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municipal politics

Election campaign signs for Rob Ford line the streets of Toronto's West End on Oct 26, 2010.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

City of Toronto officials earlier this spring quietly waived a $13,362.25 fine levied against Mayor Rob Ford for 483 infractions of the bylaw governing the placement of election signs, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail through an access-to-information request.

Bylaw enforcement officers recorded most of the infractions during the final week of the campaign, as well as the three-day grace period after the vote that is meant to allow candidates to collect their signs.

News of the waived fine emerges at a time when the Ford administration is considering a range of new user fees to help cover the cost of delivering city services.

Adrienne Batra, a spokesperson for the mayor, declined to respond to questions about the disposition of the fine.

Mr. Ford's fine was by far the largest recorded for the 2010 race. The next closest was against George Smitherman's campaign, which was fined $8,559.75, documents show. The other leading mayoral candidates didn't run afoul of the rules, which dictate where signs can and cannot be placed.

As a result, the fine has not been recorded as an election expense counted against the $1.3-million spending cap. Mr. Ford's campaign finances were called into question in May as part of a compliance audit request filed by two Toronto residents alleging that he violated the Municipal Elections Act. Through a spokesperson, the mayor has denied the allegations and is challenging in court a decision by council's compliance audit committee to order a full forensic review of his campaign finances.

The election sign documents show Municipal Licensing and Standards (MLS) officials delivered an invoice for the fine to Mr. Ford on December 6, 2010, shortly after he took office. The city imposes a $25 penalty for each infraction.

Almost two months later, he appealed the fine by swearing an affidavit indicating he believed that "no person acting on my behalf was responsible for erecting or displaying the election signs." Mr. Ford submitted his appeal of the MLS fine only a few days after a large fundraiser meant to erase the mayoral candidates' outstanding campaign debts. Mr. Ford finished the race almost $700,000 in the red.

Section 693 of Toronto's Municipal Code allows candidates to apply to waive sign fines within 30 days of being notified of the infractions. Mr. Ford, however, waited for almost two months to appeal, and did so only after prompting from MLS officials. "We kept pressing them to get that affidavit in," said co-ordinator Fernando Aceto. He added MLS officials do allow extensions, but pointed out that the 11 other candidates in the 2010 race who asked to have their fines erased made the deadline.

Mayoral election veterans know that in the 11th hour of a campaign, it is difficult for campaign officials to enforce the minutiae of the bylaw when there are teams of enthusiastic volunteers roaming the city, looking to erect signs.

What's unusual with Mr. Ford's refusal to pay is that most mayoral candidates appear to take their lumps. Mr. Aceto said Mr. Smitherman's campaign has paid. He also said John Tory and Jane Pitfield both incurred large fines in 2003 and 2006, and paid the penalties. In Ms. Pitfield's case, the fine exceed $20,000.

The documents reveal a number of other testy disputes over Ford signs that surfaced during the campaign. Some were complaints from the Smitherman campaign, but others came from individual residents via election staff, and involved banners displayed prior to the official date when candidates were allowed to deploy their signs.

At one point, city officials had to notify a pedicab fleet owner in Orangeville that Ford signs were not allowed on her vehicles.

City election officials also grappled with what to do about the large Rob Ford sign in the window of his City Hall office, which overlooked Nathan Phillips Square.

In a June, 2010 e-mail to Mr. Aceto, election co-ordinator Gail Baker writes, "All the people in the square can see it. When I asked you about candidates putting up signs with just their name, you stated 'no' they can't do this as it is name recognition for the election. There have been comments made on why he is allowed to do this."

Another e-mail from an Etobicoke MLS official, dated August 10, explains how a property owner with a Ford banner on the front of his building threatened to go to the media if the city ordered him to remove the sign. "[N]t sure if he will follow-through but why take chances?" the official wrote.