The ongoing drama of Rob Ford’s Toronto just keeps getting richer. On Monday a judge ousts the mayor of Canada’s biggest city, making headlines around the country. On Thursday, the mayor engages in a shouting match on the floor of city council. On Friday, the judge says he can run in a by-election if his ouster is confirmed by an appeal court.
It’s red meat for anyone covering city hall, but it’s also sort of sad. Toronto is a great place to live, and in many ways it’s getting better all the time. Its governance, on the other hand, is a mess.
Things are so bad that our fair city has attracted the attention of The Economist. “A City And Its Government Are Stuck In Gridlock,” headlined the august London-based weekly. Ouch. It’s not funny because it’s true.
The magazine pointed to shabby subway platforms, an underfunded transit system and an underexploited waterfront. And, of course, it pointed to the endless antics of Mr. Ford, with his “bombastic, polarizing manner.”
That manner was on full display at city council on Thursday evening when the mayor stood to accuse rival Adam Vaughan of putting a local developer through a “shakedown.” What he was talking about was the perfectly ordinary process of pressing developers to help pay for community improvements in return for city zoning amendments. Ignoring entreaties from the council deputy speaker to “cool your jets,” a red-faced Mr. Ford shouted across the chamber at Mr. Vaughan, calling him an “outright liar.” His brother Doug got into the act, jabbing his finger at opposing councillors and telling them “I’m going to whup both your asses.” Rookie Councillor Josh Colle said the spectacle was so squalid he wouldn’t let his kids watch city council.
It would be nice to think that the circus under the clamshell roof of the council chamber would fold up if Mr. Ford was gone. Sadly, councillors are quite capable of getting up to silliness even without the active participation of the mayor. On the day after the judge issued his decision ousting Mr. Ford and setting off the biggest political crisis the modern city has seen, council spent the better part of an evening debating the future of three aging zoo elephants. It decided, in the end, to override the best advice of Toronto Zoo experts and send them to a sanctuary in California. Councillors have been quarrelling over this crucial matter of public policy for more than a year.
After another fierce debate, councillors voted to overturn an ill-advised ban on plastic bags in the city – but only after six months of squabbling and confusion that followed the initial out-of-the-blue decision, taken without research or consultation. With a five-cent bag fee gone as well, “we find ourselves in a position where plastic bags are going to be used unregulated in the city of Toronto,” said Councillor Gord Perks. Horrors.
As if city politics were not enough dysfunctional enough, the Ford business is about to make things even weirder. Assuming the mayor loses a court appeal and his removal from office stands, he has made it clear he will run again for his old job. That would set the table for an epic comeback bid pitting the then ex-mayor against his archrivals of the left, perhaps led by Olivia Chow, the federal MP and widow of Jack Layton. A Chow-Ford showdown would be the most polarized in memory.
Councillors of all stripes are jockeying for position, emboldened by the fact that, in a by-election, they could run without giving up their seat on city council. One of them, Ford critic and former budget chief Shelley Carroll, emerged on Friday to declare she would run the city a “damn sight” better than Mr. Ford. Isn’t that up to the voters to decide?
Whoever is in the contest, a denial of Mr. Ford’s appeal in January would probably mean that Toronto voters would vote for mayor twice in the next couple of years: once in the late winter or spring of 2013 and again in fall 2014.
It is all good fun to watch, no doubt about that. But good for the city? Politics in the City of Toronto have become a national embarrassment.