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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.

  • atorontoguy

    I think this article gives way too much credit to Ford directly, e.g. “Ford doesn’t want to know” and so it goes too far. I think the credit for the budget has to go to Del Grande and Holyday and the budget committee. Same for the labour negotiations. Ford was not the guy. When Ford was elected, he farmed out the selection for committees. So even then, Ford cannot take full credit. He’s really a figure-head, lightning-rod similar to Dubya. At least, Ford has some competent councillors on his side.

    As for saving money, this really should not be a political issue. It’s a ‘running a sane organization’ issue. The points about running lunch and signs shop? These are small potatoes compared to the police budget. Ford, if he had gotten his way, would have pushed us into a disastrous Sheppard subway plan. There would have been any number of back-room deals with developers to get some development cash and who knows what else and it would have fallen apart in the end to be paid by us taxpayers. We still have to see what crappy sell-out deal is going to go down for the casino.

    I like the way council works, keeping some tabs on the mayor and his brother’s excesses. I like that the councillors have worked together to control costs. It’s completely unfair to give the credit to Ford.

  • W. K. Lis

    One good thing coming to city hall is that there is more citizen participation or interest in what is going on at city all. I don’t mean the professional protesters, like OCAP or it’s leader John Clarke, but regular people. The regular people who used to only get interested at election time, but now regularly read, listen, comment, or surf the internet about city hall than most times prior.

  • Brandon Quigley

    Respectfully, this article misses the boat. All the little things add up, sure, but do they add up to the $2.05 billion that Ford promised in cost savings in his platform? No, of course, not. And that points to a huge financial illiteracy. A great run-down can be found here:
    In fact, one could probably find lots of “little things” that miller did to reduce cost savings as well. Heck, one could have written the last sentence of the article about Miller at the end of his term as well.
    There seems to be a common misconception that the media buys into that budget cuts automatically equal financial responsibility.
    In fact, this article is kind of in opposition to the author’s piece about the Gardener and transportation funding, as Ford’s financial approach and allergy to revenues and spending (including when the same approach is taken provincially & federally) is exactly what’s caused our crumbling infrastructure.
    I will agree that for all the smoke and fire, Ford’s reign has been mostly a soft right continuation of the status quo at city hall.

  • Brian Young

    Rob Ford is a petulant and bullying child. His behaviour is a stain on our city.

    The only virtue this article praises is his putative economic reform which is no more than a simplistic and self-serving attitude of cut, cut, cut. His attitude is borne of spoiled entitlement and utter ignorance of what the adult world requires of those who struggle for dignity and an honest living. As pretend mayor, he clearly wants everyone who won’t play his game his way out of the sandbox. He bullies and prevaricates and sloganizes to get his way.

    His divisive attitude, heralded by the words of that other childish buffoon, Don Cherry, at the mayor’s inauguration, has debased the tone of the city. His advocacy of a casino is merely the latest stumble into the dirt.

    Our child-mayor is utterly deaf to the concerns of citizens in need of something more than stripped-down, basic services, but of a sense that Toronto is a city worthy of respect, one we can all be proud of.

  • LogicToronto

    Every one of Rob Ford’s “achievements” is completely centred around spending less money. On that single aspect of the mayoralty, it can be said he is doing an adequate job, as this article suggests.

    My issue is that Ford utterly fails in every other aspect of the job. Where is his policy for growth, investment, building infrastructure and improving city service? Ford constantly talks about respecting the taxpayer and saving us money but he never seems to have any policy for making the city better.

    To be a truly great mayor, you have to do more than just save money. Ford isn’t trying to do anything but.

  • Christina Archer

    Something else for Our Mayor to gloat about. He has no vision for this city. I have not seen his response to four fifteen year old boys being shot. No vision, no caring. A radio show . How does he find the time for it. People have been driven apart by Ford. Where’s the vision, RobandDoug?

  • tablogloid

    The only vision there has been was one of a Ferris Wheel and even that was his brother Doug’s dream

  • carbonman

    That’s true – I’ve been to a #TOpoli ‘WTF’ event this year that I would have skipped in the past and I’m more engaged now with local politics simply as a result of being completely pissed off with Ford. Can’t wait to vote him out in 2014

  • Nick

    Dear Philip, please read Matt Elliot’s more thorough analysis of Ford’s budgetary “accomplishments”: (Matt also debunked the graph that appeared in the printed version of your article on January 23 of this year…). Best, Nick

  • Angie Mac

    This was one of the most unbiased articles I’ve ever read about Ford. Good read!

  • Gigi

    A good mayor — a GREAT mayor — has a vision for every citizen of his/her city. Not just the ones who voted for him. Ford doesn’t have that. Whatever good he’s done for Toronto is overshadowed by his blind ambition and his inability to stop being his own worst enemy. Personally I’m tired of all of the lies, and the apologies that invariably follow. The semantic games are an annoyance as well. “I didn’t say that I didn’t smoke crack…the reporters didn’t ask me the right questions.” Oh brother!

  • robert franklin stroud

    This article it too fair! I am unaccustomed to ready such things in a Toronto publication. Please make certain the next article focuses on how fat the Mayor is particularly when compared to the handsome David Miller. Thank you.

  • robert franklin stroud

    You can’t do much if you are broke and “getting broker” feathering the beds of your union buddies and paying our public servants like they are our public masters. We tried the vision thing with Miller for six years and all I see for it was money squandered for self-serving crony interests. Let’s try to keep the books in line for six years and see how things are after that.

    Whatever Ford’s many vices (by the way, the guy is looking better lately with the exercise and lack of alcohol I assume) one is not a desire to view my money as his.

  • Lumpsinmygravy9

    Rob Ford is a cancer on the city of Toronto, end of.

  • DryDry

    “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.”

    THESE are the best examples you could find?

    These don’t even total ONE million, let alone a THOUSAND million.