On the left: Councillor Joe Mihevc. On the right: respect for taxpayers.
One striking feature observers have noticed about the Rob Ford administration is how rarely the mayor himself actually speaks—to reporters, to his colleagues during debate, in front of cameras. And so councillors may have felt a rush of excitement yesterday when Ford took to the floor of the council chamber during the budget debate (which is still ongoing). Surely he would say something significant, advocate fiercely for the proposals before them?
Surprisingly, he did not. Instead were only a brief few sentences, during which Ford endorsed various of the motions up for consideration. But because council procedures are set up the way they are, when he speaks other councillors have the right to question the mayor.
At least, they can try.
Debate did not proceed productively, with Ford often seeming surprised that his colleagues were lining up to inquire about his budget priorities. Now, admittedly, debating can be inelegant. Sentences get started and stopped and rerouted. People cut each other off, and engage in all manner of rhetorical tactics to deflect interlocutors. But even by the sometimes questionable standards of the clamshell, this was a remarkable display of obfuscation. And because he’s spoken during council debates so rarely, we thought we’d transcribe a bit of yesterday’s exchange.
Each councillor gets up to five minutes to question the mayor. Here is the full, five-minute exchange that took place when Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) took his turn, moderated by Speaker Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston).
Nunziata: Councillor Mihevc—
Mihevc: Thank you very much madam speaker, I want to continue the questions of the mayor. Mr. Mayor, did you say during your election campaign, was it one of your campaign commitments—I can’t remember and I followed the campaign pretty closely—that water efficiency programs would be cut at the City? It’s a yes or no.
Ford: Councllor Mihevc. You want to talk about going off course here, we’ll talk about my election campaign in a minute. But you know what I have to do: I had three phone calls over lunch saying I shouldn’t have congratulated you on holding back on your pay increase, because you were one of the three people that voted in favour of keeping your pay increase.
Mihevc: Hold on…
Ford: No, no, let me finish. You asked a question and I’m just talking. If you want to go rogue in this then we’ll go rogue, which you’re doing. [Mihevc tosses his pen up with a combination of resignation and frustration.] So I have to apologize to the people which were watching. They were very upset that I gave you credit for freezing your wage. You did not, so I apologize. Now, if you want to continue about my campaign, let me tell you what my campaign was about.
Mihevc: No, madam chair…
Ford: No, you asked about my campaign
Mihevc [simultaneously]: I asked a very specific question
Nunziata: Okay, just one second, just one sec Councillor Mihevc, Mr. Mayor. Councillor Mihevc, you asked the mayor a question on his campaign promise. So! You asked the question, you opened up the door, and now allow him to answer the way he wants to answer, or [voice rising] don’t ask those questions.
Ford: Thank you madam speaker.
[Mihevc starts to speak.]
Nunziata: Hold on. Let the mayor speak.
Ford: Thank you. I campaigned on getting rid of the sixty dollar car tax, I got rid of the sixty dollar car tax. I did it. People felt there was this war on the car and I said that I was going to put an end to the war on the car. I said “I’m going to get rid of the sixty dollar car tax.” I did that at the first meeting. [Mihevc tries to speak.] Hold on, hold on. Councillor, councillor, councillor, councillor. Then, I said people had this lavish expense account of fifty-three thousand dollars [from] which one councillor who’s not here anymore had a retirement party, and [Mihevc tries to speak]—hold on. You asked me what I campaigned on. [Mihevc tries to speak.] I said I am going to get the expense accounts manageable. I reduced the expense accounts from fifty thousand down to thirty thousand, and again—correct me if I’m wrong—you did not support that.
Mihevc: No, I did.
Ford: Oh, you did? I apologize. Now, hold on. Then—I’m answering what I campaigned on, and that’s what he… [Both Mihevc’s and Ford’s mics get muted.]
Nunziata: Hold on. Hold on. Mayor Ford, please answer the questions on the budget, on what the questions are being asked. And Councillor Mihevc, please keep your questions related to the budget. Okay.
Mihevc: My questions is about the water efficiency. Did he or did he not—very focused question—say that he was going to cut these programs during his election campaign? I don’t need to hear about all the other things that he promised, just one specific area. Yes or no? It’s not an opportunity to give a speech,
Ford: I’m going to tell you. You know, I must have had fifty, sixty items that I campaigned on during my election campaign.
Mihevc: Was this one of them?
Ford: But at the end of the day, it was respect for taxpayers, and it was making sure every single dime will be accounted for when I’m mayor. I said I’m going to stop the wasteful spending—which I haven’t stopped, I’ve just started, I’ve only been in office for eighty days. I think we’ve done a lot, we’ve saved sixty-six million dollars in the first—
[Mihevc tries to say something.]
Ford: Hold on. No, you can’t switch your question, you can’t change your question.
Mihevc: But you’re not answering the first question! It’s a straight yes or no.
Ford: I said that…
Nunziata: Mr. Mihevc, please.
Ford [simultaneously]: The free food and the free drinks that would be out by now, the free buffet, I said I was going to get rid of that, saving the taxpayers fifty thousand dollars. The inauguration that we had, the meeting that we had that had all the bells and whistles last time—I said we don’t need to have this elaborate meeting. I save the taxpayers thirty thousand dollars there. My transition team, which Case Ootes led, saved [nods and shakes is head in disbelief]—there wasn’t even a budget, to be honest. I said I’m going to come in under budget.
[Mihevc is inaudibly imploring for Nunziata to intervene.]
Ford: I said I would not take the seventeen thousand dollar pay increase when I became mayor. They said a hundred and seventy thousand was not enough, I said…
Nunziata: Mayor Ford, Mayor Ford, please. Can you allow Councillor Mihevc to ask his question, please?
Mihevc: I have five questions.
Nunziata [to Ford]: Yes, specifically please.
Mihevc: I have five questions. I think our privilege and the privilege of frankly Torontonians who are listening to this—he is accountable, he ran on transparent, open, accountable government. If he can’t answer a simple question, which is “did you campaign on it, or not?”—a “yes” or a “no” would be a very, very appropriate answer—if I can’t get my answer and I can’t get my other four questions answered, then why are we here? I want to ask him a question about one topic and he goes over to his regular stump speech. I don’t think that that’s appropriate.
Nunziata; Okay, thank you Councillor Mihevc. Mayor Ford?
Ford: I answered.
Nunziata: Thank you.
Mihevc: My next question…
Nunziata: Your time is up Councillor Mihevc.
Council continues debating the 2011 budget at this time; you can watch online.