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Toronto mayor elect Rob Ford heads back down a small hill near Sugar Beach on Oct. 27, 2010, in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto mayor elect Rob Ford heads back down a small hill near Sugar Beach on Oct. 27, 2010, in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

To rescue his mayoralty, Ford needs to be more positive Add to ...

When Rob Ford lost a budget fight with Police Chief Bill Blair this week, it was yet another sign of trouble for his faltering mayoralty.

Mr. Ford’s people had ordered the chief to cut 10 per cent from the police budget. Chief Blair said no way, can’t be done. The scene was set for a shootout at the OK Corral. When the gunfire died away, the chief was calmly blowing smoke from the barrel of his revolver, while the mayor stood in the street with his gun belt around his ankles.

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Under a budget approved by the police board this week, spending will actually rise slightly next year, though by much less than Chief Blair had first proposed. Serious cuts have been put off until next year.

The setback came just days before the first anniversary of Mr. Ford’s remarkable election victory. On Oct. 25, 2010 – a year ago next Tuesday – he swept in on his famous pledge to “stop the gravy train,” cut waste and improve customer service.

After a string of victories on things like cutting the car registration tax and contracting out of garbage pickup, he started running into trouble this summer. His boycott of Pride Week, the dust-up over threatened library closures, the fiasco over the Port Lands – all these things contributed to a sense that his administration was going off the rails.

But it would be a mistake to count him out yet. With three years left in his term of office, he has plenty of time for a comeback. His staff argue that a year from now, when the budget is balanced and the memory of this summer’s stumbles has faded, residents may look around them and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Although the mayor did not achieve his 10-per-cent cut on the police budget, staff argue that he at least brought the remorseless year-after-year increases in spending to a near halt. “When has that ever happened before?” asks one adviser to the mayor.

Still, to rescue his mayoralty, Mr. Ford will have to take at least two steps in a different direction.

First, be more positive. Part of the reason many people have soured on him is that all they hear is cut, cut, cut. When CBC morning show host Matt Galloway asked him this month what he loved about the city, he could only say that Toronto was “fantastic,” then rhyme off a list of his accomplishments and cost-cutting plans.

It wasn’t so much a weariness about paying taxes that brought him to office. It was annoyance at paying taxes and seeing so little urban progress. The mayor has to give voters a sense that there will be a return for the pain, that he has a plan to build the city even as he trims its government.

Look at Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, who himself just marked his first anniversary as mayor. Like Mr. Ford with his (rushed) core service review, he has started a three-year budget review aimed at controlling spending and finding efficiencies in every department. Like Mr. Ford, he has cut his own office spending. Like Mr. Ford, he has promised to respect taxpayers. He pledges to keep tax increases under the rate of inflation and urban growth.

But he has paired these fiscally conservative measures with an upbeat message of progress. Far from talking about closing libraries, Calgary is building three more. Nine new ice rinks and four recreation centres are also under way. The city is adding, not cutting, transit service and building a new airport tunnel to ease traffic congestion.

Or look at Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel. He is cracking down hard on spending. The city is laying off hundreds of workers and taking on the swelling police budget. But under his “cut and invest” motto, he is planning to plow the budget savings into better schools and transit that will make Chicago a more attractive place to live and do business. Unlike Mr. Ford, who claims Toronto has no revenue problem, he is looking to bring in more money through higher parking fees, hotel taxes and other charges.

Second, be more open. For a man who ran on a promise of more transparency, Mr. Ford has been heading a government that often seems to be playing hide and seek. His schedule is not published, and reporters have to file access to information requests to get a hint of what he does day to day. Mr. Nenshi, by contrast, puts a list of everyone he meets on his website, for anyone who wants to look.

Even the mayor’s people concede that the administration has often drifted off message. If Mr. Ford wants to turn his mayoralty around, he needs to push the reset button.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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