TORONTO—Toronto mayor Rob Ford, one of the most polarizing politicians in this city’s recent history, found himself on the receiving end of yet another ethics allegation this week after Clayton Ruby, a prominent local litigator, initiated a court proceeding accusing him of breaching municipal conflict of interest laws.
If the charges stick, Ford could, theoretically, be removed from office and even banned from seeking re-election. But whether a judge chooses to oust the mayor of Canada’s largest city, with 2.6 million inhabitants, is another question.
The charge is the latest twist in a story that has dogged Ford for almost two years. A football enthusiast, he runs a family foundation that helps buy equipment for disadvantaged youth. But in 2010, City of Toronto integrity commissioner Janet Leiper went public with a report saying that Ford, then a city councilor, had solicited over $3,000 in donations to the foundation from several municipal lobbyists. Council at the time ordered him to repay the funds and apologize.
In the interim, however, he was elected mayor. Since taking office, as the integrity commissioner reported last month, Ford has repeatedly spurned her requests to abide by that previous decision and reimburse the funds. At the raucous council meeting in early February, council debated Leiper’s latest report on the episode and opted to set aside the earlier financial sanctions against Ford.
The hitch: prior to the debate, he failed to declare a conflict of interest when the item came up, made a speech and cast a vote. After The Globe and Mail reported the transgression, a Toronto resident initiated the latest court action.
A staunch fiscal conservative who swept into office pledging to cut councilor perks, slash municipal spending and build a privately financed subway, Ford has become something of a magnet for such legal challenges. He’s already faced a handful of probes by the integrity commissioner, and his lawyers are currently before the courts trying to fend off a forensic investigation into alleged violations of Ontario’s municipal campaign finance laws.
While Ford still has many loyal supporters, he’s not faring much better in the court of public opinion. A recent Toronto Star/Angus Reid poll found that 65 percent of respondents disapproved or strongly disapproved of the mayor’s performance, while 53 percent said their views of him had deteriorated in the previous three months.
In many American jurisdictions, such deteriorating political conditions would all but shout ‘recall.’ Going back a century, numerous mayors and town councilors have been turfed from office, including Portsmouth, Virginia’s veteran mayor James Holley, who was actually recalled twice, the second (and final) time in 2010. Still, there have been far fewer attempts to oust big city mayors – e.g., San Francisco’s Dianne Feinstein, in 1983, over a proposed handgun ban. She won the run-off election.
Outside British Columbia, however, Canada has no formal recall laws at any level of government, which means citizens who are unhappy with their political leaders either have to try to litigate them out of office (an exceedingly rare occurrence) or wait for the next election to deliver their verdict. In Toronto’s case, residents won’t have an opportunity to cast ballots again until October, 2014.