In Conversation with Philip Slayton

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In almost every corner of Canada, big-city mayors are behaving poorly. Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford is only the most famous example.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/05/2015 (2755 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In almost every corner of Canada, big-city mayors are behaving poorly. Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford is only the most famous example.

In London, Ont., former mayor Joe Fontana was convicted of fraud. Former Montreal mayor Michael Applebaum and Laval’s ex-mayor Gilles Vaillancourt face criminal charges. Former Brampton mayor Susan Fennell was investigated by police. Former Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz and former Halifax mayor Peter Kelly left office under clouds of scandal.

Canada’s spate of municipal malfeasance is the subject of Mayors Gone Bad, a new book by Toronto author, lawyer and former law-school dean Philip Slayton, due on shelves this Tuesday.

Slayton appears at McNally Robinson on May 26 to discuss Ford, Katz and Canada’s other illustrious mayors. In the meantime, he offered the Free Press an explanation for the country’s disappointing collection of big-city leaders.

 

Free Press: How did Canada end up with so many bad mayors?

Philip Slayton: It’s a good question. What I try to do in the book is make a connection between each spectacularly bad mayor and the nature of the office, which does not confer a great deal of power.

If the job carries a lot of expectations from the people who voted for you, but you have no ability to fulfil those expectations, you’re doomed to disappointment. So no politically savvy person who had other options available to themselves would take the job.

 

FP: How does this explain Toronto winding up with a crack-smoking buffoon such as Rob Ford?

PS: I don’t think it completely explains a large variety of cases. It neatly explains some of the bad mayors, like Peter Kelly of Halifax and Larry O’Brien in Ottawa.

Every case is different and difficult. The reason you have second-raters in these jobs is it is a second-rate job. People of political substance don’t want these jobs.

 

FP: What’s with the seemingly competent western mayors — Naheed Nenshi in Calgary, Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson and Edmonton’s Don Iveson?

PS: I think the western triangle of mayoral goodness — which may pass as a quadrangle, with the new mayor of Winnipeg, I don’t know — may not last.

I detect a souring of public pronouncements from Nenshi. He had that tremendous moment during Calgary’s flood, but I think the cold reality is setting in.

He’s at the mercy of the province. He’s started complaining bitterly about that. He’s trying to get a new deal from the premier of Alberta and it’s not helped by the fact by the premier seems to change every couple of days.

I think (Nenshi is) destined to leave.

 

FP: Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman is using the same language about wanting a better deal, but isn’t offering up specifics.

PS: All mayors say that. All mayors of major cities say they need a better deal from the province, but no mayor has any idea what this deal would look like.

Katz would always say since Winnipeg has 70 per cent of province’s population, that should translate into action at election time. But it hasn’t.

It’s really difficult to know what the solution is. Cities are a mess: most Canadians live there and most services are provided there. But the provinces don’t want to want to give up any power and the feds don’t give a s .

 

FP: You devoted a chapter to Sam Katz. What’s your take on him?

PS: On the one hand, he struck me as a clearly intelligent man and good-humoured person. But on the other hand, the history of his mayoralty — as you know better than anybody — shows a tone-deafness to certain principles, most notably conflict of interest.

It seems there was maybe an unfulfilled promise. He could have been better than he was.

In some ways he was similar to Larry O’Brien of Ottawa, who thought the city needed to be run like a business. Of course, the city is not a business and it can’t be run like a business.

Some of these guys are just not very well-educated. They enter the job without any background (in urban affairs) and just hit the ground, making decisions.

 

FP: So what’s the future for Canadian cities?

PS: I think it’s pretty gloomy. I wish I didn’t have to say that. It’s hard to see the way out.

Really, if we were rebuilding the country from scratch, we could give cities substantial constitutional status and allow them to raise their own taxes and develop their own revenue streams. But we’re not going to be able to do that. What’s essential is everyone in the country wakes up and realizes this is a big issue. Otherwise, our cities are going to continue to decline.

 

Philip Slayton interviewed Bartley Kives for his book. Both sit on the board of PEN Canada, a non-profit organization that protects freedom of speech. This interview has been edited and condensed.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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