By PATRICK HUNTER
I am willing to bet that Mayor Rob Ford wanted to make history in Toronto, perhaps as Toronto’s best mayor. Being the first to be removed from office, mid-term, through a conflict of interest ruling was not the way he planned it.
Ford came to office with a history of being concerned, to put it mildly, about how taxpayers’ money was being spent. He hardly used his allotted budget as a councillor in doing the job to which he was elected.
When the tally of whom among the councillors spent what on their office comes up, usually at the end of the year, Ford was frequently at the top (or bottom, depending on your perspective) of the list as having spent the least.
His campaign for the mayoralty was highlighted by his intention to “stop the gravy train” – or words to that effect – as he saw it, which was going on at City Hall.
But, as mayor, Ford’s conduct became the issue. Whereas, as councillor, he could get away with a lot of the antics he became well-known for, the chain of office brought with it a new kind of focus. It is the kind of focus that no politician likes.
Generally, politicians prefer to be identified and characterized by the positive work they do; the ideas, the vision and the leadership that they bring to the office. Instead, for Ford, the attention he received was seemingly more about his personal conduct than what he brought to the job.
There were, particularly in recent months, more stories about Ford’s conduct than any policy or program he brought forward or supported. His battles with reporters from the Toronto Star; his missteps with the TTC – both personally and in the debates between subways and LRTs – and his preferred option of coaching his football team at the expense of his duties at Council were bringing more attention than his achievements as the Mayor of Toronto.
To many, Ford was reducing the office to buffoonery and many were looking at the reasons why we do not have a recall clause in the legislation that governs Toronto City Council.
As I have noted before, it is one thing for the Mayor not to know the rules regarding conflicts of interests. However, to admit that he did not take the opportunity to familiarize himself with them, especially as they would affect his conduct on Council, demonstrates a lack of judgement and undermines his sincerity as a politician of trust.
So, a judge came to the rescue, as it were, for those who were growing tired of the antics and disrespect of the office by ruling that he should be removed from office. The judge has now also indicated that Ford can seek re-election, if a by-election is called, to fill the mayoral vacancy. Ford is also seeking to have a stay of the decision to vacate pending an appeal.
There has been a lot of debate about the law that forced Ford from office. It may very well be a bad law in that the punishment – his dismissal – did not fit the “crime”, so to speak. Nevertheless, it is the law and Ford violated it. The knowledge of that potential outcome should have been enough for Ford to become well acquainted with the rules, as all councillors should be.
While the critics of this part of the law ponder a possible amendment, let us hope that they will also look into adding a recall clause – a clause that will withstand trivial or malicious scrutiny but will enable citizens to express their discontent and disappointment with members of council. Of course, the ultimate recall clause is the election at the end of the term of office but sometimes it is good to stop digging the hole before it gets too deep.
The debate that is developing is whether a by-election should indeed be called now, or should a caretaker mayor be installed until the next scheduled election two years from now. According to estimates, a by-election will cost about $7 million. Given the state of our economy, is that the best way to spend that money?
On the other hand, there are still two years to go before a general municipal election and the City needs some solid leadership over those two years – leadership that would be based on how the candidates present themselves to the electorate and how they are adjudged to fit the role. The good thing about that scenario is that he or she would be on probation for two years and, when he or she seeks re-election, a judgement on his or her performance can be made with some assurance.
There are a couple of things that are worth considering.
One: whoever is elected, whether by Council or by-election, that person will essentially be following the “program” that is already in place. It is unlikely that there will be much deviation, especially in the first year.
In a by-election scenario, which could see non-councillors seeking the office, it would be too much to expect a full-throttled new approach that would change the direction. The candidates would not have time to develop a serious alternative, let alone the wherewithal to significantly alter Council’s direction.
The other point is this: if it is a by-election, whoever sits it out will be at a disadvantage at the next general municipal election, especially if the incumbent is seen as doing a good job. Can anyone really do a worse job than Rob Ford?