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 Home ¦  Two Letters »  FrontPage

Two letters and a memo about the rinks

One letter to management, one to the union; plus one memo to the Community Development and Recreation Committee (city councillors)

Letter from Jutta Mason to Jim Hart, the general manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation, 2009:

We’re two and a half weeks into outdoor rink season. Of the fourteen city rinks scheduled to open on November 19 (around the time when all the centre-city outdoor rinks used to open pre-amalgamation), only one opened on time – Dufferin Rink. Even that one was a bit of a miracle, since the compressors were not turned on until three days before opening, and there were only two nights of flooding. But the fact that the flooding was at night made it work at least for half of opening day – unlike the non-city rink at Harbourfront, which started its ice two days before us and was able to stay open despite the mild temperatures and the feeble November sunlight.

Because the ice at Dufferin Rink got so little flooding at start-up, a group of us tried an experiment, two nights after opening. We put on five overnight test floods with the park’s wading pool hoses, just onto the pleasure-skating pad. The next day, the hockey side (our experiment’s “control” rink) had to stay closed all day, but the pleasure-skating ice was thick enough for lots of people to skate and play shinny hockey (diverted from the hockey pad). The zamboni drivers applied a whole day of extra floods to the hockey rink, and within a few days both sides were even. Will you use our experiment to change the way rinks open up next year?

Even before the first fourteen rinks were due to open, your Parks Director sent a disclaimer to all the city councillors, saying (mistakenly) that outdoor rinks need three days of temperatures no higher than 5 celsius to make ice, but that the forecast was warmer. Even so, he wrote, “we will make every effort to ensure the ice can be made.” But in fact some of the rinks didn’t make any effort. They didn’t even try making ice until after Opening Day had come and gone. Some of the ice maintenance staff we talked to, as we visited these rinks, were convinced that it was impossible to make ice in November. We told them that you can’t make ice if you don’t put on water!

As far as we could see, none of the rinks except Dufferin and City Hall flooded overnight. Night-time floods at start-up are the “industry standard” Rule #1 for outdoor rinks. The two double pads in the Etobicoke region flooded only their hockey rink pad for the first two weeks, apparently in the belief that it was necessary to concentrate refrigeration on one pad to get any ice at all. But one of those rinks – Rennie – has more compressor power than Dufferin (more than Harbourfront, even), as well as a smaller surface and more shade. If Dufferin Rink can make ice on both pads, Rennie can most certainly do it too. Will you set up a citywide ice-making forum for your staff and rink friends next September, to promote the “industry standard” and get the rinks open on time?

While this season’s half-hearted effort (or less) was going on in various city rinks, the city’s website said that these rinks were “delayed due to mild weather. ” That message stayed the same even when the days and nights were cold. Meantime, Dufferin Rink was packed with young skaters from across town, so eager to get on the ice that on some evenings the shinny sides were twenty on twenty. Skaters had to push their way through the crowds to get onto the pleasure-skating pad. The other first-rung rinks gradually straggled into opening, some more than a week late.

When it came time to open the other 39 city rinks for the scheduled December 3 date, there was another round of delays. Twelve of the next rinks weren’t ready. No rinks had overnight start-up floods, and it showed. Some had no floods because they still had construction going on. They were getting new boards or new fences or new pipes, and the work must have started too late in the season. But even those rink delays were listed incorrectly on the city’s website. A delay in getting a new fence put up around an Etobicoke tennis court/rink combo is not a “mechanical issue,” as the website claimed, as though the compressors needed repair. Will you assign staff next November to post accurate outdoor rink information on the city’s website?

In the first full week of the skating season, the rinks got help from the weather, to make up for the missing overnight floods. It rained and it got colder, and the rain froze to the rink surface. On the city website, some of these rinks were labelled “closed,” but when we went there, we found them open, with happy skaters.

Even so, many of the rinks were pretty empty in the first few weeks. They had to wait for word of their opening to be passed along from person to person among neighbourhood rink users. Toronto, the only city in the world with this number of compressor-cooled outdoor rinks, has no media announcements or advertising about the outdoor rink openings. The outdoor rinks are such a secret that many Torontonians don’t even know they exist. For opening information, people have to find the link to the (sometimes wrong) rink information buried on an obscure page on the city website – not an easy task. Most people who just went over to their neighbourhood rink on the first of December, to check on the opening date, would have gone away none the wiser. Of the 51 rinks, only four (three in Ward 18 plus High Park) had an opening-date announcement posted on the rink doors or on the bulletin boards. On December 3, West Mall Rink (Etobicoke’s main civic rink, across from the former City Hall) had an out-of-date sign taped to its locked front doors: “The ice rink will not be open as scheduled on the weekend of Saturday November 19....” The rink was open, but only the back doors were unlocked.

