A behind-the-scenes battle over Bill Blair’s future as Toronto police chief has exploded into public view, with members of the civilian board that must decide whether to extend his contract set to fight each other in court.
The messy dispute – in which board vice-chair Michael Thompson is bringing legal action against his own organization – also raises questions about the ability of the force’s civilian masters to decide on the chief’s job amid such infighting.
While the tussle over Chief Blair is primarily driven by what his critics say is his unwillingness to adequately control the cost of policing, it plays out against a backdrop of heightened tension between the chief and city hall, where Mayor Rob Ford and his brother have waged a war of words against the man who leads one of the country’s largest forces.
If a court rules in Mr. Thompson’s favour, it would pave the way for more open discussion on the chief’s future as the clock ticks down on his term, which expires in April of next year.
The fight began last month, after Mr. Thompson, a city councillor, went public with his opposition to extending Chief Blair’s contract.
“We have spent four years beating our heads against the wall,” he told The Globe and Mail at the time when asked about attempts to get the chief to find efficiencies. “There is no way I would support an extension.”
According to court documents filed by Mr. Thompson, two fellow board members – Dhun Noria and Marie Moliner – took issue with similar comments Mr. Thompson made to the Toronto Star. In a closed-door meeting, the board voted the councillor’s words “may appear” to be “a potential breach” of the code of conduct.
Now, Mr. Thompson is asking the courts to quash that finding. His lawyer, Clayton Ruby, called the board’s actions “Kafkaesque” because the two members who complained about Mr. Thompson’s remarks also were allowed to vote on the matter. “You can’t be judge in your own cause,” he said.
Ms. Noria and Chief Blair’s spokesman declined comment; Ms. Moliner did not respond to an interview request.
But sources with knowledge of the situation say the legal wrangling portends a larger divide at the board over the chief’s future. Some board members are said to have taken sides on the matter, while others are believed to be undecided. One source, however, indicated that some board members may not necessarily want to extend Chief Blair’s contract, but were simply unhappy Mr. Thompson decided to air the issue publicly. The chief, who has held the job since 2005, is supposed to indicate in August whether or not he wants his contract extended, the sources said, after which the board will make its decision.
Chief Blair has drawn praise throughout his term for modernizing the force, particularly by improving relations with minority communities, but has recently clashed with city councillors who accuse him of not doing enough to hold the line on the budget. Earlier this year, the board voted to hire a consultant to look for ways the force could be restructured to save money after some felt Chief Blair had not found enough savings.
Recently, the chief has also been in the spotlight following a police investigation of Mr. Ford’s alleged drug connections. The investigation has led Mr. Ford and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, to repeatedly disparage the chief.
But Mr. Thompson, who broke with the Fords earlier this year, has been emphatic that his desire for a new chief is entirely separate from the battle between Chief Blair and the Fords. Sources say the mayor and his brother wield virutally no influence on the police board.