Late last week, word went ricocheting around progressive circles that Mayor Rob Ford’s office had leaned heavily on city clerk Ulli Watkiss not to appeal a court ruling ordering a by-election in Ward 9 because of irregularities with the voters list.
The decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by Gus Cusimano, who lost last fall to incumbent Maria Augimeri by just 89 votes. Cusimano, who comes decked out in a blue-and-white Ford Nation uniform, characterized the judge’s verdict as a victory for democracy or fairness or somesuch. City lawyers had said they might appeal, but Watkiss, who is ultimately responsible for elections, decided against further legal interventions.
Hard on the heels of the speculation about Watkiss’ alleged capitulation were dark mutterings from the left about the possibility of calling for her resignation. City officials must be impartial and impervious to political squeeze plays; this mandarin, goes the logic, appears to have caved to the brothers Ford. Ergo, off with her head.
Is that the sour scent of desperation I smell?
The progressive left should know better than to pick on civil servants, especially civil servants who must operate in exceptionally difficult conditions, as is currently the case. The city’s senior officials are not the problem.
Let’s say that again: the city’s senior officials are not the problem. So don’t make them into scapegoats.
Ah, scapegoats — regrettably, a miserable but oft-sited creature around City Hall these days. The brothers Ford clearly like to keep them as pets because it serves their political purposes. The transit workers’ union. CUPE. The Toronto Community Housing board. Derek Ballantyne, his head handed to him after years of exemplary service. The list is growing, and that club will only get larger in the months to come.
Why, then, would the left even consider crawling into this particular cave? And yet, the temptation is clearly there.
During the TCHC firing, Adam Vaughan vented intemperately at auditor general Jeff Griffiths about his report on expenses and procurements at the embattled housing agency. Indeed, during that manufactured not-a-scandal, one labour leader called me up and asked, ever so innocently, whether I’d heard if it was true that Griffiths was a “drinking buddy” of the mayor’s. C’mon.
The whisper campaign directed at Watkiss — who’s capably served as the city clerk for a decade and through three mayors — is just as dodgy; the progressive left should know better. Regardless of who’s in office, civil servants must walk a tightrope between catering to the political goals of the party in power and their own duty to provide dispassionate, professional advice.
So here’s a thought: don’t shoot the messenger and keep your eyes on the prize instead. The mayor, in his lumbering way, has conveniently transformed the Ward 9 by-election into a cause célèbre on the left. I’m guessing Augimeri will have more help working the streets of York Centre than she’s ever had before.
Indeed, the minutely scrutinized run-off between Augimeri and Cusimano will inevitably become a referendum about Ford’s record to date. It will be about many things – budget cuts, gravy, bully-boy tactics, campaign finances, city services, privatization and transit fantasies — but Uli Watkiss shouldn’t be one of them.