Accountability at the TCHC, and at City Hall
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Accountability at the TCHC, and at City Hall

Rob Ford speaks to the press briefly after council’s late-night Wednesday session.

For some, city council’s decision late Wednesday night to change the face and structure of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s board is a symbolic first step towards restoring public faith in the organization. Mayor Ford and many councillors who supported his calls for immediate resignations and removals emphasized a need for rapid action in the face of a crisis. Swift action, they argued, shows the public you’re serious. Well, sometimes haste also makes waste, and interferes with rules and processes that lead to the accountability we all demand.
Council decided to fire the remaining TCHC board members without even officially receiving auditor general Jeffrey Griffiths’ reports on spending and procurement improprieties. Mayor Ford, when questioned, said he did not not consult Griffiths or the City’s legal staff before asking council to replace the remaining four board members with Case Ootes, who will serve as lone director. This, after City staff repeated during questioning that the board members were not accused of any fraud or misconduct.

The mayor and other councillors conducted a debate on a report they could not reference without being ruled out of order. They used terms like “issues like these” or “whatever” to refer to the allegations of misspending in “the report that shall not be named”—the same allegations that the mayor was at the same time using to justify his request to fire and replace the board. He acted before the audit committee could even meet to review the report, and cancelled the executive committee meeting where TCHC tenants and other concerned Torontonians had signed up to give deputations and answer questions from councillors.
This swift action led to a quick dismissal of board members who wanted to continue serving. But the bypassing of processes meant to inform leaders before they act is an unnecessary and unsettling move. Mayor Ford remarked in his opening statements last night that his motion “is not about who did what and who didn’t.” But isn’t that exactly what concerned residents and stakeholders were after?

Adam Vaughan consoles a TCHC tenant upset at the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting.

The public has no idea who misspent money at TCHC, exactly what rules were broken, how the persons involved avoided checks and safeguards, and whether or not they have been fired. We know that it wasn’t board members who violated the policies, but council has removed them anyway. Even the alternate tenant representatives, who never attended a meeting and were not, by anyone’s account, implicated in the wrongdoing were removed. Swift, yes—but not necessary or helpful in finding out who did what.
Council also decided to appoint Ootes, the leader of Ford’s transition team, as a lone director where thirteen once served. Council rightly limited his tenure to this June, but failed to restrict any existing powers of this new board of one. If Ootes is interested in moving the TCHC in another direction during his short service, he can do so without the voting input of tenant directors. Again, while this ensures that Ootes can move quickly to address problems at TCHC, it also means the board is, in number and in nature, necessarily less representative of TCHC tenants and Torontonians.
Ootes’ first move as interim director will no doubt be to assure tenants he intends to put them first. But council erred in asking tenants to take him at his word instead of maintaining their direct tenant representation and voting power. City staff said they couldn’t name an agency or commission whose board consists of a lone director. We don’t see how the speed employed to give him so much authority promotes accountability or restores public trust. If anything, Ootes will (or at least should) now be expected to spend time creating mechanisms for tenant input in lieu of the tenant reps.
In the same way, members of council should not have to rely on the mayor’s word and media reports when they have standing audit and executive committees, and an army of staff who can inform their actions. The fact that Ford asked council to make a decision on information it could not reference or debate merits serious scrutiny and concern. This practice undermines accountability and delivers decisions for the sake of appearing decisive instead of ones that are in the public interest.
Council did narrowly vote to publicize the expense records of board members, as well as staff who earn more than $100,000 a year. Yet the mayor and nearly all councillors who supported the board restructuring voted against these disclosures. Those (including Mayor Ford) who argued most passionately for swift removal of the old board also voted against setting a June deadline for appointing new one, although this measure also passed by a slim margin.
Our representatives must explain why their votes on these matters appear to sharply contradict their calls for timeliness and transparency. If council hopes to preserve its own claims to accountability in the wake of the TCHC changes, it needs to base decisions on “who did what, and who didn’t,” rather than “he said, she said,” “we’ll worry about that later,” and “trust us.”
Photos by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.