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