Turning a grey transit official into a popular hero is quite a trick, but that is just what the administration of Mayor Rob Ford has accomplished by firing Toronto Transit Commission chief general manager Gary Webster.
As Mr. Webster walked into a special TTC gathering on Tuesday to meet his fate, cheers broke out in the public gallery. Supporters were handing out "I (heart) Gary Webster" buttons. When the 5-4 vote to sack him was announced three hours later, the audience shouted "shame." Even Bob Kinnear, the sharp-tongued transit-union leader, came to Mr. Webster's defence.
What explains the extraordinary reaction to his firing? Mr. Webster is hardly the first official to be replaced by his political masters. The TTC is not the most popular institution these days, and the axing of its manager would normally cause little distress to most people.
But there is something different about this. Mr. Webster is being fired just days after a public meeting in which he spoke his mind, in the most calm and respectful manner, about his views on the best way to expand Toronto's transit network. Those views differ sharply from the mayor's.
Firing him now reeks of spite. It confirms what many people already feel about the mayor's blunderbuss, my-way-or-the-highway approach to governing the city. It conflicts with the mayor's pledge to cut waste. Firing Mr. Webster only a year and a bit before the end of his contract could cost the city $500,000 and more.
Worse, it sets a dangerous precedent that could intimidate the other leading public servants who advise the mayor and city council on public policy. Only weeks ago, Toronto Ombudsman Fiona Crean warned about the increasing politicization of the public service. "It can be exceedingly difficult for staff to speak truth to power and provide their best advice as dutiful public servants.
"Right now," she added, "there is a perception of risk to speaking out." Imagine how much stronger that perception will be now.
Like other episodes in his mayoralty, the Webster firing threatens to blow up in the mayor's face. Dismissing the TTC chief was supposed to reassert the mayor's authority after a key transit vote went against him. Instead, it has undermined his control of an increasingly rebellious city council.
It has galvanized his opposition on the left. They were in full cry after Mr. Webster's termination, which seemed to confirm everything they have been saying about the mayor's blinkered ways. It has appalled many centrist councillors, who have already been voting against the mayor consistently since the New Year.
Most damaging to Mr. Ford, it further alienated even conservative councillors who often support him. TTC chair Karen Stintz was joined in voting against Mr. Webster's termination by John Parker, a former Conservative MPP, and TTC vice-chair Peter Milczyn.
Mr. Ford may be rid of Mr. Webster, but this shabby act will come back to haunt him.