Monday, February 26, 2024

Rob Ford Saga Highlights Issues With Municipal Governance

By Stephen Vance, Editor

In recent weeks, the circus that has been Toronto’s city council has provided a cornucopia of punchlines for late night comedians, startling headlines on the front pages of Toronto’s major daily newspapers, and water cooler chatter for people not only in Toronto, but around the world.

 

What Mayor Ford does in his off-time is in theory nobody’s business. I would be the last person to pass judgement about the extracurricular activities of anyone, however a strong argument can be made that elected representatives, particularly municipal mayors are always on call, and therefore should at all times be able to swing into action should a crisis occur. Obviously if a municipal mayor is in a “drunken stupor” or worse yet, if a municipal mayor is in the midst of a crack induced high, that mayor is not ready to manage an emergency or crisis in their municipality.

As horrifying – or entertaining depending on your perspective – as the Ford ordeal has been, if we set aside the personalities involved, some lessons can be learned about improvements that could be made to municipal governments throughout Ontario.

The first glaring issue is that voters in Ontario have no recourse should they elect a council or a mayor who is a complete dud.

Toronto’s council used the only mechanisms available to them in order to deal with their drunken bully of a mayor, and yet even those mechanisms, of which Toronto has more of than most other municipalities, would not allow for a complete removal of Mayor Ford, instead, the tools available to them allowed only for a neutering of the mayor, essentially turning him into little more than a figurehead. A figurehead with a bobble-head action figure – seems fitting enough.

What Toronto’s council, and indeed all of Ontario’s municipal councils truly need is a recall mechanism, though any move in that direction should be made with extreme caution – the criteria required to trigger recall action needs to be very tough to meet, and should require a very large percentage of voters – 75 percent perhaps – to be in agreement with the recall of a municipal politician.

What makes things worse than having no recall mechanism, is that in Ontario municipal councils are now elected for a four year term. Four years is an awfully long time for residents of any municipality to endure a terrible council.

Former Meaford Mayor Gerald Shortt, and former Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Murdoch have been saying publicly for years that a four year municipal council term is too long, and should be scaled back to three years. I tend to agree with them.

A three year term would benefit not only voters and ratepayers in the event that they have to endure a less than effective, or downright terrible council, but it would benefit councillors and potential candidates as well.

Four years is a long time to commit to a job that at best will allow a councillor to make some positive change, but at worst can be a nightmare of angry late-night phone calls, nasty email messages, and an enormous amount of stress.

Reducing municipal council terms to three years also allows for a council under siege by angry residents to have their record validated or rejected by voters. If re-elected, a councillor or mayor can feel justified in feeling that they have been on the right course, while a failed bid at re-election would indicate that more than a few squeaky wheels were unhappy with the record of incumbents.

True, voters get that chance every four years at present, but four years is a very long time, especially if things aren’t going very well.

If we had recall abilities, would Meaford’s current council, or any of its individual members meet a criteria for removal from office? No. Whether you like what this council has done or not, I would argue that nothing they have done, or not done, would justify a recall.

A three year term may have helped in this current term of council though, as a large and significant portion of our municipality are furious about how they feel council has treated them, and the frustrations that have been bubbling under the surface for the first two years of this council term exploded in the last year making councillor’s lives miserable, and an angry segment of the population who aside from screaming from the rooftops at every opportunity can do nothing other than wait another year for the municipal election.

Rob Ford and his increasingly bizarre scandals are an extreme case to be sure, but it can happen, and Ontario’s municipal councils along with residents and ratepayers deserve a few more tools in the toolbox in order to deal with an out of control mayor or council.

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