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Ford hardly first to divide time between private business, public office

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford answers questions from councillors regarding a plan to remove board members at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation in council chambers at city hall in Toronto, Ont. March 9, 2011.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

In his inaugural address to city council, Mayor Rob Ford listed several similarities between himself and William Lyon MacKenzie, the first person to hold the office: a colourful personality, a rebellious streak and a desire to stand up to the established order.

He could add one more thing to that list: both, apparently, continued their involvement with private business while serving as the chief magistrate.

While the revelation that Mr. Ford blocked off a day and a half away from city hall to attend to his family's printing company may raise a few eyebrows, he is hardly the first local politician to also mind the store. In fact, from the time of the city's first mayor, who kept publishing his revolutionary rag The Advocate while an elected official, many civic officeholders have divided their attention between filling potholes and customer orders.

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The practice is a problem, some say, because it could distract public servants from their duties.

"Even if it's just for a day or to attend some meetings, it's still time taken away from your primary responsibility, which is running the city," said Duncan MacLellan, a political scientist at Ryerson University.

However, some politicians, particularly in smaller cities and towns, don't have much choice but to hold down a second job, as the pay can be rather low and there is little appetite for raising salaries or benefits.

"If you're going to ask someone to take four years or eight years or 12 years out of a career, you have to provide for them, which the taxpaying public doesn't want to do, or they're going to keep their hand in whatever they did before," said municipal politics expert Neil Thomlinson.

In federal or provincial politics, it's common practice for elected officials to put their private companies into a trust before taking office, though similar examples at the municipal level are few and far between.

While Mr. Ford - whose annual salary as mayor is $167,769 - may be the politician with the most public link to a family company at the moment, some of his forerunners were even more prominently associated with private concerns.

Mel Lastman held onto Bad Boy Furniture - the business that brought him both fortune and a public profile - for his first couple of years as mayor of North York, before selling it. After his son revived the company in 1991, Mr. Lastman appeared in the odd commercial and rejoined Bad Boy after leaving politics. Further back, Ralph Day, a mortician who served as mayor from 1938 to 1940, lent his name to his family's east end funeral home.

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David Soknacki, David Miller's first budget chief, owns a successful flavour-manufacturing company, while recently retired councillor Howard Moscoe had a side business in sign-making while in office. On one occasion, he sent an e-mail from his city account soliciting clients among candidates in that year's election.

Such are the pitfalls of owning a business while at city hall, but there doesn't appear to be any conflict of interest in the case of Mr. Ford's company, which has done more than $100,000 worth of business with the city. Each contract concerned amounts of money so small that decisions were made by staff at arm's-length from council.

"These decisions are made about 40 rungs down in the bureaucracy," Mr. Thomlinson said.

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