Courtesy Marquil at EmpireWire.com
Courtesy Marquil at EmpireWire.com
Although Ontario is right here in our own backyard, we think about it when it comes to sport or culture or shopping, yet most of us are blissfully ignorant of Ontario politics. Yesterday, Ontario Superior Court Judge Charles Hackland ruled that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford be removed from office for violation of the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. Text of the decision is below.
For the uninitiated, Ford is a Tory from Etobicoke, a western suburb that is part of the City of Toronto. His family owns a label company there, and he entered politics as a Toronto city councilman in 2000. He was elected Mayor in 2010 as Torontonians sought to reduce fraud and waste in city government. He positioned himself as a populist conservative, attacking perks in members’ budgets and calling for removal of long-termers in the council. He became mayor on a platform of “putting people and families first, focusing on the fundamentals, reducing waste, and eliminating unnecessary taxes.” Think of him as a portlier, blue-collar Chris Collins.
Ford’s removal from office had nothing to do with his fiscal conservatism, and everything to do with arrogance and ignorance. In early 2010, then-councilman Ford sent letters on official City of Toronto letterhead identifying him as “Etobicoke North Councillor” soliciting donations for his private “Rob Ford Football Foundation”. He collected just over $3,000 from donors, including several city lobbyists, clients of city lobbyists, and a company that did business with Toronto. His colleagues in the council sanctioned him and ordered him to pay the money back, and a taxpayer lawsuit was filed.
“In his letter of response to the complaint, Councillor Ford wrote, ‘I do not understand why it would be inappropriate to solicit funds for an arm’s-length charitable cause using my regular employment letterhead,'” Leiper quoted him as saying.
Ford had said there was “no basis in policy or law” to stop him from fundraising this way. However, Leiper said she had advised him in December 2009 and in February 2010 that he shouldn’t fundraise in this way.
After the decision yesterday, the plaintiff’s counsel indicated that it didn’t have to be this way.
“It is tragic that the elected mayor of a great city should bring himself to this,” Ruby said. “Rob Ford did this to Rob Ford. It could have so easily been avoided. It could have been avoided if Rob Ford had used a bit of common sense and he had played by the rules.”
What they missed was a dangerous strain of arrogance. This was the mayor who called senior civil servants to his office to demand paving and other repairs outside his family business in Etobicoke. This is the mayor who used publicly paid workers in his office to help coach his high-school football team. This is the mayor who called the head of the Toronto Transit Commission to complain about a late bus that had been pulled out of service to pick up his football players. And this is the mayor who wanted the city’s accountability officers reformed out of existence when some of them questioned his conduct and policies.
Here was a guy who ran as a man of the people but acted as if he were above the limits that apply to ordinary mortals. For Rob Ford, the rules were always for somebody else. Nowhere was that clearer than in the case that led to Monday’s damning court judgment. While he was still a lowly member of city council, a position he held for a full decade, the city’s Integrity Commissioner found that he had used his status as councillor to solicit funds for his private football charity. Among the donors he approached were lobbyists and a company that does business with the city. The commissioner found that seven lobbyists or clients of lobbyists who had donated to the football charity had either lobbied Mr. Ford or registered an intent to lobby him.
The danger is obvious: if a lobbyist does a favour for a councillor – even if it means donating to a good cause – he might expect something in return. Mr. Ford, who rails about corruption at city hall, should have seen that.
Instead, he brushed off the complaint.
In Toronto, they remove their elected officials for perceived conflict of interest over $3,000 to a personal football charity. Anyone get the sense that, under those rules, practically every politician in western New York would be removed? It comes as no surprise that Canada is the 10th least corrupt nation in the world, while the United States can manage 18th.
The corruption lawsuit brought by NRP, a Cleveland developer, against some city bigshots just got itself an empty chair to which the other defendants can point. It’s alleged that the Rev. Richard Stenhouse and his Jeremiah Partnership conspired with Byron Brown, Steve Casey, and others to shut NRP out of a proposed east side housing development project unless it would retain Stenhouse’s unwanted services.
No one who pays even passing attention to Buffalo politics was surprised by it. The only surprise is that an out-of-town plaintiff with little else to lose was willing to go to war over it. Racketeering, Buffalo style: city government fails even at that.
Stenhouse’s insurance company reportedly paid $200,000 to settle the case. That leaves city officials still litigating the case, and Stenhouse is free and clear but could still be subpoenaed to testify at trial. That Stenhouse’s insurer chose to dump the case at this stage for a hefty six-figure sum is indicative of a thought there that the facts and law weren’t shaping up all that favorably. And instead of paying Stenhouse $80,000 for unwanted “services”, NRP itself got paid for enduring the insult.
