The more I watch Rob Ford at work, the more I am convinced that Toronto is passing through a Larry O’Brien phase.
For those who don’t know, Larry O’Brien was the mayor of Ottawa from 2006 to 2010. He was elected on a groundswell of voter anger and frustration. He managed to call up a “throw the bums out” sentiment and swept into Ottawa city council on the promise that things would be different.
Just one problem: by all accounts, he was exceptionally bullheaded, not very willing to accept constructive advice, and he forgot that when a mayor alienates the majority of a city council in Canada, the mayor finds it very hard to enact his or her agenda at city hall. Within a year, Larry O’Brien had succeeded in getting his city sued for tens of millions of dollars. He’d cancelled a signed and sealed LRT project, and then was forced to basically reintroduce that same project near the end of his mandate. Within two years, council was so dysfunctional that people were appealing to the Minister of Municipal Affairs to do something. Within three years, a contrite Larry O’Brien admitted that he’d entered into his mayoralty with some mistaken assumptions, and the first two years of his tenure were something of a learning experience. At the end of four years, he went down to defeat. His share of the popular vote plummeted from 47.08% to 24.06%.
Like Larry O’Brien, Rob Ford succeeded by surfing a wave of voter anger and frustration, promised to throw the bums out, and received 47.114% of the vote. Like Larry O’Brien, Ford entered office with the presumption that the mayor of a Canadian city was akin to the president of a republic. He acted unilaterally to end a perfectly workable plan to build LRT lines across the city and has made further decisions without consultation with city council or even his chosen candidates for various committee chairs. He has been spending political capital at a furious rate, getting some of his political agenda passed now, but likely alienating a majority of city council down the road.
Fine, I guess. If Ford exits office in 2014, defeated by Adam Vaughan by a percentage of 48.7 to 24.1, let that be the judgement of history. The frustration for this former Torontonian, however, is the question of how much damage Ford will do to this city in the years in between. His undisguised hatred of surface transit is working itself out into a transit plan to build a much smaller system of rapid transit lines, costing far more than they should and offering far more capacity than is needed. Still, at least we’ll likely get an Eglinton LRT and a converted Scarborough LRT in the end. More worrisome is the fiscal pain that Ford’s policies will bequeath to Toronto as early as 2012.
You can deride David Miller’s mayoralty all you want, but the fact remains that he left the City of Toronto with a $300 million surplus — this after over a decade of Miller and Lastman councils begging the province for millions to fill earlier shortfalls. When Ford ran for office, he promised to “stop the gravy train”, implying that there were literally millions of dollars of wasteful spending to be had that could cover his desired elimination of the Vehicle Registration Tax and the Land Transfer Tax, all without “no major cuts” to existing services. Even during the campaign, when questioned what he would cut, he was very vague in response, citing at times money that wasn’t even budgeted to be spent (the demolition of the Gardiner Expressway) as examples as things he could “cut” to balance the books. Today, Ford has frozen property taxes, eliminated the Vehicle Registration Tax, prevented a politically problematic TTC fare hike and limited TTC service cuts largely by spending Miller’s one-time $300 million surplus. None of his gravy train cuts have materialized.
His brother Doug promises we’ll see the gravy next year, but after seeing the Ford brothers in action, I suspect that all we’ll see is blustering bafflegab about why the closure of certain public library branches, pools and rinks and TTC services aren’t “major”. By far the most frustrating thing about the Fords is their blatant disregard for reality and their apparent belief that they can bluster their way out of any tough questions. For instance, while the budget for 2011 may now be sit balanced despite tax cuts and no major service cuts, the fiscal picture for 2012 looks brutal, with the shortfall currently pegged at a record breaking $700 million. Anecdotally, I’m told that budget chief Mike Del Grande is looking more and more nervous each day. Rob Ford is another matter. When called on the upcoming shortfall, he said the following:
“We talk about what’s in front of us… You can’t talk about 2014 or 2015. We’re talking about 2011 and that’s before us, and that’s the proper procedures before council. … I’m only focused on 2011.”
No, you idiot! We’re not talking about 2014! We’re talking about 2012 — you know, the year that comes after this one: the one whose budget you should be starting to work on, like, right now?
And, besides, if you knew that the fiscal decisions you were making here in 2011 could mean disaster in 2014 or 2015 — the very end of your current mandate — don’t you think you have a responsibility to care? Or is the fiscal gap going to be closed by magical Conservative fiscal fairy dust?
Experiencing close up the inanity that has descended upon the mayor’s office in Toronto, I feel more sorry than ever for what the people of Ottawa suffered through for the past four years. But at least they are over that phase. We have another three and a half years to go.
When it comes to Toronto these days, I have to take a deep breath, and play some Ok Go in my head. This song in particular seems appropriate: