At Toronto’s City Hall, surely the most ambiently lunatic building in Canada, a stage was set up to launch the Mayor’s Christmas Toy Drive. Eight small children had been procured to act as “honourary elves,” sitting cross-legged on a carpet at the foot of a Christmas tree, flanked by boxes of mini-trikes and construction cranes. A boxed CFL football sat ominously to one side. The mayor was scheduled to launch the drive at 1 p.m. An enormous crowd of reporters buzzed about. Interest in the mayor’s event had amplified to unusual levels by news that the mayor had just gotten himself fired.
For everyone who’s ever bemoaned the fact that our democracy doesn’t offer a way to recall politicians, witness Rob Ford: the man who couldn’t stay mayor. In a ruling released this morning, a Superior Court justice declared Ford’s seat vacant—a weirdly existential way of putting it—after finding the mayor violated the municipal conflict-of-interest act in a small-stakes, but entirely willful, transgression.
Ford has been in office for two tumultuous years, in which his cost-cutting mandate quickly gave way to a scorched-earth war on the media, a succession of botched policies and a never-ending series of altercations, each more bizarre than the last. Giving the finger to a six-year old; chasing a reporter around a park near his home; helping eject a bus of TTC riders into the rain to get his football team a ride home. Finally, today, the mayor of Toronto was sent back to the voters to ask for his job back. In the end, Rob Ford recalled himself.
Upstairs at City Hall, in the mezzanine above the Toy Drive stage, Ford emerged from his glass-walled office, pushed back the wall of waiting cameras and spoke laconically for a few brief minutes, before staging a breakout in the direction of the kids. He promised to appeal, and run again if there was a by-election.
“The people are going to speak,” he said. “I’m not going to have people saying that I can’t do this, I can’t do that. I’m going to fight for the taxpayers as I always have.”
Downstairs, he delivered a halting speech from the stage, ignoring the morning’s events, then kneeled like a sad Santa to give the elves some gifts—and then he was gone.
Ford’s reluctance to have people—lawmakers, colleagues, well-meaning friends, Superior Court justices—say he can’t do this or can’t do that, has been a recurring problem in Toronto these last couple years. Ford attempted to steer the city with an internalized sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, a sense which unfortunately kept running up against reality, the kind that manifests itself in budget sheets and laws. He tried to push through a subway plan that made no financial sense. He tried to push through a redevelopment scheme that made no planning sense. He wanted to have criminals deported from the city, until a talk-radio host suggested to him that even criminals have basic Charter rights. (This, like so many other things, really happened.)
Ultimately, Toronto’s mayor got sacked for breaking a simple yet unforgiving Ontario law: If you vote on or discuss an issue in which you have a financial interest and you can’t prove that it was a mistake you made in good faith, you get removed from office. The law is too crude an implement and deserves to be revisited. Yet it’s still the law, and Ford ultimately had no excuse for breaking it.
Rob Ford runs a football foundation. He tirelessly fundraises for it from people he meets, including developers and lobbyists, and lately he did it with city resources. This is against the rules. The city’s integrity commissioner entreated him over and over to follow these rules–another person telling him he can’t do this, can’t to that—but to no avail. And after years of breaking rules that merely put him on the hook for financial penalties, Ford finally broke the rule that cost him his job: He got up in council and argued that he shouldn’t have to pay just such a penalty. Then he voted against parting with the money. That’s a conflict of interest, and some of the finest lawyers in town weren’t able to convince the judge otherwise.
This was no technicality that went unnoticed by all but vigilant Ford enemies who were waiting to pounce. It was a small-beans issue Ford willingly escalated into a giant hill of beans, which he proceeded to die on. It could have been defused and de-escalated at any number of junctures. But Ford’s unwillingness to follow anything but his own increasingly erratic lights turned it into a court case. As the judge noted, Ford’s defence relied “essentially on a stubborn sense of entitlement (concerning his football foundation) and a dismissive and confrontational attitude” to the rules and those who’d enforce them.
It is an uncomfortable thing, having an elected official removed from office by a judge who–as we’re all about to be reminded–was not elected at all. Even the city’s progressives were queasy at the prospect. Rob Ford’s defeat was dearly hoped for by many Torontonians, but not this way: If a judicial ousting strikes conservatives as a sneaky end-run around voters, it strikes liberals as a hollow victory.
Likewise, it is true that the legal complaint against Ford bore the fingerprints of people who don’t much like him (though I suspect it was launched more out of political principle than for political gain). But just because the complaint was political does not mean the judgment was politicized.
Ultimately, the case encapsulated so much of what Toronto has seen in the Ford years. The political conversation in the city is no longer about left or right, or austerity versus investment, nor about the merits and demerits of embarking on any given project. The great question of the Ford years has become, “Can the mayor accomplish anything at all?” And to that an adjunct, “Has anyone seen the mayor lately?” The other week, things got to the point where he got into a scheduling conflict between his high-school football games and his court dates.
But in the end, the citizens will not be denied their say. An appeals process will now run its course, but a by-election for a new mayor seems likely in the near term. Rob Ford has called a referendum on himself. The question will not be whether Toronto wants tax hikes or service cuts, or bike lanes or road tolls, or subways or streetcars, bless them both. The question will simply be whether this is any way to run a city.
Ivor Tossell is the author of The Gift of Ford.