Toronto Mayor Rob Ford will apparently be keeping his job. An appeals court has overturned a previous court decision that had said Ford violated the province’s conflict of interest law.
The decision came down today from the Divisional Court which heard Ford’s appeal of his November conviction. The panel of three judges has now concluded that the original trial judge made an error in finding Ford guilty under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
Many Torontonians were bewildered by the original verdict, and by the fact that it could result (as required by the Act) in Ford’s removal from office and a multi-million-dollar by-election. Ford’s offence, after all, was hardly armed robbery. He was merely accused of participating in a city council vote on a relatively small financial matter. The question under consideration at that vote was whether he should return a few thousand dollars’ worth of donations that the city’s integrity commissioner says were improperly gathered. So it’s not as if Ford had stolen the money, or embezzled it. And garnering the donations was not itself a legal offence. The problem lay solely in his having voted on this matter, a matter in which he had a personal stake.
But bewilderment about that initial verdict says more about public understanding of conflict of interest than it does about the substance of this case. Conflict of interest isn’t about numbers; it’s about loyalty. And when we think someone has violated a conflict of interest rule it’s not necessarily because we think he or she has made an improper decision, but rather that we think he or she has failed to keep personal business and official duties separate, and that as a result we cannot be sure about what factors may have influenced that decision. It is also, in the end, about public faith in the decision-making processes of our most important institutions.
Be that as it may, today’s decision means that Ford gets to keep his job on a legal technicality. Fair enough from a procedural point of view. But the court’s verdict is far from a vindication. It doesn’t mean the mayor did nothing wrong. He still took part in a decision in which he had a personal stake. And as a man in a position of power and trust, he not only should not have done so, but he should have known better than to do so. Even if he knew in his heart that his vote in the matter was unbiased, he should have known that that’s beside the point. What matters is that trust in the system requires decision makers to remove themselves from decisions that pertain to their own affairs. Doing so is essential for maintaining public trust in the system.
We can only hope that Ford will proceed now with uncharacteristic humility, and with more eagerness than he has thus far demonstrated, to learn the rules that govern his position.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.