It's amazing how easy it is to forget why some arrangements at city are as they are.
There was Mayor Rob Ford last week, seven years after Justice Denise Bellamy's report on MFP's shady deal with the city, calling for the elimination of exactly the three watchdog officers the Ontario superior court judge urged the city to establish.
Couching his plan in money-saving terms, the mayor urged the elimination of the integrity commissioner, ombudsman and lobbyist registrar and their replacement by a lawyer on retainer.
No doubt Ford was responding to criticism from these independent offices, the most recent censure, also last week, from the integrity commissioner for disparaging comments he made on the radio about Medical Officer of Health David McKeown. The commissioner's report says the mayor acted against the council's Code of Conduct, which prohibits attacks on or intimidation of city staff.
The mayor's attempt to ditch these accountability offices is ominous, since the three came out of Bellamy's list of 241 recommendations, most of them implemented in order to prevent bad future dealings. Today they form the city's defence against unethical actions that betray the public interest.
The Bellamy inquiry showed how Toronto ended up paying $85 million to MFP for leased computers - twice as much as council approved. There was talk of cash gifts and trips in private planes, though the OPP decided there wasn't enough evidence for criminal charges.
With passage of the City Of Toronto Act in 2006, the city was equipped with most of the legislative powers it needed to fully implement Bellamy's accountability agenda.
Logically, these officers should be embraced by the mayor; he, after all, came to office with a mandate to cut waste and improve customer service. The integrity commissioner is charged with investigating abuses by elected officials and staff, and the ombudsman with probing citizens' charges that they've been mistreated by the city. The lobbyist registrar ensures that lobbying, which is legal, is transparent, unlike in the computer leasing fiasco.
At least Ford has been honest about his desire to eliminate the offices instead of simply trying to reduce their budgets to a point where they can't do the job they're expected to do.
Justice Bellamy suggested that the integrity commissioner should have a wide range of sanctions available to him or her, including removal from office. It turns out that only two sanctions are permitted by law: a reprimand or the suspension of a councillor's pay for up to 90 days. Both of these have to be approved by council, which is difficult when councillors depend on each other to support their projects, and hesitate to penalize a colleague.
She also recommended that the integrity commissioner's role be expanded to include the review of councillors' personal finances at their request, to determine if a conflict exists. This never occurred, but council should allow it in the interest of further openness.
Council should also create a new accountability post: a council budget officer, analogous to Parliament's budget officer, who would produce accurate, arm's-length cost estimates and budget projections. Spending decisions are up to council, but at least everyone would be confident in the numbers that go into that decision-making.
Finally, it's clear that council needs to enact protection for civil servants so they can do their jobs without fear of intimidation or reprisal. In her annual report, the ombudsman recently recommended that Toronto ask the province for a Public Service Act. In the interim, she recommended that council enact a bylaw, because with prorogation and a possible election in the spring, a provincial act may be a long time coming.
Most provinces and the federal government have such legislation. It provides an ethical framework for public servants that includes regulations on conflict of interest, conduct and political activities as well as protection from reprisals for whistle-blowers.
Such a law protects civil servants from politicians upset about opinions they may hold, or aiming to get rid of those who they feel do not support their agenda.
History shows what happens when we let our guard down. Witness, as well, the Charbonneau Commission currently investigating irregular financial dealings in Montreal City Hall and Quebec in general, all a result of lax accountability protocols.
In 2006, Toronto's then city manager, Shirley Hoy, told council that "building an ethical culture is continuous work" and the "care and feeding" of sound processes is something that must be ongoing.
Good advice. We'd be wise to take it.