It’s true, the country has never seen such a severe conflict-of-interest ruling against such a high-profile big-city mayor.
Yet while Monday’s condemnation of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s handling of donations to his football charity was a rare legal rebuke that included an order to swiftly punt the long-time municipal politician from the helm of Canada’s largest city, it was not without precedent. Other mayors and councillors have run afoul of conflict-of-interest laws, although not all have faced turfing over their rule-breaking.
One-time Moncton mayor Gary Wheeler did back in the late 1970s after it was revealed he had signed off on contracts that directed some city business to private companies in which he was an officer. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled Mr. Wheeler should be removed as mayor because of the conflict of interest: He stepped down days later.
Former Sault Ste. Marie mayor Joe Fratesi had already left his position when an Ontario court found him guilty in 1996 of violating the province’s conflict-of-interest legislation. Mr. Fratesi, while still mayor, had pursued and accepted a job to become the city’s chief administrative officer. As a result of the ethical breach, the court prohibited him from seeking elected office for four years.
Although other examples abound, the Ontario Superior Court judgment against Mr. Ford is of a magnitude not seen before, and it will have implications for municipal politicians across the country, experts say. In an e-mail, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs said the department is not aware of any recent cases where a mayor has been found guilty of contravening the conflict-of-interest law and his or her seat has been declared vacant.
“This is the extreme penalty, removal from public office,” said Ryerson University professor Myer Siemiatycki, an expert on civic politics. “And so, yes, I think it will serve as a sober reference point and an important reference point for any municipal politician, that if they stray beyond the requirements of the law that there are serious penalties that could await them. Excuses won’t cut it.”
Laws guiding municipal-government ethics and penalties for flouting those rules vary among provinces, but they generally draw the same line on conflicts of interest: Mayors and councillors are required to declare that they have a financial or personal stake in a matter before council and abstain from voting or discussing the issue.
University of Western Ontario political science professor Andrew Sancton contends Ontario’s range of penalties is too narrow and should be reviewed. In the case of Mr. Ford, Justice Charles Hackland had no other option but to order the mayor’s ouster upon a guilty finding. The mayor is vowing to appeal the judgment.
“This, more than any other event, I think highlights the problem with the law,” Prof. Sancton said. “The judicial inquiry in Mississauga called for a review, but as far as I know, there is no action on that.”
That 2011 judicial inquiry admonished Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion for flogging a land deal that stood to make her son millions of dollars, but the long-time mayor, in charge of the city west of Toronto since 1978, did not face the prospect of losing her mayoral seat.
In fact, Ms. McCallion had escaped this fate previously after a County Court judge in 1982 found she had breached the conflict-of-interest act for participating in a council discussion to release about 1,538 hectares of land for development, including two hectares of her own land. The judge declined to order her removal, ruling she had made a “bona fide error of judgment.” The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the ruling.