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January 12, 2009

Brenda Patterson
General Manager
Parks, Forestry and Recreation,
City Hall, 100 Queen Street West
Toronto M5H 2N2

Dear Ms.Patterson,

This open letter is a response to the points you raised in your letter of December 17, 2008, after my request for information about maintenance staff and equipment allocation for outdoor compressor-cooled ice rinks. The letter is meant to take the place of the third of my four “Zanetti Reports” about the city’s management of these rinks. The reports are named after Mario Zanetti who, you may know, was a much-admired former director of Recreation. His motto was “let’s make it work.”

1. You wrote: “….matters which pertain to direction to staff clearly rest within my role as General Manager.”

Indeed they do, and this letter asks the same thing my two first Zanetti Reports did – that you or your directors will direct the outdoor rinks staff to take proper care of the rinks. Direction is currently inadequate, from the top all the way down the line.

2. You wrote: “Staff is pleased with the availability and assignment of equipment and believe it is more than sufficient to support the…..program across the city.”

It’s not the time to be pleased. Ice maintenance staff allocation is grossly unbalanced. Compare: the nine Etobicoke and North York single-pad rinks with hockey boards have on-site ice re-surfacing operators for 72 - 112 hours a week, with on-site ice maintenance equipment (snowplows and ice resurfacers). In contrast, ten of the eleven central-Toronto single-pad rinks of the same type have ice maintenance staff at the rinks for only 7 - 21 hours a week, and no on-site equipment. They are maintained 1-3 times a day, or less.

Within the last four years, these ten central-Toronto single-pad rinks have been erroneously re-classified as “minor rinks,” perhaps to justify this unequal treatment. Your letter says you are “fine-tuning rink operations and maintenance protocols.” This is very far from a “fine-tuning” situation.

3. You wrote: “…there are 80 parks staff members dedicated to the maintenance of outdoor rinks.”

This statement is not consistent with the information CELOS has. The city’s Human Resources listings showed 83 Local 416 outdoor ice maintenance jobs for this season, and none of those job descriptions correspond to the special case of North York. So the actual ice maintenance staff may be more than 100 for the city’s 49 outdoor ice rinks, counting the North York caretaker/rink operator staff. South (or central-Toronto) District has the highest number of major rink pads, but your letter says that only 36 of those staff are located in South District. I asked for clarification and got no response.

4. You wrote: “This year’s staff training is proceeding well.”

During my rinks visits around the city, some of the new lead-hand zamboni drivers told me that they got one hour of training. They have learned on the job and generally do well, but there are some big gaps. For example: during a Christmas-holiday rainy period, the majority of zamboni drivers in central-Toronto rinks did not understand that they could, and should, go on the ice when there’s water on it, and remove the water. Nor did they receive this information from their supervisors. This meant that most of the zamboni drivers sat on their hands, and most of the city’s outdoor rinks were closed during that time. But not quite all: for instance Rennie Rink, which has experienced operators with a “let’s make it work” culture, did not lose one day, nor even one holiday-tournament game. That was during exactly the same period when many of the other rinks – including those with the same number of staff and the same compressor power as Rennie – had no maintenance and were therefore closed. The zamboni staff were paid just the same as if they had been working.

So the training has not been satisfactory.

5. You wrote: “It has been challenging for staff to keep the public informed and the Hotline up to the moment…”

There is no actual hotline, only an information line that is called a hotline. There is not anything near the amount of updated information that existed, without extra cost to the budget, when the Dufferin Rink staff voluntarily ran the hotline for three years. But even the information component is in urgent need of improvement. This season so far, opening-date information on the “hotline” was wrong for all the civic rinks, some of it for weeks, not for “the moment.” The hours-of-operation information for outdoor rinks was wrong for many hours on Christmas Day, and for the whole day on New Year’s Day.

6. You wrote: “…staff members from all branches are collaborating well in regard to outdoor rink operation…”

No, they are not. There is far too little collaboration across staff roles at rinks. One example: on-site program staff at central-Toronto rinks are only rarely told when the flying squad will come to do that day’s ice maintenance. The on-site staff have to bear the brunt of justifiable public frustration about the unreliability of maintenance schedules.

7. You wrote that there is constant review and revision going on “to ensure the continuous improvement of operations and service to all residents.”

The evidence is not there. For example: the front entrance is always kept locked at Giovanni Caboto Rink because the staff don’t feel they should shovel snow off the steps or the access ramp. This was pointed out to the Parks supervisor on December 17, and it was still the same yesterday, on January 11. West Mall Rink keeps its front door locked too. That’s the door that leads from the rink to the bus stop. It was reported last year. The examples are legion, and people vote with their feet. Many outdoor rinks are often empty.

8. You wrote that you would treat my concerns the same as those of “any interested resident.”

But I am not writing this as “any resident.” I’ve been monitoring the rinks for fifteen years, together with some other very knowledgeable rink friends. We’ve been doing this because, as the Zanetti Reports and the daily postings show, the necessary monitoring by supervisory and management staff is not happening.

Meantime the work that I began and have continued for those fifteen years, in collaboration with many city staff – helping to shape our neighbourhood park into the much-loved social space it has become – is treated with disdain by more recently-arrived city supervisory staff. Dufferin Grove Park would not be the place it now is without daily, detailed, tireless collaboration between me and city staff, over many years. But I have recently been told that rink staff have been cautioned about communicating with me, and have been directed to treat interactions with me as though I am from the media. The implication is that those who tell me “inside stories” will be disciplined.

I’m not from the media. I’m an insider, both a witness and a participant in the ongoing story of parks and how they work for all of us who live here. It’s time for you to encourage your management staff to treat me with the respect one gives to a fellow-traveller. Parks and Recreation is not the army. There’s no classified information. The books should be open – “let’s make it work,” not “let’s keep it quiet.”

The other way – as is evident from the list above – doesn’t work.

The fourth Zanetti Outdoor Rink Report will take up rink usage and real costs, after your management services director and I have had a chance to discuss them. In the meantime, I seek your assurance that my points, for which there is a great deal of documentation on the website, will now be addressed.

Jutta Mason

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Content last modified on January 26, 2009, at 11:26 AM EST