Toronto Ombudsman: Mayor's Office Compromised the Public Appointments Process
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Toronto Ombudsman: Mayor’s Office Compromised the Public Appointments Process

New report details "unreasonable and wrong" failure to abide by government policies in appointing citizens to various boards.

Rob Ford at his inaugural meeting as mayor.

Mayor Rob Ford’s office interfered to an unprecedented degree in the process of appointing new citizen members to the City’s arms-length boards, apparently in an attempt to exert greater control over the City budget. This, according to a report released earlier today by Fiona Crean, Toronto’s ombudsman.

The 45-page document, based on a months-long investigation, alleges that the mayor’s office first delayed the 2011 appointment process, then used the mayor’s influence to speed it up. The reason for the hurry, according to unnamed Ford staffers Crean interviewed, was that the mayor’s office wanted the new appointments in place before the onset of the 2011 budget process. This was so the new citizen members would be the ones approving the budget submissions of those agencies. Crean also reports that the degree of influence the mayor’s office exerted during the appointment process was unusual, and, in some respects, harmful.

The report says that the compressed schedule insisted upon by the mayor’s office left City staff with far less than the normal amount of time to screen applications for board positions. This, Crean writes, led to disorganization and procedural glitches. Her conclusion is that the rushed process “undermined” the principles of the City’s civic appointments policy.

Crean does not accuse Mayor Ford’s office of trying to stack agency boards with budget-cut-friendly citizen members. But her report does include evidence that some of Ford’s staff members may have engaged in that type of activity.

Some background on the City’s agencies.

Toronto’s agencies include well-known public-service bodies, like the Toronto Police Service, the Toronto Transit Commission, and the Toronto Public Library. There are also a huge number of lesser-known ones.

The tricky thing about these agencies is that each one has an independent board, usually composed of a mix of city councillors and ordinary citizens. Boards have limited control over the budgets of the agencies they oversee. This means they can make life difficult for someone who, like Mayor Ford, would like to clamp down on City spending without interference. Taken together, agencies account for 33 per cent of the City’s combined capital and operating expenditures, according to the report.

City council has no direct control over the citizen members of agency boards. But, in many cases, it does appoint them. Anyone who exerts control over the types of citizens that get appointed to those board spots can influence the types of decisions that board makes. That’s why the notion that the mayor’s office may have had too much influence over the appointments process is a very serious one.

What did the mayor’s office actually do?

The report recounts activity by the mayor’s office that could be described as bullying. First, Ford’s staffers delayed the onset of the civic appointments process in order to allow Ford and the civil service to concentrate on the mayor’s Core Service Review, which was a citywide review of spending that was intended to identify ways of saving money on City operations. Because of that and other complicating factors, City staff initially scheduled the appointments process to end in February, well after budget season.

Hearing that, the mayor’s office told City staff that the process needed to end before the onset of the next budget season. “Staff felt they could not refuse the directions given by the Mayor’s Office,” writes Crean. At the same time, those staffers were confused: in their experience, no mayor had ever tried to dictate the timing of the appointments process before.

City staffers objected to the speed-up on the grounds that it would have given them too little time to screen applicants for board positions. They also thought that the compressed timetable would result in a thinner and less diverse pool of applicants. Even so, they followed the mayor’s orders: the process was revamped so that it could be finished by October, four months earlier than originally planned.

Crean reports that the mayor’s office may even have been able to exert control over where and how the vacant board seats were advertised. Typically, the City takes out ads in newspapers to inform the public that new board members are being sought. City staff told Crean that Ford’s office specifically requested that the ads not be placed in the Toronto Star, which is the most widely read paper in Toronto, because of the mayor’s personal distaste for it. The mayor’s office denies this. Even so, the ads were placed in the Sun, the Post, and Metro, instead.

Crean also says that the mayor’s office tried to remove a part of the ad that encouraged applications from “diverse communities.” Staff refused to do that.

The report contains conflicting evidence about possible attempts by the mayor’s office to control who, exactly, was appointed to the various boards. Some—but not all—of the councillors who sat on the committees that short-listed the new board members say they saw evidence of Ford’s staffers handing out lists of names.

City staff became increasingly distraught over the mayor’s incursions.

“We now have a governance process that is no longer based on any recognizable principles.”

—From an email sent by staff in the city manager’s office, describing concerns about the accelerated appointment schedule, and cited by Fiona Crean in her report on the matter.

The rushed process also led to procedural problems. Because of inadequate advice from staff, city council almost gave an appointment to someone who did business with the agency he would have been overseeing. That’s a clear conflict of interest. Also, the applicants who were eventually appointed to board spots didn’t meet City standards for diversity.

What does Crean think the City should do to keep this from happening again?

She wants the City to create a dedicated, “properly resourced” unit to oversee future appointments. Right now, appointment duties are split between the city clerk’s office and the city manager’s office, which contributed to the confusion in this case. She also thinks the City should review its appointments policy and make improvements, so that conflicts of interest and diversity issues don’t fall by the wayside again.

Will Mayor Ford face formal consequences for this?

At this point, his office is not alleged to have broken any laws or violated council’s code of conduct, so there are no immediate consequences that we know of. The ombudsman’s report will be discussed at next week’s city council meeting, so councillors will have an opportunity to raise concerns on the public record at that time. That is also when they will debate whether to accept the recommendations contained in Crean’s report.

Where can I read the full report?

Here: [PDF]