Toronto Mayor Rob Ford
Credits: VERONICA HENRI/QMI AGENCY
When I was Mayor Rob Ford's press secretary, the city hall press gallery used to ask me relentlessly, every day, "Where's the mayor?"
The question is still being asked because, these days, no one has a good answer.
If the mayor doesn't tune into the fact "decisions are made by those who show up" soon, he risks jeopardizing much of what his administration has accomplished in the past 16 months.
Despite rantings at the Toronto Star and by some councillors, Ford hasn't yet lost the reins at city hall, but they are slipping from his hands.
Take last week's 29 to 12 council vote to put all decisions about city cleaning contracts directly into the hands of politicians.
This may not sound scary in theory, since councillors are democratically elected and when things go wrong (as they almost always do), someone needs to be held accountable.
But in practice, this could have a significant financial impact on taxpayers, as noted in today's editorial on page 29.
Normally, the city's staff-run bid committee awards contracts below $20 million. Anything above that, council has to vote on it.
The change means all contracts, regardless of the amount, will be brought to the government management committee, which the mayor controls, and then to council, which he hasn't controlled very well lately.
And council won't stop at cleaning contracts.
Future attempts by the administration to contract out other city services will likely be thwarted, with anti-Ford councillors requesting reports, studies, commissions and putting forward ridiculous motions that all city business must be addressed through a "gender equity lens."
So why did the mayor not speak to this matter at council last week?
His name was on the speaker's list, but was taken off.
Why? Outsourcing is an issue he campaigned on, that residents support.
That's why he handily won an earlier council vote to outsource garbage collection.
On cleaning contracts, it would have been so easy for him to thank Coun. Ana Bailao for her impassioned plea on behalf of city cleaners, then explain that as mayor, he has to think about what's best for all the taxpayers of Toronto.
Ford could have told some anecdotal stories of his own about the fact the very people she was weeping for, are those he wants to help the most.
How? By reducing the city's need for more tax dollars from working people by using the private sector to provide services more efficiently.
Why? Because the less the city has to rely on an endless supply of tax dollars, the more money taxpayers can keep in their own pockets to take care of their families.
Alas, that didn't happen.
The mayor also missed the opportunity to emphasize a near-perfect story for him - the fact his administration recently saved taxpayers $150 million through its new labour contracts, savings the city needs to continue to find through contracting out.
At least on his subway loss, the mayor showed up and went down fighting.
There are limits to what his already-stretched, skeleton crew of a staff can do in his absence.
The mayor has to be there to look into the whites of councillors' eyes, before any given file goes to hell at the 11th hour.
On the 2012 budget, Ford should have been credited with bringing down year-over-year spending for the first time since amalgamation, a remarkable achievement.
Instead, a minor motion by Coun. Josh Colle, supported by the left, to restore $19 million in cuts was used by the mayor's critics to capture undeserved headlines.
The now-halted increase in recreation fees was a tailor-made issue for Ford with regard to championing the little guy, but he failed to get out in front of it, despite repeated advice to do so.
Ford's critics gleefully suggest it's not a bad thing he isn't leading, since this allows council to set the agenda at city hall.
With the mayor often disengaged from day-to-day business, this should give taxpayers reason for concern.
With over two-and-a-half years left in his term, and most of his to-do list already done, the mayor cannot afford to abdicate leadership to those on council who would spend us further and further into debt.
The mayor - not his staff, not his brother, not his executive, not his unpaid advisors - needs to dig down and find the same passion for the job he had when he was first elected, to carry him through the remainder of his first term. That is, if he wants a second one.