Civic leaders urge Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to speak up on drug allegations

The Globe and Mail

Mayor Rob Ford is seen during a special council meeting on the Toronto Casino debate at city hall in Toronto, Ont., May 21, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Civic leaders are adding to a chorus of calls on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to clear the air about allegations of drug use amid growing concern that the scandal has derailed council’s business of governing.

Mr. Ford kept his silence once again on Tuesday, brushing off swarms of reporters clamouring for a more substantive answer to allegations that he was filmed apparently smoking crack cocaine – claims he swatted aside as “ridiculous” last week.

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Hours later, Mr. Ford opposed a council vote blocking the establishment of any new gambling site in Toronto, which passed by a margin of 40 to 4. Influential city leaders are worried that the longer questions about Mr. Ford’s personal conduct go unanswered, the more impossible the mayor will find it to revive his stalled agenda or address pressing issues such as transit. But they are also unsure how to broach the uproar, which is still supported by few hard facts.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Rahul Bhardwaj, president and CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation. “It can only help the city to clarify matters as soon as possible.”

The U.S. news website Gawker and the Toronto Star both say they viewed a video – the authenticity of which remains unclear – that appears to show Mr. Ford smoking crack cocaine. The mayor repeatedly ducked reporters asking for a fuller explanation of the drug use allegations, before leaving City Hall around 2 p.m.

Asked about the embattled mayor’s alleged crack use, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne did not refer to Mr. Ford by name, but said council as a whole needs to deal with any problems. “When there is a distraction of a personal nature or a distraction that takes the council and the leadership away from serving the interests of the city and getting the business of the city done, then that’s a problem,” she said Tuesday afternoon. “My hope is that they will be dealt with on a personal level and at a council level as quickly as possible.”

In light of the uncertainty still clouding the allegations, many of the city’s leading figures are treading cautiously, at once eager to speak out and wary of wading into the morass.

Toronto architect Jack Diamond, a vocal opponent of the casino proposal, believes the city’s most effective mayors have been those who were able to build consensus on key issues. “Whether the various allegations about Mayor Ford are proven or not, it seems he is neither able to identify what the major issues of the day are, nor to build consensus. The distraction of dealing with the allegations only exacerbates these problems,” he said in an e-mail.

In advance of a summit of western Greater Toronto Area municipal leaders held Tuesday, radio host and former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory said in an e-mail that he worried the attention on Mr. Ford, and other current Canadian political controversies, would likely overshadow an important discussion on regional transit. And at that summit, long-time Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion lamented Toronto’s absence from the transit debate.

“The largest city in the GTA should be at the table, with us,” she said on the sidelines of the Tuesday meeting. “A united voice on an issue is far more effective than a divided one.”

But asked later what advice she, as a political survivor, would give Mr. Ford during his current difficulties, she professed not to understand the question. When the allegations were mentioned she responded with a quick “no comment.”

Linda Jeffrey, Ontario’s Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister, stressed that Toronto has “long-term decisions that council is grappling with that have long-term implications to the residents of Toronto,” and said, “It is disappointing if councillors are finding it increasingly difficult to conduct their day-to-day business.”

Save for briefly dismissing the drug allegations as “ridiculous” last Friday, Mr. Ford has avoided explaining himself. When city hall reporters approached him while he was inside an elevator Tuesday morning, his press secretary and an assistant attempted to block journalists from getting near while Mr. Ford stood in the back corner.

After the morning council meeting wrapped, he barged through reporters into his office. Before long, he left by a side entrance and down a flight of stairs that journalists can’t access, then raced through the parking lot in his black SUV.

As long as the mayor chooses to ignore the issue, “everybody in the city is left hanging and questioning his judgment,” said Toronto Councillor Peter Milczyn, a member of Mr. Ford’s executive committee.

Even with the scandal nearly a week old, many with deep ties in Toronto politics remain content to watch it play out from the sidelines, not wanting to be seen as piling on. “If someone is, you know, intent on self-destructing, … just stand back and let him do it,” said one experienced political organizer, declining to be interviewed about Mr. Ford.

Still, the alleged video is hampering Mr. Ford’s ability to govern even without proof of any wrongdoing, said Bruce Davis, former campaign manager to George Smitherman, who was Mr. Ford’s main rival in the last mayoral race. If councillors and city organizations don’t have confidence in the mayor to manage his office and affairs, “then it almost doesn’t matter what happened,” Mr. Davis said.

“If it’s not true, then you still have to lance the boil,” he said, noting that even if Mr. Ford proves not to be struggling with addiction issues as has been suggested, the pressure of scandal will still take “a huge toll in stress on relationships and his own health.”

“Is this impairing the city’s ability to tackle big issues? Yes,” he added.

For the time being, there is no sign of a collective effort by civic leaders to press Mr. Ford into speaking out, though most agree the current scandal cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely.

A group describing itself as “concerned citizens” is determined to wait for answers: According to a newly created website, the group is trying to arrange a peaceful sit-in outside the mayor’s Etobicoke home on Sunday, promising “community, conversation, music and fun while we wait for our mayor to come and speak with us.”

With reports from Oliver Moore, Adrian Morrow, Sunny Dhillon and Elizabeth Church.

Follow on Twitter: @jembradshaw

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