As the city waits for a panel of three judges to decide Mayor Rob Ford's political fate, his insistence that it is business as usual at city hall will be tested in the coming days in a series of critical budget votes.
"Just doing exactly what we do – show up, go to work, respect taxpayers' money," said Mr. Ford as he hurried to chair a meeting of his executive committee Tuesday morning that lasted less than 15 minutes and was largely a formality to appoint two committee chairs.
The next item on the mayor's schedule may not be such a breeze. On Thursday, his 13-member executive will meet again to approve the city's 2013 budget and next week he and his allies must gain the support of the majority of city councillors to get that budget passed.
New figures show the city's surplus for 2012 is expected to reach $232.5-million. There is growing pressure to use some of that money to expand or preserve services, rather than use it for capital expenses and to increase reserves, as the mayor's budget chair is recommending. As that debate unfolds this week and next, councillors continue to jockey for position and speculate about what should happen if Mr. Ford loses his appeal on conflict-of-interest charges and is kicked out of office.
At Tuesday's budget-committee meeting, the first signs of what to expect came as Councillor James Pasternak failed to gain support for two initiatives – one to eliminate the fees for adults at recreation facilities in neighbourhoods identified as priority areas, and another that would have put off approval of the fire-department budget that includes the elimination of some 100 vacant positions.
After the meeting, Mr. Pasternak said he is not done. "We are going to have to fix that at council," he said. He characterized the changes required as "patching and fixing," rather than the major alterations done last year when a group of councillors came together to successfully undo millions in proposed spending cuts.
The new 2012 surplus figures, he said, give council the room to do the "tinkering" required. "I don't think you're going to see a repeat of the floor fight that was in January of 2012, but you're going to see a tug of war over fire services," he predicted.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, a member of the mayor's executive, said the court battle and other distractions are making it harder for the administration to get support for its agenda. "We are weaker now than we were in the first six months of the mandate," he said. "We have to fight and struggle on every one of our agenda items. Part of that is the mayor doesn't have the support and he's made a number of mistakes."
Mr. Ford left it to budget chair Mike Del Grande to warn councillors Tuesday not to push for more spending. He asked them to base their decisions on evidence, rather than emotion or political pressure from powerful groups such as the firefighters. "This is the problem we have," he said. "They want to do other things."
On Tuesday, one of the "other things" some councillors were doing was offering their solutions in the event that the mayor fails to win his appeal.
The most bold among them was Gloria Lindsay Luby, who put herself forward as an interim replacement if and when Mr. Ford is ousted. Ms. Lindsay Luby, a 27-year veteran of municipal politics, said the city should not spend the millions required to hold a by-election and instead should appoint a councillor who agrees not to run in the 2014 race. Ms. Lindsay Luby pledged to do that. "Council needs leadership and that is something I hope I will be successful in providing," she said.
Mr. Pasternak indicated there is support for such a "caretaker" option, if not for a specific councillor to take that role.
"The chatter around city hall is that we select a current member of council to be a caretaker mayor for 20 months, with the commitment that that person would not be running in 2014. That's what I favour," he said.
Councillor Karen Stintz, a fiscal conservative like the mayor, said Mr. Ford would have to present an agenda for the coming two years before she would consider giving him her vote in any move to reappoint him.
Councillor Doug Ford said those vying for his brother's job are putting the cart before the horse. "Focus on what the people want, not on being self-serving and trying to get a higher profile," he said.