After being asked to play nice, council hits a new low. Is municipal civility dead?
On Oct. 3, retiring city CFO Cam Weldon gave a farewell address to city council. “You need to be nicer to each other,” he said. A couple of hours later, two councillors were on the verge of coming to blows, which tells you all you need to know about the state of civic discourse in Toronto.
Here’s how it happened: At the same meeting, independent ombudsman Fiona Crean was scheduled to formally present her report concluding that Rob Ford’s office had compromised the integrity of the public appointments process by shrinking timelines and interfering with staff. Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti suggested that her report was a politically motivated hatchet job. Questioning the integrity of a city-staff member is a breach of council’s code of conduct, so Mammoliti needed to apologize or be expelled from the chamber. Instead, he argued belligerently for several minutes, then said he’d voluntarily leave the chamber rather than be kicked out.
But instead of exiting, he slithered up to the chamber’s public gallery to give interviews. There, with the cameras rolling, councillor Gord Perks stormed up in a rage, insisting that Mammoliti leave. The two stood chest to chest, tension rising, their noses inches apart.
“You’re a bully. You’re trying to destroy the public service…get out of here,” Perks said.
“I will defend myself if you keep touching me,” Mammoliti countered. “Don’t touch me.”
“I’m not touching you, Giorgio, leave the chamber. You said you were leaving the chamber…leave the chamber,” Perks replied.
“Get away from my space,” Mammoliti said. After a bit more indignance and machismo from each of them, Perks walked away.
To his credit, Perks offered an unreserved apology to Mammoliti and the public a few hours later. Mammoliti appeared on the radio station Edge 102.1 the next morning, saying that if Perks hadn’t backed off, “I would have kicked him in the nuts and the face at the same time.” Then he added that city integrity commissioner Janet Leiper is “pretty good looking,” and noted she rides a motorcycle, like him. When host Dean Blundell suggested she was not so much a “watchdog” as a “watchfox,” Mammoliti replied, “We all want to ride the hog.”
For the past two years, there’s been a constant assault on dignity happening at City Hall. At its root is the toxic notion that the sole way to handle disagreement is to question the motives and attack the character of those on the other side of the debate.
Mayor Rob Ford and his big brother Doug are the leading culprits in this race to the gutter. We all know their joint track record: swearing at 911 operators, physically threatening reporters, firing civil servants whose advice contradicts their plans, and characterizing any disagreement as part of an NDP conspiracy against them. They repeatedly proffer the bald-faced lie that the city was at some point close to bankruptcy, and counter any criticism with the accusation that their critics are upset because their hands have been removed from the cookie jar. The Twitter feed of Mayor Ford’s once-and-future campaign manager Nick Kouvalis has achieved a kind of perverse poetry in its robotic, barely literate sloganeering about gravy trains and union bosses.
Council speaker Frances Nunziata presides over the clownshow as Bozo-in-Chief, moderating council debates as an open partisan, displaying no knowledge of the procedural rules it’s her duty to enforce, and spitting insults at opposing councillors.
It would be silly to pretend that the mayor’s opponents share equal blame in this conspiracy of disgrace, but they aren’t innocents, either. Perks loses his temper—on another occasion, he apologized for telling a fellow councillor to “fuck off”—and the lot of them are prone to ridiculous hyperbole. As former Ford staffer Adrienne Batra recently pointed out in her Toronto Sun column, councillor Pam McConnell opposed a new contract with police-station cleaners and absurdly compared the proposed deal to the return of slavery.
Here’s the thing: There are many areas for genuine disagreement. Are the services the city provides adequate? Do we pay too much or too little in taxes? What things might rightly demand higher user fees? There are many important questions to ask about what the city should be trying to do.
Instead, our city councillors nearly come to blows while screaming about who is a tool of the unions and who endorses slavery. Rather than bothering to discuss which ideas are the best, we talk about which people are the worst. It’s dishonest and poisonous, a recipe for cynicism. These are supposed to be our leaders. But I suspect if leadership ever tapped them on the shoulder, they’d kick it in the nuts and the face at the same time.