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Clockwise from top: Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt, Brampton Mayor Susan Fennell, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. (GRAHAM HUGHES, DEBORAH BAIC, JOHN WOODS AND CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS AND THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Clockwise from top: Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt, Brampton Mayor Susan Fennell, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. (GRAHAM HUGHES, DEBORAH BAIC, JOHN WOODS AND CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS AND THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Mayoral mischief: Canada’s growing cities face a problem of oversight Add to ...

Fraud, nepotism, conflict of interest, questionable expense claims. In almost any workplace, these alleged transgressions would have led to one of two bleak prospects: resign or get fired. But in city council chambers across the country, some of those cloaked in scandal keep marching onward.

Last month, Ontario Ombudsman André Marin released a scathing report highlighting the lack of accountability in the local governments of cities and towns across the province.

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“To me, some municipalities are like gangrenous limbs,” Mr. Marin said in an interview. He’s dealt with all manner of scandals in Ontario, but says municipal mayors and councillors “make provincial politicians look like choirboys.”

The issues range widely, from cronyism all the way to gangsterism, but the problems plaguing mayors across Canada raise consistent questions: Are municipal structures too broken to hold elected officials to account? Has oversight not grown at the same rate as some municipalities?

There is no doubting the seriousness of many of the alleged offences. In Laval, Que., former mayor Gilles Vaillancourt faces many criminal charges including gangsterism, while corruption-plagued Montreal has had four mayors in just over a year. In Ontario, London Mayor Joe Fontana will be on trial this year on charges of fraud.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has openly admitted to using crack cocaine while in one of his “drunken stupors,” though he has not been charged with any crime. Some of the issues are financial or political. Brampton Mayor Susan Fennell’s expenses are being audited following unproven allegations of budget misuse, while Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz has weathered accusations of cronyism.

Although polls show Canadians have greater trust in municipal politicians than in provincial or federal ones, lack of accountability seems to be most rampant at the local level, says Brian Kelcey, a Toronto-based political analyst who previously worked as Mr. Katz’s special adviser in Winnipeg and is now managing Toronto mayoral hopeful David Soknacki’s campaign. The problem, say both watchdogs and analysts, goes beyond individual officials. Some cities, such as Laval and Brampton, have expanded so quickly that mechanisms of oversight have not kept pace.

“You end up with big-city cost and big-city government without the big-city controls that would normally be put in place because there hasn’t been the time or political energy to push for those to be in place,” Mr. Kelcey said.

Quebec’s Mascouche, Terrebonne and especially Laval became cities by turning farmland and forest into bustling bedroom communities in a matter of a few decades. The growth brought millions in real estate deals and public works projects into towns with little of the governance expertise and oversight required to keep things honest.

“Even in bigger cities, a corrupt administration will go to war with auditors,” said Danielle Pilette, an urban affairs professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal. “We saw it in Montreal, where the auditor had his tip line taken away. Laval had an auditor who lasted a week.”

Brampton’s mayor has provoked outrage in recent months after it was revealed she had spent $186,154.60 of public funds since December, 2010, claiming flight upgrades and private language lessons. The spending was only unearthed when the weekly Brampton Guardian filed a freedom of information request to see the claims, as they are not published anywhere. New reports last week revealed she and her staff spent $185,000 on airfare and hotels in the last five years.

Until 2011, the city’s finance department reviewed the mayor and city councillors’ discretionary spending, but last February council passed a new expense policy that removed that process. In November, Ms. Fennell quickly shifted attention to her fellow councillors’ spending, which included buying home security systems and symphony tickets on the taxpayers’ dime. “Perhaps they’re hoping that if the public looks at my expenses, which I stand by… maybe they’re hoping nobody looks at theirs,” she said in an interview.

Through a staffer, Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Linda Jeffrey declined to be interviewed.

In Winnipeg, the issue of oversight has reared its head over the actions of Phil Sheegl, the city’s former chief administrative officer. In his two years as CAO, Mr. Sheegl became embroiled in multiple scandals on projects he oversaw, including the new police headquarters that came with major cost overruns and a fire-paramedic station construction program in which an auditor found contracts were unfairly awarded.

Mr. Sheegl is a close friend of the city’s mayor, Mr. Katz, and his qualifications – a career spent mostly in real estate – prompted observers to accuse the mayor of cronyism. Mr. Sheegl resigned last fall. The mayor, who sits on the committee that appointed Mr. Sheegl, has said their personal relationship had nothing to do with the hiring. Mr. Katz’s office did not respond to interview requests.

Toronto’s Mr. Ford has made international headlines with his crack admission, but has remained on the job. Toronto council – lacking the ability to remove him from office – has made do with passing multiple motions that have stripped the mayor of many of his powers.

The recent spate of cases of misbehaving mayors has prompted calls for laws allowing impeachment or voter recall. Mississauga’s Mayor Hazel McCallion – who was cleared of conflict-of-interest charges in June – is not a believer. “Is it democratic?” she asked in an interview. “If the public is unhappy with a politician, you could have citizens’ groups always asking – you’d be busy dealing with recalls.”

Political scientists have speculated that another reason city halls are rife with scandal is the lack of a party system. In Toronto, despite the alienation of many members of his executive, Mr. Ford has not had to face the internal wrath of a party.

Many look to Vancouver, one of the few cities with a party system, as a model. Ahead of 2008’s municipal election, incumbent mayor Sam Sullivan, whose popularity was slipping, lost the support of his party, the Non-Partisan Association, to another candidate. Without the backing of the NPA, he decided against running in the election.

“I believe in the party system,” he said. “I believe that it really does provide real value and if I couldn’t win the party nomination, I accepted the decision of the party.”

Still, Mr. Kelcey warns, party systems aren’t perfect. They can breed strong controls over messaging and marginalize minority party councillors. “Everything that’s gone wrong in Montreal and the Montreal area,” he noted, “has gone wrong with a party system in place.”

With a report from Les Perreaux

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