Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is defending his decision to leave a meeting of council's most important committee more than five hours early to coach a high school football game.
"We had our first football game up in Newmarket. If I'm not there the kids don't play," Mr. Ford told reporters at a United Way event at Nathan Phillips Square Tuesday. "Very few times it conflicts with my schedule. That's why I had to leave two hours before [the game.]"
Mr. Ford, who chairs the executive committee, departed the meeting at 2:30 p.m. Monday, after the group had completed only one item – the approval of a plan to speed up development in the Port Lands. The session continued until just after 8 p.m.
The mayor's office did not respond to queries about Mr. Ford's whereabouts on Monday, but his press secretary confirmed Tuesday morning that the mayor left early to coach football.
"It's extremely rare that his football duties conflict with his council responsibilities," George Christopoulos said in a statement. "There were no contentious issues remaining on [the executive] agenda and the Mayor felt comfortable leaving the meeting in the hands of other committee members."
The rest of the mayor's executive colleagues went on to deal with, among other matters, seeking a private operator for Casa Loma and revisiting the city's anti-discrimination policy, a debate that grew so emotional Councillor Michael Thompson cried openly as he recalled the racial taunts to which his son was subjected as an eight-year-old boy.
Mr. Ford is well-known for his dedication to high school football in Etobicoke and across the city.
He is the long-time volunteer coach of the Don Bosco Eagles and founder of the Rob Ford Football Foundation, which raises money to buy equipment for underprivileged high schools.
Mr. Ford's foes say the time he devotes to football is leading him to neglect his official duties.
Councillor Adam Vaughan, a potential mayoral candidate who has been a constant critic of Mr. Ford's work habits, said Monday's incident is more proof that he is a "part-time mayor."
"The executive committee is the mayor's committee and he has responsibilities to it," he said Tuesday. "He's not being paid to coach football, he's not being paid to do anything other than being mayor by taxpayers."
Made up of the chairs of every council standing committee and four at-large members, the 13-member executive is the most powerful committee at City Hall.
It is stacked with mayoral allies, which means Mr. Ford can usually count on the group to carry out his wishes in his absence.
The executive committee also provides citizens with the only opportunity to express their views directly to the mayor before issues are considered by council.
"People who come to address committee expect to have an audience with the mayor," Mr. Vaughan pointed out.
Mr. Ford dismissed accusations that he is not doing his job. "I work harder than any mayor ever has," he said. He added that citizens who missed him at Monday's meeting can always give him a call.
"I return all my phone calls," he said. "Everyone has my number. Anyone who wants to call me I'd be more than happy to talk to them."
Two years before the next election, Mr. Vaughan speculated that Mr. Ford is using his role as a football coach to raise his profile.
"I guess he sees that coaching football gives him a big publicity boost," he said. "Being a folk hero is not his job. Being the mayor is and if he is not showing up for work he is not respecting taxpayers."