indicates the purpose of the lobbying is “Reinstating IPAC Paving in good order with the City and being able to apply for procurement work.”
In 2012, IPAC, along with other companies controlled by Sebastian Corbo, received a permanent ban from bidding on City projects, after Corbo pled guilty to paying a “secret commission” to a TTC staffer and the staffer’s family as part of a scheme where Corbo “billed the TTC $198,619.92 for work valued at $54,087.75.”
In 2014, a company known as Pave-1 Construction also received a permanent ban after City staff determined that the company was associated with Corbo and created to “circumvent the suspension of IPAC and thereby allow its operating minds (including now convicted Sebastian Corbo) to continue bidding on City contracts.”
Nearly a decade later, Karygiannis — well-connected from his time at City Hall and as a former MP — is pushing to lift the permanent ban. It’s the only permanent bidding ban in effect at City Hall. So far, Karygiannis has reached out to Chief Procurement Officer Geneviève Sharkey and Director of Purchasing Client Services Sandra Lisi via telephone and email to discuss.
Scoot on back
John Bitove, Chairman of e-scooter company Bird Canada and member of the wealthy Bitove family, logged a meeting with Councillor Dianne Saxe on May 9. He followed that up with a meeting with Andrew Greene, Saxe’s chief of Staff, on May 31 — a meeting also attended by Bird Canada CEO Stewart Lyons.
Meanwhile, Isaac Ransom, Head of Government Relations with Vancouver-based e-scooter company Neuron Mobility logged a meeting with Councillor Paul Ainslie on May 30.
The scooter lobby has been mostly parked for the last couple of years after Council voted in May 2021 to opt out of the provincial e-scooter pilot but at today’s Infrastructure & Environment Committee meeting, Ainslie brought forward a motion to “review a framework to initiate a pilot project to allow the City of Toronto to participate in the pilot for the regulation of e-scooters.”
The motion was DOA, however. Ainslie moved to withdraw it from consideration. For the time being, e-scooters will remain illegal in Toronto, though that certainly doesn’t seem to be stopping people from riding them.
Consultants on the pitch
Consulting giant KPMG is working with lobbyist Joel Finlay to pitch ways the company can “assist the City in preparing for the World Cup 2026.” Finlay reached out to the City’s Executive Director of World Cup 2026 Sharon Bollenbach on May 29 with a phone call and an email.
KPMG Partner Eric Wolfe is also lobbying about the World Cup. In 2022, the City budgeted $838,6000 for consulting/contractors related to FIFA planning. Draft versions of the full project budget included $9.3 million for “Executive Management” costs.
KPMG is one of City Hall’s most-used consulting firms, taking in about $3.5 million in consulting fees from the City in 2021.
Lobbyist kings of Kensington
The Kensington Market Community Land Trust has hired StrategyCorp’s Aidan Grove-White and Tahereh Granpayehvaghei to lobby about their move to “secure a property purchase at 27 and 29 Kensington Avenue.” Grove-White has so far logged phone calls and emails to the office of Councillor Dianne Saxe and the mayor’s office.
The Kensington Market Community Land Trust has been buying properties to keep renters and retailers in the community. In 2021, Council approved the transfer of $3 million to fund the acquisition and renovation of 54-56 Kensington Avenue for affordable rental housing.
Lobbying grab bag
Lobbying on behalf of the Toronto Blue Jays, Anuk Karunaratne, SVP of Strategy & Operations for the baseball club, and Crestview Strategy’s Lee Boswell logged a meeting on May 17 with Councillor Ausma Malik and members of Malik’s staff. Karunaratne and Boswell are lobbying about “Improvements to the Blue Jays fan experience at the Rogers Centre.” The continued lobbying push makes me think there are changes to the outdoor area around the stadium in the works.
Wayne Zronik, president of the concert giant Live Nation, logged a meeting on May 17 with Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie. Mayor’s office mainstays Senior Advisor of Council Affairs & Strategy Initiatives Tasnia Khan and Executive Assistant Dee Dee Heywood also attended, as did Live Nation VP Marc Gertner.
Live Nation is lobbying to “Build awareness of Live Nation’s role in the Canadian live event marketplace and discuss opportunities to grow arts and cultural experiences in Ontario.” They are also, of course, a significant part of the provincial plan for Ontario Place.
Representatives from Nieuport Aviation, owners of the terminal building at Billy Bishop Island Airport, logged a meeting on May 31 with Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie. Meeting with McKelvie (over video conference) was CEO Neil Pakey, and Director of Stakeholder Relations Cheryl Stone. Edward Birnbaum, deputy chief of staff for the mayor’s office, was also in attendance.
Ahead of an expected Council vote on adding more areas to the list of places exempt from Toronto’s holiday shopping rules, UNIFOR Ontario Regional Director Naureen Rizvi launched a lobbying campaign sending written communications to every member of Council. Rizvi also met with Councillor Shelley Carroll, chair of the Economic & Community Development Committee, and Councillor Nick Mantas on May 9. On May 10, Council voted to refer the matter of changing holiday shopping exemptions to staff for more consideration.
Who wants to live at the mall? Starbucks for breakfast. New York Fries for lunch. Jimmy the Greek for dinner. All the food groups in one place. Anyway, Cadillac Fairview EVP of Development Wayne Barwise and VP of Development Josh Thompson met with Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie, along with mayor’s office Deputy Chief of Staff Edward Birnbaum and McKelvie Chief of Staff Charrissa Klander, to discuss “potential residential options” for Sherway Gardens Mall on May 3.
