by Rob Gillies and Charmaine Noronha
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford admitted during a heated City Council debate Wednesday that he had bought illegal drugs in the past two years, but he firmly refused to step down even after nearly every councilor stood up to ask him to take a leave of absence.
The mayor made the confession under direct questioning by a former ally, Councilor Denzil Minnan-Wong. Ford publicly admitted last week that he smoked crack cocaine last year in a “drunken stupor,” but his comments Wednesday marked the first time he acknowledged having bought illegal drugs.
Ford paused for a long time after Minnan-Wong asked him if he had bought illicit narcotics in the past two years.
Then Ford replied, “Yes I have.”
“I understand the embarrassment that I have caused. I am humiliated by it,” Ford said.
But he then turned defiant, saying he was not an addict of any sort and rebuffing suggestions from council members that he should seek help. He insisted he is a “positive role model for kids who are down and out.”
“I’m most definitely keeping this job,” he said. “I am not leaving here. I’m going to sit here and going to attend every meeting.”
Moments earlier, all but two of the 43 councilors present for the debate voted to accept an open letter asking Ford to step aside.
Although it was a stark demonstration of his political isolation, the vote was symbolic because the City Council does not have the authority to force the mayor from office unless he is convicted of a crime.
“Together we stand to ask you to step aside and take a leave of absence,” Councilor Jaye Robinson said, reading the open letter.
The packed council chamber erupted with applause when Robinson ended her speech, saying “Let’s get on with city business.”
Outside City Hall, hundreds of protesters changed “resign!” And organizers of Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade asked that Ford not walk in the procession this year.
Ford’s refusal to resign has confounded the City Council, where many members agree that his erratic behavior – from public drunkenness to threatening to kill someone in a videotaped tirade – has consumed Toronto’s politics and undermined efforts to tackle other challenges.
But with no clear legal path to force him out, the Council is grasping for ways to shunt the larger-than-life leader aside and govern without him until next year’s municipal elections.
The open letter was separate from a non-binding motion, also being debated Wednesday, that would formally call on Ford to take a leave of absence, apologize to Toronto residents for misleading them and cooperate with police.
Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, a Ford ally, announced shortly before the debate that he would support the motion, introduced by Minnan-Wong.
“I’m publicly advising the mayor to take some time,” Kelly said.
Minnan-Wong said he would drop another proposal to ask the province of Ontario to pass legislation to remove the mayor from office if he refuses to take a leave. Other councilors had expressed concern that asking the provincial government to intervene would set a dangerous precedent.
Councilor Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother, heckled Minnan-Wong throughout the debate.
One Ford ally, Councilor Giorgio Mammoliti, called the motion a waste of time. “We can’t tell him what to do. Only the electorate can tell him what to do,” he said.
Toronto police said last month they had obtained a long-sought video of Ford apparently smoking from a crack pipe but that it does not constitute evidence to charge him. Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash said Ford’s acknowledgement Wednesday that he bought illegal drugs would be passed on to investigators.
News reports of the crack video’s existence first surfaced in May, but it has not been released publicly.
Another proposed motion would curtail Ford’s powers, suspending his authority to appoint and dismiss the deputy mayor and his executive committee, which runs the budget process. It likely won’t be debated until Friday.
Toronto’s mayor already has limited powers compared to the mayors of many large cities in the United States. He is just one voting member in the council and his power stems mostly from his ability, as the only councilor elected by citywide vote, to build consensus and set the agenda. That authority, many council members say, has evaporated in the crack scandal.
Ford, 44, was elected three years ago, riding a backlash from suburbanites who felt alienated by what they deemed Toronto’s downtown-centric, liberal-dominated politics.
Despite his eroding political leverage, Ford promises to seek re-election. He maintains a hardcore of supporters he refers to as “Ford Nation,” who applaud him for abolishing an annual $60 vehicle registration tax, squeezing valuable concessions out of the labor unions and other cost-saving measures.
Councilors have expressed concern that more revelations about the mayor’s will surface and plague city politics.
On Tuesday, a judge agreed to release more documents from a drug case against a friend and occasional driver of the mayor, Alexander Lisi. Previously released documents revealed the mayor’s ties and covert meetings with Lisi.
Police said they obtained the crack video in the course of the investigation against Lisi and a gang. They say they cannot release the video because it is evidence before the court.
Ford was grilled by councilors about his links to a Toronto home where he was photographed with three suspected gang members. A police informant has described the residence as a “crack house” and police have said it relates to the crack video.
“That is not a crack house,” Ford said. “Have you been in that house?”
Councilor Michael Thompson retorted: “I have no interest in being in that house. I am not a crack user.” – AP