'Weak mayor' system keeps Toronto ticking through crack controversy
* City's business gets done despite accusation against mayor
* Mayor Rob Ford denies allegations by media of drug use
By Julie Gordon
TORONTO, May 30 (Reuters) - Between the army of reporters camped at his door and an exodus of top aides, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has endured a tough two weeks since allegations surfaced that he was caught smoking crack cocaine on video, something he staunchly denies.
For North America's fourth-largest city, however, it's been mostly business as usual thanks to a "weak mayor" political system that limits the executive's influence and puts more power in the hands of the city council. Council meetings on city business and other day-to-day operations have carried on regardless of the ruckus at City Hall.
To pass a motion in council, the Toronto mayor must secure the support of a majority of councillors. And if the council votes against his wishes, Ford has no power to veto or overturn that decision.
"The mayor is the chief executive officer - he presides at meetings and is the person that does ribbon cuttings," said John Mascarin, a municipal law expert with Aird & Berlis LLP in Toronto. "But the mayor generally doesn't have more than a single vote at council."
The post is more ceremonial than in other large North American cities like New York and Chicago where mayors have the power to veto any bill approved by the city councils. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has embraced the "strong mayor" system to advance his public health agenda, including requiring fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts and barring restaurants from cooking with trans fats.
No stranger to controversy in his political career, Ford made international headlines after the Toronto Star and Gawker Media reported on May 16 that they had seen a video that purports to show the mayor using illegal drugs.
Ford issued a denial on Friday after several city councillors and allies encouraged him to confront the issue directly.
"There has been a serious accusation from the Toronto Star that I use crack cocaine. I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine," he told a news conference.
Reuters cannot confirm the existence of the video or its content. A spokesman for the Toronto police said on Thursday they continue to monitor the situation but gave no further comment.
The crack allegations could cause Ford to lose allies, analysts say, making the last year of his already rocky term even tougher than previous ones.
Ford enjoys a hard core of support from a segment of Toronto voters, particularly in the suburbs, who lifted him to power in 2010 on a platform of controlling spending and cutting taxes, along the line of the Tea Party agenda in the United States.
"You can think of him as the Tea Party candidate," said Ivor Tossell, a journalist and author of the biography "The Gift of Ford". "He arrived at the height of the Tea Party movement, in the height of the recession and he had a clear message that resonated at that moment."
Early on his mayoral term, Ford was successful in controlling Toronto's City Hall, wrangling the right-leaning votes to repeal an unpopular vehicle registration tax and privatized garbage collection for half of the city.
But things soon turned sour. The mayor's plan to build a subway in suburban Toronto was voted down by council, which chose instead to build above-ground light-rail train lines.
The council has always been divided, with the city's downtown core mainly represented by left-leaning councillors and suburban areas like Etobicoke represented by right-leaning councillors like Ford. But a series of missteps has eroded Ford's support among councillors on the right.
"What this scandal has done, I think, is weakened support for the mayor among those councillors who he could count as pretty durable allies," said Phil Triadafilopoulos, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
Indeed, Ford lost a key vote last week to bring a full-service casino to the city. And his executive committee, which decides council's agenda, was overruled on a decision not to debate new funding for a regional transit plan in council.
The mayor often touts his own austerity record, and under his administration staffing has been sharply trimmed at City Hall, saving the city millions. And, for the first time in more than 15 years, Toronto's operating budget was balanced in 2013 without using the prior year's surplus.
But the anti-tax Ford was also required to raise property taxes by 2 percent in 2013 and 2.5 percent in 2012, with business taxes and transit fares also climbing. He did not raise taxes in 2011, instead adjusting "user fees".
While Ford continues to chair city meetings and the council appears to be getting work done, things are less smooth in his own office. Ford fired his chief of staff last week and then his press secretary and deputy press secretary quit on Monday.
Ford is, so far, benefiting from the fact that the mysterious video has not surfaced for mass consumption. Three reporters from two separate media outlets say they have seen it. Gawker Media, which was the first outlet to publish the story, raised over $200,000 to buy the video and post it online, but its editor says he has lost contact with the owner.
"If it doesn't show up pretty soon, I think people had better maybe curtail their allegations because that video is needed to show there's hard proof of anything," Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, a Ford ally, told Reuters. "The more time goes on, the less likely its going to appear."
In the end, as long as the city continues to function, some voters may not care much about the drug use allegations. Ford's poll numbers have not changed since before the scandal broke, according to Forum Research Inc, though he does risk losing the 2014 election to a left-leaning candidate.
Marion Barry, the Washington D.C. mayor, was arrested on drug charges after he was videotaped smoking crack cocaine in 1990. He served six months in jail and then went on to be re-elected as mayor and continues to serve as a popular city councillor in the U.S. capital.