Mayor Rob Ford came to office promising a new era of transparency and accountability in city government. Instead, we have seen a pattern of secrecy, evasion and backroom dealing.
It started right off the bat when, without consulting city council, Mr. Ford announced he was killing Transit City, the multibillion-dollar light-rail project that was already approved, funded and under way. The mayor proceeded to negotiate a deal with the provincial government that left the city solely in charge of his own dubious transit plan: the Sheppard subway extension. He revived a long-dormant consulting group, Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd., to figure out how to get the project done, and appointed a trusted associate, Gordon Chong, to head it.
The same behind-the-scenes manoeuvring has marked Mr. Ford’s handling of the waterfront file. Although he and his brother, Doug, have made it clear for months that they are unhappy with Waterfront Toronto and the pace of development by the harbour, it was not until this month that the public learned that they had hired international consultants to draw up a lavish plan for the Port Lands or that an Australian developer had been talking to the city about building there. City councillors who had approved an entirely different plan only a year ago were left wondering how their democratic vote had been bulldozed so easily. They were hardly reassured when Doug Ford insisted that “We are going to do consultations out our yingyang.”
Several times the mayor’s forces have surprised city council committees by introducing new plans without the customary heads-up. It happened to Trinity-Spadina Councillor Mike Layton when Ford allies arranged to kill a promising project in his ward, the Fort York pedestrian bridge. It has happened twice to Toronto Centre-Rosedale Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam: once when a conservative councillor introduced an unexpected motion to kill the Jarvis bike lanes, and again this week when another called for a review of the scramble intersection at Dundas and Yonge.
The mayor himself has been anything but transparent, limiting his encounters with the media and dishing out rare interviews to friendly journalists. Even his schedule of meetings and appearances is kept under wraps, leaving the public to wonder what their mayor is up to. His one serious experiment with public consultation was a round-the-clock city hall session that did not seem to affect his views on anything.
This high-handed approach to governing – I’m in charge, so get used to it – is not only a betrayal of Mr. Ford’s promises about openness and accountability, it’s self-defeating. Consider the Port Lands. The mayor and his brother are right to want to shake things up on the waterfront, pushing for swifter and more ambitious development on this choice parcel of real estate. But the way they have gone about it has alienated many potential allies on city council.
“If the Ford administration had sincerely wanted to convince people rather than dictate their plans for the Port Lands, they would have engaged council,” says North Toronto Councillor Josh Matlow. “But that didn’t happen. It was just a sales job for what they had already conjured up.” He released a statement to ward residents this week saying that, given the lack of consultation, he could not support the mayor’s waterfront plans. By failing to reach out, Mr. Ford has lost at least one councillor in what could be a close vote.
A mayor is not a monarch. He is not even a prime minister. In a system with no political parties, he can’t just wield his majority to get his way. He has to persuade. That is a skill the mayor has yet to learn. Faced with opposition, he and his allies will often simply say that his election win gave him the mandate to act – or denounce his opponents as communists.
It’s not enough. He has to bring forward his proposals openly, not spring them on the city. Then he has to hear out his opponents, not dismiss them.