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Philip Preville: A sober assessment of Rob Ford’s shining achievements

Ignore, for a moment, all the sideshow antics that have hijacked his mayoralty. Rob Ford has made some big changes at city hall that we’ll all feel, in a good way, long after he’s gone

Philip Preville: the flip side of Ford

You could be forgiven for believing that Rob Ford’s first two years as mayor amounted to nothing more than a riveting insignificance. He’s provided quite a spectacle. Talking on his cell while driving. Reading while driving. The Cut the Waist Challenge (and its dismal failure). The altercation with a Star reporter near his property. Allegedly flipping the bird to a kid and her mom. Calling 911 (three times!) to save himself from a Marg Delahunty bit. Yet none of these incidents tells us anything about his record as the city’s chief magistrate.

Even Ford’s conflict-of-interest charge, which was dismissed on appeal, was relevant to his mayoralty only in the same way that Bill Clinton’s imaginative use of cigars was relevant to his presidency: an error in judgment that exposed some sloppy habits and almost cost him his job, but that has little bearing upon his ability to do that job. As a body of evidence, Ford’s ceaselessly galling behaviour is proof of breathtakingly poor judgment in life—but not necessarily in politics.

While the entire city has been distracted by the giant blowhard on the screen, the man behind the curtain has accomplished some impressive wizardry. On the labour file, Ford pulled off a previously inconceivable trifecta: he got the city’s largest union locals to sign collective agreements on his terms and outsourced waste collection west of Yonge—all while avoiding any work stoppages. Compare that record with that of David Miller, under whose watch the union’s ranks and paycheques swelled and they still saw fit to wage a strike action that left the city reeking in its own filth.

Labour costs were the main reason that, during Miller’s seven years at the helm, the city’s annual operating budget grew by roughly six per cent per year. Only two years into Ford’s tenure, expenditures have essentially flatlined, from $9.405 billion last year to $9.432 billion this year. Ford’s detractors like to say he promised to stop the gravy, then found none. It turned out that the gravy didn’t flow in rushing brown-water rapids, but in trickles through every crack in the organization. Ford has spackled many of them shut. For example, he eliminated a “running lunch” program—code for a 30-minute paid lunch—in the vehicle maintenance department, which will save the city $391,000. He merged the shop that makes road signs with Transportation Services (why were they ever apart?), saving $110,000. At Fairview Library, an automated book sorter will save $160,000. It all adds up.

The entire budget process has been opened up for the better. Torontonians learned back on November 29 that their annual tax bill would rise by 1.95 per cent (later revised to two per cent), but the real story that day wasn’t the size of the increase. It was the timing of the announcement. During Miller’s tenure, the annual tax increase, along with every other detail of the municipal budget, was kept under wraps until February. It’s a crucial difference in management style. Miller waited so he would know exactly how much money he had left over from the previous year. Ford doesn’t want to know, because he believes not knowing will force the city to spend more cautiously.

So far, he’s been right. The city no longer needs to use its own prior-year surplus to balance next year’s budget. The 2012 surplus chimed in at $232 million, and instead of desperately shovelling it down the hole of the 2013 shortfall, council used it to increase funding for arts organizations and other programs.

Council also earmarked more than $100 million of the surplus to kickstart repairs to the Gardiner Expressway. Were it not for the Ford administration’s sound budget practices, we’d be paying for the Gardiner by delaying repairs to other things. Back in November, Olivia Chow, the MP for Trinity-Spadina, called upon Ottawa to pick up part of the expressway’s repair bill. Does anyone really want a return to the days when the city cried poor and begged others for money? We tried that for more than a decade, and all we have to show for it is decrepit infrastructure. In fiscal matters at least, Rob Ford has given Toronto its self-respect back.

Still, Ford’s lapses as mayor have been as substantial as his successes. He has failed to tame the police budget, which eats up the lion’s share of city revenues. This is a fight only a right-of-centre, tough-on-crime mayor can pick. Instead, Ford intervened in the police association’s bargaining to give them plump raises even as he negotiated hard with the city’s other unions.

Most crucially, the mayor’s rallying cry of “subways subways subways” cost the city two precious years on an ill-fated attempt to build a Sheppard subway extension. With no credible plan to fund it, council turned its back on Ford and resurrected Miller’s Transit City plan—not because it was better, but because it had money behind it. The transit issue exposed Ford’s fatal weakness: he’s a lone wolf in a job that now requires a consensus builder.

The long-overdue changes Ford has made will serve the next mayor of Toronto well—whether that mayor is Ford or someone else. It should be someone else. For the post-Miller era, voters wanted to toss a bomb into city hall and blow it up. Ford made a great bomb. Now his charge is nearly spent.

But what Toronto doesn’t need is Ford’s diametric opposite. Torontonians have the emotional bad habit of loving their mayors until they can no longer stand them, at which point they replace them with their worst enemies. Mel Lastman was an adorably colourful character until he became an unbearable clown. As a councillor, David Miller was a constant thorn in Lastman’s side, then enjoyed an extended honeymoon as mayor until his handling of the 2009 garbage strike led public opinion to brand him a bum. Councillor Ford, who could get under Miller’s skin and make him itch like no other opponent…well, you get the picture.

Auditions for the role of Ford’s Worst Enemy—Adam Vaughan? Shelley Carroll?—continue in earnest. Whoever earns the mantle will likely be elected mayor in 2014. When the new mayor takes office, that person should bear in mind that Ford was nowhere near as bad as he was made out to be, and take care not to squander the clean budget books he left behind.