April 23, 2014

Rob Ford’s $10 million dance with democracy

Civility, informed debate and respect missing in action in Toronto

Coach Rob Ford celebrates a big win with his team at Don Bosco

Coach Rob Ford celebrates a big win with his team at Don Bosco

One of the surprising things about Mayor Rob Ford is that he forces us to confront some of the basic questions about our ideas of government and public life. When a politician promises to get rid of the gravy at city hall but then finds there isn’t any to cut and must cut programs instead, does that mean his mandate has disappeared?

What can a politician demand of the public service? That it meet his personal needs — which may involve personal pastimes, such as coaching football — by providing staff help or transportation, or by accepting time commitments interfering with public duties? That it meet the needs of the business of which he is a part owner?

And what does democracy mean? Mayor Rob Ford says if the appeal court confirms the ruling that he breached the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and must be removed from office, he wants city council to either reappoint him or hold a byelection in which he will be a candidate. He says this is what democracy is all about: he was elected by Torontonians and democracy means they must vote again on who should be mayor.

That’s a thin interpretation of democracy. Sure, elections play a part in democracy even if there is a suspicion that the terms of the contest were violated (Mayor Ford is still awaiting the result of the investigation about whether his financial arrangements during the 2010 election infringed the terms of the Municipal Elections Act). But there’s a lot more to democracy than elections.

“A byelection would cost about $10 million.”

Democracy also implies that public decisions are made after an intelligent and full public debate about the options available. Mayor Ford does not perform well on this aspect of democracy. He is not given to discussion or debate. Sometimes he has voted on items without saying a word or offering any explanation of why he is doing what he is doing. 

Democracy also implies civility and respect for those with different opinions; that’s what creates a wide expanse of common ground upon which public policy can be hammered out. Mayor Ford has not served us well here, either. On too many occasions he has been belligerent with the public, with public servants and with elected officials. He chastises (and often demeans) those with different opinions, and that’s not helpful for democracy.

A respect for the law is also a part of democracy. As we know from the trial about his conflict of interest, he has made a point of refusing to be briefed on the law. One often gets the sense he feels above it.

A sense of the public good is also required for the practise of democracy, but it’s hard to sort out what Mayor Ford thinks of such a strange notion as the public good. Too often he seems to get his personal wishes and desires entangled in public business. There’s no clear picture of what the public good means for the man.

Mayor Ford is clearly bent on holding on to office and will even go through another election if that’s what must be done, but I don’t buy his arguments that it’s an election that ensures democracy is present. That’s just one of several important characteristics and maybe a lot less important than many think.

If the court upholds the decision to remove him from office, a byelection would cost about $10 million. A cost that would be incurred entirely because of Mayor Ford’s actions. I would argue it is money that should not be spent, particularly given the cuts to social and other programs city hall claims it must make to balance a budget.

Better for city council to appoint someone to the post, someone who can give us the other aspects of democracy: informed and intelligent debate, civility and respect, respect for the law, a sense of the public good.  That kind of person would serve us better than would the possibility of electing someone like Rob Ford who has shown he doesn’t share these values.

FYI: Last month I wrote about fracked gas in Ontario. I have since learned that eco-friendly gas is also available through Bullfrog Power.

Post City Magazines’ columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books, including The Shape of Suburbs.