Handling Conflicts of Interest, Canadian Style
by Alan Bedenko
Although Ontario is right there in our own backyard, and we think about it when it comes to sports or culture or shopping, most of us remain blissfully ignorant of the province’s politics. But here’s a story that ought to pique our curiosity: Last week, Ontario Superior Court Judge Charles Hackland ruled that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford be removed from office for violation of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
Ford wasn’t immediately dismissed; the removal is stayed for 14 days. Ford plans to appeal the ruling.
For the uninitiated, Ford is a Tory from Etobicoke, a western suburb that is part of the City of Toronto. His family owns a label company there, and he entered politics as a Toronto city councilman in 2000. He was elected mayor in 2010 as Torontonians sought to reduce fraud and waste in city government. He positioned himself as a populist conservative, attacking perks in members’ budgets and calling for removal of long-termers in the council. He became mayor on a platform of “putting people and families first, focusing on the fundamentals, reducing waste, and eliminating unnecessary taxes.”
Think of him as a portlier, blue-collar Chris Collins. Like Collins, Ford has a reputation for being arrogant, ignorant, and disrespectful.
Ford’s removal from office had nothing to do with his fiscal conservatism, and everything to do with arrogance and ignorance. In early 2010, then-Councillor Ford sent letters on official City of Toronto letterhead identifying him as “Etobicoke North Councillor,” soliciting donations for his private “Rob Ford Football Foundation.” He collected just over $3,000 from donors, including several city lobbyists, clients of city lobbyists, and a company that did business with Toronto. His colleagues in the council sanctioned him and ordered him to pay the money back, and a taxpayer lawsuit was filed.
“In his letter of response to the complaint, Councillor Ford wrote, ‘I do not understand why it would be inappropriate to solicit funds for an arm’s-length charitable cause using my regular employment letterhead,’” Leiper quoted him as saying.
Ford had said there was “no basis in policy or law” to stop him from fundraising this way. However, Leiper said she had advised him in December 2009 and in February 2010 that he shouldn’t fundraise in this way.
After the decision last week, the plaintiff’s counsel indicated that it didn’t have to be this way:
“It is tragic that the elected mayor of a great city should bring himself to this,” Ruby said. “Rob Ford did this to Rob Ford. It could have so easily been avoided. It could have been avoided if Rob Ford had used a bit of common sense and he had played by the rules.”
As Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee explains:
What they missed was a dangerous strain of arrogance. This was the mayor who called senior civil servants to his office to demand paving and other repairs outside his family business in Etobicoke. This is the mayor who used publicly paid workers in his office to help coach his high-school football team. This is the mayor who called the head of the Toronto Transit Commission to complain about a late bus that had been pulled out of service to pick up his football players. And this is the mayor who wanted the city’s accountability officers reformed out of existence when some of them questioned his conduct and policies.
Here was a guy who ran as a man of the people but acted as if he were above the limits that apply to ordinary mortals. For Rob Ford, the rules were always for somebody else. Nowhere was that clearer than in the case that led to Monday’s damning court judgment. While he was still a lowly member of city council, a position he held for a full decade, the city’s Integrity Commissioner found that he had used his status as councillor to solicit funds for his private football charity. Among the donors he approached were lobbyists and a company that does business with the city. The commissioner found that seven lobbyists or clients of lobbyists who had donated to the football charity had either lobbied Mr. Ford or registered an intent to lobby him.
The danger is obvious: if a lobbyist does a favour for a councillor—even if it means donating to a good cause—he might expect something in return. Mr. Ford, who rails about corruption at city hall, should have seen that.
Instead, he brushed off the complaint.
In Toronto, they remove their elected officials for perceived conflict of interest over $3,000 to a personal football charity. Anyone get the sense that, under those rules, practically every politician in Western New York would be removed? It comes as no surprise that Canada is the 10th least corrupt nation in the world, while the United States can manage only 18th placeblog comments powered by Disqus
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