Security guard Mike Toolaram helps Rob Ford into his car in the City Hall parking lot on Easter Monday.
Toronto ombudsman Fiona Crean confirmed last week that she's investigating City Hall security for their conduct under the Ford administration. It's about time.
The behaviour of the city's security corps has been a concern to members of the media for months. Most journalists who have tried to cover Rob Ford have had at least one unpleasant run-in with the guards who accompany the mayor whenever he moves at City Hall.
Mine came a few months ago, during one of the many media stakeouts in front of the mayor's office that followed his admission to smoking crack cocaine. On that day, November 15, a Ford supporter showed up. He was clearly agitated, and began aggressively shoving his camera in reporters' faces and calling them "bed bugs." Most journalists ignored him and after a while he backed off.
Then Doug Ford came out of the mayor's office, escorted by a security guard. As the media crowded around him, I felt a body crash heavily into me, and before I knew it I was on the floor, tangled in camera wires and security ropes.
I looked up and saw Bed Bugs Man standing nearby. He had shoved a cameraman for the Tokyo Broadcasting System into me, sending myself and a CBC reporter tumbling like dominoes.
I immediately got to my feet, told the security guard what had happened, and asked him to do something about it. He was was uninterested. He simply got into the elevator with Councillor Ford, who handed the Bed Bugs Man a Ford T-shirt as the doors closed.
I wasn't hurt, but the incident seemed like proof that the city's corporate security was more interested in shielding the Fords from the press than carrying out their mandate to ensure the safety of everyone at City Hall. I have no doubt the guard's reaction would have been different if the Bed Bugs Man had pushed one of the Fords instead of a trio journalists.
"Security has been pressed into service as a sort of bodyguard for the mayor, sometimes in inappropriate ways," says Dave Nickle, a reporter for Metroland Media Toronto and president of the City Hall press gallery. "There have been a number of instances where it seems as though security's been asked and been willing to run interference for the mayor in avoiding journalists' questions."
Councillor Pam McConnell, who has been involved in the ombudsman's investigation, says no previous mayor has needed this amount of protection from the media or anyone else, and says the high security presences that follows him around City Hall is "anti-democratic" and "anti-Toronto."
"If he needs to have goons around him, then he should hire them" instead of using taxpayer-funded security, she says.
In an email to NOW, city spokesperson Wynna Brown explains that guards aren't expected to take orders from the mayor or any other politicians. But when "developing protection strategies," security "consults with all appropriate partners," which could include the mayor's office, she says.
Still, the mayor should only ever be one of the guards' priorities. "It is the role of City Hall security to reduce risks and help ensure a safe environment for all," she writes.
Ford's office did not respond to questions about what, if any, instructions it has given to security.
Crean won't say much about her investigation, except to reveal that her office took up the issue in March after receiving "many complaints" from media, the public, and elected officials.
She won't disclose which incidents her office is reviewing, but here are a few that could make it onto her list:
Whenever the mayor's departure or arrival is imminent, security insist that reporters stand behind the blue velvet ropes (or lately, more serious-looking black cordons) outside his office. The barriers allow Ford to pass quickly between the elevator and his office while avoiding questions but Nickle says they may also serve a legitimate crowd control purpose, given the large number of people who congregate on City Hall's second floor these days.
Less defensible are the barriers that security use to block off public hallways when Ford has to go to a committee meeting. "It seems as though that is calculated to prevent questions from being answered. They're always placed too far away from microphones to reach," Nickle says.
The council melee
On November 18, security guards stood by as the mayor and his brother provoked an ugly shouting match in the council chamber that threatened to boil over into outright violence. It began when Rob appeared to direct his driver Jerry Agyemang, himself a former city security guard, to film members of the public gallery.
During the ensuing chaos the mayor rushed across the council floor and knocked over Councillor McConnell. "Security were nowhere protecting me," she says. "All of this would not be tolerated if Rob Ford was sitting in the gallery. And that surely is the measure."
With security guard Mike Toolaram serving as lead blocker, the mayor stormed through a crowd of reporters packed into his crowded office for a press conference on November 14. Once the mayor got outside, Toolaram was filmed shoving a CityTV cameraman.
In a similar scene on March 19, Ford escaped a trailing pack of reporters by shouting "let's go!" and charging up the stairs towards his office, pushing a Globe and Mail photographer along the way. Toolaram, who provided cover in that escape as well, has since been transferred out of City Hall for reasons the city is keeping confidential.
No questions, no criticism
On rare occasions, security guards have explicitly directed reporters to stop asking questions of the Fords. During the March 19 incident, Toolaram told reporters to "stop the yelling." On November 18, another guard told NOW not to interrupt Doug Ford by asking questions during a scrum.
On February 12, Toolaram asked Rob Ford Must Go protesters to put away a small hand-written sign, even though there is no rule against them. Eventually the protesters were allowed to keep it up.
In May 2013, photographer Michelle Siu was denied entry to a press conference in the mayor's office. As a freelancer, she didn't have a City Hall press pass, but wasn't told in advance she would need one. "It seemed like another tactic that came out of nowhere to control things," Siu says. Toolaram physically tried to remove her by, in her words, "gently pushing" her.
It wasn't rough, but "he shoudln't have been touching me at all," Siu says. "He didn't have to, I wasn't forcing my way in." She was eventually allowed inside when other members of the media protested.