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Rob Ford greets a woman as he toured Millennium Park in Chicago on Tuesday. (Marcus Gee/The Globe and Mail)
Rob Ford greets a woman as he toured Millennium Park in Chicago on Tuesday. (Marcus Gee/The Globe and Mail)

MARCUS GEE

Ford hits Chicago but can’t escape controversy Add to ...

Mayor Rob Ford is in Chicago, but he can’t leave the football affair behind.

Reporters who followed him to Chicago for his Team Toronto business mission questioned him during a walkabout in downtown Millennium Park about press reports, appearing first in The Globe and Mail, that three “special assistants” in his office were detailed to help with his football coaching work.

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“Go home. Go where you came from, man,” said the mayor, breaking into laughter as reporters pressed around him. “Holy smokes. Please. Holy crow. How does this create jobs?”

A Toronto Star reporter asked why one assistant had driven a city car to a football field at an Etobicoke high school on Tuesday afternoon. “The car I paid for, right?” said Mr. Ford, seeming to suggest that he had covered the use of the vehicle with his own money. “Do your homework, right?”

He did not elaborate when reporters pressed him to explain. But a spokesman for the mayor released a statement later in the day that said: “In 2011, the city billed the mayor’s office budget $2,706.14 for use of the vehicle.

The mayor has never believed taxpayers should pay for all political office expenses. In 2011, he wrote a cheque for $4,000 to cover the cost of business cards, stationery, newspapers and car expenses

Publicly available expense reports show the city’s fleet services department billed the mayor’s office $1,627.22 for maintenance and fuel charges for the mayor’s vehicle in 2011. The records confirm that Mr. Ford personally reimbursed the city for $4,000, $1,078.92 of which was dedicated to paying back “fleet maintenance expenses.” If the mayor's fleet maintenance reimbursement is added to the $1,627.22 that appears in the expense report, it roughly equals the $2,704.14 2011 total quoted by the mayor's office.

Expense records for 2012 show that as of June 30, fleet services had billed the mayor’s office $1,395.32 for maintenance and gas for the car. There is no record of the mayor paying back any of the 2012 amount, but he could still do so before the end of the year.

Pressing Mr. Ford on the football issue, another reporter pointed out that even the usually supportive Toronto Sun was calling his use of city staff for football work “gravy,” the word he employed during his election campaign to describe politicians’ waste of city funds. Mr. Ford laughed off the question and did not respond.

The football affair threatens to overshadow the high-level business mission. Two former premiers, eight city councillors and more than 60 business people are accompanying the controversial mayor on his first major trip outside the country. All of the city’s major media outlets are coming along to see how he does.

In Chicago, however, the Team Toronto mission is a non-event, eclipsed by a confrontation between teachers and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Neither of the city’s big dailies, the Tribune and the Sun-Times, has made any mention of the visit, in print or online. Mr. Emanuel’s website has nothing about it. Nor does the site of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, a leading business organization for greater Chicago.

Asked what kind of attention the visit had been getting locally, Jay Levine, chief correspondent for CBS news here, answered simply: “None.

“Everything is just consumed with the school strike. Any time you have 350,000 kids out of school, it’s a big deal.”

By contrast, Mr. Ford’s visit is “not making even a small splash.”

The teachers’ strike, first to hit Chicago in 25 years, has dominated headlines since 29,000 teachers walked off the job Sept. 10. Mr. Emanuel is trying to impose sweeping reforms on Chicago’s struggling school system.

The teachers agreed on Tuesday to suspend the strike after reviewing an agreement reached between the city and their union on the weekend. Classes were to resume Wednesday.

Mr. Ford’s office was trying to keep the Chicago trip focused on job creation and business opportunities. In a release on Tuesday evening, it said that more than 200 people attended a welcome reception and dinner for Mr. Ford.

On Wednesday, the mission continues with a luncheon, a tour of the Chicago waterfront and a meeting to renew a partnership agreement between the cities.

Before his encounter with reporters, the mayor seemed to enjoy his visit to Millennium Park, handing out business cards, posing for pictures and chatting with curious onlookers. But he seemed briefly confused during one exchange. When one woman told him she’d been to Canada, he asked where. She said “the part across from Detroit on the river.”

“Oh, Manitoba!” the mayor said. “Oh, you were in Manitoba. Winnipeg?”

When a reporter explained that she meant Windsor, he replied: “Windsor. So that’s in Ontario. It’s about four hours away, Windsor and Toronto.”

 

Follow Marcus's tweets from Rob Ford's Chicago trip below. Mobile users can follow along by clicking here.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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