LORINC: The merits of appointing a caretaker mayor

Though I can’t speak for my colleagues in the press gallery, I suspect there were many secret pangs of disappointment last Friday when Justice Charles Hackland clarified his ruling on the conflict case, clearing the way for Mayor Rob Ford to run in a by-election, if called.

After all, the alternative scenario would have potentially put Doug Ford on the ballot, thereby ensuring a by-election resembling some sort of hallucinatory mash-up of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and John Belushi’s Animal House. Alas…

With that issue resolved, the central question facing council, and the city, is whether to order up a by-election or install an interim mayor for the duration of the 2010-2014 session.

Here’s the procedural minutiae: if Ford wins a stay, as seems likely, we all wait for the appeal, which take place early in 2013. The courts won’t sit on this decision for long. If Hackland’s ruling is upheld, the 60-day clock begins ticking. There will be no further appeal because Ford’s lawyers didn’t raise constitutional issues in the original hearing.

According to Section 208 of the City of Toronto Act (2006), if a seat is vacated, the City “shall fill the vacancy by appointing a person who has consented to accept the office if appointed” or “require a by-election to be held.”

That’s it. There’s no language about how council makes this choice, or whether the decision requires a two-third majority or just 23 votes. They’re on their own.

The brothers Ford are spoiling for a fight, and clearly view the political energy released by Hackland’s decision as a potential plus. The left, in turn, very much wants to run against Ford, whom they view as irreparably damaged goods.

Fair enough. But there’s no reason to push for a by-election. Indeed, I’d argue that a spring by-election would merely make a deeply unhealthy political dynamic worse. The city desperately needs a break from Ford Fest so council can get back to work on the issues that matter of the residents of Toronto.

First, context: if a by-election is in the offing (the actual decision is months away), then the 2013 budget becomes an even more politicized exercise than it otherwise might be. The disposition of important policy items like the quantum of the city’s debt servicing costs, the TTC subsidy, next year’s property tax increase and the status of the land transfer tax become election proxy issues, and thus subject to the torrent of financial misrepresentation that comes from the Ford camp.

Then there’s the transit file. A spring election allows the Fords to campaign against new revenue sources for transit almost exactly at the moment when Metrolinx is preparing to release its long-awaited recommendations for new taxes or user fees needed to underwrite the next phase of The Big Move. The fact that Metrolinx last week said that it was, um, fast-tracking the Downtown Relief Line will do exactly nothing to mollify the Fords. If they don’t get their Scarborough subway, they’ll be against whatever is proposed.

If council, instead, opts to take the temperature down and appoint an interim mayor — my preferred compromise choice, by the way, is John Parker — then these substantial policy debates are less likely to be derailed by incendiary election rhetoric.

In this scenario, the interim mayor has the opportunity to bring some dignity back to the chain of office. Ford is relegated to the status of renegade outsider trying to win back the mayoralty without a pulpit or automatic access to the media. Doug, no longer able to capitalize on his brother’s official public appearances, becomes merely another right-wing crank. We can all begin to feel less embarrassed.

Meanwhile, the backroom men on the right get a chance to think about whether they want to continue to invest in the Fords or find another standard-bearer who is more capable of representing their political perspective without torching the brand.

After all, the Fords, I would argue, are a serious liability for conservatives in this city. For all their conspicuous chumminess with Tim Hudak and Stephen Harper, the brothers never represented a mainstream centre-right view, as power brokers like Paul Godfrey surely know. Ford won an angry election held at a time of extreme economic anxiety against a deeply flawed opponent fronting a lousy campaign. He also lost a majority of the council seat races. Even setting aside the scandals, his victory — as we now know — has hardly turned out to be a thunderous mandate to deliver the vision of government on which he campaigned.

What about the challengers? Because no one expected to be suiting up this early, the advantage belongs to the prospective candidate with the most machinery, and that’s Olivia Chow. I’m not saying she wouldn’t be a good mayor. But from my seat, it makes sense for voters and backers to have more time to kick the tires of all the mayoral hopefuls, i.e., Karen Stintz, Shelley Carroll and Adam Vaughan.

I’m not so naïve as to believe that an interim mayor will tamp down the politicking and the rhetoric. Someone will give the Fords a radio show, and the media will continue to seek out them out to supply zingers and put-downs.

Still, if the ruling stands, council should move to treat this mayor the way a parent should deal with a belligerent, misbehaving child. Give them a time-out, have a glass of wine, and don’t be provoked into a showdown you’ll regret. That’s the adult approach, and god knows the city could use a big dose of maturity right now.

photo by Sam Bietenholz

17 comments

  1. John Parker? The man who ran for city council for the single purpose of getting a hockey rink built for Leaside? A man who can’t carry 1/3 of the votes in his own ward? Parker’s constituency base and his goals in comparison to the people he is intended to represent are the prototype for what’s wrong with Toronto elections and you want him to be the mayor?

    Why?

    Now if your “preferred choice” just means your guess for where council might land on a compromise to avoid a byelection, that I could understand, but if you actually want to see such a compromised candidate running our city, then I’m stunned.

