The head of Toronto’s transit system has asked that Rob Ford not call him on personal matters after the mayor contacted him twice from the football field to ask what had happened to an emergency bus for his players.
Andy Byford, who became the TTC’s CEO after the Ford administration locked horns with its former leader over subways, made the request after the mayor called his cellphone twice Thursday afternoon – first speaking directly to him before the call was dropped and then in a voicemail.
Those calls, which Mr. Byford described as “urgent” in tone, were placed after Toronto police made an emergency request for a TTC bus to ferry home the Don Bosco Eagles – the high school team Mr. Ford coaches – when a game was cut short in its final minutes by a dispute between an opposing coach and an official.
Mr. Byford said he was at city council, preparing to answer questions on Toronto’s $8.4-billion light rail deal, when he received a “garbled” call from the mayor. “I really didn’t understand what he was talking about,” Mr. Byford told reporters Tuesday. “He phoned me. He made some reference to a football team, to a potential brawl, to a bus. I was very clear. I said to him, because I thought he was asking for a bus, I said there was no way I was providing a TTC bus.”
Instead, Mr. Byford said he called staff to get the number of a school bus company for the mayor to call. He then got a message from the mayor that mentioned police had requested a bus and “the penny dropped,” he said.
After calling transit control, Mr. Byford called the mayor back and told him a bus was five minutes away.
Mr. Byford has since told the mayor’s staff he does not want to take such calls from the mayor. “If it relates to something that is – or could be perceived to be – personal to him, I’ve ask that that not happen in future,” he said.
A spokesman for the mayor’s office said that message has been given to Mr. Ford, who has a different take on last week’s calls. “ The way the mayor views it, it was strictly business,” George Christopoulos said.
Asked Wednesday morning about his role in the bus request, Mr. Ford said: "It's over. It's done. I had nothing to do with it. You are beating a dead horse."
The calls to Mr. Byford were not the first time Mr. Ford had contacted the head of the TTC or other senior city staff on matters that involved him directly. Earlier this year, the mayor called Mr. Byford over an incident he had with a TTC streetcar driver, and this summer he called high-ranking city executives into his office to discuss his request to spruce up the street outside the Ford family business before an event.
Asked to describe the mayor’s manner on the calls, Mr. Byford said his voice was raised because it was windy on the field. “On the voicemail he was not happy because he wanted to know where his bus was,” Mr. Byford said. The mayor, he said, was saying police had asked for a bus, and “Where the hell was it?”
Toronto police frequently ask the TTC for shelter buses in emergencies, but this request involving the mayor’s football team has been widely questioned because of Mr. Ford’s calls and the fact that two buses were pulled off routes to meet the request – in one case, Mr. Byford said, dumping about 50 rush-hour commuters in the rain.
Toronto police on Tuesday stood behind the decision to request the bus. Superintendent Ron Taverner of 23 Division in north Etobicoke where the game took place, said a sergeant at the field made the decision out of a concern for “community safety,” fearing that an altercation might break out between the opposing teams.
“She feels very strongly it was the right decision,” he told reporters. “I wasn’t there personally, but I have to rely on her decision.”
He said he was not aware of a TTC bus being called under similar circumstances, but stressed Mr. Ford was not involved in the decision to request it.
Supt. Taverner’s explanation of why police requested a shelter bus differs from that of the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
Last Friday, John Yan, a spokesman for the board, said the primary reason that Don Bosco principal Ugo Rossi asked officers at the game to summon a TTC vehicle was to get the football players out of the cold, wet weather as rapidly as possible.
In an interview Tuesday after Supt. Taverner’s news conference, Mr. Yan stood by that, but clarified that the decision was a “collaborative” one made between school officials and Toronto police.
After reviewing last week’s events, Mr. Byford said he has no plans to change the way his staff responds to requests from emergency services, although he said he had never heard of a emergency bus being used as it was Thursday to defuse what police are describing as a tense situation.
“They are professionals,” he said of police and firefighters. “I do not think it is our place to question them.”
With a file from Kelly Grant