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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford answers questions from councillors regarding a plan to remove board members at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation in council chambers at city hall in Toronto, Ont. March 9/2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford answers questions from councillors regarding a plan to remove board members at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation in council chambers at city hall in Toronto, Ont. March 9/2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

In Ford Nation, everything's a state secret Add to ...

Mayor Rob Ford says that making Toronto's government transparent and accountable is one of his four top priorities. Why, then, is he stonewalling the press?

Mr. Ford's handlers keep him on a tight leash. His media appearances are brief and tightly scripted. He answers a few questions - sometimes only two or three - and his press people whisk him away. When reporters want to go deeper, as they did on Wednesday about a dinner he had with a controversial promoter, he gives a terse reply and says "next question." One reporter had to chase him through the City Hall lobby Wednesday to seek his reaction to a strike ban for city transit workers - something that Mr. Ford himself asked for and you would expect to comment about.

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The mayor's office is so controlling that newspapers had to resort to a freedom-of-information request to get a copy of his public schedule. Not what he does on his private time, mind, but what he does on the taxpayers' tab as mayor of the city. Apparently his people think that his puck drop for Canadian women's hockey and his appearance at the Chinese Business Excellence Awards gala are too sensitive to be shared with the public or the press. Goodness, we might follow him to those events. We might even ask him something.

What kind of mayor makes his schedule a state secret? How can he be accountable if he never answers questions? Is he afraid of something?

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the mayor's people are limiting his contact with the press because of what he might say. Famed as a city councillor for getting in the soup with his off-the-cuff remarks, he has been remarkably controlled since starting his run for mayor. That is fine up to a point. Taking a page from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's playbook, his people are trying to avoid Fordian bloopers and put out a disciplined, consistent message.

But it goes further than that. There is a prickly, defensive attitude in the Ford administration that does nothing to help its case.

At a city-council committee this week, Doug Ford, the mayor's brother and right-hand man, unleashed a rant against the Toronto Star for an incident during last year's election campaign involving Star reporter Robyn Doolittle. Ms. Doolittle says she was in Etobicoke, the Fords' home turf, and saw a Jaguar covered with Ford-for-Mayor decals. She went to talk to the occupant, who turned out to be the Fords' mother, Diane.

Doug Ford calls that stalking. "Do you think it's fair the Toronto Star stalks my 76-year-old mother, follows her to a neighbour's house two streets down, follows her in a car, she knocks on the door. … Do you think that is fair, that's proper journalism? Or is that stalking?" Just for good measure, Mr. Ford accused the Star of being "ruthless" and pursuing a "witch hunt." The mayor, for his part, has refused to speak to the city's biggest daily since it ran a story last year about a long-ago run-in he had with one of the young football players he coaches - an absurd and childish position for the leader of the city to take, no matter what he thought of the Star story.

What's eating the Fords? They have enjoyed pretty good press so far, with lots of headlines for their tax cuts and other city-council victories. Yet they continue to act like the outsiders they once were, suspicious of city hall and everyone in it, the press included. It's petty and it's counterproductive.

To be successful, a mayor has to get his message out. David Miller distributed his schedule every week so the press and the public knew what he was up to. When news broke, he almost always made himself available to reporters - and not just reporters he liked. He may not always have enjoyed it, but he was accessible. For a mayor, it's just part of the job.

 

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