Friday Wrap: Rob Ford's war on credibility, Medical Officer threatened & Toronto's elephants on the move

To end the week, a look at some of the other big stories floating around Toronto City Hall.

Reporter confrontation looks worse for Ford

Rob Ford has a rocky relationship with facts. They've got a nasty habit of not supporting his claims.

The Daniel Dale story is unfolding like a lot of other Ford scandals, with the mayor's initial version of events falling apart as more details are uncovered. We know that nobody was ever in his backyard. We know that it was still light outside. We know that Dale had reason to be concerned the mayor might hit him because, um, the mayor said he thought about hitting him. We know that Dale had a legitimate reason to be where he was.

And, most damningly, we now know that someone made a call from Dale's discarded cellphone roughly 45 minutes after the altercation took place. Dale says his phone's battery was dead at the time he threw it to the ground and fled the scene.

As Ed Keenan and Chris Tindal pointed out yesterday, Ford's credibility gap isn't a new phenomenon. It dates way back to the beginning of his political career, spanning through a series of fun incidents. Like that time the mayor lied about attending a Leafs game where he got drunk and yelled at people. Or that other time, when the mayor lied about a drug charge.

Being the mayor hasn't changed him, and I guess we'd be wrong to expect it to. But still: it's never wrong to expect better from a person elected to represent the people of Toronto.

On their radio show last week, both Rob Ford and his brother expressed their disdain for a report authored by Chief Medical Officer David McKeown that made several recommendations designed to improve street safety for pedestrians and cyclists. One of those recommendations? Lower speed limits.

The speed limit piece was a small part of a large report, but that didn't stop Rob and Doug from hinting that maybe McKeown is paid too much money. “Why does he still have a job?” Doug Ford asked.

Those comments caused a mini-uprooar this week. Chair of the Board of Health, Councillor John Filion, has said he'll take the issue to the Integrity Commissioner.

Look, this isn't about speed limits, nor is it about whether McKeown is necessarily good at his job. All of that should be set aside. The issue – and it's a really important issue – is whether this mayor (and his brother) have created a work environment in which city staff have legitimate reason to worry that they might be fired if they prepare a report the mayor and his team disagree with.

In a functional government, staff need to be able to feel like they can provide honest information and perspective without fear of reprisal from elected officials.

Toronto's elephant saga drags on. After a council decision last fall, the zoo's three elephants were supposed to be on their way to an animal sanctuary in California. Ex-Price is Right host Bob Barker even said he'd pay for the move, offering a free trip even though elephants are notoriously lousy at Plinko. But recent problems with zoo accreditation and what appears to be a full-on zookeeper revolt have put the move into question.

Given the laundry list of problems, it looks like council was hasty when they passed their motion, but it's still worth revisiting the reason council made the decision to move the elephants in the first place. As Nicholas Hune-Brown recounted in Toronto Life, we're doing this because four elephants at the Toronto Zoo died in a four year period.

Despite the hand-wringing, we still have good reason to send our elephants packing.

This week's spoiler alert: major transit projects mean major construction. I'm not sure why this is surprising, but I guess some people were hoping the underground stations on the Eglinton LRT would teleport into place.

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/05/04/friday-wrap-credibility-medical-officer-elephants.html on 2012-05-04T00:00:00.000Z

Five perspectives on Angry Rob Ford's encounter with a reporter

You know the story by now. Late in the evening on Wednesday – before it got dark – Rob Ford discovers Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale on public land near his house. Angry, the mayor confronts Dale and, per the reporter's account, “cocked his fist near his head and began charging.” Dale dropped what he was carrying and ran. Sometime after, the police and media were called.

Dale says he was there only to follow up on a story he had written about the Ford family's bid to buy public land near their home. Ford says this is yet another example of the Star's crazed vendetta against him.

The rest of us are left with a few different ways to look at a very odd story.

1. The Toronto Star should have known better

Let's be real. The Star knows the history they have with Rob Ford. They know he holds the opinion that the newspaper accused him of rough behaviour toward high school students. They know he hasn't gotten over that. He wants his front page apology.

So knowing all that, who decides to put a reporter – alone, unannounced – in the vicinity of the mayor's house? Especially in the evening when Ford and his neighbours were likely to be home – and not used to seeing people strolling through the unpopulated areas behind their quiet suburban homes.

Daniel Dale is a very good reporter with a well-deserved reputation for fairness. By every account, he wasn't doing anything illegal or even slightly malicious when he stood near the Ford home yesterday. But, given all the toxic history, it seems fair to question the decisions and judgement that led Dale to that part of Etobicoke.

There are a few different ways mature adults could be expected to react upon seeing a well-known reporter near their property. Maybe, if you're really paranoid, you call the police. Maybe you approach calmly and ask about the reporter's intentions. Maybe you simply draw the curtains and file the incident away as yet another example of why being a public figure sucks.

