Rob and Doug Ford on the floor of council, January 10, 2014. Photo by Ben Spurr.
Rob Ford's tenure atop city government has been a trying one for our civic institutions. The police, the courts, and city council have all been dragged into unprecedented territory by the mayor's disturbing behaviour.
According to veteran accountable government crusader Duff Conacher, one institution that has been tried and found badly wanting is the office of the integrity commissioner.
Part of the commissioner's job is to foster an "ethical and accountable culture at City Hall" and enforce the code of conduct for council members. Conacher says that, when it comes to Ford, commissioner Janet Leiper has been unable or unwilling to do that job.
After nearly two decades of fighting for greater accountability in federal politics as the head of Democracy Watch, Conacher is now seeking to strengthen the integrity regime that governs Toronto and all other Ontario municipalities.
"The whole system should be changed," Conacher says in a phone interview.
In November, as the mayor's crack cocaine scandal roiled at City Hall, council asked Leiper to review his behaviour for any code violations, including the infamous drug video, his refusal to cooperate with the resulting police investigation, and his relationship with accused drug peddler Alexander "Sandro" Lisi.
A month later Leiper ruled that no further investigation was warranted, in part because Ford had apologized and his conduct debated at the November meeting.
Her response wasn't good enough for Conacher. If the office of the integrity commissioner fails to discipline behaviour as egregious as Ford's, how effective can it be?
Ontario's current accountability system is a patchwork. Each municipality drafts its own code of conduct and appoints its own integrity commissioner, if they appoint one at all.
Conacher wants Queen's Park to create a new powerful integrity position that would have jurisdiction over all Ontario municipalities, under a single, uniform code of conduct.
Instead of simply making a recommendation to councillors who then have final say over whether an offending member should face any penalty, the provincial commissioner should have the power to hand out punishment on his or her own, says Conacher.
And while under the current system a reprimand or a 90-day suspension of pay are the only explicitly allowable penalties for a breach of the code, Conacher thinks that there should be a sliding scale of punishment depending on the severity of the misconduct, up to and including suspending members from council.
Last month, Conacher petitioned Leiper to revisit her decision on Ford. Unsurprisingly, she declined. He now says he plans to take the issue to court and ask for a judicial review of her ruling. He's currently looking for a lawyer to take his case.
(On Friday, the Globe and Mail reported that Leiper received another complaint about Ford, this time about allegations in court documents that he used city staffers to run personal errands. It's not yet known if she'll investigate.)
John Mascarin, a municipal law expert who was recently appointed as the integrity commissioner for two small municipalities in Simcoe County, agrees that Ford is proof that penalties for violating codes of conduct need more teeth.
Often a simple council reprimand can effectively shame a politician into behaving, he says, "but then you have the really tough cases like a Rob Ford, who's not shamed by seemingly anything. What's a reprimand going to do? What's suspension of pay going to do for someone who's a very wealthy individual?"
Mascarin suggests that measures similar to those council took against Ford in November, which included cutting his office budget and removing his authority to appoint committee chairs, should be explicitly spelled out as penalties for violating codes of conduct.
He also concurs with Conacher that councillors shouldn't be voting on whether to discipline one of their own members.
But he says giving a provincially-appointed commissioner power over city councillors would go against the recent legislative trend that has seen Canadian municipalities gain more autonomy from provinces.
"It would be a pretty hard sell to the municipal sector," he says.
Andrew Sancton, a professor of political science at Western University, counters that there are already adequate measures in place to deal with misbehaving council memebrs. Where violations are potentially criminal, they can be investigated by the police. If the misconduct is particularly grievous, as a last resort the provincial legislature has the authority to give council the power to boot a member, an idea that was floated at the height of the Ford crack scandal.
But most of the time, Sancton says, voters should be given the opportunity to judge politicians on their transgressions.
"I just think many of these kind of things are best settled at election time." Sancton says. "What's wrong with letting the people of Toronto decide whether Mayor Ford's conduct has been acceptable or not?"
Whether the province will take up Conacher's push for reform remains to be seen.
"The ministry carefully considers all suggestions for changes to legislation that we receive," writes May Nazar, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. "We are currently reviewing the Municipal Act and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. It is important that we take the time to engage with municipalities and the public on any potential changes and to determine what would best benefit the residents of Ontario's cities and towns."
For her part, Leiper doesn't believe that deciding not to investigate Ford's crack scandal has undermined public confidence in the effectiveness of her office.
"If I was of that view, I would have advised city council accordingly," she writes in an email to NOW. She also denies that her decision not to pursue the case was in any way influenced by her last high profile run-in with Ford. Her recommendation on his refusal to pay back funds he improperly solicited for his football foundation helped launch the conflict of interest case that nearly threw him out of office, but was eventually determined to have been improper by the Ontario Divisional Court.
Councillor Gord Perks supports Leiper's work, and says she's done a tremendous job in a role that was created only nine years ago and did not come with a road map.
Although he shares Conacher's frustration with the mayor's "disaster" of a term, Perks feels that rewriting the rules would be the easy way out. Instead of asking how the law can be used to tame Toronto's rogue leader, he says, Ford's critics should be asking how he got elected four yeas ago despite his obvious flaws.
"He was known to be a liar, he was known to have problems with substance abuse and public behaviour, he was known to be a homophobe. And nevertheless, he got more votes than anybody else," Perks says. "That doesn't speak to a problem with our accountability and integrity mechanisms, that speaks to there being something in Toronto's politics where enough people are willing to accept that behaviour from politicians in exchange for something else he was offering.
"The right question is, what has our society and economy done to alienate people to the point where they thought in 2010 that the upside of Rob Ford was worth the downside? That's the real issue that people should turn their minds to, not to whether or not we need new provincial legislation on the integrity commissioner."
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