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Ford's Leadership is Lacking and Toronto's Weak-Mayor Model Covers Up His Faults

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Toronto's frigid temperatures aside, the kick off of the Direct Engagement Series at the Rivoli got off to a half decent start, the limited skills of the host not withstanding. Considering that even as I walked to the stage I was fielding questions about whether I would run for mayor again, it's clearer to me now that the transition from recovering politician to host is going to take a while.

With a cast of 5 panelists, including 2 City Councillors, a journalist, a small business person and an academic, we bit into our chosen topic "Is political leadership at City Hall failing Toronto?" By design, the question allowed for a fair range of ways one might approach it.

Councillor Gord Perks, perceiving the question as an attack on government as a force for good, and chose to defend Toronto. He hardly laid a glove on the current mayor, nor did he offer any glimpse about how a lefty would run against the current office holder if and when it comes to that.

More puzzling yet was the performance of potential mayoral candidate and current TTC Chair Karen Stintz. She was painstaking in her efforts to compliment the Mayor and several of her quotes could feature glowingly in his campaign literature. Even on the topic of transit, where Perks and Stintz share in Council success, they ducked the chance to make the point that the Mayor could not rally support for his own transit plan.

It made we wonder whether people actually think that by damning the mayor with faint praise -- with comments like "he has done what he came to do" -- they think they can turn him into yesterday's man (despite the fact that his biggest promise to scrap the land transfer tax hasn't been touched). If that is the play, I don't think it's going to work, because like it or not, Ford has a brand message that will always have a dynamic constituency and media mouthpieces to back it up.

That Stintz and Perks largely took a pass on highlighting any problem where they felt that leadership is lacking reminded me that the prevailing culture at City Hall is shaped by a weak-Mayor/Ward-healer model, a model where a leadership vacuum at the top simply provides more latitude for Councillors to play.

Doc von Lichtenberg, the owner of Doc's Leathers on Queen Street West, was unceasingly focused on making these Councillors aware that small business owners are on the front lines of neighbourhoods and that their daily struggle means dealing with a myriad of rules, regulations and costs that are tough to handle.

Sean Stanleigh of the Globe's Report on Small Business, mindful that the ruling on Ford will be released soon, tried right up to the end to get one of the Councillors to announce their intention to run for Mayor. Neither Did.

Ryerson's Mitchell Kosny channelled Jane Jacobs in reminding us that good things rarely happen by one person acting alone and that the organic nature of cities means that leadership is constantly being provided by people across sectors and certainly beyond politics.

But who rallies the troops to march in the same direction?

For my two cents worth, I think the weak-mayor model that we have works as cover for the incoherent and distracted leadership style of Ford because expectations have been suppressed for so long (only 1 vote of 45 after all).

While it is true that progress needs many sources of leadership, there is only one person elected to speak for and to lead our city and right now that person is incapable of leading on a full agenda, as evidenced by his utter failure in framing a consensus on transit.

That having been said, I think that the problems we have with transportation in our urban region are so far gone that they have become bigger than the fiscal capacity of governments today. It is time to create a body with the power to raise revenue and invest in projects. Metrolinx may have the right geography, but the idea that only non-elected appointees have the courage to do the right thing is a defeatist sentiment and needs to be re visited.

Many people are leaders, but politicians ask for approval to lead.

This Friday Torontonians will learn whether their approval is soon again to be sought.

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