Deconstructing the Rob Ford accountability motion

Toronto City Hall
Toronto City Hall (c) Bigstock Images

Toronto city council will gather Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013 to consider a number of matters of routine public business as well as two motions aimed squarely at embattled Mayor Rob Ford.

In this post, I’ll help deconstruct one of the motions council will consider: a motion by Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, a one-time ally of Ford, that aims to achieve three things.  First, he wants the mayor to apologize, once again, for his behaviour.  Second, he wants the mayor to seek help for his personal issues. Finally, Minnan-Wong wants to seize the opportunity to strengthen his own political position as a candidate for mayor in 2014.

I’ll also comment briefly on a second motion introduced by Councillor John Filion, a political opponent of Ford.

The Minnan-Wong Motion

Minnan-Wong’s motion is on the agenda as item MM41.25 and you can read it yourself here.  It was seconded by Councillor Peter Milczyn who, like Minnan-Wong, is also a member of Ford’s hand-picked Executive Committee.

Council Pro Tip

“MM41.25” tells you it’s a Members’ Motion, meaning it is being introduced directly to council by an individual councillor.  Normally, business gets to council through committees where members of the public have a right to speak to the matter.  Councillors, however, can bring matters directly to council in exceptional circumstances if they have a seconder and receive 2/3 support of Council.  Failing that 2/3 support, the matter is referred to the appropriate committee for routine consideration.  In this case, the motion is the 25th member motion filed with the City Clerk for the 41st meeting of this term of council.  Hence: MM41.25.

Because the City Clerk has deemed this motion to refer to a matter of council’s privilege, it does not require a 2/3 vote of members in order to be introduced.  It is debatable on the floor.

To make matters more interesting, the mayor has indicated he will make this one of his Key Items at this meeting.  He can designate up to two items as his key items, which moves them up to the front of the order paper so they will be debated first thing.  He can speak, and be questioned, on this item.  There are two reasons, tactically, why Ford may want to do this.  First, he may want to attack these concerns head on and get them out of the way early in the council agenda.  Second, his remaining supporters on council tend to wilt after a few days of debate.  By dealing with this item first, any supporters he still has will be fresh and in their seats when it comes time to vote on the motion.

The motion includes five parts, and I would expect councillors may ask to vote ad seriatim on this — meaning they will vote on each of the five clauses separately, so they can choose to support some, but perhaps not all, of the measures.  Let’s look at each one:

1. City Council request Mayor Rob Ford to apologize for misleading the City of Toronto as to the existence of a video in which he appears to be involved in the use of drugs.

Throughout, Minnan-Wong’s motion “requests” and “urges” the mayor to do things, because city council has no legal authority to compel the mayor to do anything.  Ford has already apologized very publicly to the city for this, and will likely be happy to do so again at council.  It’s safe ground for him and the more people demand further apologies, the more he appears as a beleaguered underdog to his hardcore Ford Nation supporters.

Expect Ford to point out, in his speaking time, that he has not yet seen the video and, therefore, can’t attest to what it actually shows — and to call on the police (although he should be calling on the court) to release the video publicly so he, and the world, can see it.  That’s smart politics and good crisis management.  Most people already believe the video shows the mayor using a “crack pipe” and appearing intoxicated.  Actually seeing it will be a visceral gut-wrench, but the market has already priced this misbehaviour into its perception of Ford.  Better for Ford to get this video out now and try to remediate his image, if possible, going into the 2014 election campaign.

2. City Council urge Mayor Rob Ford to co-operate fully with the Toronto Police in their investigation of these matters by meeting with them in order to respond to questions arising from their investigation.

This is pure political posturing by Minnan-Wong who has struck a campaign committee and is actively preparing to run for mayor in 2014.  For some months now, he has been distancing from Ford and trying to position himself as a right-wing conservative alternative.  He has been speaking about hard right fiscal conservatism and trying to look tough on crime.

Ford cannot comply with this request because it asks him to waive a fundamental constitutional right to remain silent.  Ford is, potentially, the subject of a police investigation.  Speaking with police is the last thing a defence lawyer would want him to do.  Minnan-Wong knows this, he’s a lawyer.  He’s trying to use this as a wedge issue to make him the hardcore conservative tough-on crime candidate in 2014.  That’s the only reason it’s in the motion.

Smart councillors will not support this clause as it would set a precedent by having council oppose a constitutional right.

3. City Council request Mayor Rob Ford to apologize for writing a letter of reference for Alexander “Sandro” Lisi, an alleged drug dealer, on City of Toronto Mayor letterhead.

This is another purely political clause designed to get Ford’s back up and provoke a fight on the floor.  Ford is on record saying he won’t throw his “friends under the bus.”  Drawing Ford into an argument on this furthers Minnan-Wong’s attempt to position himself as the “tough on crime” flag-bearer by painting Ford as someone who consorts, and sympathizes, with criminals.

4. City Council request Mayor Ford to answer to Members of Council on the aforementioned subjects directly and not through the media.

This is the Trojan Horse that makes the whole motion a matter of privilege, by suggesting the Ford has not afforded council its inherent right to hear from him directly.  It’s a bit ridiculous, though.  The mayor will have an opportunity to speak to this motion, and be questioned by councillors, before the vote is taken.  By that point, it will be a moot issue.  The questions will have been asked and the answers, such as they are, will have been given.  Councillors who vote for this clause will be requesting Ford to do what he has just finished doing.  It’s nothing but theatre at that point.

Smart councillors will not ask Ford questions.  The more they question him, the more it will look like Ford’s being picked on, which will only solidify what’s left of his hardcore support.

5. City Council urge Mayor Rob Ford to take a temporary leave of absence to address his personal issues, then return to lead the City in the capacity for which he was elected.

This is the only part of the motion that has any real value.  Love him or hate him, Rob Ford is a man in trouble.  In his own words, he has a “problem” and it’s apparent to everyone, except possibly him, that he needs help to resolve it.  There is still a path to personal and political victory for Ford, but it is a narrower and steeper path now than it’s ever been — and he’s nowhere even close to it.  Getting help is his only option and a council resolution to urge him to do so is in Ford’s own best interest, as well as the city’s.

The Filion Motion

Councillor John Filion’s motion, on the agenda as NT41.1 and available here, is more dangerous than Minnan-Wong’s.  Not dangerous to Ford, but dangerous to Toronto’s delicate balance of democratic power.  His motion is not debatable at this week’s council meeting — rather, it’s on the agenda only to provide public notice that it will be considered by council in December.  I’ll have a further analysis of that motion closer to that council meeting — and will explain why passing the motion would be a dangerous precedent for council to set.