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Public Works: Recalling Politicians

What do you do with used politicians when you don't want them anymore?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, governance, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Last year, voters in Miami-Dade County, Florida overwhelmingly chose to boot Mayor Carlos Alvarez from office less than three years into a four year term, after he tried to hike property taxes. This was done through voter recall, a mechanism that enables a pissed-off electorate to trigger an election early, when a certain number of people don’t feel he or she is getting the job done. It’s common in the United States—less so in Canada, where only British Columbia allows it. Is it something we need here in Toronto?

Maybe. Let’s look at our present situation. Rob Ford surfed into the mayor’s office on a wave of rhetoric about how we’d all be farting through silk if we just stopped the gravy train of waste flowing through City Hall. His first weeks were Ford Triumphant; he convinced council to cancel the Vehicle Registration Tax and unilaterally announced that the David Miller–initiated Transit City plan had been scrapped.

But since then, his mayoralty has devolved into farce and spectacle. He seems unable to cooperate or negotiate with anyone who doesn’t share his views, and the business of governing has become secondary to the sideshows generated by mini-scandals over reporter-chasing and questionable driving habits.

Next week, the mayor will find himself in the hottest water yet of his potboiler career, testifying before a legal hearing that could see him lose his job if he’s found to have violated conflict-of-interest rules.

If that happens, Torontonians who would rather be other-mayored will rejoice. But if not, lacking the ability to prompt a recall election, Toronto will have to wait until at least 2014 to find a replacement.

Voter-recall legislation has been floated here before. Rocco Rossi, more prescient than we realized, advocated voter recall during his failed 2010 run for mayor, and earned words of support from fellow candidate Ford. Voters liked it too; in a poll taken at the time, 73 per cent said they thought Torontonians should be able to kick non-performing politicos to the curb. And just last week, Sudbury mayor Marianne Matichuk pitched the idea to her fellow mayors and to Municipal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne at a conference in Ottawa.

Getting legislation in place wouldn’t be difficult if city council requested it and Queen’s Park agreed; it would just be a matter of working out the details. Typically, a recall election is triggered by a petition, so it’s a matter of determining how the petition gets started, how many voters have to sign it, and whether there are any restrictions on how the recall can be used.

So we could do it. But should we?

Recall is a double-edged sword. While it means that incompetent public officials can be canned before they do too much damage, it can also make politicians fearful of taking unpopular but necessary action that might get them booted by a surly public. And as emotionally gratifying as a mayor-firing would be, there’s no guarantee that what you bring in is going to be any better than what you turfed out.

In the case of the Miami-Dade example above, the economy has picked up a little but it’s only been a little over a year since recall, and tough to know whether the change in mayors had anything to do with it.

The most famous recall election in North America was the California vote of 2003, when an electorate enraged over a toileting economy ousted Democratic governor Gray Davis and replaced him with Republican Arnold “Total Recall” Schwarzenegger. But when Schwarzenegger finally swaggered out of office at the end of 2010, the budget deficit had hit an all-time high, and the Governator’s popularity rating was as low as Davis’ at the time of the recall. There are no guarantees of success in recall land.

Nevertheless, while we don’t want to fire our leaders the first time they use the dessert fork for the salad, in cases of egregious ineptitude or malfeasance, there should an option, and that option is recall. There are ways of designing the process so that it’s fair, and doesn’t get used constantly or thoughtlessly.

Getting rid of an elected official early is awkward at best; we can’t just text a quick “this isn’t really working out” message and then leave the apartment for a couple hours so they can pick up the cat. But it shouldn’t be impossible.


  • Miroslav Glavic

    Recall legislation is bad.

    People voted for Rob Ford. I never voted for David Miller. I never liked how he did things, should I of been allowed to kick David Miller out? of course not.

    I could easily type the names of left leaning Council members who seem unable to cooperate or negotiate with anyone who doesn’t share their views.

    The guy going after Ford on a SMALL technicality was part of Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler’s FAILED 2010 run for School trustee. Everyone who is involved in TO politics knows ACF doesn’t agree with Ford and is incapable of cooperating/negotiating with anyone who doesn’t share ACF’s views.

    I wonder if that same guy would go after Joe Mihevc, Gordon Perks, Janet Davis, Shelley Carroll, etc…?

    45 members of council got elected. They should stay until 2014. Different people have different views, it is called compromised. People making a big deal of Ford instead of compromising…are the ones who should be kicked out.

    • Paul Kishimoto

      Actually, it’s called “compromise”, and Ford’s conception of it is about the same as the U.S. Republican party’s: they’ll agree to operate the bandsaw while you amputate your own limbs.

    • Anonymous

      You really think it’s a partisan or personal issue. Astounding.

      • don

        Not astounding at all, Ty. Open your eyes to reality.

        • Anonymous

          The reality is that Fordists and other right wingers gleefully turn a blind eye when their con champions break the rules – it’s politics! it’s a conspiracy! – but foam at the mouth and demand the head of any left winger who does anything that even suggests impropriety, no matter the legality of it.

    • Anonymous

      “SMALL technicality”
      Oh, laws are based on bullshit than?

      “People making a big deal of Ford instead of compromising…are the ones who should be kicked out.”

      So shoot the messenger? Gotchya!

    • Anonymous

      Not small at all, keep in mind that conflict of interest is just a moire polite word for corruption. The city has conflict of interest laws to avoid corruption, however Ford is of the mindset that laws designed for mere mortals do not apply to him and has flouted so many laws during his time in city politics. Not to mention rules and regulations like his refusal to account for his office expenses. There’s no problem with Ford paying for his own office expenses but there is a problem with him no accounting for those expenses. After all how do we know that it was Ford who has paid for his office expenses, for all we know some developer is paying for Ford’s office expenses. There is simply no way of knowing who is paying for Fords’ (both of them) office expenses since they both refuse to follow the rules and regulations of the city of Toronto and accurately account for their office expenses. Its just yet another of a long pattern of Ford flouting laws, rules and regulations as if he is above such things unlike every single other Canadian.

