Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Rot In Toronto Goes Deeper Than Ford

There is a temptation to view Ford as a mere aberration, a statistical anomaly of no greater significance. This is a mistake.  It is true Ford's drug problems are quite exceptional for major politicians, but this is far from the whole story of what makes him an outright awful Mayor.  For comparison, Doug Ford supposedly doesn't drink and is even a vegetarian but he's still a vicious and mendacious operator Toronto would be well rid of, and Ontario had best avoid.  A clean Rob Ford would still be an awful Mayor unworthy of a second term.  Ford's rampant dishonesty on a myriad of subjects should be enough to want the man replaced.  Now today's news makes that event as near a certainty as you get in electoral politics, but let's talk about the deeper systemic problems in Toronto's political system that Ford has exposed:
  • No regular means of Mayoral & administration accountability to the public, the media (our proxies in the halls of power) or even to council itself.  Ford never has to address questions from anyone if he doesn't want to. City Council needs something like "Question Period" where "opposition" Councillors would at least have some chance to put questions to the Mayor and his team. This is a huge part of how Ford is able to just create his own reality, because he almost never has to face it colliding with the actual one (when it does, it is a sight to behold).
  • Weak election regulations, particularly on campaigning outside the defined election period.  This year's Ford Fests are nothing but campaign rallies. Ford and his brother campaign weekly on a radio show they host and use to smear & attack opponents and "address" media questions as they see fit, but without any opportunity for rebuttal or follow up.  They take callers (screened in some way) but have full control rather than a nominally impartial host.  He uses official city numbers as the caller ID for political robocalls.  He threw himself into campaigning "for" Doug Holyday in a provincial by-election.  Sure, Ford spends his own money for all these very campaign like things, but that he's a wealthy man with money to burn on such events is all the more reason to strengthen these rules.
  • No means to remove him short of outright criminal conviction.  Impeachment rules are dangerous and must strike a delicate balance lest they be abused for partisan or ideological persecution, but Ford's disreputable actions make regular business in Council wellnigh impossible.  Impeachment is always a political question, but some form of outlet and possibility of it would do something to keep a future Mayor of his inclinations in some kind of check. At the Provincial and Federal level, the government leaders can always be removed by their own party caucuses or by losing a confidence vote in the legislature.  Ford faces neither. 
  • No automatic enforcement of the City's ethics codes and other regulations of politicians.  Ford's conflict of interest troubles required an ordinary citizen to take the matter to court.  The propriety of his radio show & the Ainslie robocalls could only be reviewed if someone makes formal complaints to the Integrity Commissioner (or bodies like the CBSC/CRTC).  Laws need enforcement that doesn't rely on brave and motivated citizens making a legal stink.  
  • Ford's "cancellation" of Transit city: I don't know how to fix this, but it was a clear abuse of his authority as Mayor.  Transit City was ratified by City Council.  The Mayor alone should not be able to cancel acts of Council.  
  • Weak consequences for most ethical violations.  Items like using city letterhead to write letters of reference for friends are violations but even if someone braves the Ford Nation ragestorm, the most the offending politican faces is non-consequences like a "reprimand." 
  • Weak formal mechanisms of transparency.  The media have to file FOI requests to get even partial versions of Ford's schedules. He shows up at noon most days and leaves at 3.  He claims to be working away from City Hall.  Who knows what he's doing?  Other reports have a major city property developer giving two councillors on Ford's executive committee accepting sub-market rents for prime apartments. What happens with this? Why does it take a media investigation to uncover this?
  • Weak financial controls.  Ford makes a lot of hay paying his own way for official work expenses.  Everything from office supplies to business travel.  Not all politicians are personally wealthy.  Should those that are be able to buy positive press this way?  Doug Ford supposedly doesn't even take his salary.  Ford overspent significantly on his Mayoral campaign, nothing at all was done about this.
I'm really only a latecomer to the Mayor's sad saga and I suspect there's much more that could be said about this.  My main point is that we should view the Ford Mayoralty as an impetus to reform our municipal system and ensure the bar of behaviour is raised, along with the system's ability to respond.  We are damn fortunate to have a weak mayor system, because even this not particularly great council did block many of Ford's most egregious policy ideas.  If he hangs on to run a mayoral campaign, I suspect we will have many new items for this list.  He openly promised a "bloodbath" and his brother, a "dirty" campaign.  These are not people who obey the spirit of the law, or even the letter when they feel they'll get away with it.  The city's rules and enforcement were apparently not made for such, and need to catch up.  The next administration at this level of prevarication & malign indifference to the greater good may well be competent at what they do.

If this really is the end of Ford, Toronto got lucky to escape as lightly as we did.  It could have been a lot worse.

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