The Toronto City Council versus Mayor Ford

One of the great perks of retirement is the chance to attend historic events which occur during normal working hours. Being there live is to feel in your bones the drama and the pathos of current affairs. The unprecedented Toronto City Council meetings dealing with Mayor Rob Ford, which I attended on Wednesday and again today, are examples of such events. 

 Stripping the Mayor of his Powers 

This morning, the Council first passed a motion “to improve the Decision Making Environment at City Hall.” This suspended the powers of the Mayor to appoint and dismiss the Deputy Mayor and the Standing Committee Chairs, confirmed the incumbents in their office for the balance of the term, confirmed their cross-appointments to the Executive Committee, and made consequential changes in the event of vacancies. These were powers that had been conferred by Council on Toronto’s Mayor effective December 1, 2006 under the city Procedural Bylaw. Questioned about the legal authority of Council to strip the Mayor of these powers, the City Solicitor indicated that these were not powers conferred on the Mayor by statute (which the Council could not change), but further powers conferred by Council which Council had power to take away.

The Ford brothers threatened legal action challenging the motion and insisted that defending a court case “would cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The resolution passed 39-3, and the bylaw 40-2. An overwhelming expression of Council’s wish in the face of overt legal threats from the Fords.

Later this morning, Council also passed a motion “Reassigning the Powers of the Mayor under Chapter 3, Accountability Officers, and Chapter 59, Emergency Management, to the Deputy Mayor until November 30, 2014.” Again, the City Solicitor was clear that the Mayor still retained statutory authority to declare an emergency; Council could not strip him of that. But his administrative responsibilities as chair of the First Responders Committee when the Emergency Operations Center is activated (as during the G20, the 2012 Grey Cup and the recent summer floods) could be redirected to the Deputy Mayor. Similarly, Council could provide that the Deputy Mayor be delegated to appoint the selection panels and chair the process for the appointment of the Accountability Officers, most particularly the Integrity Commissioner whose term is up shortly.

Again in the face of explicit threats from both Rob and Doug Ford that this action could be challenged in court “costing the taxpayers money,” this resolution and bylaw passed 41-2, the Fords in the dissent.

A third Special Meeting is planned for noon Monday. More on that to follow.

Watching the Fords attempt to intimidate City Council with explicit threats of lawsuits over these provisions is very disquieting. They have deep pockets; the taxpayers do not. Someone in the Public Gallery called out the obvious: “save taxpayers money, resign.” The voice of common sense; the voice of the people; out of order. The Ford strategy is becoming evident. Buoyed by the success of their appeal over the conflict of interest issue a year ago, they appear intent on taking the City to court. And so, the Fords will fight on, and the saga will continue, not only in “the court of public opinion” but also “in a court of law.” The issue is apparently not the good of the City; the only issue in their minds is the good of the Fords

A Retrospective on Wednesday’s meeting

Wednesday’s meeting was not the “public flogging” or the “rumble in the jungle” the Ford brothers predicted. Contrary to some press reports, it was a remarkably restrained meeting, focused, somber and sad, with Councillors across the political spectrum painfully alert to their distasteful job at hand. Chair Frances Nunziata, a notorious Ford partisan, handled the meeting with unaccustomed aplomb, disrupted primarily by the bullying and bluster of the Ford brothers. The Council and the public were dumbfounded, embarrassed, even shell-shocked, by the Mayor’s further admissions of his discreditable conduct (this time buying illegal drugs) and his obtuse intransigence in the face of the obvious. And Ford’s response to the motion requesting he take a leave? He insisted that he would stay, would attend every meeting, and would “continue to save taxpayers money for the next five years.” And then he attempted to introduce a motion requiring all Councillors to undergo hair, drug and alcohol testing by December 1st “paid for by Mayor Ford.” The motion was ruled out of order.

Members of Council (particularly his former colleagues on the right) put some hard questions to Mayor Rob Ford. Why the double standard in sanctions for a sleeping employee and for himself? What about his repeated promises to avoid public drinking? To which he replied that he had apologized and “never repeated it at the Air Canada Centre.” When asked if he had purchased illegal drugs in the last two years, there was a long silence, seven seconds reported in the press but it seemed longer, and then Ford admitted that he had. When asked if he had violated the City Code of Conduct, he said he “may have,” but “we all have skeletons in our closet….”

He was asked: “Do you have an addiction to alcohol? “Absolutely not.” “Do you have an addiction to illegal drugs?” “Absolutely not.” He insisted that he did drugs out of “sheer stupidity.” “In (the) photo, you seem to have a relationship with individuals who do not do good for the city?” He replied that he did not know them, he had met them only once, and never saw them again. On not cooperating with the police, he said he was doing so on the advice of his lawyer. When asked if he realized the implications of this position when he, as Mayor, was also the Chief Magistrate of the city, charged with encouraging at risk communities to cooperate with the police, he yelled that he was “a positive role model for kids. I have taken them under my wing hundreds of times….” When asked if the Chief Magistrate should walk the talk, he replied, “you listen to what your lawyer says.” Bingo… but he didn’t get it.

The debate on Wednesday focused on a motion put forth by Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong which “requested” the Mayor to apologize for lying about the existence of the video and for writing a letter of reference for an alleged drug dealer on city letterhead, to cooperate with the police, to answer questions put by Council directly and not in the press, and to take a leave of absence to deal with his personal issues. Everyone knew that Council was constrained by their existing statutory powers, that the motion was symbolic and that Council could not compel Ford to take a leave.