But I’ll take note of something else that troubles me about Stenhouse and his Jeremiah Partnership. The east side, as we all know, is not at a loss for housing; it’s at a loss for habitable housing. There are thousands of vacant homes blighting the city, abandoned to the clinging remnants of once-thriving neighborhoods. To modernize each one costs a small fortune – especially if one is poor. New windows, new siding, lead paint remediation, structural repairs, updating the utilities – these cost loads of money that are seldom justified by a concomitant rise in home value. That’s why land banking is a viable option for much of Buffalo, and why the state passed a land banking law, and why Empire State Development is accepting land banking bids.
This program permits municipalities to apply for and create land banks in their communities. Pursuant to Article 16 of the New York State Not-for-Profit Corporation Law, signed into law by Governor Cuomo in July 2011, certain municipalities are permitted to create land banks upon approval of ESD. Land banks are not-for-profit corporations created to take control and redevelop vacant or abandoned properties to where they can better serve the public interest.
- In order to combat the problem of vacant and abandoned properties, the program permits local communities to create land banks to be utilized by communities to facilitate the return of vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties to productive use.
- The primary focus of land bank operations is the acquisition of real property that is tax delinquent, tax foreclosed, vacant and/or abandoned, and to use the tools of the program to eliminate the harms and liabilities caused by such properties.
- Ten land banks will be permitted to be created within New York State.
Eligibility, Criteria & Additional Program Information
Eligibility, criteria and additional program information, can be found in the Land Bank Program Guidelines. For additional information, please review the Land Bank Act (Article 16 of the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law).
And what is the Stenhouse track record of improving and lifting up the community? David Torke at the FixBuffalo blog will tell you all about it. Take, for instance, 38 Ada Place. A quaint little one-block street of once-tidy homes, Ada Place has loads of rehabilitation potential, given its proximity to Main Street and Canisius.
Rev. Stenhouse’s organization Bethel Community Development Corporation purchased 38 Ada Place in 2002. Three years ago I included a post about 38 Ada Place in a six part series about a failed neighborhood housing plan. Rev. Stenhouse wanted to be part of that plan. 38 Ada Place looked like this in March 2009.
Rev. Stenhouse was invited to Housing Court for his failure to properly maintain a string of houses across the street from his Bethel AME Church, near the corner of East Ferry and Michigan and directly across the street from one of the City’s newest school renovations – Performing Arts. He later resigned from the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority when he plead guilty in Buffalo’s Housing Court in 2007. He’d been appointed by Governor Pataki to be the Control Board’s Secretary and Treasurer in 2004.
What happened to that failed neighborhood housing plan? It’s dead. Rev. Stenhouse and his now defunct Jeremiah Partnership are defendants in a Federal “Pay-to-Play” lawsuit. Here’s a copy of that lawsuit filed on behalf of a Cleveland Ohio based developer NRP Group in June 2011. According to public records the Jeremiah Partnership failed to file the required 990’s for three consecutive years. The IRS has revoked its exempt status.
It would seem to me that the Rev. Stenhouse is already in water far too deep for his own abilities, and that he ought to concentrate on the structures he already owns, rather than allegedly conspiring with city officials to clumsily strong-arm developers into a job or a contract.
It’s indicative of the fact that the city isn’t about governing, per se, it’s about enrichment through money and the use of power. Through land banking and a strong homesteader program with grants and no-interest loans for people to fix up old homes, we can shore up what’s good, land bank what’s not, and try to rebuild communities block by block using existing home stock, rather than vinyl ranch homes that look more at home in Cheektowaga than a few blocks from the central business district.
Also, a Buffalo News headline claimed that Mayor Brown, in a Friday court filing, “took the offensive” and “countersues”. The case docket with the District Court reveals that the defendants have filed no counterclaim. In fact, what was filed on Friday is a Federal Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss; in this instance, it’s been filed in lieu of a formal Answer to the Complaint, because the defendants argue that the plaintiff has no case. In the old days, it was called a “demurrer“. But no counterclaim or “countersuit” has been filed, and the headline author was incorrect on that point.
In its papers, the defendants say that the “pay to play” allegations are untrue because Stenhouse never made a contribution to the Mayor. That’s true, as far as we know. However, the Jeremiah Partnership is a faith-based organization, and as such may be exempt or legally barred from making political contributions. However, it’s not Stenhouse or Jeremiah that’s alleged to have “paid” to play, but that they conspired with city officials to make NRP pay Jeremiah Partnership to secure a lucrative development contract.
You can read the relevant parts of the Mayor’s and Steve Casey’s motion below. Defendant Demone Smith filed a similar motion on Friday. Much of what’s written there is bluster and public relations about NRP’s own reputation.