Contemporary Toronto has never seen anything quite like the assault being carried out by Mayor Rob Ford against public servants in this city.
He had Gary Webster canned as head of the Toronto Transit Commission for daring to question his unfunded, ill-conceived plan to build a subway to Scarborough. Now he has Ombudsman Fiona Crean in his crosshairs.
She first annoyed the mayor for having the temerity to push back when he ordered her to cut her budget. She argued that her 10-person agency needed more staff, not less, to investigate citizen complaints against city hall, especially at a time when the mayor himself was demanding better customer service.
She made him angrier still when she issued a report accusing his office of meddling in appointments to city boards and agencies. At a city council meeting earlier this month, his allies subjected this dedicated citizens' advocate to a public barracking. Led by the mayor's brother, Doug, they suggested she had political motives and was basing her carefully researched report on mere hearsay, a charge she neatly refuted this week by producing evidence that the mayor's office indeed gave city staff a list of its favoured picks for city appointments.
It is one thing for the Fords to take on big government. It is quite another to make personal attacks against the individual men and women who work to keep the city's water clean, trains running and official conduct above board. Government can't function if public servants feel cowed. They need to know they can give their political masters advice – even unwelcome advice – without fear of being slapped down.
That is why the code of conduct for members of city council states that they should never "maliciously or falsely injure the professional or ethical reputation" of public officials. Rather, they should always "show respect for the professional capacities of staff." The Fords act as if that rule, like most others, simply does not apply to them.
Consider what happened to the Medical Officer of Health, David McKeown. For the sin of proposing lower speed limits to make Toronto safer for pedestrians and cyclists, he found himself the victim of a vicious drive-by on the Fords' Sunday talk-radio show.
The mayor called Dr. McKeown's $294,302 salary "an embarrassment" and his brother asked twice "Why does he still have a job," calling the doctor "this guy." When councillor John Filion complained about the smear, the mayor refused to apologize. He refused again when the city's Integrity Commissioner, Janet Leiper, took the matter up. Only on the afternoon of the day she released a report chastising him for "demeaning the professional reputation" of the doctor did he finally release a letter of retraction, though Mr. Filion says that even now it does not come close to a real admission that he was wrong to disparage a senior official on air.
Instead of the decent thing, Mr. Ford is doing what he always does when under attack: shoot the messenger. "It's all political. It's just nonsense," the mayor told reporters on Thursday. He wants to get rid of the integrity commissioner, the ombudsman and, for good measure, the lobbyist registrar.
That would be a huge setback for the goal of clean, transparent government that the mayor himself campaigned on when he was running for office. The so-called accountability offices were established after the MFP computer-leasing scandal of the early 2000s. The integrity commissioner keeps a watch on the conduct of city councillors; the lobbyist registrar makes sure public business is not conducted in smoky back rooms; and the ombudsman is a last resort for citizens who feel they have been ignored or mistreated by officialdom. They are a triple-shield against arbitrary, indifferent government. You only have to look down the highway to Quebec to see what can happen in the absence of that kind of check.