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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, in red, coaches football at Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School in Toronto on Wednesday, September 12, 2012.Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Take a lunch-hour walk in front of Toronto's City Hall and ask people what they think of Mayor Rob Ford's decision this week to exit a city council executive committee meeting five-and-a-half hours early to attend a scrimmage of the high-school football team he coaches.

Everyone says the same thing. They say they don't mind if the coach – or the mayor, if you prefer – slips off during office hours to volunteer for his players. They say everyone takes unscheduled time off work anyway, and that the mayor will do what everyone does and make up the time later.

"I think most people put in more time than they're paid for," one woman tells me. And Mr. Ford is one of us.

It's the standard Ford-defence theory: Mr. Ford can do anything he likes – stonewall city council, flip citizens off, berate people while drunk, read while driving, speed-dial 911, physically corner reporters and (now) skip work with impunity – because Ford's Army, the base of suburban-commuter conservatives who handed him the chain of office in 2010, will guarantee his re-election as the bully with a heart of gold who stands up to effete, bike-riding elitists.

But this week may have seen the straw that broke even his supporters' camel-like backs. On top of blowing off the executive committee, Rob Ford was seen to be blatantly using city staff and resources to help him with his football team – the precise sort of behaviour he denied in court last week, and the polar opposite of the holier-than-thou cut-the-gravy platform that got him elected.

"Rob had two big brands," his council rival Adam Vaughan says: " 'Rob's a good guy – look at his football stuff,' and,'Rob's a tough guy – look at his gravy-train stuff.' In the last week he's done damage to both."

This suddenly has everyone asking a broader question: Is Rob Ford – the volatile, reckless but shrewdly no-nonsense simplifier who insists a huge city can be run like a small town – serious enough to lead Canada's largest and most influential city, in a world of increasingly urban-led economies where a mayor has to be a city's hero?

Large cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary – three of the five most livable cities in the world, according to a recent survey by The Economist – are increasingly important engines of national and international growth and job creation. As Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has noted, city governments have the most immediate effects on the lives of citizens. Cities are nimbler than federal governments, and more concentrated and potent than states and provinces.

They are simply hamstrung for revenue. Los Angeles is now eyeing funds in China and Europe to extend its subway system. Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel has set up sophisticated economic relationships with cities in Norway and northern Europe.

To encourage other cities to share money and ideas, Benjamin Barber, author of the upcoming If Mayors Ruled the World, has called for the creation of a transnational "parliament of mayors." New York's mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has endowed his Mayors Challenge to solve modern urban problems – including global warming, terrorism, epidemics and immigration. So far, Mr. Ford hasn't demonstrated an interest in that sort of mandate, and is focused on problems closer to home, such as wrestling unions and contracting out garbage collection.

Privately, mayoral advisers in other cities will admit, as one says, "We've never really seen anything like Mayor Ford." Other mayors don't play hooky, for starters. Mr. Nenshi, the talkative, ideas-oriented and much admired leader of resurgent Calgary, is utterly strict about setting Sundays aside for his family – but as an aide points out, "the mayor can be seen at work the other six days a week." He logs 12 to 16 hours each workday, and five to 10 more on Saturdays, often aiming at national issues.

Mr. Ford, on the other hand, has stated that his coaching duties may require him to be out of City Hall for three to six hours many weekdays, from September to October.

Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz blocks out time for his private interests – he's starting a new family in his 60s with a second wife half his age – and has faced his own conflict-of-interest allegations of late and has moved on. He is currently serving his third term.

Meanwhile, the meeting Mr. Ford dodged (which he was supposed to be chairing) is one of the only opportunities citizens have to ask the mayor questions directly. His Worship skipped out before an emotional debate about the Pride parade and the city's anti-discrimination funding (an important plank in Toronto's reputation for tolerance); before discussions about the future of Casa Loma; and without hearing sundry other items such as whether the city's decision to outsource trash collection was based on bogus numbers.

But Mr. Ford hasn't apologized. "I work harder than any mayor ever has," he has insisted. It's hard to know if he's right: The mayor refuses to make his schedule public, forcing the media to file Freedom of Information applications to find out what the big guy has been up to.

Daniel Dale, a reporter at the Toronto Star (the same fellow the mayor charged near his back yard) nevertheless managed to reveal that between March 11 and July 23, Mr. Ford's itinerary suggested he averaged a leisurely three appointments a weekday, and those included meetings with his staff.

Admittedly, absenteeism is an occupational hazard for all councillors, who duck in and out of meetings all day long. Still, says a City Hall insider, "I think it would have been unlikely for any of the previous mayors not to attend a meeting of the executive committee that they chaired."

Even councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, a fellow Etobicoke fiscal hawk who has known the Ford boys since they were teenagers, has been unimpressed by the mayor's speedy dash to the gridiron. "I felt that, by leaving this meeting, he was obviously not interested in the issues." She goes on: "He's his own person. And he obviously does what he wants to do. It's a matter of priorities. And he's chosen his."

