Political confidence: Canadian cities are too important to be left to buffoons

David Kilgour
David vs. David

A 2011 Forum Research Poll indicated that Canadians were not then satisfied with their mayors. Lack of confidence in big-city mayors today is probably at an all-time high, but in reality is an old problem.

The lack of confidence isn’t restricted to Canada. The first big-city American mayor recalled was Frank Shaw in 1938. He had protected bootleggers and brothel owners and virtually put the city of Los Angeles up for sale. The legacy of L.A. mayors is rampant with characters that seemed straight out of Raymond Chandler novels.

One L.A. mayor was even from Canada: Damien Marchessault. After leaving office in 1865, he committed suicide in the L.A. city council chambers. Burdened by drinking and gambling, he noted that he was “ashamed to meet (his) fellow man on the street” — streets that had become sinkholes due to administrative incompetence.

Now as then, communities are reflected in their leaders, so we need to consider the qualities we want mayors to have:

  • common courtesy — or bad boy behaviour?
  • measured and unflappable — or headline-grabbing antics?
  • Models of probity and common sense — or colourful reprobate?
  • sober-minded practitioners of good governance — or excessively vivid and unstable?

One person’s satisfactory mayor can be another’s scoundrel.

William Hawrelak, for example, is viewed as both Edmonton’s best mayor and its worst. Leading the city to phenomenal post-war growth, he appeared to use his position to profit financially through land transactions. Bounced from office twice over findings of conflict of interest, he served three irregular terms from 1951 to 1975.

Edmonton Journal city columnist Paula Simons describes her ideal mayor as someone who will “fight for Edmonton’s rights and head offices, be committed to public transit and new technologies; be a populist, have business and financial savvy, understand that a city cannot succeed without prudent investment in public infrastructure, and have the vision, the courage and the commitment to see us to our best future.”

Fortunately, there are mayors of this sort, including Steven Mandel, Edmonton’s three-term mayor, now retiring gracefully from civic politics; Dianne Watts of Surrey, B.C.’s first female mayor and selected in 2010 as “fourth-best mayor in the world”; and the late Art Phillips, Vancouver’s 32nd mayor, who from 1973 to 1977 made the city one of the most livable.

Regrettably, there are others who are more problematic. “Colourful” and “quirky individualism” have become synonymous with “wacky.”

In 2010, Maclean’s magazine asked: “When municipal politics matter more than ever, why do so many cities end up with bad mayors?”

“Municipal politics...,” says comedian Rick Mercer, “is a depository for the truly mad. This is borne out when irascible populists, blowhards and eccentrics vie for the keys to some of our biggest cities.”

Toronto mayor Rob Ford, elected in 2010 with a ‘stop-the-gravy-train’ agenda, is seen by many as a buffoon. His blunt manner, however, endeared him to his base, the ‘Ford Nation,’ which warmed to his no-nonsense, low-cost, customer-friendly take on municipal government. The rabid allegiance to him was termed ‘tribal.’

The current allegations are tactfully described by Emma Teitel in Maclean’s: “The unapologetically buffoonish right-wing mayor, whose saving grace was his work with at-risk youth, may actually be feeding the drug industry that puts said youth at risk.”

In March, Toronto became the fourth-largest city in North America. 'Toronto the Good' has morphed into Toronto the butt of jokes; the mayor’s antics are now the subject of much mockery on late night TV.

A 2012 conflict-of-interest case saw a judge ordering that Ford be removed from office, a decision reversed on appeal. For this and other fiascos, he might have resigned; he has not.

Ford could attempt to remain at his post, even if the video recorded by alleged drug dealers surfaces and the allegations prove true. If they prove false, his name will be cleared and he will probably bounce back.

[ Previous D vs. D: Economic focus gave Christy Clark the right formula ]

Living in Canada’s biggest city, with an operating budget tipping $9 billion, Torontonians deserve better. They endured Mel Lastman as mayor from 1998 to 2003. Writer Nicholas Köhler worries that Ford is “like a monster delivered in a wooden crate ... Toronto has not yet entirely unpacked him.” ‘Ford Nation,’ conversely, sees him as a “bungling bull dog doing what he promised.”

Even if charged and convicted, Ford might not lose his post because Ontario lacks legally-binding mechanisms to impeach, recall, or force his resignation.

So what can residents do about any mayor, exhibiting increasingly erratic behaviour? Should they be censured and removed? Mandatory drug/alcohol testing and psychological interviewing/polygraph testing might help.

Moving to a party system, like Vancouver and Montréal, might assist municipalities to steer clear of larger-than-life polarizing dysfunctional characters. Many of our cities have grown too big and their issues too significant to be left to the whims of individual candidates running primarily on their own name recognition. Canadians need mayors worthy of trust.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.