I’m sorry to hear about the mayor’s health problems, and I hope he’s making a swift recovery.
I thought you might like to know what’s been circulating in the City Hall press gallery since last Monday, when the mayor launched the City’s bid to outsource garbage collection. As you will surely recall, the noon-hour press conference was a highly stage-managed affair. Reporters weren’t allowed access to the member’s lounge to set up until moments before, and the city’s communications officials distributed the accompanying press materials at the last possible moment.
Not only did your office not bother supplying any kind of backgrounder to explain the rationale behind the move. We had virtually no time to absorb the sparse information that was provided before the mayor arrived.
As has been widely noted elsewhere, he had nothing of substance to say before he left. When Councillor Denzil-Minnan-Wong took over to make a somewhat more detailed statement, you sought to shut down the Q&A session after just three queries. Why Minnan-Wong, a seasoned scrummer, would be subject to the same dubious media relations approach as the mayor is anything but obvious.
In the days following, and against the backdrop of the much-hyped visit from Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, many of us in the City Hall press corps found ourselves hashing over this increasingly surreal situation.
We are told by official sources that Toronto’s mayor is, indeed, Rob Ford. But he is nowhere to be seen, and he says nothing. He will not publicly defend, much less champion, the policy positions that swept him into office, and this despite years of service as an extraordinarily outspoken city councilor who rarely shied away from a microphone or camera. We are forced to run to brother Doug to get a taste of the mayor’s positions. But he’s an unsatisfying and, frankly, unqualified surrogate.
Why is it necessary for a political leader to face the press?
This is not a self-indulgent or mischievous question, yet it needs to be posed. Yes, we will vigorously challenge your boss, as we did with his predecessors. That is our job. But we do so to better inform the city’s residents.
When Ford refuses to speak to the media, he is obviously refusing to speak to the voters, both those who supported him and those who didn’t. I haven’t got a clue whom among my Spacing or Globe and Mail readers backed Ford and who voted for George Smitherman or Joe Pantalone. But I can assure you they all pay property taxes and TTC fares and user fees, and they want to know what he plans to do with their money.
My colleague Rob Granatstein, at The Sun, noted yesterday that “Ford’s job isn’t to be a cheerleader or effervescent.” True enough. But he concluded that the mayoral mute button strategy seemed to be “working.” “It may not be traditional,” Granatstein wrote, “but in this case it’s probably smart.”
I respectfully disagree. The strong-silent-type approach may seem like a tactical advantage in the short-term. But the city’s residents, including Ford supporters, will eventually begin to wonder why the mayor will not or can not take advantage of his uniquely visible position to sell his policies to voters.
His answers needn’t be slick or witty. But his positions do need to be articulated, and not just by his minions, because the electoral buck does stop with him. If your boss succeeds with his program, he’ll want to take credit come 2014. But by the same logic, if something goes wrong on his watch, he’ll be held accountable. Kitchen…heat, etc.
Based on my read of the press gallery’s obstreperous mood after last week’s outsourcing announcement, Ford is rapidly running out of get-out-of-jail free cards.
By the way, a major test of your guy’s communications strategy is hurtling down the track like a, well, subway train. If and when you finalize the new transit plan, the mayor will have no choice but to explain himself.
Your office insisted on negotiating directly with Metrolinx while TTC chair Karen Stintz was told to watch from the sidelines. This move, the very capstone of his mayoralty campaign, will consume billions of dollars in taxpayer money and dramatically alter the way the city grows and moves in the coming decades.
Adrienne, there will be more than three questions.
photo by Shaun Merritt