Friday, November 1, 2013

Rob Ford, Teenager at Large

Less than 24 hours ago, Police Chief Bill Blair got up in front of a crowd of reporters and declared that, not only is the infamous video of Rob Ford smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine real, he had seen it. Not only had he seen it, the police now had it. The discovery of the video had been part of a larger investigation that links Toronto's mayor with a man who is now being charged with extortion; this crime is allegedly because of attempts to get the infamous video from the people who had it.

The media, both traditional and social, have been at a fever pitch since the announcement. And for good reason: Rob Ford said over and over that there was no video, that he hadn't done/doesn't do crack, that there was nothing to discuss here. Over and over, he brushed off any attempt to discuss the allegations. And since the allegations initially surfaced in May, city business slowly seemed to devolve back into whatever parody of "normal" we're accepting as status quo these days: our civic leader being the lone vote against affordable public housing at Toronto's waterfront developments, for example, or the constant battle over which badly needed updates to the transit system were most deserved, and by whom.

So yesterday's announcement came with a side order of ugly satisfaction. It's impossible to follow the saga of Ford in City Hall without wanting to shake my head in disbelief. As Torontoist rightly points out, the mayor has a long history of meeting accusations of bad behaviour with a denial and dismissal. He's rarely made accountable for his actions, and has developed a reputation for being the mayoral equivalent of a Teflon don: people say things—hell, people prove things—against him, and he just stays right where he is.

I'm worried about the next election. Rob Ford has declared as recently as last week that he planned on seeking reelection, and it remains to be seen if this episode will have an effect on those plans. He can run while facing charges; he can serve as mayor so long as he's not serving more than ninety days in jail at the same time. Regardless of wether or not he actually follows through on his plan to run, the city faces an unattractive legacy in his wake.

For instance, there are all the programs he's cut and the service changes he's made in the name of "saving taxpayers money." It will take years to undo or mitigate these changes, which were often targeted to vulnerable populations or social services. Then there's all the policy and planning disruptions—chief and most irritating among these was the hostile takeover of the transit discussion, and the cancellation of a funded and relatively comprehensive plan in favour of an extended, disjointed muck-racking session that saw the approval of a smaller, more expensive, underfunded transit plan. And he's left a smear across Toronto by making it an international laughingstock led by a fractious, personality-not-politics council.

These aren't accidents. Rob Ford's "I do what I want" strategy is most often employed by teenagers who are testing their wings. And like many teenagers, Ford is experimenting with drugs, running around with unfavourable types, getting caught and blatantly denying it—right to our faces! We can tell you've been smoking, mister!—and skipping school (er, work). Even Chief Blair played his part: his I'm-not-upset-I'm-disappointed line from yesterday's press announcement was a classic parenting move. Lord knows I've hung my head in shame enough times when those words have been directed at me. If Toronto is a family, then Rob Ford's tantrums and misbehaviours forces us to wonder what happens when the dad who we put in charge actually turns out to be the troubled teen.

The adult thing to do now would be to resign. He's demanded resignations from people who have plagiarized, who have been caught sleeping on the job, who have dared disagree with him on important issues. Now, after being caught smoking crack and being a racist, it's his due. At the minimum, he should take a leave of absence—because, of course, Ford isn't a teenager, and these activities and allegations aren't "skipping school" and "hanging out with teenaged thugs."

Ford's behaviour paints a portrait, not of a defiant seventeen-year-old but of an addicted and erratic forty-one-year-old. Owning up sends the message that these allegations are serious, and being taken seriously. If Rob Ford cares about the taxpayers as much as he says he does, it's the least he can do: to be governed by a mayor involved in the drug world is to be embarrassed by our leadership, to be second priority for the man whose job is it to make us his first, and to be distracted by the problems of a civic citizen whose public persona should be policy-based, not personal.

No-one can force Ford to resign. No-one can make him take a leave. He needs to decide that for himself, and his history suggests that our perpetually teenaged mayor is more interested in hanging onto his seat than earning his keep there. To continue up with the same erratic schedule and the same arrogant messaging in the face of real, proven problems is to continue being a petulant teenager . What we need, now and always, is a leader.