Councillor Chris Moise had a meeting with car share company Communauto — the only carsharing company participating in Toronto’s “free-floating car share parking permit program” — on May 4 to discuss the company’s desire to loosen the City’s car share rules and permit “carsharing cars to terminate a trip in metered space without resident parking permit and in areas affected by max 3 hours parking allowed.” Marco Viviani, Communauto VP of Strategic Development, and Branch Manager Stuart Bustard logged the meeting with Moise. Much of Moise’s Toronto Centre ward is currently restricted from Communauto use due to City regulations related to free-floating car sharing and permit parking capacity.
Tech 4 sale
Curtis Carmichael, who once biked across Canada to raise money for TCHC, has registered to talk to City Hall about Source Code Academy Canada. The academy, founded by Carmichael, is looking for available City-owned space to offer its programming to young people living in TCHC homes. “We run a youth-led non-profit education academy that prepares underestimated children and youth for the future of work,” the registration says. They’ve launched a communications campaign targeted at Councillor Nick Mantas, which makes me think they have some specific space in mind in Mantas’ ward.
Pool School Inc, an Etobicoke-based company that says they have AI software that detects both drowning and pollution, has registered to pitch City Hall. I expect a whole lot of AI-related pitches over the next couple of years. Pool School Manager Justin Dyer and Director Kurits Adamus are on the file. No communications yet.
TOMRA, a Norway-based company that offers a variety of technologies designed to encourage the reuse of recyclable materials, has registered to pitch their technology, which includes nifty-looking “reverse vending machines” where you can return cans and bottles. No communications yet.
Lobbyist Watch will return in July.
🔭 Platform View: on Saunders’ transit, Furey’s safety, Matlow’s youth, and Bailao’s renters
My Platform View feature has kept on rolling at Substack Notes. Here’s an index of the new policies I have looked at since the last issue:
Mark Saunders’ free transit for seniors (on Mondays) plan: ⭐️ (1 out of five)
Anthony Furey’s “Making Our Streets Safe Again” plan: ⚫️ (Zero out of five)
Josh Matlow’s “YouthStart” youth opportunity plan: ⭐️⭐️⭐️½ (3.5 out of five)
Ana Bailão’s Plan to Support Renters Across the City: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ (3 out of five)
I’ve also created a page dedicated to the complete index of Platform Views — hopefully, it’s handy for voters.
🏁 Poll Tracker
The City Hall Watcher Poll Tracker has been updated.
Not much change to report. Liaison Strategies did not release a new poll this weekend, and Mainstreet and Forum show continued strength for Olivia Chow. Notably, Forum has her at 38% among decided voters, approaching the 40% vote share John Tory received in 2014.
I have added Anthony Furey as a column for the five most recent polls, removing him from the realm of “Other.” (He’s still lumped into ‘Other’ for older polls, even where he was given as an option. I may update this at some point later.)
He’s shown some notable strength in recent polls conducted by Forum and Mainstreet, but I suspect there’s probably a lot of noise down in the 10% and lower range, where candidates are generally fighting for scraps.
More from Matt: on the inevitable doom of a new deal, and the fearmongering about Chow’s tax plan
📰 For the Toronto Star last week, I wrote about why all this talk about candidates securing a “new deal” for Toronto is almost certainly doomed to go nowhere. I don’t buy that City Hall’s problem is that they haven’t had the right person negotiating with other levels of government. I think it’s that the City has a lousy negotiating position.
🗞 For the Star this week, everyone wants to talk about Olivia Chow and property taxes, apparently! So I decided to write about it. Despite the fearmongering, there’s no reason to fear her plans — though a bit more detail about the math would sure be appreciated.
Look for it in your favourite newspaper.
The week at Toronto City Hall
MONDAY: 🚧 The Infrastructure & Environment Committee met today. After hearing from a long list of deputants, they signed off on a slate of bike lane approvals, including much-anticipated (and, for some running for mayor, much-derided) bike lanes on Bloor Street West into Etobicoke. Council will have the final say.
The committee also saw a bit of a dust-up over a report on Toronto’s future waste disposal options.
The Green Lane landfill used by Toronto is set to run out of room for any more of our garbage in 2034 or 2035. Staff are recommending a process to consider options. Councillor Dianne Saxe moved to remove consideration of “waste-to-energy” — also known as garbage incineration — from the process, but Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie amended the Saxe motion to keep the door open to waste-to-energy, with some public consultation first. I’d expect some more discontent over this issue at next week’s Council meeting.
And finally, the committee went wild for pickleball, approving a plan to install new pickleball courts alongside planned tennis courts.
TUESDAY: ✍️ Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie will preside over her final Executive Committee before a new mayor comes to City Hall in a few weeks.
The agenda is very light, with a report on next-generation 911 technology and an item promising some information on the status of provincial negotiations related to SmartTrack cost overruns. Alas, the supplementary report on the latter is not ready yet.
WEDNESDAY: 🐕 The Dangerous Dog Review Tribunal meets for the first of two meetings this week. This one doesn’t include any items about dangerous dogs, though — it’s just an introductory thing for new board members.
THURSDAY: 🎢 The Board of Governors of Exhibition Place meets. The most interesting item on their agenda is probably a Terms of Reference document for some focus groups they hope will help the Ex become a place people visit 365 days a year.
🐕 The Dangerous Dog Review Tribunal is back, and this time they’ve actually got some potentially dangerous dogs to consider. Board members will consider muzzle orders for two German Shepherds: Rick and Diesel.
FRIDAY: No meetings scheduled.
NEXT WEEK: Toronto Council meets for the final time before the election, with three days of debate scheduled starting Wednesday.
City Hall Watcher #230
Thanks for reading! This turned into a real monster of an issue, but, well, we live in monstrous times, with a lot of stuff happening!
Speaking of happenings, I’ll be back next Monday with a look at the Council agenda along with more updates from the campaign trail. See you then.