Ford chose a different approach, ditching maturity and adulthood and opting for an angry charge at a terrified target.

The specifics of this story are irrelevant. A member of the press, standing on public property, should never have to worry that the mayor of Canada's largest city might physically attack.

3. The Fords jumped on an opportunity to shame the Toronto Star

The media horde arrived shortly before 10 p.m. for a big scrum with the mayor and his brother, with assorted members of the mayor's staff in attendance. Both Rob and Doug spent the night and some time this morning doing interviews to discuss the story.

There's a curious gap in the timeline between 8 and 9 p.m. on Wednesday night, between the time of the confrontation and the breaking story. That gap is important – in it, this incident went from being a confused conflict between two men to something far more meaningful: it became a full-on and coordinated indictment of the Toronto Star.

4. This whole thing only serves to make Rob Ford look sympathetic

With the average voter, this story can only play well for the mayor. How can you fault a guy for overzealously protecting his family? Especially considering all the nasty things we've heard about the unfair Toronto media and how they simply don't like Ford and his policies.

The Star has long been accused of waging a vendetta against the mayor. The mayor, in recent months, has looked a lot like an “average guy” underdog who has been bulled by arrogant career politicians and an unfriendly media.

In the eyes of a lot of people, this incident cements both reputations.

5. Irrelevant Irrelevant Irrelevant

What impact does the reporter found near Rob Ford's backyard have on transit policy? On the city's budget? On affordable housing? On policies that will foster “respect for taxpayers”?

Added up, this is just another in a long line of distracting Rob Ford clown show moments. Like a lot of the things the mayor does these days, it's not really worth the attention it gets.

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/05/03/ford-angry-reporter.html on 2012-05-03T00:00:00.000Z

Rob Ford's budget surplus no great departure from Miller era

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Mayor Rob Ford credited the city's recently-announced $292 million budget surplus to… um, himself, mostly. “This tax-and-spend mentality of the previous administration is over,” he said. “People know I mean business. I was elected to find efficiencies and that's what I've done.”

Budget chief Mike Del Grande echoed the mayor, claiming Ford's surplus differs from the year-end windfalls delivered by Mayor David Miller in the last years of his term because Ford's extra cash comes from savings, as opposed to revenue growth. We're back to the idea that Miller, the budget incompetent, found money under the couch cushions.

But really: that's not true.

A close look at budget variance reports for 2010 and 2011, reflected in the chart above, shows that Ford's first surplus looks a lot like Miller's last surplus. In both cases, the major piece of the windfall comes from the Land Transfer Tax. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

Beyond that, both mayors deserve credit for pushing cost containment across city departments. Miller's hiring slow-down in 2010 delivered an extra $40 million to the city's surplus. Ford has ramped that up, aggressively capping staff levels, resulting in savings across many departments. But if there's been a difference in the scale and effectiveness of their differing approaches to cost containment thus far, it's not evident in these staff reports.

The police and TTC also helped build the surplus in both years, with higher-than-anticipated TTC ridership continuing to be a consistent driver of extra revenue. In addition, the city continues to maintain a healthy investment portfolio that outperforms estimates.

And in both cases, some of the surplus just came down to luck. Winters were lame both years.

Ford and Miller may stand on opposite sides of the galaxy in terms of policy, but it's hard to find major differences in these reports. There's little evidence thus far that this new mayor has brought a new approach to the city's finances that has seen big payoffs. His predecessor's fingerprints are all over this surplus.

Next year's budget outcomes could look different. The 2011 budget, while Ford's first, really wasn't crafted with much care. That was the point. The idea, as reported by the mayor's advisors, was to deplete all surplus funds and available reserves, thus opening the door to a more austere budget in 2012. Hence the Core Service Review. Hence $774 million being bandied about like a ticking time bomb.

This strategy was only a marginal success. They screwed it up.

But no matter what the numbers look like next year, watching the budget process develop under Rob Ford should cause City Hall watchers to take a closer look at David Miller's fiscal legacy. For someone branded a tax-and-spend socialist who made a mess of the city's finances, his budgetary policies still mean surplus, even a year after he left office.

The budget strategy left by Miller – and I credit his budget chief Shelley Carroll as well – was so well-formed and resilient that Ford's team struggled to create the fiscal crisis they needed in order to force cuts and drive austerity.

I don't mean to play cheerleader: Miller's government had a lot of problems. Somewhere along the line he lost his ability to connect with the average Torontonian. And there's still a long way to go toward fixing the city's fiscal foundation, which isn't a matter of simple cuts and budget-shaping.

But the numbers don't lie. And Miller's numbers are looking better and better.

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/05/02/ford-surplus-miller.html on 2012-05-02T00:00:00.000Z