Public Works: Recalling Politicians
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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.