When I worked at Toronto City Hall with Mayor Rob Ford and his councillor brother Doug I found them to be reasonable – at first. In private meetings behind the security doors at 100 Queen Street, they seemed like team players. I assumed they would want to build trust because they appeared to see themselves as principled. I didn’t realize then that this self-image was a fatal flaw.
After his early histrionics, some hoped the mayor would settle in and become more professional. But for many behind the scenes at City Hall, including me, those hopes vanished even before the football foolery and the nutty narcotics narratives. Some scandals are driven to the front page by powerful forces that feel betrayed. I think the public follies for which Rob Ford and his brother are now famous grew directly from a refusal to build trust in private.
Trust is increasingly rare in politics and business, but fair dealing is critical to maintaining effectiveness at City Hall. The 44 councillors who vote on thousands of items must be understood as extensions of hundreds of interest groups. They are far-reaching and demand to be deified by those votes.
There are no nice neat contracts involved in deals cut between politicos. Horse-trading is not committed to paper. And although a pact might be euphemistically expressed, or tacitly agreed with a barely visible nod of the head, the staff behind the councillors know the plan and work out the details. Things can go wrong with a council vote due to a minor misunderstanding, but this should be the exception.
Nonetheless, several times I laboured for months on an outcome, then sat holding my breath in the chamber, praying that strategist Mark Towhey would whisper in the right ear at the right time. Sadly, it often didn’t happen for my councillor and for others. I worked for Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon. It should have been easy for conservative populists like the Fords to make my centrist councillor into an ally. We knew there would be issue differences, but believed that respect and trust would reign among colleagues. The mayor made promises in private meetings, and we supported his campaign commitments, but our goals were then forgotten.
The transit file demonstrates how they failed to cement their conservative opportunity. We were invited to discussions because of our green-tech expertise, and watched helplessly as the mayor’s office stubbornly fumbled negotiations with would-be subway-station developers from around the world. As everyone knows, they also failed to mollify the tattered post-election left wing. Then came the fight over the Transit City public-transit plan, the mutiny of Toronto Transit Commissioner Karen Stintz and the banishment of the mayor’s valued allies on the TTC Commission.
If you’re going to be polarizing and engage in double-dealing, you’d better be invincible. Politically, the mayor’s office might have tried to maintain the perception that it holds all the cards, yet at the same time values the goals of other people. This is the essence of power consolidation. Clearly the Fords themselves were in a parking lot somewhere the day this was on the curriculum.
When you’re elected mayor, you have many advantages. You set meeting agendas, committee composition, and work closely with the City Manager on execution details that can’t possibly be micromanaged by overworked city councillors. You have a big budget. The top available talent offers its loyalty. You’re potentially surrounded by a dozen quality aides, and continuously have the ear of the media.
But the Fords refused to pay and drove away the best talent. They ignored public etiquette and the professional advice of those who could help them with damage control. Somehow they believed that declaring war on the media and instead staging a live radio talk show constitutes sound communications policy. It betrays their inability to effectively develop talent and manage a sophisticated organization.
Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America; it is the green grass on the other side for top thinkers from around the world. I thought Mayor Mel Lastman had confirmed that buffoonery has no place here.
Isolation, distrust and hucksterism aside, will the Fords be able to say they cut costs and got things done? Not really. The first time I had a chat with the mayor’s brother was while working late one evening. He was wandering among councillor offices “to see who was still here at this hour.” The born multi-millionnaire who was serious about his hard-knocks brand position would wield a lot of influence and alienate some talented people. Councillor Doug Ford was present in most of our meetings with the mayor. From the earliest days he offered up testosterone-fueled tirades about the mean-spirited media and his disapproval of certain city staff and councillors.
At first, it seemed sensible to have a sharp, businesslike brother on the team, but I began to question Doug’s acumen when he balked at spreading a garbage privatization pilot project among more than one supplier to control negotiating advantage. He and Mayor Rob also spent time saving a hundred thousand dollars on sandwiches, while ignoring hundreds of millions wasted by the TTC on unnecessary capital spending, even while supposedly searching for subway funding.
And the city is not a business. Yes, balanced budgets, good execution, and privatizing a few things are modern-day necessities; but if the role of government is to be heartless and threadbare, there is really no need for it at all. Government should be a counterbalance to the wild west that is capitalism, and a referee when vocal minorities try to wreak havoc or institutionalize waste.
Rob Ford never had the tool set of a strong leader or cosmopolitan Mayor, and his puffed-up, blustering brother could not save him. He synthesized into a fiercely independent extremist, in a job that calls for consensus building, moderation, and statesmanship.
The Fords are inward-looking barkers who turned City Hall into a three-ring circus, dissolved their political capital and weakened the Mayor’s office. Their stubbornness, questionable competence and recklessness have damaged Toronto. Fortunately it is among the most incredible cities on earth, and it will shine on long after the Fords are well forgotten.
Bruce Nagy was executive assistant to Toronto city councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon.