LORINC: No time for scapegoats

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.


  1. Actually I was venting about the TCHC audit. I was concerned about the Police audit and they wat in which it was leaked to the media. What got me vexed was that the AG was not only speaking to the media about a report which wasnt yet public. He accused the Chief of leaking the document. That was a guess on the AG’s part. The AG answers to council and when there are leaks in the audit process he must be held accountable.

    As for the clerk. I’ll let her record running a good election speak for itself.


  2. Jon, you’re absolutely right about this scapegoating issue. As much as I don’t agree with Rob Ford, and my best wishes (and possibly my feet and voice, if I can find time to help her) go to Maria Augimeri, I don’t see why we’re making any big deal out of what Watkiss did. 
    As far as I can tell, there were discrepancies with the way that the election was run in this riding. If those discrepancies could have influenced the outcome of the election, well then, we need to check again. I don’t like the possible outcome, but that’s not my call. It’s the decision of the people of that riding. You can bet that it’ll be a tough fight, and I hope she wins again, but it’s the RIGHT THING TO DO. 
    (Unless I’ve missed a scandal somewhere, and this by-election has not been properly called)

  3. Should city staff really have to “[cater] to the political goals of the party in power?” I get that it happens, but shouldn’t we regard this as a bad thing?

  4. Whether or not one supports Augimeri, the point is that a judge found several voting irregularities with the Ward 9 race. The City has no business trying to appeal that decision considering how close the final tally was. To do so, would be to erode any faith (little as it may be) there is in the process. It is one thing for people to feel bitter about an election outcome (eg. the elections of Ford and Harper). It is another thing for people to think that an outcome was achieved under dodgy circumstances. Ford (and his mouthy brother) is an too often an idiot. But I find it sometimes support what is said and done by the self-appointed “progressive left”. Plenty of people like to call themselves “progressive”. It is afterall a “brand” that attracts considerable support. But just because someone labels themselves a progressive doesn’t mean they are doing or saying what is “progressive” or worth defending. As for the author’s claim about Ballantyne’s “years of exemplary service”, one might say that as with the label “progressive”, just saying so doesn’t make it so. What was uncovered by the auditor at TCHC was not good no matter how people might want to spin it. And more than a few people in the development industry think that the City gave away WAY WAY too much in the Regent Park redevelopment.

  5. John, I agree that City staff have a tough time as it is and we should resist the urge to scapegoat folks who are, in the main, hard-working professionals doing their best. Yet in this case the optics certainly aren’t good. The City’s line after the initial court decision was that an appeal would be practically automatic; that line changed with some speed after the Mayor–who stands to gain from a byelection–expressed his wishes. I don’t want to impugn Ms. Watkiss’ motives in any way, but don’t think a sober second review, perhaps by Elections Ontario as Adam Vaughan suggested, would be so silly given that there is if nothing else an appearance that the Mayor leaned on this in an improper manner.

  6. It’s getting tired, in some lame attempt at even-handedness, to have John pull up this bullshit faux-equivalence.

    What does that even mean – “dark mutterings”…”word…went around”…”speculation”? Can you provide a single citation to a major news source for this? If not, then it is all just inside baseball gossip that is unworthy of media attention (especially since it hasn’t actually *received* media attention). So kindly do not tar “progressives” with this brush – and especially do not in any way equate this with what the right has been doing.

    The right has been very vocal and very persistent in disparaging public servants and public service generally. One can find any number of such stories every week in the media.

    To compare the virtual daily drumbeat we get in the media from the right with some background noise that hasn’t received any media traction at all is, well, not really a comparison, is it? I call bullshit.

  7. Adam Vaughan has a history for attacking City Staff inappropriately. See recent Peter Kuitenbrouwer NP May 5th article re: Bike Lanes:

    “The incompetence of city staff does not reflect my office’s efforts to improve bike lanes,” Mr. Vaughan said. “How many times have we called up staff and asked them to paint the bike lines back on? I can’t help it if Daniel Egan [Toronto’s manager of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure] can’t get his crap together. The city cycling department is useless, but to say that I haven’t done anything for cyclists is wrong.”

    I don’t know or care what the cycling dept does or does not do- for a sitting Councillor to take such a broad brush swipe like that in the media is simply wrong.

  8. Perhaps Adam Vaughan would walk us through the process of using staff to promote interests that staff do not. He did this by ignoring staff’s opinion that the owners of Queen St. properties destroyed by fire did not need tax breaks. They were advantaged. Adam ignored them and had staff prepare a bylaw so we now collect only a fraction of the property tax and pay a portion of education tax.

  9. Adam Vaughan says way more than his prayers and he’s not as green as he is cabbage-looking. We must rid Council of hypocrisy, inconsistency and shallowness if we are to avoid the mistakes that have befallen TO since Amalgamation.

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