Of course, Mr. Ford will shrug off such criticisms; city politics is a dogfight, and he's a biter. But whether his laissez-faire approach to both civic law and his public duties should be shrugged off is another question.

Of all the complaints you can hear about Mr. Ford in a day of wandering around the city, the most consistent and serious is that he is not a sufficiently polished or public leader.

"We have a large cosmopolitan city, and look at our mayor," a retired suburbanite in her 50s named Sharon declares abruptly. She's come downtown to see her dentist. "Rob Ford shouldn't be the face of this city. It's almost like he trivializes it."

Sharon is a liberal. But the consultant in the Glen-plaid suit isn't. "The mayor has to be the public face of the city," he tells me. "But he is not. Does he make me want to reach out to him? No. But he needs to."

Long ago and far away in 1980, former mayor John Sewell incurred the derision of Toronto when he chose not to attend the funeral of slain police officer Michael Sweet; Mr. Sewell was concerned his recent anti-police criticisms might make him unwelcome. Is skipping an executive meeting to coach some kids any worse than skipping a funeral to save the feelings of a family? Of course not. No politician can be everywhere in the city.

"But there is an expectation that the mayor will," the City Hall insider points out. "Because he represents everyone in the city."

Do you want Rob Ford, the shrewd-but-stubborn red bull of Nathan Phillips Square, to represent Toronto in the onrushing high-stake negotiations to create a new world order of powerful cities? He might have a game that day.

Ford's fumbles, play by play


2006: An inebriated Councillor Ford berates an out-of-town couple at a Toronto Maple Leafs Game. Mr. Ford initially denies he was at the Air Canada Centre that night. "I wasn't even at the game, so someone's trying to do a real hatchet job on me, let me tell you," he tells the Toronto Star. Mr. Ford later admits the story is true and apologizes for his lies.

2010:At the height of the mayoral campaign, a Toronto Sun reporter calls Mr. Ford to ask about a 1999 marijuana-possession charge . Mr. Ford denies it before admitting at a news conference the following morning that it had "totally slipped my mind" there was a joint in his back pocket the night he was picked up for drunk driving. (Mr. Ford claims he was only convicted of refusing a breath sample, but documents confirm he pleaded guilty to a DUI.)


2011: Caught talking on his cell phone behind the wheel, Mr. Ford allegedly gives the finger to a woman and her young daughter. The mayor's office admits Mr. Ford used his hand-held phone while driving, but denied he made the obscene gesture.

2012:A streetcar operator berates Mr. Ford for allegedly driving past open streetcar doors. Mr. Ford complains directly to the CEO of the TTC about the driver's behaviour and later tells reporters that he drove past the closed back doors, but stopped before the open front entrance.

2012:Mr. Ford is photographed reading a speech while driving on the Gardiner Expressway. Asked whether it was him, the mayor replies, "Yeah, probably." He refuses calls – including from Toronto police and his own brother – to hire a chauffeur.


2009: The integrity commissioner concludes Mr. Ford broke council's Code of Conduct when he took to talk radio to wrongly accused his political nemesis, Councillor Adam Vaughan, of misusing his influence to appoint a campaign donor to a city committee. Mr. Vaughan wasn't present at the appointment meeting. Mr. Ford's on-air apology satisfies the integrity commissioner, who recommends no further punishment.

2010: The integrity commissioner finds Mr. Ford breached the code, this time for revealing confidential details of a city real-estate transaction on the radio. Council agrees with the integrity commissioner's recommendation that the then-councillor be reprimanded.

2010: The integrity commissioner rules – again – that Mr. Ford violated the code by using his city staff and his councillor letterhead to solicit donations for his private football foundation. The commissioner reveals that lobbyists, their clients and one corporation doing business with the city donated to the foundation, prompting the commissioner to recommend Mr. Ford repay out of his own pocket $3,150 in improper donations. Council agrees to impose the penalty.

2012: After Mr. Ford ignores six requests for proof he paid back the money, the integrity commissioner sends another report to council. Mr. Ford, now mayor, speaks passionately in his own defence and votes with the council majority to drop the sanction altogether. That decision leads to even more trouble for the mayor.


2012: Mr. Ford's speech and vote on the football issues prompts a Toronto resident to take the mayor to court for allegedly violated the Municipal Conflict-of-Interest Act. If found guilty, the mayor automatically loses his job. The judge could also choose to bar him from running again for up to seven years. A decision is expected this fall.

2011/2012: Mr. Ford tries to block an audit of his campaign finances. After two legal losses, he gives up and the audit goes ahead. Auditors are now examining whether the mayor accepted an improper loan of about $77,000 from family company, Doug Ford Holdings, among other alleged transgressions.

- Kelly Grant