Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rob Ford: Good Gravy, Bad Governance

My beef with Rob Ford isn't with his politics; we certainly don't see eye to eye on many (maybe most) issues, but I understand how his platform of fiscal and social conservatism appeals to people. I find his personality repugnant, but I also shy away from that whole "politics of the personality" phenomenon, and wish that more time was spend talking about policy and less time about pants size.

My main issue with the Mayor of Toronto isn't political, or personal - it's governance-based. When he dismisses an historic city council meeting as "irrelevant," he's dismissing the body of people he needs to work with in order to get anything done in his office. That dismissiveness might be a product of his personality, and it bleeds over into the political sphere, but what it boils down to is a belief that the Mayor is in charge of the ship, and everyone else should just stay below deck.

When I heard that Ford had been accused with violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, my stomach got a little flippy. The story, for those who are interested, is neatly recapped here, but the salient point is that Ford stood before council members and spoke on a financial issue from which, if the votes went in his favour, he would benefit financially. Then he sat down and cast a vote on that same issue. The penalty for this conflict of interest? Removal from office.

On every board, in every city hall, at every level of government, that kind of behaviour is strictly sanctioned. The amount or the purpose to which the money was applied is irrelevant (in Ford's case, just over three grand, and it went to his football charity). Whether the motion passes or fails is also irrelevant. The corruption is the problem, and what Ford did is corrupt. It's not a matter of being "right" or "left" or "David Miller" or "a good cause" or [insert inflammatory #TOpoli buzzword here]: this is a demonstration of how little Ford thinks the rules apply to him.

I sat on a board of directors for four years, and in that time, I recused myself from a number of votes. We were a student board, and a little hyperactive in invigilating that Robert's Rules were followed to the letter, but we all knew that when one of us (or one of our friends or family members) stood to benefit financially from the Board's decision, we didn't get to cast our usual vote. Doing so would have muddied the usually clear definition of good decision-making: it's good for everyone, not just for some well-placed folks with votes.

Mayor Ford has held his position for over a year now, and sat on city council for ten years before that. Even if he wasn't paying attention, he still learned how and when to state his conflicts of interest, and to stay away from the discussion and the decisions surrounding those agenda items. On the very same that day Ford cast his vote to reverse a fine he had been levied, he also excused himself from discussion about a golf course, because he was a member. His defense in this matter can only be, "I didn't know better," a weak excuse at best, and one that won't hold water given that he has a record of understanding exactly what a conflict of interest is.

Ford has earned a reputation as a maverick (if you like him) or a blowhard (if you don't), in part because he has operated somewhat outside the will of council for much of his tenure. He hasn't done much to build bridges in council, but that's okay - it's tough to be both the outsider underdog and the mayor (echoes of Dubya ring through the canyons), but Ford somehow pulls it off. What's harder to accept is Ford's petulance, fast becoming a pattern, when he doesn't get his way - his attempts to throw council and its rules under the bus borders on heresy, especially for someone who owes his very position to the existence of council in the first place. It's arrogant in the extreme. Arrogance is tough to accept in anyone, let alone a divisive "populist" leader, and it's hard not cheer when he gets called out.

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