Now that the decision to remove Rob Ford from office as mayor has settled in (and will have more time to settle in, given this morning’s news), it’s become conventional wisdom that, given the law, the outcome was inevitable. But it’s become equally conventional to lament the law. As Justice Hackland noted, the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act is a “blunt instrument.” Removing a guilty party from office is the minimum penalty. And that strikes many as unjust, especially when they look at this case, in which the mayor-for-now voted to excuse himself of paying $3,150 in donation reimbursements Even I’ve written that the penalty seems disproportionate to the crime. But the more I reflect on it, the more I think the penalty is completely appropriate.
The Municipal Conflict of Interest Act is not some kind of niggling technicality that subverts democracy, as Ford’s defenders have deemed it. Rather, it’s a cornerstone that ensures democracy. Without an openly ethical process, we can have no faith in honest democracy at all.
We do not elect dictators here. We elect politicians to run the government, and they must do so in accordance with the rules that preserve an open, honest process of governing. What’s at stake is the integrity of our whole system—the principle that elected officials should make decisions based on the best interests of the city. And, especially, that they should not make decisions when they have a competing interest. If they or their families stand to make or lose money based on a decision, they cannot vote or speak on it.
How important is avoiding conflicts of interest? When the mayor was sworn into office, he specifically pledged to act “in accordance with the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.” And the penalty outlined in that law underscores its primacy: If you are willing to put your own interests ahead of the city’s—or put yourself in a position to decide between your own interests and the city’s—you are not fit to serve. Yes, it’s a blunt instrument. But when what you have before you is a nail, you need a hammer.
Now clearly there are circumstances that could excuse a vote that violates the act in letter but not in spirit: if someone made a good-faith error in judgment, or if they did so inadvertently, or if the amount was so insignificant that it could not possibly influence their judgment. Those are all exemptions the law allows. When those defences do not apply, we’re left with cases of intentional, bad-faith corruption of the integrity of government decision-making. And those are the ones that should be punished severely.
Ford has said, “I had nothing to gain, and the city had nothing to lose.” It’s a shame he boldly puts forth this untruth, more shameful still that daily newspaper columnists have repeated it. Did the city have anything to lose? If you think no, it’s because you think that the city gains nothing from enforcing the integrity rules that prevent corruption. And because of his vote, Ford saved $3,150. Personal gain does not get more straightforward than that.
The amount is not what’s important here, but let’s consider it for a moment anyway: In Toronto, the average homeowner’s annual property tax bill is $2,460. Try telling those taxpayers that $3,150 is small potatoes. Or telling the same to voters who heard candidate Rob Ford shout that $200 expense-account purchases and free $120 Metropasses were scandalously important because they demonstrated exactly the attitude of entitlement and flagrant disregard for propriety that allows government to rot from the inside.
The MFP computer-leasing inquiry that rocked Mel Lastman’s megacity council in 2001 covered multi-million dollar decisions that were made based on hopelessly compromised processes—and the corruption, influence peddling, and conflicts that Madame Justice Denise Bellamy named in her report ranged from petty to shocking. She identified all of it as part of the same unscrupulous approach. And she concluded, as Hackland reminded us, that “maintaining the integrity of government is the Mayor’s most important job.”
If you think it’s excusable to engage in bad-faith self-dealing in certain petty circumstances, you’ve already decided we’ll tolerate corruption. From there, we’ll just negotiate the amount—sending politicians the message that engaging in self-dealing is a case-by-case matter of gut feelings.
It’s far better to draw the line exactly where the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act does: on principle. And that principle says Ford should be removed from office. Voters can decide whether he’s worthy of forgiveness.