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marcus gee

The new Toronto Life calls Rob Ford "The loneliest man in Toronto." This week, it certainly seemed that way.

The mayor was a non-factor through two days of city council meetings. On one, he was away half the time. His brother said the mayor was nursing a sore back from rolling eggs at an Easter parade. On the other, he was there only in name, taking no part in the debate and declining to talk to the media. By the end of the week, he was back to his usual routine of touring community housing estates to check for busted windows.

Whether he was sulking over recent defeats, deliberately keeping a low profile or simply checked out was hard to say. Regardless, it was another rough week for the Nowhere Mayor. City officials were forced to withdraw a proposal to raise field fees for sports teams after an uproar over the expense. And city council put new limits on managers' attempts to contract out office-cleaning work.

The mayor's opponents were delighted. Whether the city should be pleased is another question. After a string of whuppings on transit, Mr. Ford is looking more and more isolated on the council he is supposed to lead. With two and a half years left in his four-year term, his ability to implement his agenda is fading.

That may strike many Torontonians as a good thing. It's not. For one thing, a city with as many pressing challenges as this one can't afford to drift rudderless till 2014. For another – and suppress the gasps of horror, please – some of the things that Mr. Ford and his team want to do might actually be good for the city.

Mr. Ford won the election partly because many people support his stated goal of a leaner, more effective government with better customer service. If council responds to his weakened state by blocking him at every turn, then the city could emerge from a Ford mayoralty with all the predictable negatives and no upside. To have gone through the fiasco on transit, the silliness about libraries, the embarrassment of the Pride Week boycott and to come out the other side without real progress on the cost and responsiveness of government would be a crying shame.

But that is exactly what could happen if things keep going this way. Chiefly because of his own abysmal leadership, Mr. Ford now faces a council made up of a resurgent left wing, a disillusioned middle and a disorganized right. One press gallery veteran said it feels a lot like it did in the David Miller era, when the left was in the driver's seat and the right was flailing around on the outside.

Consider what happened at council this week on the office cleaners. After a moving plea from rookie Councillor Anna Bailao, who was a teenaged cleaner herself, council passed a motion that would handcuff the city's attempts to get private contractors to take over some cleaning jobs.

In future, contracts will have to go through the city's government management committee, and from there through city council. When they get there, council's left has made it clear it will try to block any attempt to contract out services to private companies.

That can't be good for the city's finances. A 2011 budget report said that the city's unionized cleaners make about $30.32 an hour when benefits are factored in, nearly twice the going rate for private cleaners. By contracting out cleaning in police buildings alone, the city hopes to save $1-million a year. A recently released report by KPMG consultants on improving management of city facilities says the city could save up to $26-million a year by outsourcing security, cleaning and maintenance.

Remember that making the city run more like a business was a core part of Mr. Ford's election promise. Contracting out some services, with proper safeguards for the safety and fair treatment of workers, is one way to do it. It was partly to give the city more freedom to contract out that city labour negotiators arm-wrestled with unions this winter for broader management rights.

Now that those rights have been won, it would be perverse for council to stymie city managers on this sensible reform. If they can't even outsource a few cleaning contracts, what chance do they have with other attempts to economize?

City councillors were right to take over from the mayor on the transit file after his spectacular bungling of the issue. They are right to be wary of everything he does after a year and half of wayward government. But it won't do to tie him up like Gulliver with a thousands tiny bonds. Although they have ample reason to be annoyed at him, they have to move beyond it and let him get at least some things done.