    • don

      Well said, Miroslav.

  • Guest

    First off the reasonings for having a recall have to be extremely severe. You can’t recall a politician because you dislike him

    • Anonymous

      The thing is though, that’s probably how most people vote in regular elections.

      Well, they vote how they’ve always voted, but they convince themselves they “like” their party’s candidate, and they “dislike” the other parties’ candidates.

      Unless they actively and viscerally hate them.

      Lots of mud-slinging brings the ‘democratic process’ to its inevitable conclusion.

      – The Book of Steve.

  • Anonymous

    Recall is understandably popular and lends itself to easy, applause-line talking points. But, like the citizen-initiated referendum, it turns out to be a terrible idea in practice: either recall is hard, so that only powerful organizations (like corporations, unions, and parties) can carry one out; or recall is easy, and the result is anarchy.

    Not coincidentally, both of these ideas are the stock-in-trade of loser politicians trying to style themselves as the people’s champion (cf. Rossi and 2000-vintage Stockwell Day).

    Politicians need space to make unpopular but necessary decisions. And if we are daft enough to vote for a bum, we should be made to live with the consequences so that we don’t do it again. Nobody can claim to be surprised that Ford’s administration turned out the way it has.

    There should be an exceptionally high standard for removal from office, and I am uncomfortable with removal for anything less than a conviction on serious criminal charges.

    • Anonymous

      “if we are daft enough to vote for a bum, we should be made to live with the consequences so that we don’t do it again.”

      That would explain the steady improvement in their quality.

    • Anonymous

      “or recall is easy, and the result is anarchy.”

      I think you need to familiarize yourself with ‘anarchy’ before attempting to use ‘dem big werds’ or even worse, bullshit hyperbole.

  • Jonathan McKinnell

    First off the reasonings for having a recall have to be extremely severe. You can’t recall a politician because you dislike them. Or if enough people petition to make it so, Ford only garned 30% or so of the vote in the election, it’s enough to win but not enough for a majority. So if you used voter numbers as a basis he’d be out fairly quick.

    The reasons for a recall have to be based on hard fact. If the politician in question is having an adverse affect on the city and it’s people. As much dislike as there is for Rob, his day to day work isn’t effecting the city in that great of a way. That’s more a result of his lack of leadership ability. I’m sure if Rob was better able to bend council to his will there would be stronger opposition and damage done. But that isn’t the case and council is moving along nicely without him.

    Now, all that said. Conflict of interest is a big deal, and there are bigger problems with Rob’s case then simply the amount of money that was given to his charity. First off, to say that this charity doesn’t effect him personally is complete crap.
    1. It’s called “The Rob Ford Foundation” not the “Helping kids through football foundation”
    2. He promoted it heavily during his election campaign
    3. It had a clear effect on the public’s view of him, it softened him and promoted him as a man of the people during the election. Whether that was his intent with it initially or if he simply used it as leverage after the fact I don’t know.
    4. Any success that the foundation produced was/is a clear boon to him personally because he is so closely tied to it. (see point 1)

    You can’t avoid these facts, and neither can Rob. Also keep in mind that $3000 is no small change when you’re dealing with a foundation of this size. $3000 buys a lot of gear for a football team.

    • Anonymous

      As well there’s still an on-going investigation into Rob Ford’s campaign financing involving the way the family company was used for cash and support in ways that appear to, the investigation isn’t complete yet, who knows why, violate our election laws.

      But I agree the best defence against an incompetent mayor like Ford is the weak mayor system we have in place. City council has been functioning just fine without Ford, at least once they got their shit together after the election and realized that most citizens don’t want to see Toronto ruined in a race for the bottom. We would probably be doing a lot better as a city with a competent mayor but we’re getting by okay with Ford regardless of his incompetent man-child antics.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t see this issue as being at all related to Ford’s present predicament.

    Ford would easily beat any such recall attempt today, through a combination of voter apathy, ignorance, and Ford Nation zombies responding en masse to Nick Kouvalis’s formidable robocall machine (i.e., the same way he won the election).

    On the other hand, a David Miller and any of his ilk probably would be recalled for raising property taxes over some ridiculous threshold (let’s say 3%), or attempting to cut police/fire/other sacred cow line item, through efforts championed (and underwritten) by a Councillor Ford.

    Ford is more likely to be hoisted by his own petard sooner or later, no recall required.

    • Anonymous

      I “hope” you aren’t correct, but personally most of the people I know that were Ford supporters, no longer are.

    • gorilla_the_ape

      Nick Kouvalis is out of Ford’s office, and been bad mouthing both Fords in public.

      Hoping for Kouvalis to save Ford isn’t a good strategy.

      I don’t see the court case as making much difference in the long run. This is late enough that the appeal process will take him past the 2014 election, and I don’t think that Ford can win that one.

      • Anonymous

        That’s quite an old story. Last I heard, NK will work for anyone who can pay his fee (including a union), and is slated for Ford’s re-election. Assuming Ford will be allowed to run.

  • Cranky Old Prof

    You don’t need recall so much as you need an “automatic runoff” voting system (ranked candidates). No one should get anything with only 30% or 40% of the vote. Such as system would have kept Ford out of office in the first place.

    • Anonymous

      In fact Ford got 47% of the vote. If Toronto used IRV, the only way Ford could have lost is if he was essentially nobody’s second choice. That’s not plausible — remember the Pantalone camp arguing that Smithernan would be even worse than Ford.