Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Is the tide turning against Toronto Mayor Rob Ford?

Marcus Gee

Is the tide turning against Toronto Mayor Rob Ford?

MARCUS GEE | Columnist profile | E-mail
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
In the first seven months of his four-year term, everything went Rob Ford’s way. His moves to trim minor expenses, cut an unpopular tax and expand the contracting-out of garbage pick-up sailed through with relative ease. Kept under tight control by his staff, he avoided the verbal bloopers and dubious behaviour that marked his 10-year run as a dissident city councillor.
In the past few weeks, though, things have been going sideways. The mayor’s inexplicable decision to boycott all of Pride Week gave off a whiff of intolerance and alienated many voters. His ham-handed conduct of the budget review at city hall is making even fiscally conservative residents wonder about his leadership.

City councillors are hearing from voters who are alarmed over all the talk about cutting back on street cleaning, closing children’s attractions such as Riverdale Farm or shuttering some libraries. Reacting to more than 300 messages against library closings, TTC chair Karen Stintz, a leading member of the mayor’s administration, made a point of declaring publicly on Wednesday that she could not support shutting library branches.

“A week ago somebody came up to me on Mt. Pleasant and said, ‘What the heck is this guy doing?’ ” said North Toronto Councillor Josh Matlow. “ ‘I voted for lower taxes and no service cuts. That was what I was promised. Meanwhile, the mayor is suggesting more taxes and lower services.’ ”

If things were not bad enough for the mayor’s camp, his brother, Councillor Doug “The Smart One” Ford, poured oil on the book pile by declaring he would close at least one Etobicoke library in a “heartbeat.” Reminded that novelist Margaret Atwood had joined a save-the-libraries campaign, he declared that “she could walk by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.” It did not help that he has the habit of dropping one of the R’s when he says “libraries,” pronouncing it “lie-berries.”

The next day, he tried to explain himself to Global News. “What I was saying is, everyone knows who Margaret Atwood is. But if she were to come up to 98 per cent of the people, they wouldn’t know who she was. But I think she’s a great writer and I look forward to her input.” Ms. Atwood must be grateful for the endorsement.

The very same day that Doug Ford was getting in hot water, his brother the mayor was caught up in the affair that Twitter is calling “fingergate.” A local artist, Ottilie Mason, says she was driving on Dundas with her young daughter when she saw Mr. Ford talking on his cellphone in his van. When she made a thumbs-down gesture to indicate he should obey the law against phoning while driving, she says he gave her the finger.

The mayor’s press secretary now admits that he was on the phone – “He is a very busy guy; the phone is ringing constantly” – but “he did not give anyone a rude gesture. That’s where we believe the misunderstanding took place.”

Of course, when Mr. Ford was caught shouting drunken insults at an out-of-town couple during a 2006 hockey game, he denied that too, only to admit it later and apologize. An extended middle finger is not easily misunderstood. Someone is not telling the truth here.

The mayor’s handlers seem to realize that things are getting out of hand for their guy. As city hall prepared for a big meeting on budget cuts, they sent Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti to the press gallery to try to explain the mayor’s driving lapse and change the channel back to budget issues.

Unlike many public officials, Mr. Mammoliti explained, the mayor drives himself around in his van and can’t make calls while others chauffeur him. Mr. Ford, he offered, is a “different” kind of mayor.

He can say that again.

Minister rejects concerns about judicial discretion

Nicholson rebuffs CBA critics
Minister rejects concerns about judicial discretion

HALIFAX — Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson brushed off a barrage of criticism for his tough-on-crime policies during his annual appearance at the Canadian Bar Association’s conference in Halifax last week.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson faced tough questions at the CBA conference last week.
Earlier, the CBA’s council passed a string of resolutions sponsored by its criminal justice section calling for the federal government to tone down legislation expanding mandatory minimum sentences for certain offences by inserting a so-called safety valve in Criminal Code amendments.

