There was a moment during Tuesday’s budget meeting that summed some things up: after a day and a half of sometimes vicious and often ridiculous debate over the 2013 City of Toronto operating budget, during which city councillors proposed something near to $50 million in alterations to the budget committee and executive committee’s final document, when Mike Del Grande, chair of the budget committee, stood to speak. And the theme of his speech was, as it so often is, his own martyrdom. A man with a master’s degree in theology, Del Grande has never passed up an opportunity to show us the hairshirt he wears as he lumbers around, day after day, dragging the heavy burden of our budget on his back, attempting to atone for our sins.
The calls to make the budget process more transparent amounted to “vilification,” he said. He and his budget committee colleagues had worked long and hard, studied the situation, listened to residents, he said. It was hard work. It was not fun work, as he made clear in his long chats with Rob Duffy for the feature story about him that appears on the cover of The Grid this week. City council should not forsake his careful work by voting to fund all sorts of things he had decided not to fund.
At just that moment, as Del Grande was speaking, the man who had assigned him that thankless role, Mayor Rob Ford, held a scrum.
About 24 hours earlier, Ford had shocked Del Grande and everyone else when he voted, in a sense, against a part of his own administration’s budget. During the part of the proceedings when council was to vote on the tax levy to fund the budget, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti had, apparently on a whim, stood up to suggest that instead of raising taxes 2 per cent, as Ford and Del Grande had proposed, taxes should be frozen. To make it clear to everyone that he was straight-up trolling, he suggested funding the city’s services with a floating casino in the lake that could be cast out to sea if it proved problematic—a proposal never heard or considered in the budget process or anywhere else previously. Though Mammoliti had knifed Ford in the back after a court’s decision last year, and though Ford himself had been Del Grande’s harshest taskmaster and biggest cheerleader through the budget process, Ford could not resist. He voted in favour of Mammoliti’s impulse tax proposal. Del Grande said he hoped the mayor might have voted in error. But no.
And now, even as Del Grande stood pleading with council to support his budget as he had proposed it, Ford told the press that he would be voting in favour of a motion by his friend Councillor Paul Ainslie (a “compromise” amendment to a motion by his enemy Paula Fletcher) that would restore more than $3 million in funding to the fire department.
At the last supper, on the night he was to be arrested and the day before he was to be crucified, the Bible tells us, Jesus told the disciple who was going to turn him over to authorities, “Go and do what you must do.” Back on the floor of council, Del Grande seemed to know his betrayal was complete. He ended his speech, saying, “I did what I needed to do. You now need to do what you need to do.”
After the votes were in, and Ford had supported the fire department motion, and about $12 million in total funds were added to the budget to fund services Del Grande had insisted should be cut, Rob Ford went out with a bunch of councillors to celebrate. As a photo Paul Ainslie tweeted showed and as Doug Ford crowed to the press, the mayor sat beside his biggest critic Adam Vaughan, who had earlier told the press council had seized control of the budget.
The next day, Del Grande resigned as budget chief. And went on a media tour, evangelizing his sacrifice and betrayal.
Why, exactly, Rob Ford caved in to pressure and voted twice against his own budget is a legitimate enough question for his supporters to ask. And indeed, they are asking it—or ranting about it at least, some of them who have been his most loyal footsoldiers. Denzil Minnan-Wong says, “I find it highly unusual for the chair of the executive committee and the mayor to break ranks and vote against his own budget.” Doug Holyday ranted in the council chamber that this was an “Ikea Monkey budget” full of the pet projects of special interests, and that council and the mayor were caving in to pressure from the firefighters union whose red-shirted members had filled the public gallery for two days. This would be no more puzzling to anyone than Del Grande, who had almost certainly faced months of pressure from the mayor to contain costs and make tough choices and enforce unpopular cuts.
But Ford opponent Janet Davis summed up the sympathetic position Del Grande found himself in: “I don’t think it was really a surprise. This is a budget chief who tried to bring forward a budget that supported the mayor’s agenda and the mayor turned his back on it,” Davis said on the cable channel CP24. “Why would anyone want to be a budget chief if the mayor can’t deliver the vote and doesn’t support you in that role?” (Michael Thompson might know how that feels.)
Here’s the thing. Ever since a court lit a fuse that could explode at any time with the removal of the mayor from office, Ford needed this to be an election budget. If he’s going to face voters in a by-election within a few months, he needs to be able to show that the hardest work is done and he’s now delivering goodies to everyone in the form of better—or at least not remarkably worse—services. Ford will not want to go out on the campaign trail in the middle of a war with firefighters and librarians, who are together among the most beloved of civil servants.
And part of the election readiness package is showing the mayor to be a compromiser: a man who has learned from the stubbornness that immobilized his agenda last year and has learned to work with his opponents to move the ball down the field. This new-and-improved Ford was supposed to be shown when he moved a motion at his executive committee (denying his budget chief’s work for the first time) to restore about $6 million in funding for libraries and other services. But that wasn’t enough to tame the opposition, who came forward with motion after motion to further amend the budget. He voted with Mammoliti, apparently on impulse (denying his budget chief a second time). But the cape of Reasonable Compromise Man required more, as the opposition and firefighters in attendance made clear. So even as his own disciples fought and shouted in anger and confusion, Ainslie persuaded the mayor to compromise again, restoring funding for the fire department until the summer.
This allows the mayor to simultaneously say that he met his critics halfway, while pointing out their tens of millions of dollars in other motions that he failed to support are signs of their own crazed inability to compromise. It was in many ways among the savviest moves Rob Ford has ever made. He’s not a guy who traditionally trades in savvy, always preferring a red-faced rant to a civil conversation and a blunt slogan to a political debate.
And yet some of those who’ve been tasked with standing beside the mayor as he previously pushed forward and refused to compromise—those who through choice or convenience were the front lines of his campaign of stubbornness—found themselves wondering where the man of strong principle was, what had happened to the resolve based in deeply held conviction he had championed as they played the bad guy on his behalf.
There is a strong possibility that there’s an election coming. So Rob Ford was breaking bread with Adam Vaughan in Little Italy and his brother was holding a scrum in the Star‘s office.
Del Grande said he was going home to watch a movie. He says the mayor’s motives are “one of the unsolved mysteries of the universe.”
An appeal court is expected to rule on Rob Ford’s removal from office before the end of this month. And word is that Paul Ainslie might be in line to be Ford’s next choice for budget chief.
Photo: STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR