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Toronto's City Council seeks to isolate crack-smoking mayor

Toronto's City Council seeks to isolate crack-smoking mayor
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford holds a Rob Ford bobblehead doll at Toronto city hall on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)
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TORONTO (AP) — Cries of "shame" rose up as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford walked up to the podium to honor war veterans. One World War II veteran refused to shake his hand, calling him a "druggie." Unfazed, Ford declared moments later, "I'm not going anywhere," as calls to take a leave of absence swirl around the embattled mayor. The next day, he was signing bobblehead dolls of himself at City Hall to raise money for charity.

Ford's refusal to resign over his admitted drug use has confounded Toronto's City Council. Allies and opponents alike agree that a stream of revelations of the mayor's erratic behavior — from smoking crack cocaine in a "drunken stupor" to threatening to kill someone in a videotaped tirade — has consumed Toronto's politics and has impacted the City Council's ability to tackle other challenges.

But with no clear legal path to force him out, the 44-member City Council is grasping for ways to shunt the larger-than-life leader aside and govern without him until next year's municipal elections.

It is an unprecedented effort but in some ways, it may not be a stretch. Toronto's mayor already has limited powers compared to the mayors of many large cities in the United States. He is just one voting member in the council and his power stems mostly from his ability, as the only councilor elected by citywide vote, to build consensus and set the agenda. That authority, many council members say, has evaporated in the crack scandal.

"We really just have to build a box around the mayor so we can get work done," said councilor John Filion, who has introduced one of two motions in the council designed to isolate Ford.

The first motion, which goes to a vote Wednesday, would call on Ford to take a leave of absence, apologize to Toronto residents for misleading them and cooperate with police. If he refuses, the council would ask the province of Ontario to pass legislation to remove the mayor from office.

The City Council has no authority itself to oust Ford because he has not been convicted of a crime. Toronto police said last month they had obtained a long-sought video of Ford apparently smoking from a crack pipe but that it does not constitute enough evidence to charge him.

The motion was introduced by City Councilor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who had been a supporter of the conservative Ford's policies since the mayor took office three years ago, riding a backlash from suburbanites who felt alienated by what they deemed Toronto's downtown-centric, liberal-dominated politics.

In an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, Minnan-Wong said he had been encouraged by Ford's election "because we shared the same policy aims: frugal government, working to eliminate waste, contracting out work where it made sense, and respect for the tax dollars of Torontonians."

"No longer can he set an agenda for council or build a consensus among its members," wrote Minnan-Wong, who is on Ford's executive committee. "No longer is there confidence in his judgment. Rightly or wrongly, Mr. Ford has lost the moral authority to lead."

News reports of the crack video's existence first surfaced in May, but it has not been released publicly.

After police announced they had the video, Ford confessed that he smoked crack last year while drunk and apologized. But he insisted he is not addicted to drugs and does not need rehab. He says he is ready to make his case before the increasingly hostile City Council.

"It's going to be rumble in the jungle tomorrow," Ford said Tuesday, as he autographed a "Robbie Bobbie" bobblehead doll at City Hall.

Despite the growing cries for Ford to go, the motion is unlikely to pass. Many councilors are loath to ask Ontario's provincial government to intervene in Toronto's municipal affairs, fearing it would set a dangerous precedent. Provincial government officials have publicly expressed reluctance to do so.

Another proposed motion would curtail Ford's powers, suspending his authority to appoint and dismiss the deputy mayor and his executive committee, which runs the budget process. It likely won't be debated until December because of the council's procedural rules.

Filion, the councilor who introduced that motion, said the idea is to prevent Ford from firing executive committee members — such as Minnan-Wong — who speak out against him. Councilors are also considering stripping Ford's authority to set the City Council's agenda, said Councilor Adam Vaughan, who opposes getting the province involved.

"We will shun him, curtail his power as best we can," Vaughan said. "He clearly has gone off the deep end, shot himself in outer space."

While Ford, 44, has lost political leverage, his core supporters have not lost faith in the populist mayor who refers to them as "Ford Nation."

"It won't be the end of Ford Nation, they just put up a billboard in support of him last week," said Nelson Wiseman, a political professor at the University of Toronto. "The movement and the anti-government sentiment it embodied that got him elected will stay alive ... His base will remain strong whether or not he's removed from office."

After winning office in 2010, Ford took measures that pleased his suburban voter base, including abolishing an annual $60 vehicle registration tax, squeezing valuable concessions out of the union representing 6,000 city workers, and reducing costs by contracting out half of Toronto's garbage collection. Ford claims to have saved taxpayers $1 billion dollars in the process, though councilors dismiss that claim as highly inflated since he has increased the cost of transit, among other public services, along with hiking property taxes.

City councilors say the mayor's travails are creating chaos around efforts to confront Toronto's most difficult challenges, including developing public transit service and reduce grinding commutes.

Ford opposes a proposed, fully-funded, light-rail transit plan in favor of a more expensive subway extension into a suburb where his support runs strong.

The subway project — already controversial because it will force the city to raise taxes and seek federal and provincial money — has been engulfed in chaos since the mayor took office and was further impacted after the allegations surfaced in May that Ford had been filmed smoking a crack pipe. As the mayor's influence eroded, councilors debated back and forth on the issue, voting on and then reversing its decisions several times, until making a final decision weeks ago.

"After the news surfaced about his personal life, that further disintegrated things," Filion said, adding that it caused councilors to distance themselves from Ford. "People are just openly scornful of him whereas six months ago they may have thought he was a wonderful mayor, and so we now have this fairly large power vacuum that someone needs to step in and fill."

At least one city councilor has been steadfast in his support of the mayor: his brother, Doug Ford.

"They are going to get up, 44 of them, and give my brother a public beating, a public butchering," Doug Ford said ahead of Wednesday's proceedings. "I'm going to have to stand there and watch it happen so we'll see how it turns out."
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