With the dismissal of his longtime aide and, until yesterday, chief of staff Mark Towhey, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is growing increasingly isolated.
Many news sources are now reporting that Ford fired Towhey, who has been at Ford’s side since his successful 2010 mayoral campaign, after Towhey pressed him to enter rehab, and balked at the mayor’s plan to arrange a party for his high school football team in the wake of the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s decision to drop him from his coaching position with the Don Bosco Eagles.
Ford’s world has been crumbling ever since Gawker and the Toronto Star published reports that a video exists showing the mayor allegedly smoking from a glass crack pipe; he is said to be most distraught, however, over the loss of his coaching job. Now Ford’s executive committee, a cabinet-like inner circle of councillors, is said to be examining ways it can govern in the mayor’s absence. Maclean’s spoke with Ryerson University politics prof Myer Siemiatycki about the options available to council in this case.
Q: First, is there any precedent for this kind of thing—a council, or executive, looking at how to bypass a troubled mayor?
A: The emphasis is on “this”? And the answer is no. The past two and half years have stretched the boundaries of what anyone who has observed city politics in this country could think was conceivable as a course of conduct on the part of a mayor. So there’s no question that we are into new territory here, unchartered waters.
Q: Some are comparing this to other mayoral mishaps—while Mel Lastman was mayor of Toronto, for example, it was found that he’d been engaged in a longtime extramarital affair, which had produced twin boys, and he made awkward comments, like about how he was afraid he’d be boiled in a cauldron during a visit to Africa?
A: There have been occasional missteps and faux pas. The current mayor takes it to a totally new and different level, in the range of personal behaviour, violation of norms, of civic government and administration. I guess what this mayor appears to have done, unlike any previous mayor, is cross lines of legality, whether it’s campaign spending, whether it’s issues of conflict of interest, whether it’s how he drives his car, whether it’s how he comports himself in private.
Q: So you can’t think of a case where a city council or executive committee has looked into options in terms of governing without a mayor?
A: There have been instances of other municipal politicians in Ontario who have been charged with various things, and even convicted. But whether that then requires them to give up their elected office position, the case practice on that appears to be—no. The only provision in the law is if a municipal elected official goes to jail, then that person can be removed from their position because they’re not physically available to hold their seat. That’s the legality of it.
Then there’s another dimension to this: what can you get away with, what kind of heat can a municipal politician withstand before they decide that the pressures are too great, the public scorn and scrutiny is too acute, and they are going to resign? This is where a municipal council can censure another member, it can call on a member of council to be forthright and give full disclosure of their behaviour, as Toronto is doing. But there is no recall mechanism.
Q: You have to be physically unavailable?
A: You’d have to be in the slammer. Now you could argue that this is a good thing for democracy. The people elected somebody and it shouldn’t be the whims of other politicians to decide to throw somebody out of a position that they have been elected to. But on the other hand, if a large enough number of peers of a sitting elected official make it clear that they believe that a colleague of theirs has behaved in a way that it no longer compatible with that person continuing to hold public office, then that starts to ratchet up the political heat on the position.
Q: You could argue that that happened in Mayor Ford’s case a long time ago. And he is also somebody who is immune to shame, and I think shame is the regulating factor in most normal situations. So therefore what can either council or executive committee do in that kind of case?
A: The larger the number of other members of council who name his leadership and his behaviour as incompatible with the best interests of the city, then the more likely it is that public support and public confidence in the mayor will erode. It’s no longer the usual suspects who are criticizing the mayor. In a world where the mayor himself is slow to perceive any wrong that he may have committed, when large enough numbers of his peers, including those who have been his allies, begin to speak out against him, his continuation may, even to him, become seen as increasingly untenable.
Q: I know I’m asking you to see into the future, but what’s the most likely scenario—how does this play out?
A: I think we have gotten to a point where … We know predictions are worthless. I do not believe the mayor is for his office for a much longer period of time.
Q: You see him resigning?
A: I see him either resigning or announcing that he wishes to take a leave, to deal with various issues, and would claim at this point that he looks forward to returning to office and championing the good fine causes he has been proposing all along. The impregnable fortress of his own sense of entitlement and righteousness I think is under siege.
Q: Looking back on his career I can’t see any precedent for his folding unless absolutely forced to do so.
A: Well, he’s going to have to ask himself does he really want to have a life where he has to go underground, be in hiding, if he ever turns up in his office he has to find a way of secretly getting from the parking lot into his office—is that the kind of life he wants?