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An 80-year-old councillor with a robust set of lungs, Evelyn Buck has become the mayor's implacable foe. (Kevin Van Paassen)
An 80-year-old councillor with a robust set of lungs, Evelyn Buck has become the mayor's implacable foe. (Kevin Van Paassen)

Aurora: Toronto's most dysfunctional suburb Add to ...

Perched on Yonge Street, about 40 kilometres north of Toronto, Aurora is perhaps best known for being home to the Stronach family, who rule over the auto-parts company Magna and whose daughter, Belinda, once represented the riding in Ottawa.

On first blush, this town of 50,000 seems decorous, right down to its gingerbready GO station. Locals have a habit of badging each other with labels like "20-year resident" or "50-year resident." Adults sing along to Jerusalem at a concert in a local park, sometimes led by the mayor herself. In a nod to its Asian residents, the city has allowed them to remove numbers they deem unlucky from their addresses.

But behind this courtly setting is a political vortex of loathing and retribution, a sterling example of urban politics at their most dysfunctional: An integrity commissioner fired. Accusations of slander, conspiracy and harassment. Angry, anonymous ads popping up in the local newspaper. At the heart of this conflict is an 80-year-old politician, who one leading counterpart suggested should be checked for Mad Cow disease after she took to a combative form of blogging.

What on earth happened in Aurora?

The first thing to know about Aurora is that it's not Vaughan.

Unlike that sprawling, scandal-plagued city - its image tarnished by questions over expenditures and conflicts of interest - everything in Aurora is smaller, prettier and more personal.

An election in 2006 brought changes to the clubby old ways. In a tight three-way race, Ms. Morris - then a town councillor - upset the incumbent, Tim Jones, who'd held the job for 12 years. A long-time backer of MP Stronach, Mr. Jones also had the endorsement of her auto magnate father, Frank.

Mayor Morris - Phyllis to most everyone - had made a name for herself during the campaign as an environmentalist. With a sing-song, Shropshire accent that vibrates with nervous energy, she took power with promises of decorum. "Many of us don't see it as a blood-sport," she says, "We see it as a public service."

From the outside, at least, things seemed to be going well. The New York Times sent a writer up to report on Ms. Morris's quest to legalize backyard laundry lines. (To this day, people keep sending clothes-pegs to her office.) She also brought in a code of conduct in 2007 that required councillors to "accurately and adequately communicate the attitudes and decisions of council, even if they disagree with the majority of council" and forbade them to publically disparage town staff.

Rancour ensued, the council splitting into pro- and anti-mayor groups with the mayor's side holding a majority.

"The level of hostility and animosity has been present from the very first day," says Alison Collins-Mrakas, one of the new councillors at odds with the mayor.

Closed-door council meetings were marked with "cursing and screaming" says Grace Marsh, another rookie councillor who found herself on the wrong side of the majority.

Some councillors also didn't seem interested in staff advice they didn't agree with. In one instance, they overruled the advice of their chief planner during a road-paving project, and spent tens of thousands of dollars improving the driveways of well-organized ratepayers. The town was upgrading the street from suburban to city standards, lowering the levels of the road and making for awkward access to driveways.

Bureaucrats would find their judgment being questioned in public council meetings. Ms. Marsh - herself a former town employee of 10 years - says she saw city staff being berated at closed-door meetings. Council members - though not the mayor herself - were "calling people stupid, [saying] 'You're an idiot, you don't know how to do your job.' I had staff members calling me in tears," she says.

Since the council took office, all but two of the town's top tier of public servants have retired, left for other municipalities or were terminated.

Ms. Morris denies the charges of discord. She says the staff turnover is on par with previous administrations.

"You can't keep everyone forever, but you can make it [look]ugly if you want to."

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