Our mayor was given every chance to avoid turning an error of judgement into an impeachable offence—so why did he actively reject them?
Rob Ford appeared in a Toronto courtroom today, engaged in a high-stakes battle. With his job as mayor on the line, he faces conflict-of-interest allegations and will be cross-examined by Clayton Ruby, one of the country’s highest-profile lawyers. (The Toronto Star is live-Tweeting the proceedings.)
Some background: Back when he was a city councillor, the mayor solicited donations for his high-school football charity using City Hall office stationery. Starting in 2009, integrity commissioner Janet Leiper repeatedly warned him that this was against the rules. But Ford persisted. Finally, she ordered him to repay certain donors who did business with the city—a total of $3,150. He refused. In February, city council voted in favour of excusing him from paying that penalty. At that same meeting, he made a speech about the issue and voted in his own favour, a clear violation of the conflict-of-interest laws governing elected officials. It’s a decision that has come back to haunt him. The mandatory minimum penalty for his actions is removal from office.
It is absolutely crazy that the mayor could lose his job over this matter, and crazier still that he pigheadedly set himself up to face that punishment—refusing every opportunity to be let off the hook. But that kind of senseless, self-destructive behaviour has pretty much defined his political career.
The showdown likely won’t be resolved for several weeks, but this is a really bad situation for Ford. Strike one against the mayor: He is guilty as charged. The city’s conflict-of-interest guidelines clearly state that no elected official should speak or vote on a matter in which he or she has a financial interest. So there’s that.
Strike two: While Ruby is famous for his nimble mind and articulate legal arguments, Ford is famous for being rather less eloquent. Clarity of thought and nuanced defenses of his own policies and behaviour are not—I think even his supporters would agree—his strong suit.
Strike three: The guy drives a Cadillac SUV and earns $167,770 per year as mayor, yet he rolled the dice with his career over a few grand. Holy moly.
As Ford’s lawyer says, “No objectively reasonable person could conclude that the respondent, a city councillor for 10 years and mayor for two years, would jeopardize his position for $3,150.” But that’s the problem. Objectively reasonable people have no way of understanding Ford’s constantly reckless actions as mayor. He calls 911 on television crews in his driveway. He confronts and threatens newspaper reporters. He reads and talks on his phone while he’s driving.
Questions abound: Why does he jeopardize his political goals over such easily avoided things? Why did he repeatedly violate council ethical guidelines to solicit donations for his charity in the first place? Why did he do it again and again after being warned by the integrity commissioner?
This isn’t an ideological complaint—the political riddle is why the mayor insists on being his own worst enemy. Denzil Minnan-Wong, one of Ford’s most loyal council allies, told the Toronto Sun this week that his constituents “wish there weren’t so many missteps” from the mayor. “These are problems that are easily avoidable and easily dealt with, so they are bothered by the lifestyle issues that are popping up.”
Whenever one of these “lifestyle issues” comes up, Ford’s supporters say that small things are being blown out of proportion by the mayor’s ideological opponents. They are saying that about businessman Paul Magder, who filed the conflict-of-interest suit. But it isn’t the responsibility of Ford’s opponents to excuse the mayor for outrageous, headscratching behavior. And it isn’t his opponents’ responsibility to forgive him for breaking the law in ways—large, small, whatever—that could see him removed from office.
It’s the mayor’s responsibility to ensure he doesn’t do stupid things, especially stupid things that violate the law. In this case, declaring a conflict of interest and letting city council absolve him of responsibility would have been easy. He didn’t need to make a speech, or vote on the matter—council was clearly going to vote in favour of excusing him from the fine, by a large majority. Instead, for reasons that defy rational analysis, he decided to jeopardize his own career and the stability of the city.
If you’ve followed Rob Ford for a long time, that’s not really a surprise. But that doesn’t mean it makes any sense.