  2. There’s nothing to stop Council from putting Ford back in as Mayor. I’m not saying it’s a good idea, but if his supporters believe in his mandate they could be pushing for him to be allowed to finish his term.

  3. I agree with John’s commentary, but, fear the election bulls are already out of the gate and will be difficult to corral, with each side convinced they have the candidate who can win, not reflecting that a short 45-day by-election doesn’t allow a candidate with low name recognition to build momentum as did David Miller & John Tory in 2003’s10+ month Mayoral contest where they started from the bottom of the 5-candidate pack.
    The result will almost surely be a byelection win for Mayor

  4. question: whether it goes to a by-election, or a caretaker mayor is chosen, what happens to that councillor’s ward? will the winner be mayor and still councillor, or would there have to be a second by-election in the ward to replace said councillor?

  5. emdash — my question as well.  The Star has noted that unsuccessful councillors would be able to return to their seats, but that leads to the question of what happens if one of those councillors is successful?

  6. Yesterday`s Star article seems to imply that the CoI legislation is more vulnerable than previously thought meaning Ford has a better chance on Appeal.  Having two elections in consecutive years is going to create chaos and seriously undermine Council`s ability to do anything because as John suggests every issue and vote will become election fodder. It may just be the best thing that Ford wins the appeal with hopefully a more humble attitude as all the other options will lead to chaos, divisiveness and gridlock.    

  7. Prob. would be appointment of councillor for any successful run by a councillor, but still seems most likely to run against Rob Ford would be Olivia Chow because she is one of the only that could raise $ and have cross city name recognition in short election cycle this would be.

  8. A good question, but in this context, it’s a mechanical detail. John’s argument for letting the adults run things is convincing. Compromised though Parker might be, can anyone seriously argue that he wouldn’t be an upgrade?

  9. Frankly, the biggest problem with a by-election is that Ford has a big chance to win. He has gotten a solid and angry voter base. If he runs head to head  against Chow or even Stintz, I think he is likely to lose. But any split in left and centre votes can easily put him ahead. 

  10. To quote a friend

    “I’m OK with (appointing an interm mayor who is) a fiscal conservative who doesn’t call the cops, skip work, fall down and act like a jackass for 2 years.”

    This is exactly how I also feel. Put in a well spoken caretaker who will work with people to get things done, and ride this pony out until 2014. I don’t personally care if they are left or right leaning at this point. I just want Toronto to get a chance to breathe a bit before having to make some big decision again. 

  11. Parker? Really? Have we already forgotten:

    2011.PW5.1: 5 – Motion to Amend Item (Additional) moved by Councillor John Parker (Carried)

    That City Council rescind its decision related to the bicycle lanes on Jarvis Street.

  12. The likeliest answer to the question about a councillor becoming mayor is an appointment for the ward rather than another election. It’s what’s been done when councillors have moved to higher office (MPP, MP). With something like this, maybe they’d say one good byelection deserves another, but I’d lean towards someone being appointed to fulfill the term. Most likely the outgoing councillor picks and everyone agrees, although in these highly charged times, maybe not.

  13. I’m starting to feel like a troll because I’ve posted this question on a few sites now, but why is no one really talking about the option of re-appointing Ford? Is it just too boring for the media to speculate on? Is it not aiding any prospective candidate’s agenda? Does it somehow not work for Ford or his supporters? I’m at a bit of a loss why the option gets no serious scrutiny.

  14. Simon, the last paragraph from John Michael McGrath’s analysis of the case may answer your question (the answer is yes):

    “I think the real-world effect of Hackland’s decision appeals to what I imagine judicial culture is in cases like this: Ford isn’t being “punished” in any meaningful sense, rather the judge is forcing Toronto’s political system to judge and punish him. Toronto City Council will either vote to appoint a replacement or they could, hypothetically, appoint Ford back to the Mayor’s office to serve until 2014. Or they can choose to go to a special election, in which case it will be the people of Toronto who choose what Ford’s punishment should be, and whether his deeds were severe enough to warrant his firing.”

    See the full analysis here: http://www.johnmcgrath.ca/?p=25

  15. I tend to agree with John that the heat has to be turned down. The Fords are like wrecking balls and offering them a chance to campaign will fill the air with so much disinformation aimed at short-term advantage that it will make what’s happening these days on council seem tame.

    The argument against a by-election can also be based on the obvious hypocrisy of Ford demanding an election that will cost his always-respected “taxpayers” $7 million.

  16. I think the large C Progressive Conservatives do not want Rob Ford, or Doug Ford, as their poster boy. If they want a conservative, they better go with someone else. Showing that you back Ford could come back to hurt them in a couple of years.

  17. I’ve liked this option better than a By-Election too for a number of reasons $$$ & no Ford! Though I’d though of Stintz because she wont run against Ford (2014 a given for him unless barred) so interims her only shot but Parkers a quiet option thats been a steady hand as Assistant Speaker! Better than the Speaker herself! On reflection a better choice.
    The right consider Stintz a backstaber because of LRTs & why she’d take more flack I’ve no idea.

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