Mayor Rob Ford is fond of declaring that Toronto is “open for business.” It’s one of those political platitudes that doesn’t really mean much. It’s not clear how Ford’s policies have made Toronto any more business-friendly than it was previously.
What is clear, though, is that Ford’s City Hall is open to lobbyists. Really open to lobbyists.
As the mayor openly muses about transferring the responsibilities of the city’s lobbyist registrar and two other accountability offices to a part-time lawyer on retainer, records obtained through Toronto’s Open Data Initiative reveal that, on an annual basis, new lobbyist registrations at City Hall have more than doubled since Ford took office, increasing from an average of about 300 new registrations per year in the last two years of the Mayor David Miller era to almost 700 in 2011.
With the pace at which new lobbyists are registering this year, the number could easily top 800 by the end of 2012.
Here’s what that new lobbyist activity looks like visually:
Lobbying itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the best cases, registered lobbyists represent a variety of business and community interests and provide perspective to elected officials that they wouldn’t receive otherwise. There’s a reason governments opted to regulate lobbying instead of banning it completely. Done right, there’s value to it.
But Toronto has a checkered history of lobbyists getting a bit too close with councillors, which only highlights the need for close scrutiny. The MFP computer leasing scandal and the resulting inquiry pretty much defined the new rules for accountability and oversight at City Hall. That’s reason enough to be wary.
Some of the increase on the chart can be chalked up to political change. The two years prior to Ford—the only years for which there is complete data—came at the tail-end of a two-term mayor’s administration. By that point, Miller was a known quantity. Ford, on the other hand, offered a new opportunity for lobbyists of all stripes. It’s only expected that a spike would occur in the early part of a new mayor’s mandate.
That probably can’t account for the entire increase, though. The trend-line on new lobbyists has continued to increase as Ford moves into the latter half of his first term.
It’s impossible to say whether these new levels of lobbying have impacted Ford’s policy decisions, but there are some curious coincidences. For instance, I’ve spent much of the year frustrated by the mayor’s laser focus on two mostly-irrelevant issues, neither of which came up in his campaign: Plastic bags and casinos.
So it’s worth noting that lobbyists related to the plastics industry and interests concerned about plastic shopping bags have logged at least 156 meetings, emails and other communications with the mayor, councillors and staff so far this year. The casino lobby has logged 612.