A coup d'état? That is what hard-core Ford supporters are calling a move by Toronto city council to strip Mayor Rob Ford of some of his powers. "I think they did more harm than any other dictatorship around the world," said city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, an on-and-off Ford ally.
Well, not quite. Councillors acted democratically and with great reluctance when they took the extraordinary step of voting to remove the mayor's power to appoint committee heads and manage emergencies, with even tighter constraints to be debated on Monday.
Everyone knew this was a grave affair – hobbling a mayor who was elected with a strong mandate just three years ago. In a sane world, it would be voters, not councillors, who slapped him down. But Mr. Ford gave them little choice. By his stubborn refusal to resign or even take a leave amid a full-blown scandal, he forced their hand.
Simply going on as if nothing had happened was not an option, and most councillors don't like the idea of crying to Mama by asking the provincial government to help rid them of Mr. Ford. So they are taking a middle step by clipping his wings.
For official purposes, Mr. Ford remains mayor, with his powers to lead council and represent the city at official functions (if anyone will have him) technically intact. The power to appoint committee chairs was given to Toronto mayors only in 2006, so by taking that away council is only going back to the way things were for earlier occupants of Mr. Ford's chair. In any case, Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly points out, the current chairs were appointed by Mr. Ford and are generally of conservative bent, so council will not be changing the orientation of city government by taking away his power to dump them. In effect, they will be frozen in place.
But in practice, council is taking over governance of the city. That is as it should be. After the incredible events of the past two weeks, Mr. Ford has lost the moral authority to govern. It only makes sense for council to step into the leadership void. Under Toronto's political system, council is supreme in any case. The mayor is only one vote among 45. His power stems mainly from his ability to persuade councillors to follow his lead.
He lost that power, in effect, long before the scandal broke. After alienating ally after ally and fumbling big issues like the future of rapid transit, he was becoming more and more isolated. In a sense, the latest measures to constrain him only confirm what had already happened on the floor of the council chamber.
On Friday afternoon, after losing the votes on his powers by overwhelming margins, he was looking much like the politician he was for 10 years before he became mayor: a cranky city councillor raging against waste at City Hall. There is "a lot of taxpayers' money going down the drain for absolutely no reason, and it burns me up," he said, in a vintage Ford performance.
He has made no secret of his strategy. If council is going to shun him, he will campaign as an outsider fighting for the ordinary Joe. His brother Doug accused councillors of trampling on the rights of the voters. "They took over the democratic process," he told CP24 television. "They decided who was going to be the mayor and who wasn't going to be the mayor."
Knowing they would face such a counterattack, councillors waited a long time before acting. For fear of being accused of piling on and letting the Fords play the victim card, many kept silent for months. The events of the past couple of weeks impelled them to act.
Councillors of left, right and centre united in a determination to sideline the rogue mayor and keep the city running in the heat of crisis. For a body that has often been written off as faction-ridden and dysfunctional, it has been a rare moment of dignity and common purpose. In an eloquent speech this week, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong called on fellow councillors to "sift out the small politics of personal gain and, instead of jockeying for position or advantage, do the right thing. Not for ourselves. Not against the mayor. But for the institution of the City of Toronto and its government upon which so many of our citizens depend."
It is a strange and unfortunate situation – an elected mayor who still holds the title but has been marginalized by his fellows. It could still be avoided if Mr. Ford saw reason and listened to council's nearly unanimous call to quit or step aside. Failing that, council has no alternative but to play what Mr. Minnan-Wong called the "responsible adult" and take charge.
If they succeed – the Fords are vowing to challenge them in court – there is no reason that council cannot govern on its own for the 11 months till the next election. They were already at it this week, voting on routine things like new traffic crossings as the mayor complained, as of old, from the sidelines. It is a role that suits him much better than mayor.