It also asked Nicholson to reconsider the policies in the light of their costs through increased imprisonment and their effects on the aboriginal community and mentally ill offenders.

But Nicholson stood firm under questioning from lawyers and reporters, insisting that lawmakers are entitled to give guidance to the court and that voters had endorsed his approach during the federal election in May.

“That is our job. We set the guidelines where we believe they are appropriate. There are a number of mandatory minimums already existing in the criminal justice system. I would suggest the ones we have introduced are reasonable and appropriate under the circumstances.

I think that’s part of our mandate that we are given as legislators. We set maximum sentences, and in some cases where we believe it’s appropriate, we set minimum sentences.”

Manitoba lawyer Josh Weinstein attempted to extract a compromise from Nicholson through one motion at council that called for a safety valve allowing judges to consider other sentencing options “where injustice could result by the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence.”

According to Weinstein, the safety valve could kick in when offenders have mental illnesses or other conditions, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. He said legislatures in Britain, Australia, and South Africa have all implemented similar provisions alongside mandatory minimum legislation.

“Judicial discretion allows judges to take into account a number of factors in relation to sentencing an offender, taking into account both the offender and the offence. With the imposition of mandatory minimums, that is eroded and in some cases absolutely gone.

It’s hopefully a starting point of an approach that we could take with the government to deal with injustices that are occurring with respect to sentencing.”

Montreal litigator Simon Potter said he worries the government is showing a lack of trust in judges to do their job, something he calls a “very dangerous path” to tread.

“To throw in what is merely a safety valve to allow a justice as a last resort and as a matter of simple justice in a particular case to go back to judging is a minimal step we can take to preserve some balance,” he said.

But Nicholson shot the idea down at the conference, claiming judicial discretion remained intact. “I think we’re giving that discretion to the courts. We set the maximum, which is our obligation to do, and in some cases we set a minimum, and within that framework, the judiciary can decide what’s appropriate,” he said.

Supporting a separate resolution, Brad Regehr, chairman of the CBA’s national aboriginal law section, said he feared an increase in the number of mandatory minimum sentences would exacerbate the overrepresentation of First Nations peoples in Canada’s jails.

In Manitoba, where he works, 75 per cent of inmates are aboriginal despite making up just 15 per cent of the population.

“Mandatory minimum sentences are doing absolutely nothing to resolve this ongoing crisis,” Regehr said, adding that the government’s policies may be at odds with the Supreme Court’s decision in R. v. Gladue.

It requires judges to give special consideration to the unique circumstances and challenges facing aboriginal people in the justice system.

“My fear and the likelihood is that these changes will impact aboriginal people the hardest and most disproportionately and simply add to a problem which stains Canada’s international reputation.”

But Nicholson said it would be hard to predict the effect of the legislation on rates of aboriginal incarceration ahead of time. “Mandatory minimums apply to everyone,” he said.

In addition, Nicholson touted the success of his department’s aboriginal justice strategy. “It does reduce the recidivism rate when people get involved with the strategy,” he said. “I wouldn’t support the aboriginal justice strategy if I didn’t think it was making a positive difference.”

Another avenue of CBA attack came from the projected cost of tougher sentences.

Backing a resolution that called on the federal government to reveal the cost of its crime bills, Saskatchewan prosecutor Loreley Berra told the CBA council she had “no doubt that the public supports the stance of tough on crime” but called it “uninformed support and uninformed consent on the issue.”

She pointed to a report by the parliamentary budget officer estimating the cost of Nicholson’s truth-in-sentencing bill at around $5 billion over five years. That’s roughly twice the official government estimate.

“Where are these funds coming from? Is it coming from health care, the environment or other resources?” Berra asked.

Nicholson reiterated the government estimates and said some other measures, including his megatrials bill to streamline large-scale prosecutions, would actually save money.

“Canadians are very clear that they are prepared to pay the cost of keeping individuals that shouldn’t be on the street off the street,” he said.

For more on the CBA conference, see "Bar drops ball in national class actions."