As Mayor Rob Ford's trip to Hollywood continued to dominate the spotlight, Toronto councillors spent seven hours Tuesday debating one of the last major pieces of policy before them this term – only to defer the decision for another year.
A vote on whether or not to tear down the Gardiner Expressway east of Jarvis will have to wait, with the city's public works committee sending the controversial question back to staff for further study until February, 2015. Several councillors said the decision is too important to rush, but others said the failure to address the tough topic is a side effect of the lack of leadership at City Hall.
"We are rudderless," said Councillor Jaye Robinson, who was kicked off the mayor's executive in June after asking him to take a leave. "We don't have a mayor and we haven't for months. We have to move forward as a council as best we can, but to be making major decisions – this isn't the right time."
Others characterized the deferral as a necessary move that had nothing to do with the mayor. "We can either make a quick decision or the right decision," said Councillor Paula Fletcher. "We need to do our homework."
Mr. Ford devoted most of his attention Tuesday to his Oscar weekend trip to Hollywood and his appearance Monday on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
"I held my own," the mayor told reporters at City Hall after taking the red-eye back from Los Angeles. Despite the ribbing the late-night host gave the mayor over his drug and alcohol scandal, Mr. Ford and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, characterized the trip as a success.
"Was it a tough interview? Sure it was, but he has a job to do. That's his job," Rob Ford said of Mr. Kimmel. "I knew that I was going into a lion's den, and I held my own."
Councillor Doug Ford – who is running his brother's re-election campaign – called it "a real positive, positive trip."
He said his only regret was that the mayor didn't have a chance on the TV show to spend more time promoting Toronto. "We thought we were going to get at least another minute to pump the city," he said.
The mayor's only reference to the Gardiner came in the middle of a five-minute scrum amid questions about his wardrobe choice – Mr. Ford said it was his call to wear a red tie and pocket square with a black shirt and suit on the TV show .
"We've got to keep the Gardiner," the mayor said in response to a question. "I want to deal with the Gardiner. If they want to defer it, I have to look at more information," he said, adding that he'd only been quickly briefed on the issue.
But the deferral debate happened without Mr. Ford. His brother sat in on the day-long meeting for about half an hour.
Outside the committee, Doug Ford told reporters tearing down the Gardiner would mean "economic disaster" for the city.
Committee chair Denzil Minnan-Wong, the only member to vote against deferral, and who, like the mayor and his brother, wants to maintain the Gardiner in its existing form, said that's what would have happened if Mr. Ford had brought the issue to council before the crack-cocaine scandal.
A decision was made to quietly put the environmental assessment on the eastern Gardiner on hold when Mr. Ford became mayor. That decision was later reversed by council, with city staff recommending tearing down the section of the highway as the most cost-effective option in a recent report.
"It's very difficult and very frustrating not to have a mayor's office that wields any authority or weight on this council," said Mr. Minnan-Wong, who is considering a bid for mayor. "It means issues are left to twist in the wind. You can't build an agenda.
"If we had brought it forward when the mayor was strong and he hadn't gotten into all this trouble and he hadn't lost his moral authority to lead, I believe that tearing down the Gardiner would not be an option today," he said.
Councillor John Parker, who put forward the deferral motion after hearing concerns from the public and a major land owner with plans to develop the former industrial site at the foot of the Don Valley Parkway, didn't see it that way. He hopes a solution can be found such as that advocated by developer First Gulf during Tuesday's meeting, that can address traffic issues and encourage development on the eastern waterfront.
"We are making a decision for several generations," he said. "Let's make sure we've thought it through."