Considering her mandate, city Ombudsman Fiona Crean is a strange target for Rob Ford and followers.
According to her job description, her mission is to address "your concerns about the service you receive from the city" and to investigate "complaints of administrative unfairness" - exactly the customer service issues Ford trumpeted during his mayoral campaign.
The fact that Crean used the sworn testimony of over 40 people to paint a disturbing picture of the mayor's office subverting the civic appointments process didn't stop the administration from attacking her, a city employee paid by all of us to be impartial.
Toronto's municipal government is no mistake; it was designed to limit political interference in the provision of basic services, and it has evolved over almost 200 years.
Civil servants are supposed to put the interests of the public ahead of those of any party or individual politician. While many forms of government allow closer links between politicians and the civil service through the political appointment process and the executive branch's authority to fire high-level bureaucrats directly, municipal governance in Ontario is specifically structured to avoid this.
This model differs from federal and provincial governments, where civil servants report to the executive branch through deputy ministers and the secretary of cabinet or clerk of the privy council. Their recommendations are mostly kept secret, and usually only a plan approved by the prime minister, minister or cabinet is ever made public.
Opposition MPs and MPPs often don't have access to all the detailed information that supported the decision-making, and in many cases must rely on outside briefings or Freedom of Information requests to find it out.
At the municipal level, however, the mayor is the head of council but has no authority over staff. According to the Municipal Act and City Of Toronto Act, directives to staff must come from council (with a few exceptions, like a declaration of a state of emergency, where the mayor receives more temporary powers), which enacts bylaws to confirm its decisions. All information must be shared with all councillors, especially if requested. In practice, some matters that go into making a decision are withheld for privacy considerations, though if council orders the release of info it must be made available, and every member can then access it.
City staff can't be fired by the mayor and must report to the city manager (appointed by council), who reports not to the mayor but to council as a whole. The manager is responsible for overseeing staff performance and coordinating the implementation of council's direction.
This model likely arose as a result of the traditional role of municipal governments in Canada, which were small and concerned with simple local projects. This has changed, though the structure has not.
Some larger municipalities outside Ontario have granted more power to the executive wing, making them more like the provincial and federal governments. This has also happened in many U.S. cities, in Europe and to a lesser extent in Montreal. What unites these examples is the prevalence of political parties that allow for a united, organized executive government. In Toronto, political parties are banned, and councillors often value their independence and are proud to exhibit it, as Mayor Ford has learned.
The independence granted to staff by statute is even a stronger factor for the officers of council, like the integrity commissioner, auditor general, lobbyist registrar and ombudsman. These individuals report directly to council rather than to the city manager or mayor, since they are often critical of the bureaucracy or politicians.
In our council, reports that come forward include an explanation of a situation, options to consider and recommendations from the non-partisan staff. Councillors have the right, by majority decision, to take a different action, but they do so collectively, with all the pros and cons open to public debate and evaluation. This is very different from the cabinet model.
Civil servants have the right to do their work without feeling intimidated by the mayor's office or councillors. Elected officials are free to disagree, but attacking civil servants sets a negative tone that inhibits them from giving their best advice regardless of the implications - and likely drives away good and committed city builders.
Toronto gained many new powers in 2006 with the adoption of the City Of Toronto Act, including the authority to enact legal protections for staff in order to ensure that they can do their work without the threat of losing their jobs. Now the city should make clear through a bylaw that those paid to serve us have the power and freedom to use their expertise.