In Ward 18, the PFR rink staff made friendly rink opening signs, as they have every year, and posted them throughout the neighbourhood. Their new supervisor told them to stop, because the signs had not been approved by the proper city department. But it was too late, the signs were already up. So the three Ward 18 rinks had lots of skaters from the first day. Will you allow your recreation program staff next October to make paper opening-date signs and put them up at every rink and throughout the neighborhoods?

Lack of publicity is not the only reason why many of the rinks don’t get a lot of skaters, even as the season progresses. Some of the rinks are mainly used by league permits, so there are rarely more than 15 people at the rink at one time. There’s no reason for other skaters to go there because most of the time they couldn’t get onto the ice anyway. For many years the staff at some of the rinks used to lock the doors when there was no permit group. They told unscheduled, drop-in skaters that they couldn’t use the ice without paying, so the ice sat empty for many hours a day, and the rink operator sat in his office. That culture persists unofficially at some rinks to this day. Some of the rink offices have televisions and refrigerators and an extra couch for rink staff to gather and shoot the breeze. Cozy – but only for staff and their friends. Meantime, many of the rink change rooms for skaters are windowless and uninviting, some with out-of-order drink machines or with “thou shalt not” signs everywhere: no photographs allowed without permission (a permission that some newly-empowered teenage staff never give), no playing pond-hockey (“shinny”) without a helmet and even: “no loitering.” In public space!

The “no shinny hockey without a helmet” rule has chased away many skaters, especially youth. In Etobicoke, the rule is so strictly enforced that there is an odd inversion in the pattern of rink use. The well-maintained so-called “major” hockey rinks with boards and clean, warm rink houses often have only half a dozen kids playing shinny in the bi-weekly “youth drop-in” slot.

Meantime, the run-down, unsupervised combination-tennis court-and-so-called-“minor”-rinks, with locked washroom buildings, are crowded with both shinny players and families. People on these “minor” rinks tell us that they don’t like the rule-bound, institutional approach of the “major” rinks. Rink guards employed to enforce the helmet rules at the “majors” often say that they themselves prefer to play at the “minors” when they’re not working – without a helmet.

One-size-fits-all safety rules also remove parents of young children from many of the rinks. Parents are told they can’t skate with a baby in a stroller, even though they can jog on park paths with strollers. They are hobbled from teaching their kids how to skate – by not being allowed on the ice with shoes to support their little ones. Their kids are not allowed to use a chair, in the time-honoured way of starting out on their own.

The so-called safety rules are not based on claims against the city. A Freedom of Information request a few years ago turned up the information that there have been never been any lawsuits against the city for letting adults skate with strollers or without helmets, and letting kids use chairs as skating aids. Hypothetical risk-management saves no money, but it empties our neighbourhood outdoor rinks. Will you reopen the risk policies that are shrinking attendance at the outdoor rinks? This time, will you take the discussions out of the meeting rooms at City Hall, and seek the experiences of skaters at the outdoor rinks?

When rinks are not busy, your rink staff look around for tasks to occupy them. Their training focuses on risk management, and also on anger management. As the staff enforce the rules and policies more vigorously, against the skaters who still come, more people get mad at them. Some don’t come back. A parent filming their child’s first skate, with only one other skater on the entire rink, is told to put the camera away. A mother on snowy ice in shoes, with her baby in a carrier and supporting her 3-year old in bob skates, is told to leave the ice. The staff person enforcing this rule says, in her own defence, that she’s “not going to put her job on the line” to enable parents to teach their children to skate. This staff person has learned that helping people to make the rink work for their kids might get her fired. If the staff’s fear of being fired is an unintended side effect of the current style of management, can you find a remedy?

When skaters go away unhappy and don’t return, your program staff have even less to do. They are underemployed at $10.75 or $12.50 an hour. Your ice-maintenance staff, on the other hand, are underemployed at $31 an hour or more, with 26% benefits on top of that. During ice-making, if they are scheduled during the day, they often end up sitting on their hands for most of their shift, since hose-flooding in daylight breaks down the ice unless it’s cloudy and cold. And at those rinks that don’t have many skaters, ice maintenance takes up only half your staff’s shift. This well-paid inactivity continues throughout the season, interrupted only on snowy days when the rink needs extra clearing. Such wasteful work allocation has been part of many of the outdoor rinks for years, and the emptier the rink, the less work is available for your staff to do. Can you open the door to applying 'let’s-make-it-work' principles at the rinks that seems to be orphans?

