John Sewell: Ford is winning because his message is clear

John Sewell is a former Toronto mayor

By John Sewell –

In his campaign for mayor, Rob Ford’s strength has been found in running against the seven years of city hall under Mayor David Miller.

What people recognize, and what Ford constantly hits on, is that city hall is dysfunctional. It doesn’t offer good service. It spends money it shouldn’t. It holds public hearings and then doesn’t listen to what people say. Emails and phone calls are rarely returned.

Over the last few years the number of staff at city hall has increased and the organization now feels bloated. City hall doesn’t connect with people, it isn’t nearly accountable enough. It feels like a closed shop, where you can be part of the mayor’s closed circle or you are out in the cold. Many city residents who have good ideas they want to share with city leaders feel shut out from the mayor’s office and see it as a black hole.

Ford has attracted support by giving example after example of shortcomings at city hall. It has meant his campaign has focus and clarity since he talks not about abstract ideas and principles but about things everyone can understand and relate to. Sure, he gets some of his facts wrong, but that hardly matters: it is clear what he is saying.

And the strength of this message has meant that his personal failings—being drunk and insulting at the ACC, being arrested for possession of marijuana in Florida, and various other shenanigans—have not become a big issue.

None of the other candidates have been able to match Ford’s approach. George Smitherman, Rocco Rossi and Sarah Thomson have never served on city council, so they don’t have the examples and experience that Ford can rely on. They can only talk about abstract ideas. Joe Pantalone has been on city council for 30 years, in senior positions for the last 10 years, and says things down there are generally fine. Few share his belief, which is why his campaign is not doing well.

The problem, and it is a scary one, is what Ford proposes to do about a dysfunctional city hall. He takes the slash and burn approach: Cut taxes substantially (which means cutting the money available to the city), get rid of streetcars, contract out garbage, cut council to half its size, and lots more. It is an agenda that promises lower levels of service and war with the city unions. Given Ford’s apparent inability to work at problem-solving with other councillors, it will be a fractious four years if he gets elected.

I’m not sure Ford has defined accurately why city hall is dysfunctional. It’s not just incompetence. I think the creation of the megacity in 1998—after 78.6% of those who voted in the referendum rejected it—disconnected a lot of people from the city government they knew. We now have a giant city bureaucracy and a city council so cumbersome that it doesn’t know how to relate to neighbourhood issues. Until we fix the system of governance we’ll not get a city hall that is open to people, with a city staff proud to serve residents directly. We need to reshape city hall so it functions at a manageable size.

Cutting the councillors from 44 to 22 but leaving the big bureaucracy in place will only make things worse. We need a rethink which gives more local control. That’s not an issue which any of the candidates have been talking about, but reshaping city hall and its structures is the place to start.

Three weeks is a long time in politics, and Ford might stumble while Smitherman, in second place, might take off. Or maybe not much will change between now and Oct. 25. Whatever happens, we’ll sort out our future in the deep shadows of the megacity and David Miller