Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's apparent ouster from office is a cautionary tale for municipal politicians, according to Hamilton mayors past and present.
On Monday, Ontario Superior Court Justice Charles T. Hackland ordered that Ford be removed from office — effective in 14 days time — for violating the province's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
"I think all of us are maybe not shocked, but certainly surprised," said Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina, who was elected on the same day — Oct. 25, 2010 — as Toronto's polarizing chief magistrate.
Bratina said the episode demonstrates how careful municipal politicians must be in conducting their affairs.
"I think the level of scrutiny has really multiplied over the years, possibly because of greater citizen involvement in the political process and the growth of social media," he explained.
"It kind of begs the questions of why would someone do this kind of the thing, running for elected office. The level of scrutiny on your life, both public and private, is enormous."
Bratina noted that the sentence Ford received, "seems severe based on the reasons for the judgment."
The breach in question was the Toronto mayor's involvement in a council debate regarding a financial penalty he was ordered to pay.
The City of Toronto's integrity minister had required Ford to return $3,150 in donations — which he'd solicited using city letterhead — to his Rob Ford Football Foundation, a sports program that supports youth in low-income neighbourhoods. Ford refused to pay back the funds, then participated in a council vote that absolved him of wrongdoing.
The rules in Hamilton
Here's how Hamilton's conflict of interest provisions work, according to the Office of the City Clerk and the Legal Services Division:
- Like all Ontario municipalities the city is subject to the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, which is legislation set out by the province.
- Hamilton also has a Council Code of Conduct which is a part of its Council Procedural By-law. Council determines its content and, if required, may make changes in accordance with the Municipal Act.
- The City of Hamilton has also appointed an Integrity Commissioner to provide advice and recommendations to Council regarding the content of the Code of Conduct.
Under the Bylaw "To Establish The Office of Integrity Commissioner," the Integrity Commissioner provides general information on the Code of Conduct and can provide specific advice to individual councillors upon request.
The City provides general information on the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, based on material supplied by the Province. Councillors are responsible for determining for themselves when they have a conflict of interest under the Act. They may chose to seek independent legal advice in making this determination.
Echoing Bratina, Larry Di Ianni, Hamilton's mayor between 2003 and 2006, questioned whether Ford deserved the sentence the judge handed down.
"There are two issue thoughts running through my head. One is that Mr. Ford, at the very least, is an unwise man. But the law is also quite Draconian in that his conflict, though real . . . was really about raising money for kids on a football team.
"It doesn't rise to the level where the punishment seems to be just, in my estimation."
Fred Eisenberger, Hamilton's mayor between 2006 and 2010, added: "The takeaway is that you need to be, and we ought to be, completely clear on what the law says and follow it to the letter."
He said municipal politicians should work vigourously not only to steer clear of conflicts of interest, but also to avoid conduct that could merely appear to be an improper use of power.
"Politicians need to be held to the highest standard possible," Eisenberger said.
Whether the Ford mayoralty will end on Dec. 10 is still unclear. The former Etobicoke councillor has said he would appeal Hackland's ruling. If Ford's bid is allowed to go ahead, his removal from office could be put on hold.
Bratina said he plans to get in touch with Ford when the dust of this debacle begins to settle.
"We haven't had a lot of chances to communicate, but when we have, they've been very friendly," Bratina said. "I've found him to be quite a down-to-earth-individual."
He added, "I think that mayors have a collegiality that's probably different than other elected offices and even other social relationships... I would absolutely say I will reach out."