Four years ago, a group of your rink program staff collaborated with CELOS to visit all the rinks, talk to the local staff and rink users, and put together a booklet of practical suggestions for enlivening the rinks. This booklet was largely ignored, although there were a few rinks that got windows put into the staff room (one of our strong suggestions) so staff could see out while they sat inside. More recently, management’s interest in rink usage has mainly been expressed as a requirement for your staff to count rink users. The counts are all over the map – from a totally implausible 66,000 skater visits in 2007 at Rosedale Rink, to less than 300 visits for 2011 at popular Hodgson Rink (equally impossible). This year the count sheets require entries every hour. While this counting does help to occupy underemployed staff, it doesn’t do anything to address the problems. It’s easy to see which rinks have little use. We’ve chronicled those rinks for years now on the “rink diaries,” if you want to look them up. Can you redirect your staff’s census-taking time to making some real improvements in their rinks?

Here you run into another problem. All your full-time recreation staff are now occupied exclusively with administrative duties. This astonishing transformation, from hands-on work with kids and grownups to entering data and monitoring part-time staff, happened in central Toronto only during the last ten years. When the full-time staff stopped spending much time with the people who are now described as “customers,” their understanding of how to solve practical problems grew rusty. Generic “training” sessions became the magic bullet, administered by full-time staff to the part-time staff who run all the actual programs. The training sessions offer basic, homely insights like this: “How we communicate: 55% body language – 37% tonality – 8% words.” “Safe work practices to avoid musculo-skeletal disorder: you many need to move around and skate in order to stay warm. It’s best to wear loose-fitting clothing.” But this kind of banality doesn’t bridge to making the rinks work better. Will you suspend central training sessions for a year and send your full-time staff back into the “field” one day a week, where they can get in better contact with the part-time PFR program staff (giving training as needed) and get reacquainted with the communities where they work?

I recently heard from one of your staff that some people at PFR downtown think of the three Ward 18 rinks as “loopy.” That leads me to my final question, which I’m passing along from some of the park friends (who don’t think that word really fits): Will you join park users for a conversation at Dufferin Rink’s Friday Night Supper next week? We think you would enjoy it.

Jim Hart, the general manager, wrote a quick reply to the open letter: “As the new GM of Parks, Forestry and Recreation, I find much of what you have said to be informative and certainly worth further exploration. I will follow up with staff and get back to you with next steps.” But there was no follow-up. Two years later, Jim Hart took early retirement.

An open letter from Jutta Mason to Mark Ferguson, the president of CUPE Local 416, 2009:

I’ve been a booster of outdoor rinks for about 18 years. For the first ten years, an outdated provincial regulation required a Local 416 RCO (Refrigeration Compressor Operator) to be at the each outdoor rink continuously for 8 hours a day. These rink operators had a special “ticket,” allowing them to write down some meter readings from the rink’s machinery gauges twice a day. That took ten minutes each time. The RCO also drove a tractor fitted with a “Champion” ice-resurfacer. If he cleaned the ice twice during his shift, that took another hour. The rest of the time the RCO sat and talked, or read the paper, or played cards with a few regular rink visitors. If it snowed, the RCO couldn’t do any ice cleaning until the plough came to clear off the snow. There was a plough on the front of each tractor, but back in those days, using a plough was a different job classification, so according to the collective agreement the RCO wasn’t allowed to use the plough to get the snow off.

During the first decade of my involvement with Dufferin Rink, Local 79 recreation workers collaborated closely with me and other rink users to dilute the youth ghetto at the rink – to add families back into the mix, and older skaters, and women shinny players, and newcomers learning to skate. Our efforts paid off, and Dufferin Rink became more and more popular. Sometimes the recreation staff were just running to keep up with all the hubbub. The RCO’s, however, continued to sit throughout much of their shift, in their normal way. Having such an idle worker was hard on morale, and it certainly made a poor impression on the people who came to the rink.

One year we got lucky. The rink operator assigned to Dufferin Rink was a caretaker in the summers. He kept the building and the ice well-maintained, and he got the older kids to help him with various small tasks around the rink, which made them proud and kept them out of trouble. If anything was broken, he fixed it, and he was friendly and agreeable to everybody. We thought our problems were over.