A minority of the Council wanted to “use the existing processes” and refer Ford’s conduct to the Integrity Commissioner requesting her recommendations for action by April, later amended to “as soon as possible and no later than February.” This amendment was defeated by a vote of 18-26. The majority thought, in my mind rightly, that the citizens of the City wanted a strong statement of condemnation from the Council now, and that, with all Ford’s admissions to date, there was no need for the Integrity Commissioner to determine if his conduct was discreditable. The answer was obvious. 

Eventually, by a vote of 37-5, the symbolic “request” to the Mayor passed, with the amendment that the issues also be referred to the Integrity Commissioner for her recommendations. Her powers include the potential to recommend Ford’s suspension for three months without pay. It should be noted that one of the Councillors who opposed the motion was John Parker, who felt strongly that Ford should not take a leave, but should resign.

Shifting Public Opinion

Wednesday midday, Ford told City Council “as far as [he] knew… everything was out there.” By supper time, there was much more. Hundreds of pages originally redacted from the police Information to Obtain at court had been released, and the media, yet again, was dissecting line by line more details of Ford’s sordid history while in office. Yesterday, Mayor Ford, while speaking to the press, used unprecedented sexually explicit gutter language that was universally condemned. He later dragged his wife before the television cameras (for the first time since his election) to stand beside him as he apologized yet again. (“Apology not accepted,” said Councillor Minnan-Wong and others.) He threatened to sue his former staff who had spoken with the police. He also admitted he sometimes has been drinking and then driving.

Now the demand is not that he “step down for rehab” but that he resign. The Toronto Argonauts, the Santa Claus Parade officials and Mothers Against Drunk Driving are distancing themselves from the man who calls himself “Mayor.” All the Toronto papers are calling for his resignation. Just to stir the pot, and to prove that “law and order” types also stand up for “the little guy,” Sun Media has stepped up to provide the Ford brothers with a Monday night television slot to talk to “Ford Nation.” Some little guys. Some nation.

The Position of the Province

The Globe and Mail this morning called for the provincial government to remove Mayor Rob Ford from his office. Yesterday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn announced that the province could potentially step in with new statutory tools to oust the Mayor, IF City Council found that they could not function with Rob Ford persisting in office, IF they asked the province for specific new powers, and IF she had cooperation from the other provincial political parties. All three are big ifs.

City Councillors are in no mood to concede that, in “a weak mayor system,” they cannot work around a mayor who is isolated and without any influence on Council. This crisis has brought Council together in a manner not seen in recent years. Their actions Wednesday and today show that nonpartisan support can be obtained for stability and good government in the City. They say they have been doing “without the mayor” for much of the time up until now anyway. They say that the new situation merely limits the capacity of a dysfunctional titular mayor to harm the City or its official processes, and to prevent retaliation against Councillors doing their job. Given this evolving Council consensus, Minnan-Wong did not go forward on Wednesday with his proposed motion to ask the province to intervene.

At the provincial level, Premier Kathleen Wynn’s minority government faces the prospect of a likely spring election. Without all party support at the provincial level, she would be foolhardy to intervene. Both the NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, and the leader of the provincial Tories, Tim Hudak, have gone underground on this issue. Hudak had been courting the Fords previously, as had the Prime Minister of Canada. Now Hudak is invisible. The NDP would undoubtedly be happy to see Olivia Chow elected as the next Mayor of Toronto, a prospect which the polls say is increasing as Ford’s popularity wanes.

I indicated in my post on November 2nd that there is a clear need for updated legislation to expand the powers of municipalities to oust or recall an official who loses his legitimacy and brings his office into disrepute as has Mayor Ford. In my view, however, this should not be “one of” legislation, after the fact, directed only to the situation in Toronto. This is not a good precedent, nor is it good public policy. Whatever provincial legislation is introduced, it must have general application to all municipalities across the province. And it must be based on widespread consultation. Absent a party system when the leader of the party can be deposed by his caucus, unseating an elected official should be a difficult process. Updating the Municipal Act to provide local Councils with some mechanism to rid themselves of a discredited mayor or councillor, or to introduce a recall provision, will be a difficult operation. There is a delicate balance required between protecting the due process rights of the discredited official who refuses to resign, and the public right to hold their elected officials accountable at election times and also between elections. How to achieve that balance is not easy. And it will not, and should not, be done overnight.

The problem is squarely on the table. Where someone “pulls a Rob Ford,” what mechanisms should be in place to deal with that situation? Monitoring the Toronto situation will be a useful case study. Mayor Ford’s actions in Council, and those of his brother, speak for themselves. Is this going to be a year of ongoing bullying and blustering disruptions in Council meetings? Of vacuous motions intended to harass? Of ongoing lawsuits against the decisions of Council? “Working around the Fords” may be a Herculean task that will challenge the spirit of the Council and waste gobs of public money. Some actuary or economist should tally the incremental cost all the Ford saga has imposed on the public purse. All of this will be grist for the task of updated legislation at the appropriate time.

In the meantime, as I said previously, and as now seems to be a growing consensus, Ford’s failure to resign in the circumstances which he has brought upon the city, is proof positive that he is not fit for re-election. There are now 345 days until the next election… and counting.

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3 comments

  1. Frances

    As usual, well expressed, future options clearly stated. So glad your retirement allows you to find a ringside seat to dissect the drama.
    Frances

  2. Bob

    Why is it politicians of all political stripes have the overwhelming need to drag out ‘the wife’ to be publicly humiliated while giving public apologies for their (the politician) embarrassing behaviour…. Mayor Ford – please respect your families’ privacy, oh and yes, please save the tax payers money and resign.

  3. John

    Hi Marion; congrats on a thought provoking blog. I think the simple answer to Toronto’s problem may have been staring us in the face all along. If Jim Flaherty were to put a good word in for his friend Rob Ford, this would surely be enough to secure a prompt appointment to the senate. Presto!

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