Mayor Rob Ford must respond quickly and in detail to serious allegations

The Globe and Mail

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford arrives at his office in City Hall the day after allegations of substance abuse surfaced, May 17, 2013. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Here we go again. The Rob Ford story, more lurid by the day, is dominating the news once more. Again a media mob gathers at city hall. Again Mr. Ford emerges to offer a denial. Again the city is transfixed. Mr. Ford has become not just a national but an international story. They are talking about our mayor on CNN. It is not the way a city likes to make headlines.

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If all of this were merely embarrassing it would be tolerable. The world will find some new sensation and move on, without much damage to the city’s reputation. Unfortunately, it is much more than that.

Mr. Ford has become an impediment to the city’s advancement. His ongoing troubles, mostly self-inflicted, draw energy and attention way from the city’s problems and sap its ability to fulfill its ambitions.

This polarizing, often maddening political personage happened to come onto the stage at a crucial point in the history of Canada’s biggest city. Toronto, so long chided for talking about becoming a “world-class city,” is on the cusp of becoming one. In a literal sense, it is reaching for the sky, with cranes everywhere and tall buildings popping up all over. Hundreds of thousands of people are due to pour into the metropolis in the coming decades.

To accommodate them, to grow without bursting, it has to make some big decisions and big investments. That will take strong, determined political leadership on everything from transit (subways and light-rail) infrastructure (the fate of the Gardiner Expressway; the expansion on the Island airport) to housing to schooling. We need a mayor who knows how to balance a budget but who also knows how to think big when necessary.

Instead we have Mr. Ford. As anyone with an Internet connection or spare change for a newspaper knows by now, the Toronto Star and the Gawker website have published stories about a cellphone video that seems to show Mr. Ford smoking crack cocaine.

The story is obviously disturbing, especially given earlier reports – also denied – that Mr. Ford has been at public events appearing intoxicated. It is the latest in a string of stories about his personal behaviour that have damaged his mayoralty and overshadowed the important business of the city. As the allegations surfaced on Thursday night and spread on Friday, Torontonians could only shake their heads and ask, “What next?”

Mr. Ford’s only reaction so far has been to call the story “ridiculous” and to – once again – accuse the Star of having it in for him. That conspiracy theory has little credibility in this case. It was Gawker – a New York-based blogging site that has no history with the mayor – that broke the story. The Star, which had been working on it for weeks, rushed its story to publication only after Gawker ran it.

To be fair, there is much that we still do not know here. The Star did not actually obtain the video and saw it only in the back of someone’s car. So we have no way of seeing it with our own eyes and judging it for ourselves. The paper quite rightly concedes that it cannot verify the video’s authenticity.

We don’t know the identity of the men who, as the Star puts it, are shopping the video around, apparently hoping to be paid big money for it. They are not named in the story.

In a situation such as this – serious allegation, sharp denial – extreme caution is called for. Before reaching any conclusions or assuming anything, we need more evidence.

That is why it is so important for the mayor to respond in detail. The city’s future, and the future of his mayoralty, are at stake. Calling the story ridiculous is not sufficient. Is he saying the video is a fake? Does he know any of the men involved?

These questions will not go away by waving away the whole story with a curt denial. Many city councillors are saying the mayor should make a full statement to clear the air. They are right. This story is racing around the world. The mayor should come forward to his give his own side as promptly as possible.

He needs either to put all this behind him and get on with governing, or he needs to get out of the way. And he must decide soon. A city with big dreams can’t wait.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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