But the next year he was gone. He had only eight years of seniority. We were told we would never get him back. Putting him at Dufferin Rink in the first place had violated the collective agreement. People with twenty years’ seniority were bidding on the RCO jobs. The RCO’s that followed him went back to their narrow job definition.

When I asked CUPE members about the RCO job, I got different answers. Some guys said, “it’s up to management, not us, to assign the proper amount of work.” Which was true, of course. The fact is that, for a long time, management took very little action to enlarge the scope of the RCO’s work. Other CUPE members said they were embarrassed to have their union be associated with such a lax work situation, on display to the public every day, at the rinks. “They’re bringing us all down.” Which was also true. We went to the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) and asked them: “why do modern rinks need RCO’s to babysit the compressors?” They said, “you’re right, they’re redundant, lots of towns with arenas are unhappy about it, and we’re changing the regulations.” But that change took three years. If I remember right, CUPE representatives lined up with vendors of RCO training courses to lobby against the change. Your union wanted to save your members’ jobs, even in a case where a job was no longer necessary.

When it finally came down to the crunch, and RCO’s were no longer required by the provincial regulations, management made some changes to the job requirements for winter rink maintenance. The changes were made with a broad hammer, on a citywide scale, one-size-fits-all. Tricky.

By then, CELOS had established the popular website, to reflect the views of rink users (the third element: citizens, taxpayers). But there was no room for us at the discussion table, as there was no room for the union. Management was sure they knew best, so they consulted neither the workers nor the skaters. Some of the city’s most experienced ice maintenance staff were moved out of rinks completely, and the union brought a grievance against the whole process.

The outdoor rinks are one small piece of the giant conundrum of municipal governance. But the larger themes are all there: narrow, inflexible job descriptions, seniority-trumps-all, the collective agreement as a shield against dialogue, unilateral “we-know-best” action by management, the exclusion and frustration of the citizens. All are problems that need to be addressed.

On top of that, the union and the citizens face a related, urgent problem now: the apparent willingness of some of the city’s many managers, and some of our elected representatives, to hive off pieces of our public goods to private companies that need to make a profit. Your message, Mark Ferguson, says that the union intends to “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the public” to “protect our great services.” Over the years, CUPE Local 416 has not always stood shoulder to shoulder with us at the rinks. Your members’ services have sometimes been far from “great,” and in some instances the deficiencies have been highly visible. And yet, your members include thousands of hard-working people, whose ingenuity and experience have long been under-valued by managers who are preoccupied with enlarging their turf. Will CUPE 416 open the door to practical collaboration with citizens who approach you? Will you come and visit Dufferin Rink before Christmas, Mr.Ferguson, for a cup of fair-trade coffee and a cookie prepared by a CUPE Local 79 member? Some members of the public would love to talk to you about the issues I’ve raised.

Mark Ferguson never replied, and stopped being the union president sometime in 2014. The union was then without a president and was put under the administration of the national union.

To: Community Development and Recreation Committee

From: Jutta Mason, Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS)

Re: Staff report: Outdoor Ice Rink Program Standards and Improvements, October 4, 2016, from the General Manager, Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division, CD15.4

The general manager’s report starts off with a bogus number: the assertion that 480,000 residents, or about one-sixth of Toronto’s population, skated at an outdoor ice rink in 2016. But no census of individual visitors can be tallied since most outdoor rinks are largely unregistered drop-in. So this number is invented, leading off the report to show that not much needs improvement, the rinks are doing fine.

Beyond that, the general manager’s brief and superficial report does not address any of the CELOS rink report’s items.

The outdoor rinks report we presented to your committee last April detailed seven problem areas that need attention. We gave specific examples of various workable solutions: how to increase skating access equitably across the city, save energy, generate income, enlarge sociability, and make better use of the staff’s capacities. The follow-up report from the general manager ignored the CELOS rink report completely. It’s a message to those of us who have worked together for 15 years to improve outdoor rinks citywide: “go away.”

If your committee accepts the general manager’s report in this form, we will indeed go away – what choice do we have?

We realize that the CELOS rink report is not being singled out for special ignoring – our experience with PFR is not uncommon across the city, among groups attempting to improve our public gathering places. We were recently told that our mayor suggested at a meeting that new parks would be better run independently of PFR. We do hope that your committee members will take note of the inadequacy of the general manager’s report, and consider possible steps to encourage PFR management to change their stance.

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