When it comes to the chains of office, Toronto's got it good

Martin Patriquin explains why a city could do worse than Rob Ford for mayor

Chris Young/CP

You’re lucky, Toronto.

You’re lucky to have every last square inch of Rob Ford, period, and not only because he is an entertaining sideshow capable of drunk-walking us through the long, boring days of summer. You’re lucky because he alone is responsible for the things he allegedly did—including smoking crack  with known drug dealers. If Rob Ford is an abscess on the city he represents, as many of you seem to think, he can be lanced out of existence by way of the municipal election a little more than a year from now. That’s why you’re lucky, Toronto. Because as much space as he takes up, Rob Ford is still just one man.

In Montreal, we don’t have a mayor so much as a caretaker, brought into office by way of council decree after the last interim mayor, Michael Applebaum, resigned after police charged him with 14 counts of fraud, conspiracy and corruption. Applebaum, you’ll recall, was also brought into office by way of council decree following the resignation of Gérald Tremblay, who served as mayor for 10 years—a period, we are now finding out, of near-unchecked corruption throughout Montreal’s municipal government. If you think your mayor is bad, Toronto, let’s have a peek at Tremblay.

Your mayor is a sweat-stained, mouth-breathing populist who lives in the suburbs, drives an SUV, and whose shirt is perpetually caught, sail-like, in the massive gust of his belly. Our former mayor is a nebbish technocrat, a one-time cabinet minister and perfumist, who lives in Outremont and drives a Volvo. By appearances alone, Tremblay would be Trinity-Spadina bait.

Yet Tremblay proved how appearances are overrated. With the help of Montreal’s electorate, which twice re-elected him, Tremblay was in power as his party, Union Montréal, became a veritable illicit cash-harvesting machine. He oversaw the appointment of Frank Zampino to the city’s powerful executive committee. Under Tremblay, the contract-fixing scheme perpetuated by the city’s many mobbed-up contractors only grew and became more sophisticated, to the point where the city was spending upward of 30 per cent more on its contracted work.

Out of either ignorance or inertia, Tremblay remained in the dark and the consequences were costly. One example: he nearly sold Montreal on a $38- million water contract, awarded without council debate, and defended it tooth and nail for nearly two years, only to cancel it when an auditor’s report noted “58 findings related to overspending, administrative laxity and poor communication in the awarding of the contract,” as The Gazette reported in 2009. Zampino, meanwhile, was frog-marched out of bed and into a police cruiser in May 2012, having allegedly orchestrated an illegal swap of city land with a well-connected Montreal contractor. Personally, I’d prefer a mayor who is on some kind of Winehouseian rampage, as the Ottawa Citizen’s Andrew Potter suggested recently, than one who would casually part with a third of a billion in taxpayer dollars.

But, you say, Montreal is having an election in three months. Surely the city will be cleansed of all that ails it?

Perhaps, but consider this. The current mayoral frontrunner is former Liberal MP Denis Coderre, the first declared candidate and the first to wave the banner of being a “outsider” to municipal politics. Yet for all his talk of change, Coderre has spent a lot of time recruiting old political hands. The most recent, Michel Bissonnet, is a lifelong politician whose name surfaced in the Charbonneau commission for allegedly having taken $2,000 to guarantee contracts to Génius Conseil, an engineering firm. If this is a breath of fresh air, I shudder for the inevitable bout of halitosis.

The very structure of Montreal, meanwhile, makes it a challenge to govern, even if we get the right governing types. It has 105 elected officials (more than double the number in Toronto) shoehorned into a “Swiss Cheese mess” of amalgamated boroughs and de-amalgamated cities, as Concordia professor of public policy Harold Chorney once told me. It has gotten so the mayor doesn’t have control over island-wide snow removal, garbage collection or any other proto-municipal activity.

Certain Torontonians, perpetually aghast at the stumbling disaster of Rob Ford, have apparently ascribed him supernatural powers. He has “ruined Toronto’s reputation for good,” The Star’s Heather Mallick wept recently. Richard Florida suggested Ford helped “break” Toronto. The even more excitable among us blame him for the flooding of the Don Valley Parkway.

He’s one guy, folks. Count yourself lucky. Or at the very least, remember you have the luxury of getting rid of him in less than 18 months. They aren’t nearly as much fun to watch on YouTube, but over here on the St. Lawrence the problems are much bigger.

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