On the day it was revealed that Toronto’s mayor had again run afoul of the integrity commissioner, Rob Ford called for her office and those of two other watchdogs to be abolished because they are a “waste of taxpayers’ money.”
It would not be easy for Mr. Ford to dismantle a provincially mandated accountability regime that is the legacy of a past computer-leasing scandal at city hall.
Next week, he and his allies will have the chance to go after their biggest enemy on the watchdog roster: Ombudsman Fiona Crean.
Ms. Crean’s contract is up for renewal at council, less than a month after she endured hours of grilling from the Ford camp over a report that concluded the mayor’s office meddled in the civic appointments process.
“She’s become very political,” Councillor Doug Ford said.
“I’ll tell you how Rob and I will be voting and that will be ‘No.’ We don’t want her reappointed.”
Three of Toronto’s oversight officers – the ombudsman, the lobbyist registrar and the integrity commissioner – have been busy in the Ford era, in part because the brothers have breached rules, and because they are under intense scrutiny from their foes inside and outside council.
On Thursday alone, the second anniversary of the election that brought the Fords into office, the trio released eight separate reports, two of which scolded the pair for insulting the city’s Medical Officer of Health on their radio show earlier this year.
The mayor’s response was to suggest all three offices be replaced with a single lawyer on a retainer.
“They have 20 people, they’re tripping over themselves,” Mr. Ford told The Globe and Mail before leading his high school football team to victory. “They’re trying to make themselves look busy.”
The ombudsman’s office employs 10 and the lobbyist registrar employs eight. Their 2012 budgets are just over $1.4-million and $1-million respectively. Integrity Commissioner Janet Leiper was not available.
Ms. Crean and Linda Gehrke, the lobbyist registrar, said in interviews on Thursday that their operations are extremely lean.
Toronto’s ombudsman’s office, for instance, serves 2.5 million residents with 10 staff, significantly fewer than the 30 staff Manitoba has to serve its 1.2 million residents or the 26 Saskatchewan has to help its one million people.
Both said the bigger issue is the secrecy that could cloak municipal government if their posts were scrapped.
“To do away with this office would be a very sad day for democracy,” Ms. Crean said.
Toronto would “lose transparency” if nobody tracked the influence-peddling of the 1,200 lobbyists registered at City Hall, Ms. Gehrke said. “It’s sunshine on city government.”
No matter how Mr. Ford feels about the watchdogs, getting rid of their jobs would be impossible unless Queen’s Park agrees to change the City of Toronto Act, which makes the three accountability offices and an auditor-general mandatory. (The Fords have repeatedly praised the work of Auditor-General Jeff Griffiths and have no interest in abolishing his office.)
“It’s not within the mayor’s authority or council’s authority to eliminate these offices,” councillor Gord Perks said. “That’s a good thing because these are the offices that protect the public from abuses at city hall.”
The mayor told reporters on Thursday that the integrity commissioner’s ruling on his radio comments was politically motivated and that it is too easy for citizens to file complaints.
“Anyone can do it,” he said. “It’s just a waste of taxpayers’ money, if you ask me.”
On their Newstalk 1010 radio show on April 29, the brothers told listeners they disagreed with Dr. David McKeown’s call for lower speed limits to protect pedestrians and cyclists, then went on to criticize him as an overpaid “embarrassment” who had overstepped his bounds.
Doug Ford called Dr. McKeown “this guy,” and twice asked, “Why does he still have a job?”
The mayor referred to the $294,302 salary paid to the Medical Officer of Health as “an embarrassment” and called the report “nonsense” at another point in the show.
“I shouldn’t have said that, but I’m a little biased here,” the mayor added.
In the mayor’s case, Ms. Leiper is only recommending a finding of fault, not a reprimand, because Mr. Ford sent a retraction letter shortly before the watchdog’s conclusions went public.
She is recommending Councillor Ford be reprimanded because he refused to apologize formally to Dr. McKeown after a complaint was filed by Councillor John Filion, the left-leaning chair of the board of health.
Councillor Ford said that, if forced by council, he will apologize to Dr. McKeown. But he is not happy about it.
“I’ll say sorry, even though I don’t believe the person that’s in charge of the health should start interfering in transportation,” he said. “It’d be like the transportation folks going into the health department and telling them what to do. But that’s my opinion. If I’m being forced to say sorry for something I don’t believe in, so be it.”
Both reports are on the agenda for the council meeting next Tuesday, but they could be postponed until after a judge rules on conflict-of-interest allegations against the mayor.
Councillors are more likely to spend time debating the reappointment of Ms. Crean, whose term expires in November, 2013.
A two-thirds vote is required to extend her contract or let it expire. That threshold is high enough that it could leave Ms. Crean’s fate in limbo.
Councillor Adam Vaughan does not believe Ms. Crean’s critics can muster enough votes to remove her, especially after she produced a list of preferred candidates for civic appointments from the mayor’s office, bolstering her last report. There was an intense dispute at council about whether the list existed.
“I don’t think she’s in trouble,” Mr. Vaughan said.
Three of Toronto’s accountability officers released the results of eight separate investigations Thursday.
Ombudsman Fiona Crean
- Found the TTC blindsided residents of an East York street as the transit agency prepared to build new exits at Donlands and Greenwood stations. The TTC waited more than six years before it told four homeowners in mid-2010 that it was considering bulldozing their properties. The report also found TTC brass manipulated information to push their preferred option for the Donlands exit. The TTC apologized and said the projects are “on hold.”
- Found, through the city manager’s office, a copy of a list of preferred candidates prepared by the mayor’s office for the Civics Appointment Committee. The existence of the list was disputed at council last month. Told the ombudsman had produced a copy, Mayor Rob Ford said: “There was no list. I’ve said that from day one. Any list, I would like to see it.”
Lobbyist Registrar Linda Gehrke
- Presented three probes on the behaviour of lobbyists, including one that found casino giant MGM Resorts International initially failed to properly register its lobbying activity.
Integrity Commissioner Janet Leiper
- Concluded three councillors breached the Code of Conduct, including the Ford brothers. In a separate report, she concluded Councillor Michelle Berardinetti disparaged a Toronto Zoo staff member in a radio interview in 2011. Ms. Berardinetti apologized.
Kelly Grant, with a report from Adrian Morrow