Memo to David Soknacki: Get Personal With Rob Ford. Today.

Some years ago, I saw David Soknacki in action, when he was a member of Scarborough City Council before the 1999 amalgamation. He impressed me as both forthright and intelligent. After some years on Toronto City Council, including a stint as chair of the budget committee, and a career in small business, he is now running for mayor.

While he is a serious candidate, he has less political profile than other certain (Karen Stintz) or possible (Olivia Chow, John Tory) contenders. He has therefore begun his campaign early to get more media and public attention before the others enter the race.

I am attracted by his promise to cancel the expensive extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway into Scarborough, and replace it with the LRT system that was originally proposed. Soknacki recognizes that the latter would be more cost efficient and that, even though the federal and provincial governments have promised to pay for part of the cost of a subway extension, that doesn’t make it a good transportation policy choice.

Soknacki also included a statement on mayoral transparency and ethics, which promised real-time disclosure of donors to his campaign, disclosure of meetings with lobby groups during his campaign, posting of his public schedule and reporting of any days absent from public business, maintaining an arms-length relationship with his business, and not serving on the board of any for-profit companies. Some elements of this statement represent a critique of Mayor Ford’s questionable practices (short workdays, frequent absences, retaining links with his family business) and it, too, is a welcome development.

When he recently declared his candidacy Mayor Ford warned that he would retaliate if anyone “got personal” with him. This is a classic instance of rhetorical reframing. Ford is trying to make the case that criticism of any aspect of his personal conduct goes beyond the limits of appropriate public debate and constitutes invasion of his privacy. Candidates, including David Soknacki, should not be taken in by Ford’s rhetoric and should feel free to criticize Ford’s conduct.

I think Soknacki’s statement on mayoral transparency and ethics is far too oblique and muted in its criticism of Rob Ford. Given Ford’s personal behaviour in office, I think it is completely reasonable for his opponents to discuss how they would behave while in office. They should commit to discharge the office of mayor with exemplary dignity, integrity, and thoughtfulness. So it would be appropriate for a candidate to say that he will not purchase and use illicit drugs, fall into, and attend public events while in, drunken stupors, and consort with criminals and persons of interest to the police. He would not spend a considerable portion of his time on voluntary activities such as coaching a football team, not because these activities are not intrinsically worthwhile, but because they are a diversion from the serious business of governing. He would not treat the office as a type of celebrity involving the handing out of bobble-head dolls for hours on end. One could go on at length because Ford has set such a low standard of behaviour. An American friend, a former municipal politician has put it well: “Ford is an embarrassment to any individual who has ever held public office.”

Unfortunately, Rob Ford has so debased public life that it is important for his opponents to talk, very specifically, about how they would behave while in office. Such a discussion is not, as Ford would have us believe, inappropriately “getting personal,” but rather the presentation of a different, and better vision, for public life and public service.

David Soknacki’s statement on mayoral transparency and ethics is a good start, but he should go farther, delivering both a critique of Ford’s failings and an alternative vision.

 

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