With his powers stripped away and the police still looking to talk to him, Mayor Rob Ford has spent much of the last week doing what anyone would do if they were in his situation: chatting with the U.S. media.
He’s done Fox News, CNN and the Today Show so far. It’s a desperation move, and I’m not exactly sure why Ford or his councillor brother Doug — who has inserted himself in almost all of the mayor’s media appearances — think this will help. The U.S. media is interested because the Fords are a perverse spectacle, not because they’re dying to hear about the mayor’s supposed policy achievements.
About all that’s smart about the Ford media strategy is that their chosen interviewers tend to have only basic knowledge of Toronto politics, meaning that the Fords can repeat things that are totally untrue without getting challenged. So let’s try to fix that. In the interest of helping out reporters in the U.S. and around the world who might interview our famous mayor, here are five things Rob Ford will tell you that you really shouldn’t believe.
#1: That he’s saved Toronto a billion dollars
He has not. I have been fighting a battle against Ford’s billion-dollar claim for almost a year, with articles like this and this and this. Others have picked up the torch, like the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale. Even Adrienne Batra, who worked as the mayor’s press secretary, has thrown cold water on the claim.
It’s not true.
After Ford started getting challenged on this, he added a standard disclaimer to the boast, pointing out that his numbers come direct from City Manager Joe Pennachetti and Chief Financial Officer Rob Rossini.
But I never doubted that his numbers come from city staff. They’re all close enough to legitimate figures when taken in isolation. The problem comes when Ford insists on mashing a bunch of disparate numbers together.
His billion-dollar boast includes things like revenue cuts projected over four years that are wrongly classified as budget savings, savings from contracting out garbage collection projected over the seven-year life of the contract, some double-counted savings, and a bunch of vague efficiency savings — many of which are based on hypotheticals and, either way, don’t differ too much from the amounts previous councils have “saved” year-over-year.
Ask him why so many people say his numbers don’t add up. If he says city staff have verified that he’s saved a billion dollars, ask him if he can prove it.
#2: That he inherited a bankrupt city
Ford likes to talk about how he inherited a city on the verge of bankruptcy. But he actually inherited a city with a $364-million surplus, an excellent credit rating and a per-capita debt level lower than many other North American cities, including Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.
Ford used the entirety of that surplus to fund a property tax freeze right after he took office. He’s since funded low year-over-year property tax increases by refusing to increase transit operating funding beyond 2010 levels — even as ridership grows.
Ford brags about reducing the city’s debt, but what he means is that he’s reduced projected 10-year capital debt by implementing a mysterious “financing strategy” that seems to amount to a vague plan to sell off city-owned assets. In fact, the city’s debt load has actually gone up under Ford’s tenure, and recently he voted with Toronto City Council to issue up to $910 million in new debt to fund a subway extension.
Ask him about that.
#3: That he is responsible for the city’s construction boom or falling unemployment
On this subject, Ford has a curious habit of overstating figures for no reason. I don’t know why. The city unemployment rate did go down during his term: from 9.4 per cent when he took office to around seven per cent this past summer. But Ford likes to claim the unemployment rate when he took office was somewhere around 11 per cent. It’s never been clear why he insists on taking a legitimate good news story and throwing in an unnecessary exaggeration.
Anyway, the best response to any sort of Ford boast along these lines is to ask him to identify specific policies he’s put in place that he thinks contributed to job growth. You might also want to ask him why the city unemployment rate appears to be on the rise again — and if he thinks he’s responsible for that, too.
The same goes for the city’s construction boom, only there it’s even harder for Ford to brag: the city has been enjoying a condo boom since long before Ford took office. If he insists on taking credit, ask him if he has a time machine.
#4: That he has the support of the people
Ford’s approval rating is somewhere around 40 per cent, which might seem high, but stacks up terribly when compared to past municipal approval ratings. Toronto mayors have routinely enjoyed approval ratings higher than 50 per cent. In May 2004, Mayor David Miller enjoyed an 82 per cent approval rating. In November 1998, Mayor Mel Lastman was at 75 per cent.
Even still, Ford’s approval number is actually worse than it looks. According to recent poll numbers by Ipsos-Reid, only 34 per cent of people think Ford is trustworthy. When they asked about next year’s election, a full 62 per cent said there is no way they would vote for Ford under any circumstances. When Ipsos polled likely match-ups for next year’s municipal election they found Ford could only count on about 20 per cent of the vote in most multi-candidate match-ups.
Ford Nation is tiny, the mayor isn’t Teflon, and there isn’t a politician in Canada who is envious of Ford’s poll numbers. Ask him if he can prove otherwise.
#5: That he’s never wasted taxpayer money
Ford’s big line of defence against the crack cocaine story is that it happened on his personal time. Thus, he can still claim to have never been involved in what he calls a “money scandal.”
He offers the provincial government’s decision to spend $1.1 billion cancelling a gas plant to save Liberal seats as an example of a “money scandal.” But Ford is no stranger to similar cancellation costs.
On his first day in office, Ford unilaterally put a stop to the construction of four fully-funded light rail transit lines. We later found out that he had no legal authority to stop the work. Before council overruled that decision a year later, the cost of the cancellation was estimated at more than $65 million, with about $45 million in additional sunk costs.
That wasn’t a one-time thing, either. Ford was also more than happy to sign off on at least $85 million worth of cancellation costs related to the previously-approved Scarborough LRT.
Ford’s not free from expense scandals either. In the fall of 2012, two TTC buses were dispatched to pick up the football team the mayor was coaching at the time. There’s also been allegations that the mayor used his staff to help run football teams he coached.
More recently, police surveillance documents released by the courts include interviews with former Ford staffers who claimed the mayor sometimes asked his publicly-funded office staff to run various personal errands for him — everything from picking up liquor to coming to his house to change light bulbs.
None of that has been proven in court, of course. But you can still ask him about it.