City council has finally slammed the door shut on a downtown casino.
As expected, at a special meeting on Tuesday councillors voted to reject a controversial bid to build a new gaming resort in Toronto. The vote was 40-4, with the scandal-plagued mayor and three other council members dissenting.
Council also rejected a more modest proposal to expand gaming operations at Woodbine Racetrack, by a count of 24-20.
After the meeting, a beaming Councillor Mike Layton credited residents and grassroots group No Casino Toronto with orchestrating the plans' defeat. He said there had been a "huge response" from citizens who didn't want a new gaming complex in town.
"The fact is they didn't want a casino in Toronto, and that came across loud and clear," said Layton. "I think that's why you see that 40-4 vote at the end of the day, with council sending a strong 'no' to the province. We don't want casino expansion in the city of Toronto."
Peggy Calvert, one of three women who organized the No Casino Toronto campaign, said she was "euphoric" after council's decision.
"We worked for a long, long time, with fingers crossed," Calvert said. "We didn't win, Toronto won."
Although casino opponents were overjoyed, the meeting was shrouded in lingering drug accusations against Mayor Rob Ford. Three journalists have reported seeing a cell phone video of Ford allegedly smoking crack cocaine in the company of men claiming to be drug dealers. The allegations surfaced last Thursday on American website Gawker and were quickly backed up by the Toronto Star.
In a very brief statement Friday, Ford dismissed the video story as "ridiculous," but has said nothing on the topic since. He cancelled his weekly radio show on Sunday.
On Tuesday morning the mayor again refused to talk to reporters. At first he appeared to attempt to evade them altogether by taking an elevator directly from the underground parking lot to the council chamber, but the doors opened outside his office where media had gathered instead. Journalists quickly crowded the elevator, shouting questions about the drug allegations, but Ford wouldn't respond. He stood expressionless inside and stared at the elevator wall until two of his staff members managed to close the doors.
A rumoured press conference at 11 a.m. never materialized.
Councillor Paula Fletcher says that with the casino vote out of the way, it's time Ford cleared the air on the scandal that has rocked his administration and captured headlines around the world.
"Now that we're finished this big debate, he should tell us what's happened. He should come clean on this, and we can wait and hear what's going to happen from that," Fletcher said.
"If the allegations are true I think many people will be bitterly disappointed, because of course he's been outspoken against guns and gangs, and if these allegations are true, it appears he has been hanging out with the guns and gangs crowd. And that's a very serious matter."
Shortly after the council meeting ended, Ford left his office by the back door at around 2:10 p.m. without speaking to media.
Council's rejection of a new casino puts an end to one of the most contentious and long-running debates at City Hall this term.
It began last March when the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation announced plans for a new development in the GTA. Despite the initial backing of the mayor and intense lobbying from casino companies, support on council faded as the decisive vote approached.
The idea was already on life support last week, with most councillors leaning against approval, when Ford called a surprise press conference on Thursday to declare the casino push "dead."
Ford blamed the plan's demise on the premier, who he said refused to give Toronto a "fair share" of revenue from the proposed development. The mayor was initially a big supporter of a downtown casino/convention centre complex, claiming it would garner the city $100 million in annual hosting fees.
But a revised formula released by the OLG last week would have seen the city take in only $39-40 million for a downtown gambling palace. The same formula would have seen an expanded Woodbine generate $22 million for the city each year, up from the $15 million Toronto already gets from the track's slot machines.
Ford again pointed the finger at the provincial government on Tuesday in a speech to council.
"Hosting a casino in Toronto that does little to address Toronto's financial needs and simply makes the provincial government richer is not in the best interest of Toronto," Ford said. "The province wants money for nothing."
Although he had already conceded defeat on the casino file, Ford was one of only four council members who voted against the motion, moved by Layton, that ultimately killed the downtown proposal Tuesday. It's not clear why, but shortly before the vote the mayor tabled a motion of his own to reject a downtown casino but keep the Woodbine option open. It was voted down, 13-31.
Last week, Ford cancelled the special meeting to debate the casino, hoping to defer the issue until June's regular session. But 24 councillors, eager to get the long-simmering debate over with, overruled him and signed a petition to hold the meeting on Tuesday as planned.