Throwing a net over Mayor Rob Ford

The mayor might soon have nothing left but his title, proving city council has more power than anyone thought

The attack on Rob Ford is over-the-top

Mark Blinch/Reuters

Back in 2006, a powerful mayor sounded like a good thing. Canadian cities had become population magnets, yet lacked the political clout necessary to determine their own destinies. Nowhere was this more true than in Toronto.

The mayor of the day, David Miller, was a passionate advocate for cities. He treated his position as something akin to that of a provincial premier, and that’s not a knock: Miller knew that, for cities to be masters of their own houses, their leaders required the influence to drive an agenda. Many councillors agreed. Four years before Rob Ford was elected, they handed to the mayor appointment powers over the chairs of standing committees that do much of the work of governing the city. Those chairs also sit on the executive committee, which is Toronto’s equivalent of a cabinet.

On Friday, with Rob Ford’s crack-booze-profanity-harassment scandal in full flight, council voted overwhelmingly to take those powers back. It was one of the few measures at their disposal to neutralize the mayor, whose behaviour had shattered his colleagues’ confidence in his capacity to lead.

They also took away Ford’s authority to wield special powers during a emergencies (remember Snow Day 1999?), placing them instead with the deputy mayor. These powers will return to the mayor’s office after the next election.

In a moment of candour on Friday, Ford admitted in the chamber that he understood councillors’ desire to clip his wings. “If I had a mayor acting the way I’ve conducted myself, I’d have done exactly the same thing,” he said. Still, he’s going to fight the move in court, he said, arguing it’s a dangerous precedent: “If someone else steps out of line like I have, this is going to affect councillors and the mayor for years to come.”

Perhaps. But if another mayor steps out of line like he has, Toronto might have to crawl into Lake Ontario and die.

The question now is whether he’ll get anywhere in court. Ford’s case will be based on an opinion provided by George Rust-D’Eye, a former city solicitor and a kind of dean of municipal law in Ontario. In a memo, Rust-D’Eye argued that council is obliged to act based on facts “relevant to the merits of the question before it” and “not make such decisions on the basis of speculation, or extraneous or irrelevant allegations.” Moreover, he wrote:

..there is no evidence before the council suggesting that the mayor has failed to exercise, or abused, his powers, or been unwilling or unable to fulfill them, or forming any other grounds having a relationship to those which led this and previous councils to establish existing standards and procedures.

As such, says Rust-D’Eye, Friday’s motion could be viewed as punishment for Ford’s “alleged personal misconduct,” or else a desperate bid by council to look like it’s doing something—anything—about the international public-relations inferno the city has fallen into.

It could. Or it could be that council—itself a body of duly elected representatives—doesn’t have to explain this action to any judge. While working on a story on this motion last week, I spoke with John Mascarin, a municipal law expert with the Toronto firm Aird & Berlis. Council, he assured me, is perfectly within its right to withdraw the powers that it extended to the mayor’s office.

More complicated, Mascarin added, would be any attempt to claw back the budget granted the mayor to fund his activities: “He is, in name, still the mayor. There may be some statutory duties for which he’ll need funding.”

Maybe Mascarin had been reading Rob Ford’s mail. On Monday, council is scheduled to debate a motion that will see most of the operating budget of the Office of the Mayor reallocated; his staff members would be given the option of jumping ship for jobs under Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly. “The staff salary and office budget under the control of the Mayor [would] be the same as that of a member of Council,” reads the motion.

If the vote passes, Ford would no longer be chair of the executive committee. He would enjoy no more privilege on standing committees than any other city councillor. Really, he’d have nothing left of his former position but the nameplate on the door.

That fate, you can be assured, would get him before a judge sooner rather than later. But it makes you think: maybe Toronto city council isn’t quite as helpless as we thought.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.