A Toronto judge has ruled that Rob Ford shall be removed from the office of mayor in 14 days. And you know what? There really wasn’t any other way this could end.
I’m not just referring to the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act hearing against Toronto Mayor Rob Ford—although I think I made it pretty clear after sitting through the hearing that the judge appeared to have no option but to kick him out of office—but this whole Rob Ford mayoral story of the past two years. You’ve got football, and with Ford there’s always football: yesterday, the Argos won the Grey Cup; tomorrow, Ford will coach his Don Bosco Eagles in the Metro Bowl. And, in between, you have Ford being removed from office because of a conflict-of-interest violation stemming from his football charity.
But that hearing had more in it than just football—it has every other thing that has defined Ford’s mayoralty: his obsessing over small amounts of money; his steadfast refusal to pay any attention to details; his belligerent insistence that normal rules and procedures governing ethics and integrity do not apply to him; and his unique ability to inspire a citizen revolt against him. This case has all of it.
Let’s deal, first of all, with the already-heard complaint that this decision from the courts is a “slap in the face” to Toronto voters that people are already writing and saying. The argument of National Post writer Marni Soupcoff and others is that an unelected judge has just reversed the results of the last election and somehow disenfranchised voters. This is pure nonsense. A democracy does not operate to elect a dictator every four years—or at least our democracy doesn’t. A democracy works to elect a government, and that government and its members are bound by the Canadian Constitution and—in the case of Toronto City Council—by the City of Toronto Act, which is the city’s version of a constitution, and other provincial legislation governing procedures, jurisdiction, and integrity rules. If a government oversteps its bounds and breaks the law, the courts have not just a right but a responsibility to hold them to account and reverse it. And if a member of the government breaks the law, the courts have not just a right but a responsibility to administer the penalty that the law calls for. In either case, the voters remain enfranchised to express their will in the next available election. And, in this case, there are the other 44 members of Toronto City Council who have obeyed the law, remain in office, elected by the same voters at the same time to govern the city.
In this case, Rob Ford broke the law by speaking and voting on a matter in which he had a financial interest. (Ford joined council in letting himself off the hook from personal payment of a $3,150 penalty.) The Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, which functions as a supplement to the city’s provincial legislative equivalent to a constitution, says the minimum penalty for such a lapse is removal from office. The judge invoked that penalty, and apparently no more than that. There’s no judicial activism here—the judge read nothing into the law that is not written in plain English. If the man who has been our mayor for two years had ever familiarized himself with the most important laws governing his job description, he’d have known that. But he made it clear during his hearings that he had not read the law, or had anyone read it to him.
And that tells you everything you need to know about who has been shown to have slapped the voters of Toronto in the face in this instance. Ford made it clear during his testimony. And the judge took note. Having been elected to the city’s highest office—having been entrusted with its responsibilities by more than 300,000 voters who believed in him to do the right thing by the city and uphold the responsibilities of that job, how did he react? Justice Charles Hackland writes:
This respondent has served on City Council for 12 years, the last two years as Mayor. He acknowledged, in cross-examination, that prior to this proceeding, he had never read or familiarized himself with the MCIA. Moreover, the respondent admitted that he never sought legal advice as to his entitlement to speak or vote on the Code of Conduct issues before council … he stated that he did not attend briefing sessions offered by the MCIA to newly elected councillors, or read the councillor’s handbook which addresses conflicts of interest.
He has not acted in good faith, the judge ruled, to uphold the law that governs his job. To act in good faith for this city, for those who elected him:
In view of the respondent’s leadership role in ensuring integrity in municipal government, it is difficult to accept an error in judgement defence based essentially on a stubborn sense of entitlement (concerning his football foundation) and a dismissive and confrontational attitude to the Integrity Commissioner and the Code of Conduct. In my opinion, the respondent’s actions were characterized by ignorance of the law and a lack of diligence in securing professional advice, amounting to wilful blindness.
Accordingly, I declare the seat of the respondent, Robert Ford, on Toronto City Council, vacant.
Stubborn sense of entitlement. Ignorance. Lack of diligence. Wilful blindness. These words neatly sum up not just Rob Ford’s conduct in this matter, but his approach to the entire enterprise of government. Whether the question is the virtues of LRTs versus streetcars, or the relationship between tax revenue and a balanced budget, or the traffic-engineering implications of providing alternatives to automobiles for commuters, Ford has been unaware of the nuances of the argument, uninterested in learning those facts, and willing to pigheadedly proceed to barrel forward with his own gut-instinct-based plan anyway. Entitled? Yeah. He reads at the wheel in traffic, bypasses council committees, calls city council decisions irrelevant, dismisses bureaurats who disagree with him, skips out on meetings to pursue his private charitable work, calls senior bureaucrats to his office to demand city work on behalf of the private company he owns… this case, and the judge’s succinct ruling in it, sums it all up.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing at City Hall about the political implications of this legal decision—what are the optics? Will this make voters more sympathetic to Ford? Will it make his opponents look petty? These are fine political questions—though I am glad the courts wisely ignored political calculus, since a judge’s job is not to intuit the will or mood of voters or position various parties for the next election. The judge’s job is to apply the law. And this is how, in this case, it applies. Clearly.
No one knows what happens next. Ford has said he’ll appeal, and we’ll need to wait to hear from a court on whether this decision will be stayed pending appeal—that is, whether he’ll be able to remain in office for 10 or 12 months waiting for the final decision. But with or without a stay, it’s unclear how city council will proceed. With Ford as a possible lame-duck mayor, council will be even less inclined, one expects, to do his bidding while they wait for the hook to finally drag him offstage. Without Ford, the calculations involved in either appointing a replacement or calling an election are too sophisticated to frame out today.
And while this decision certainly ends a chapter in the Rob Ford story, there will almost just as certainly be others—the appeal, the next election, and whatever else the future holds. He could stage a comeback. Who knows what the hell will happen in politics?
But there is one political point about this case I’d like to observe. And that is this: among Rob Ford’s greatest accomplishments in office is that he’s engaged more people in municipal politics than anyone can remember. On Twitter, in person, and in every coffee shop you walk into, people are arguing passionately about Toronto’s government. They care. That’s been good for me, as a writer. The mayor’s ability to make this stuff interesting has been my meal ticket. And ultimately, no matter where on the political spectrum you find yourself, you find that sense of interest and engagement encouraging. The citizens of the city have woken up, and on the questions of the Waterfront, the budget, and transit, among others, the citizens of Toronto have spoken up and gotten involved in governing the city.
So maybe it’s fitting that it was a private citizen who filed this conflict-of-interest proceeding against him—it was not his council opponents who trapped him. This was a lawsuit brought by Paul Magder, private citizen of Toronto. Rob Ford woke citizens up, and one of them stood up to insist the mayor obey the law, and then succeeded in having him ordered removed from office. It was a citizen activist what done it.
Like I said: there was really no other way this could end.
PHOTO: BERNARD WEIL/TORONTO STAR