From City Hall to Queen’s Park: Toronto City Council to Vote on Stripping Mayor Rob Ford’s Power as Province Signals Potential Intervention

Yesterday, Toronto city council voted in favour—37 to 5—on a largely symbolic motion to request Mayor Rob Ford both to apologize to the people of Toronto for misleading them about the now infamous “crack video” and to take a leave of absence to sort out the personal problems that appear to plague him. Council, though, does not have the power to force Ford to accede to their urges. A symbolic demonstration of concern over Ford’s ability to perform is no doubt important, but it lacks the political teeth necessary to force change upon an unwilling participant.

From Symbolic to Substantive

Tomorrow, council will meet again during a special meeting with something more substantive in mind, as they will gather to vote on a motion that would amend the municipal code in such a way that would transfer the emergency management powers and duties granted to Mayor Ford pursuant to municipal law to Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly. While Ford would retain the ability to declare a state of emergency, a power granted to him pursuant to provincial law, he would be stripped of his authority to deal with emergencies and smaller incidents if this motion were to pass.

The motion, brought forth by Councillor John Filion, is a clear indication, in light of Ford’s recent admission of crack cocaine use and his shocking assertion yesterday that he has purchased illicit drugs while in office, that at least a portion of city councillors no longer feel that Ford is capable of handling the responsibilities involved in navigating a city emergency. Filion astutely articulated this point by stating that “We can imagine if there had been an emergency on the night of St. Patrick’s Day, 2012, it would not have been a good scene.”

But wait, there’s more. The meeting pertaining to emergency powers will be but one of two special meetings that will take place at City Hall tomorrow. A second meeting will centre around a motion that will attempt to deny Ford the power to fire councillors from his own executive committee. If this motion were to pass, he would no longer be able to fire or appoint the deputy mayor or chairs of standing committees.

The lengths that Toronto city councillors have gone to find innovative ways to remove Ford’s power demonstrates what may be a problematic gap in the municipal code. The inability to remove a Toronto mayor—even one who has admitted to violations of the Criminal Code on multiple occasions while in office—in all but very limited and in this case unlikely circumstances (his incarceration, council not holding a meeting for two months, Ford himself missing three months of council meetings, or a change in provincial law) demonstrates how relatively powerless councillors and Toronto residents are and have been during this most controversial mayoral term.

Enter Queen’s Park

Amending the municipal code would bring council to the ceiling of its powers. Beyond this, the only recourse available to council is requesting the provincial government to change the law. In a press conference held at Queen’s Park at 2:30pm today, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne signalled that she may just grant such a request.

Describing the current situation at City Hall “truly disturbing,” Premier Wynne laid out the path for potential provincial intervention: “If council were to clearly indicate that they lack the ability to function as a result of this matter, the province would respond to a request from council to be provided new tools depending on what that request might be.”

Handing Over the Sword?

Premier Wynne’s statement reads like a playbook for how council should go about a request for provincial intervention. She specifies that the content of any request should include both a statement that council lacks the ability to function as a result of the Ford situation and a request for the provision of “new tools.”

It is unclear how council could articulate its inability to function to the province, or what criteria the province would use to evaluate such a request. But it is no secret that council is hemorrhaging. Just this morning, twenty councillors literally turned their backs on Ford in the council chamber following his use of obscene language to dismiss allegations that he had consorted with an escort.

Despite Premier Wynne’s statement that the province “would respond” to a request modelled in this fashion, any provincial intervention would have to take the form of a legislative proposal passed by a majority of MPPs in the legislature. It is unclear whether a minority Ontario Liberal government could muster the legislative muscle to make this happen. Also, Premier Wynne isn’t looking for a simple majority—instead, she said that she would seek unanimous support from the Conservative and NDP leaders should council ask the province to intervene.

Avoiding the perception of partisanship and provincial intervention will undoubtedly be a goal of Queen’s Park as it deals with this unprecedented situation. Party unanimity for any change in the law could avoid the perception of partisanship. But avoiding the perception that the province is moving to oust the Mayor is more delicate. If the province empowers council with the legal authority to remove Ford, Premier Wynne could argue that any decision to use this legal authority lies with and is owned by council alone.

The Crisis Continues

If council votes to strip Ford of some of his powers under the municipal code, it will have hit a legislative wall. It remains to be seen whether council asks the province to intervene, or whether the province will grant such a request. What is clear, however, is that this political crisis has now reached beyond City Hall to Queen’s Park.

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