Call in the Mounties or OPP for Rob Ford investigation

Originally published in The Toronto Star 3 Sep 2013

How much democracy is too much? Toronto City Council has an answer. Last Monday, it decided a byelection to fill a vacant council seat is more democracy than the district’s 52, 000 residents deserve, or the city can afford. At least, that is how the vote will be remembered a year from now. Because, that is how it was intended to be.

After hearing an impassioned plea by Mayor Rob Ford to choose democracy and set a byelection date, councillors voted instead to decide themselves who should represent Doug Holyday’s former west-end ward.

Without a doubt, council’s 19-14 vote against his byelection motion was an “in your face” beat-down for Ford and he is clearly smarting from it. He doesn’t like to lose, not even if a tactical loss means a strategic victory. On the other hand, many of the mayor’s political advisers are privately pleased with result. That’s because the issue, like many the mayor’s office brings to council, was a trap.

Politically, the byelection question was a win-win for Ford. If council had done the right thing and chosen to proceed with a byelection, the mayor would have chalked up a council victory and hit the streets campaigning for one candidate or another. No matter who he supported, it would shore up his own support in Etobicoke, where it’s softened since 2010.

Left-wing councillors understood that much. Councillor Janet Davis even tried to extract from Ford a promise not to campaign. Ford refused to bite. What these councillors failed to grasp was that, no matter how they voted, Ford couldn’t lose. By voting against the mayor’s byelection request, council painted itself into an anti-democratic corner. This is bad news for those councillors who want to challenge the mayor in 2014, because they all voted with the pack and the pack ran off the cliff.

The byelection loss was a strategic win for Ford in three important ways. First, it provided evidence that council is largely motivated, not by reason or logic, but by its hatred of Rob Ford. Council voted to “punish the mayor.” Canadians love an underdog, and no one does underdog better than Rob Ford.

Second, it put Rob Ford squarely on the side of the democracy angels, and positioned council as a petty group of power-hungry, anti-democratic partisans. Absolutely no one believes left-wing councillors are more fiscally stingy than Ford. People will believe councillors voted, not to save money, but to keep control of the appointment to themselves and out of the hands of voters. Voters don’t like that.

Canadians like democracy. It’s a defining theme in our culture. Toronto, in particular, is a city of immigrants, many of whom came to Canada from countries where democracy is little more than a wistful dream. Having their electoral rights stolen by a bunch of uppity councillors infuriates them.

These immigrants and their neighbours know Rob Ford well. He’s the guy who returns their phone calls, listens to their problems and shows up at their door with city staff in tow to make things right. Warts and all, he’s someone they trust. This vote singles Ford out, once again, as the guy who will stand up for the democratic franchise many of them sacrificed so much to enjoy.

Finally, the vote highlighted the dysfunction of council. Pollsters often report the mayor’s public approval ratings, but they rarely report public approval ratings for city council as an entity. They should, because those numbers are shockingly bad. An overwhelming majority of voters in Toronto believe city council is a dysfunctional mess. Any mayoral contenders who come from that mess in the 2014 campaign will be handicapped from the start.

Council’s decision was petty and foolish. It robbed 52,000 residents of Etobicoke Centre of their democratic franchise. Councillors intended to make the mayor look weak and prevent him from bolstering his public support by campaigning. It is ironic, then, that their decision will likely achieve exactly the opposite.

I appear regularly on Newstalk1010 in Toronto, sale commenting on political and other current affairs.  Hear me most Thursday mornings on the Moore in the Morning Free-for-All Round Table, Round One at  7:45 AM with John Moore.

 

 
The ongoing saga of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford vs. The World took a pivotal turn Tuesday morning with the mayor’s brother, buy Toronto City Councillor Doug Ford, doctor accusing both police Chief Bill Blair and a member of the governing police services board with conflict of interest. This changes the stakes. It’s time to call another police service.

To be clear, medical the Toronto Police Service does not work for the city’s mayor. The police are governed by the independent Police Services Board comprised of seven members. Three of these members are appointed by the provincial government. The other four include three city councillors and a private citizen, all of whom are appointed by Toronto City Council based on the mayor’s recommendation.

While only the police services board can issue instructions to the police chief, and even then never for operational matters, the police budget must be approved by Council. Last year’s police budget was a major battle between the Chief, who wanted more money, and the board, backed by Mayor Ford, who said no. No one expects the budget battle to go any easier this year.

It is hard to imagine a less likely conspiracy.  Sadly, though, the ludicrous has become commonplace in today’s Toronto.

On Tuesday, Doug Ford publicly suggested during several live radio broadcasts Chief Blair is a “fishing buddy” with board member Andrew Pringle. He further suggested there was a close friendship between Mr. Pringle and John Tory, a popular Toronto radio personality and former politician who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2014. Mr. Tory previously ran for mayor in 2003 and was leader of the provincial Progressive Conservative party.

Councillor Ford’s intimation there is some form of collusion between these men in order to facilitate his brother’s demise as mayor, and thus an easier election for Mr. Tory, is far-fetched. It is hard to imagine a less likely conspiracy. Sadly, though, the ludicrous has become commonplace in today’s Toronto.

The connections between these three men are real, although the sinister nature of their relationship is likely imaginary. Mr. Pringle, after all, is the city council appointed citizen member of the Police Services Board — an appointment for which he was recommended by ... Mayor Rob Ford. Mr. Tory may very much like to be mayor of Toronto, but his greatest political weakness, quite frankly, is that he’s always been averse to the kind of bare knuckle politics necessary to win or, I expect, to conspire. Chief Blair is a politically-astute police chief, but all good chiefs are. He is also well-known as a “Just the facts, ma’am” kind of cop.

But still, everyone involved does indeed have a personal interest that would best be served by one outcome or another. The Mayor wants the investigation to go away so he can win a second term next year. The Chief wants his term extended, too, and the current Police Services Board is unlikely to do that. Mr. Pringle is the swing vote on that board, and a close friend of both the chief and the man most likely to beat the mayor in the next election. A new mayor could appoint four new members to the Police Services Board.

To further complicate matters, Mayor Ford said Monday he still supports the police, even though they’re investigating him, and that he’d like to increase their budget so they can hire more officers. Of course, in order to do that, he’d have to still be mayor and unsullied by police charges.

When you set aside all the rhetoric and unsubstantiated allegations, the base facts of this sorry situation are clear. The Mayor of Toronto is subject of an investigation being conducted by a police service that is governed by an oversight board he helps appoint. This, alone, should be reason enough for the Toronto police to hand off this investigation to another, independent, police service.

The Toronto Police Service is one of the best police forces in the world. Its investigators are second to none. They’ve done outstanding work on this file. They’re professionals dedicated to public service, and the public will be best served by handing over this investigation to another agency that has nothing at stake here.

For the good of the city and all of its residents, the time has come to hand over this investigation to the Ontario Provincial Police or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

 

This post was originally published online in the National Post on Nov. 5, 2013 and in the print edition on Nov. 6, 2013.