Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Brother, can you spare a mayor

On Monday morning a provincial judge ruled that Toronto's mayor, Rob Ford, had violated conflict of interest statues and removed him from office.

I had been hearing for some time that this was a technical possibility but I honestly didn't really believe that would happen. I was astonished when it did, but now that I've had a chance to mull over the details, I think it was the right call.

It's one of those starts-small-then-snowballs things, kind of like Watergate, only smaller and Canadian. It runs like this. Some time ago, Mayor Ford used city workers and city letterheads to send out messages asking for donations to his personal charity, a youth football team he coaches in Rexdale, the part of Toronto from which he hails in the city's extreme northwest. He raised approximately $3,150 this way, which he used to buy sports equipment. Small potatoes, I agree, and very much above-board; hardly stuffing it away in a Cayman Islands bank account. Still, the use of city staff and identification for such a drive is a violation of the ethics code, and earlier this year, Ford was directed to refund that money to the donors. Seven times. He ignored the directives.

Eventually this became a matter for city council itself, and this is where the smoking gun is found. Mayor Ford participated in the debates on the matter, and voted on the matter (carrying the day, oddly enough). It is against the law in Ontario for any holder of public office to engage either in debate or to vote on a matter in which he or she has a direct or indirect financial interest. A private citizen filed suit, and Monday, the court fired Mayor Ford. Ford's pleas during the trial that he didn't know what he was doing was against the rules didn't impress the judge; in fact, the judge commented that Ford had remained willfully ignorant of the obligations of his office.

It was within the power of the judge to ban Rob Ford from city council entirely for seven years. The judge declined to do so, and Ford is eligible to run again, which should partially mollify those who demand it was for the people to decide, not a judge (Really? Since when does public opinion at large decide if a law has been broken, or what to do if it has?).

It's unusual in Canada for any politician to be forced from office. A lot of people, in fact, even among the Mayor's detractors, are saying the punishment is too severe. Most of his supporters misrepresent the issue as Ford having been turfed for raising money for disadvantaged kids, rather than the reason for which he actually was: breaking conflict of interest legislation passed by Queen's Park. There's some suggestion the provincial law needs to be overhauled to provide for a range of penalties appropriate to the magnitude of the offence. I would tend to agree. But consider...

If the offence we were talking about were indeed simply confined to the size of the donations and/or the uses to which the money was put, Ford's offence would be minor. A few thousand dollars, made honest and public use of, but solicited by proscribed means. Picayune and nearly dismissible (and if Ford had just had enough good sense to scrape together three grand and mail it back when told to, that would have been it, over and done with). We can contrast that to, say, something like skimming millions from construction projects for greasing the wheels and sending it down the rabbit hole to foreign bank accounts. (The kind of thing that, as it turns out of late, happens far more routinely in Quebec—Canada's very own Latinoamérica del norte, in more ways than one—and a good illustration of why we ought to draw the line here, and now.)

But Ford's actual offence is a clearly defined one that has nothing to do with the amount of money involved, or even if there's money involved. Ford's offence was violating the law of this province by involving himself officially in matters concerning his own conduct. It doesn't matter how minor the initial violation was; it was his subsequent actions concerning them that got him removed from office. Richard Nixon didn't face impeachment because his underlings staged a break-in. He faced impeachment for covering it up when he heard about it, and everything else he did afterward to obstruct justice.

This kind of thing is so unusual here that what happens next is a rather ad hoc affair, and up to city council. It may simply appoint Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday to the remainder of Ford's term. It may decide to hold a by-election to fill Ford's vacated office. I'm hoping for the latter but expecting the former, if only for financial reasons; elections aren't cheap. But whenever the next mayoral election is held, now or two years from now, Rob Ford is eligible to run. But I wonder if the city ought to re-endorse a man whose principal defence was that he spent two years as mayor avoiding learning the rules that govern the conduct of his office; not to mention the years before that he spent as a councilor. Do the citizens of Toronto really want to return anyone of that proven mindset to public office?

Since 1834, Toronto has had 64 mayors. Four have resigned. Two have died in office. Only one has ever been judicially impeached, and Rob Ford holds that singular distinction. That should be enough.

1 comment:

Bridgewater said...

The General Petraeus scandal also deals with failure to follow the rules, with the difference that Petraeus knew perfectly well what the rules were after decades in the military and hypocritically violated them anyway. There can be no plea of ignorance. As to whether the rules need to change, I don't have enough information for an opinion, but whatever they are, they need to be applied evenly. I know of numerous violations of this type in the military that resulted in soldiers being stripped of rank and benefits but officers suffering no consequences for the same misbehavior, or being allowed to retire with full pension and bennies. Morale suffers when the rules are violated without punishment, or when injustice favoring rank is perceived. US Government employees take ethics training every year in which they are reminded that they may not do what Rob Ford did, under penalty of fine or dismissal. Petraeus might or might not have been vulnerable to blackmail, but the rest of the folks who work at the CIA certainly are expected to be squeaky-clean, and their leader ought to lead by example. He deceived and then publicly humiliated the person with whom he had built a life and family--kinda scummy. We all understand temptation, but the thing that should have kept him faithful is the knowledge that she might not find out, but HE would know.