Take a lunch-hour walk in front of Toronto’s City Hall and ask people what they think of Mayor Rob Ford’s decision this week to exit a city council executive committee meeting five-and-a-half hours early to attend a scrimmage of the high-school football team he coaches.
Everyone says the same thing. They say they don’t mind if the coach – or the mayor, if you prefer – slips off during office hours to volunteer for his players. They say everyone takes unscheduled time off work anyway, and that the mayor will do what everyone does and make up the time later.
“I think most people put in more time than they’re paid for,” one woman tells me. And Mr. Ford is one of us.
It’s the standard Ford-defence theory: Mr. Ford can do anything he likes – stonewall city council, flip citizens off, berate people while drunk, read while driving, speed-dial 911, physically corner reporters and (now) skip work with impunity – because Ford’s Army, the base of suburban-commuter conservatives who handed him the chain of office in 2010, will guarantee his re-election as the bully with a heart of gold who stands up to effete, bike-riding elitists.
But this week may have seen the straw that broke even his supporters’ camel-like backs. On top of blowing off the executive committee, Rob Ford was seen to be blatantly using city staff and resources to help him with his football team – the precise sort of behaviour he denied in court last week, and the polar opposite of the holier-than-thou cut-the-gravy platform that got him elected.
“Rob had two big brands,” his council rival Adam Vaughan says: “ ‘Rob’s a good guy – look at his football stuff,’ and,‘Rob’s a tough guy – look at his gravy-train stuff.’ In the last week he’s done damage to both.”
This suddenly has everyone asking a broader question: Is Rob Ford – the volatile, reckless but shrewdly no-nonsense simplifier who insists a huge city can be run like a small town – serious enough to lead Canada’s largest and most influential city, in a world of increasingly urban-led economies where a mayor has to be a city’s hero?
Large cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary – three of the five most livable cities in the world, according to a recent survey by The Economist – are increasingly important engines of national and international growth and job creation. As Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has noted, city governments have the most immediate effects on the lives of citizens. Cities are nimbler than federal governments, and more concentrated and potent than states and provinces.
They are simply hamstrung for revenue. Los Angeles is now eyeing funds in China and Europe to extend its subway system. Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel has set up sophisticated economic relationships with cities in Norway and northern Europe.
To encourage other cities to share money and ideas, Benjamin Barber, author of the upcoming If Mayors Ruled the World, has called for the creation of a transnational “parliament of mayors.” New York’s mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has endowed his Mayors Challenge to solve modern urban problems – including global warming, terrorism, epidemics and immigration. So far, Mr. Ford hasn’t demonstrated an interest in that sort of mandate, and is focused on problems closer to home, such as wrestling unions and contracting out garbage collection.
Privately, mayoral advisers in other cities will admit, as one says, “We’ve never really seen anything like Mayor Ford.” Other mayors don’t play hooky, for starters. Mr. Nenshi, the talkative, ideas-oriented and much admired leader of resurgent Calgary, is utterly strict about setting Sundays aside for his family – but as an aide points out, “the mayor can be seen at work the other six days a week.” He logs 12 to 16 hours each workday, and five to 10 more on Saturdays, often aiming at national issues.
Mr. Ford, on the other hand, has stated that his coaching duties may require him to be out of City Hall for three to six hours many weekdays, from September to October.