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politics

Governance in the Age of Rob Ford

In the wake of countless controversies and a damning new report from the ombudsman, what is the state of the city under Rob Ford?

Rob Ford was elected on one simple promise: he was going to change how City Hall conducted its affairs. No longer would it be bound by protectionist policies that provided union workers with unearned, unaffordable privileges; no longer would civil servants squirrel away wasteful spending in the small print of budget documents; no longer would the people of Toronto be beholden to the frivolous, politically correct whims of do-gooder socialists who indulged their pet projects at our (literal) expense.

Rob Ford was elected, too, on one simple premise: that he was the only politician with the courage and capacity to take on the establishment at City Hall. He was the outsider with just enough inside knowledge to understand what needed to happen, who both comprehended the depth of the problem and had the guts to solve it.

Many wonder, looking at the ever-growing list of controversies, at the mayor’s countless verbal blunders and wrestling matches with basic procedure, how he got into office. That’s missing the point to a certain extent. Sure, Ford isn’t renowned for his statesmanlike qualities—but then again, he never campaigned on them, either. People believed in Ford not despite but because of his brusqueness, his bluntness. A little rough around the edges, yes, but here was a guy who wasn’t hiding anything. There was no facade, no polish, and thus no trickery. We knew what we were getting because Ford didn’t care if he offended you, he wasn’t afraid to offend you—and that somehow was a measure of his honesty.

What many residents have been discovering this year, as the accumulated weight of those controversies threatens to sink his mayoralty (electorally, legislatively, and perhaps even legally), is that while Rob Ford may have the courage of his convictions, he lacks both the knowledge and the character required to pursue them competently.

Set aside for a moment the question of whether they are the correct goals. Certainly Rob Ford is not the first to advocate for smaller government, nor to prefer individual interests over collective ones. Also set aside the matter of whether Ford can rightly be called a conservative, or if instead he simply gives voice to visceral sentiments (taxes are bad, subways are good) which don’t actually constitute a coherent worldview. There is a more basic question: what does Rob Ford think it means to be a mayor?

Rob Ford has never been known and and never claimed to be a politician who particularly cared about the rules. He cared, instead, about what was right. His violations of council protocol are legion, and date from his days as a councillor. So too his violations of the norms that govern our public discourse. Rob Ford has always maintained—and in 2010 the voters of Toronto agreed—that these violations were inconsequential and prosecuting them petty. They were the political equivalent of taking pens home from the office: technically wrong, but not really worth getting upset about—the sort of thing uptight bosses focus on when they are too lazy to do real work, and certainly not a measure of how well you do your job. On this view of the world every fresh charge is actually proof of his dedication to the larger, more important goals, and demonstration that vengeful opponents only reveal their shallow, mindless hatred by fixating on the knucklehead stuff.

The knucklehead stuff, it turns out, is what makes Rob Ford so ill-suited to his office.

Yesterday, Toronto’s ombudsman, Fiona Crean, released a report, detailing her months-long investigation into the City’s public appointments process as it has been implemented during Rob Ford’s administration. Her conclusions are damning:

While staff articulated concerns to the [Civic Appointments] Committee and to the Mayor’s Office, they were put in an untenable position. One the one hand, public servants have a duty to serve the best interests of the corporation and through it, the public. On the other, staff felt they could not refuse the directions given to them by the Mayor’s Office.

In some cases, staff signalled the problems to senior management; in others they did not. It is clear that the environment rendered it futile to do so in either case. [Paragraphs 285-286, emphasis added.]

In her investigation, the ombudsman found that the mayor’s office interfered with the established protocols and procedures which govern the selection of Torontonians to serve on various City agencies—everything from the public library to arena boards. This interference had two root causes: the mayor’s focus on budgetary matters, and his defiance of existing rules. The first manifested in everything from staff shortages (described by Ford as “efficiencies”) to a process that was distorted by Ford’s much-vaunted core service review. The second was demonstrated in a disregard for diversity policies; in political interference in administrative matters; in the dismissal of staff concerns about a conflict of interest; and in the fundamental alienation of civil servants.

Another way of putting it: everything that the mayor ran on, every distinguishing feature of his campaign and his administration, the things he holds most dear—these are the things that directly led to an appointments process the ombudsman has called “unreasonable and wrong.”

Rob Ford says he’s done more to help black kids than anyone, but his administration didn’t adhere to policies meant to increase diversity in government. Rob Ford says he can provide the same services with less money, but his administration froze hiring to the point that staff could no longer adhere to due process. Rob Ford says that public servants have gotten an easy ride and need a sharp kick in the ass, but his administration kicked them so hard they’re afraid to speak up in meetings. Rob Ford says we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff because he has his eye on the prize, but his administration compromised not just policy but the selection of people who make and implement policy.

These are not incidental transgressions, and they are not missing pens from the office. They have fundamentally undermined the fairness and the transparency of our civic processes.

Maybe you don’t care if the mayor leaves work early on a Tuesday afternoon to coach football, or his assistant uses a City-issued cellphone to make a call about that game. Maybe you don’t think the gaffes and bungled public appearances matter, or that the ongoing battle with the media merits any attention. But the public appointments process concerns agencies that collectively make up one third of the City’s budget and employ nearly one half of the City’s staff. This is not a question about what is arguably a trivial amount of money, like the cost of printing business cards. This is a question about the nature of the government itself.

Crean, in her report, did not consider—as lawyers did when Rob Ford was on the stand at a hearing this summer—whether Rob Ford’s departure from the rules stemmed from ignorance or disdain. At this point in his administration, after 10 years as a councillor and nearly two as mayor, we are forced to conclude that it is both. There is (as he revealed while on the stand) a degree to which Ford simply does not understand many of the rules which structure the City. And to the extent that his violations have been pointed out to him, to the extent that they seem to be increasing in frequency rather than diminishing, there is also evidence that Rob Ford simply cannot be convinced that those rules matter.

As with any set of rules, when it comes to City Hall procedures we can decide to make allowances for an inadvertent slip, or a small one, if we have reason to believe the person who slips takes care to learn and do better. As with any set of rules, they can be applied so single-mindedly that fairness is smothered by righteousness. If either of those ever applied to Rob Ford, they no longer do.

Rob Ford has never claimed to care about the rules; he cares, instead, about what’s right. In his inability to admit any connection between those two things, Ford does justice to neither.

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