Documents released this week confirm that the mayor's family business has earned tens of thousands of dollars over the past decade doing business with the city he now leads.
That may seem like a trifling thing. The contracts awarded to Etobicoke-based Deco Labels and Tags are small potatoes for a government with a budget of more than $9-billion. No one is suggesting that Deco got the business simply because Rob Ford was a city councillor. No one is saying that Mr. Ford exploited his influence to secure contracts for the company, which is a prominent name in its line of work and is quite capable of winning the business on its own merit.
But, now that he is mayor, he must be extra careful to avoid any hint of suspicion that he or his family are profiting from his position.
To avoid accusations of conflict of interest, high officials at other levels of government usually put a firm line between their business or investment interests and their official roles. Most jurisdictions require cabinet ministers to put their holdings in a blind trust. Paul Martin set up a blind management trust for Canada Steamship Lines while he was finance minister, retaining ownership but isolating himself from how it was run. He gave ownership of the company to his sons when he became prime minister.
Now that Mr. Ford is the leader of Canada's sixth largest government – larger than many provinces – it would be best for him to put his own interests in a blind trust and give up any role in the family company. At the least, he should make sure that Deco stops doing business with the city for as long as he is mayor – a small sacrifice for a successful multimillion-dollar company.
That way, no one can ever suggest that the Fords are improperly mixing business and politics. Such an arrangement would protect the family from any taint. Mr. Ford's brother Doug, president of Deco, is his right-hand man and vice-chair of the city council budget committee. More importantly, it would protect the office of the mayor.
Mr. Ford should know how delicate these issues can be. Before he became mayor, he was quick to accuse fellow councillors of conflicts of interest and other dodgy dealings, often with very little evidence. In 2008, he accused Adam Vaughan of Ward 20 Trinity-Spadina of using his influence to have a campaign contributor appointed to a city committee. Mr. Vaughan had nothing to do with it and Mr. Ford had to apologize.
Mr. Ford has also come down hard on city officials for awarding contracts to suppliers without seeking competitive bids. In last year's election campaign, he berated the city for awarding a sole-source contract to Bombardier for new subway cars. So it is interesting to learn that the Toronto Transit Commission gave a decal contract to Deco without seeking other bids.
There's nothing wrong with that – Deco was apparently the only firm that made what the TTC wanted – but it might make Mr. Ford think twice about his conviction that it is always wasteful and wrong to award contracts to a trusted source without competition. Sometimes, it just makes sense.
The trouble with Mr. Ford is that he doesn't seem to think the rules apply to him. As a loose-cannon councillor, he often had his wrist slapped for violating council's standards. In the most recent case, the city's integrity commissioner said he had exercised "improper use of influence" by using his office letterhead to solicit donations for his boys-football charity.
That was hardly the end of the world – Mr. Ford's heart was in the right place – but the influence rules are there for a purpose: to avoid any perception that councillors use the power of their office for their own ends. And that is the point: in issues like these, perception matters. It's not enough for officials to say they are clean; they must be seen to be clean.
For that reason, it would be wise and prudent for Mr. Ford to make sure there are no more business dealings between the city and his family firm.