The modern city of Toronto has never seen anything quite like the disarray that has overtaken city hall in the winter of 2012. The mayor has lost control of city council and is retreating into political guerrilla warfare. Councillors are plotting and scheming like low-rent Borgias. The democratic apparatus of the sixth largest government in Canada is starting to resemble a Vaudeville sideshow.
Just look at the chaos raging around that most important of Toronto issues: transit. When Mayor Rob Ford took office on Dec. 1, 2010, the city had a fully funded, multi-billion-dollar plan to build a network of light-rail. That was arbitrarily scrapped by Mr. Ford in favour of his plan for all-underground transit. Now that, in turn, has been scrapped by a rebellious city council in favour of…what?
Some councillors want a blended network of underground and above-ground light rail. Some, like Mr. Ford, still want only subways. One councillor, Giorgio Mammoliti, wants a subway under the road that runs through his ward, Finch. Another, James Pasternak, wants one through his ward on Sheppard Avenue West.
Sorting it all out has fallen to a tossed-together expert panel that was given all of six weeks to determine the future of rapid transit in Canada's biggest city. It is enough to make the sidewalks weep. No wonder that Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose government is paying for the transit expansion, is throwing up his hands.
As if all the squabbling about transit expansion were not enough, council plunged into a second, even messier fight about who governs the Toronto Transit Commission. It started after the mayor's allies on the TTC voted to oust its veteran chief general manager, Gary Webster, for the sin of speaking his mind.
Looking for payback – they called it "stability" – the mayor's opponents moved to blow up the nine-member commission and rebuild it along lines that would support their own light-rail vision. And so the battle began.
Mr. Ford said on his radio show that he wanted all private citizens on a new commission – councillors be damned. City staff recommended five citizens and four councillors. TTC chair Karen Stintz said she would push for seven councillors and four citizens – the formula that eventually won out in a council vote Monday evening. Speaker Frances Nunziata said the city should take the whole TTC and give it over to Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency.
As the day dragged on, Councillor Adam Vaughan said he wouldn't be surprised if someone tried to fill the commission with Smurfs and UN peacekeepers. Councillor Pam McConnell said she felt like Alice after she fell down the rabbit hole. "I want us to get out of this movie," she lamented. Yet things only get stranger and stranger.
We now have a mayor whose power to get his way is severely diminished. If the 29-15 vote is any indication, then Mr. Ford can count on the support of only a third of council and his opponents are close to getting the 30 votes they need to control the agenda of the 45-member body. As the votes went against him on Monday, the mayor sat impassively in his corner seat or wandered back to talk with his advisers, his customary bluster gone.
His nemesis, Karen Stintz, has won two major bouts over transit. She was reaffirmed in her chair's post Monday. It is looking as if she will win again when council votes on a transit-expansion plan later this month.
The mayor, never very engaged in the first place, shows signs of checking out. Always more comfortable campaigning from the outside than running the city from within, he is shifting into campaign mode.
Lined up against Mr. Ford, we have a power-drunk left-wing opposition so full of themselves that they are leaping to humiliate the mayor at every turn – an over-reaching that could come back to sting them at the next election in 2014.
What happens in the meantime, goodness knows. The mayor is badly hobbled, but who runs the show in his place? Does Ms. Stintz become de facto mayor? Does council just make it up on the fly from vote to vote, as it did on Monday?
As fascinating as it is to watch all this ad hocery, it leaves Toronto with a drifting, leaderless government at a time when it needs firm direction more than ever.