There’s nothing unusual or even mildly wrong about politicians – at any level of government – holding business interests prior to entering public life. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is no exception. His family’s assets include the label and sticker business Deco Labels and Tags Inc., co-founded by the mayor’s late father, as well as substantial residential and commercial real estate holdings. Deco Labels is not a publicly traded company. Its finances are private, not subject to scrutiny, but we do know that the company has a multitude of clients.
We also know, from the findings of a Globe and Mail investigation, that Mr. Ford, as a councillor and mayor, has frequently used his clout to act in a way that would benefit some of them. If Mr. Ford were a federal or provincial politician, several of his actions would be clear violations of conflict-of-interest rules. Senior members of government have an overriding duty to serve the public, not their company’s clients.
At the municipal level, the rules are less clear. City councillors aren’t allowed to take part in any vote or debate where they hold a pecuniary interest. But they aren’t technically required to disclose their private business relationships either. That still leaves them an enormous amount of leeway to use their influence to shape bylaws, regulations and policies that have an impact on the value of their business holdings outside of council chambers.
Politically, Mr. Ford appears to have taken full advantage of the grey zone to the benefit of some of Deco’s clients. Whether his actions are technically against the law remains an open question. Other politicians have put their businesses in a blind trust, as Paul Martin did before he became the federal minister of finance. That’s because most politicians understand that even the appearance of a conflict of interest can have a deleterious effect on the public’s trust in them. The issue boils down to one of integrity and common sense. Unfortunately, Mr. Ford has shown himself to have precious little of either.
That’s why the rules around conflict of interest at the municipal level must be tightened. Arguably, this matters more at the local level, because the potential for abuse of power is amplified, with local political decisions more keenly felt on the ground. Three years ago, Justice Douglas Cunningham recommended the province’s Municipal Conflict of Interest Act be expanded to cover matters beyond the deliberative and legislative functions of council. Mr. Ford’s irresponsible advocacy on behalf of his company’s clients strongly underscores why such action is needed, as a sensible first step.