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The team that keeps the hordes from Ford’s door

The woman on line one would like to speak to the mayor.

It's Tuesday morning and she has dialled the number of Rob Ford's City Hall office, where her call is answered by Tom Beyer, an affable 48-year-old in a crisp, white shirt and paisley tie, who sits behind the large wooden reception desk in the mayor's glassed-in foyer.

"He will call you, ma'am, but you have to let me know what the issue is. Did you call on the weekend? Are you sure?" Mr. Beyer says, a hint of skepticism infiltrating his practised, pleasant tone. "I can't be sure when the mayor's going to call you. It could be today or tomorrow. If this is a real, true emergency, though, then you should call the police. Please call the police."

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Eventually, Mr. Beyer manages to end the conversation and swivels around in his chair, sighing.

The woman, whose number regularly pops up on his phone's call display, has attempted to contact the mayor several times before, he explains. She believes an alien invasion of Toronto is imminent, and would like Mr. Ford to hide her in the secure depths of City Hall.

"The fact of the matter is, the way the mayor has set this up, he's available to everyone," Mr. Beyer explains. "We may think it's frivolous, but it's not to the people who call. It's very serious to them."

Since his days as an Etobicoke city councillor, Toronto's mayor has professed a commitment to a particular brand of customer service, one that is centred around the idea of near-constant telephone accessibility. While other politicians talk transparency and vision, Mr. Ford's thing has always been, "Call me, and I'll call you back."

Since his election, the claim has moved beyond personal lore to become a foundational aspect of his governance style, and Mr. Ford often professes to base policy decisions on the feedback he receives from constituents. Of course, he can no longer keep up with his own telephone correspondence, and Mr. Beyer and a team of three young "special assistants to the mayor" spend their days fielding hundreds of calls about parking pads, library closures and, yes, the occasional alien invasion.

And yet, while other city departments undergo intense cost-cutting scrutiny as the Ford administration searches out workplace inefficiencies, the customer service division fields complaints about issues already handled by other city departments, and keeps no formal record of calls through which popular sentiment could be measured.

"It's pretty informal," says Mr. Beyer. "It can't be a scientific thing, it's not. It's more of a feeling."

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Trailblazing customer service that leaves no trace

"I heard about that, yeah ... especially on a fixed income. Unfortunately, my friend, we don't have any jurisdiction over that. It's a federal matter."

This caller is a disabled senior worried about tax increases, Mr. Beyer explains. He has written down the man's name and phone number and referred him to his Member of Parliament.

"I'll give this information to the mayor, certainly," he says before hanging up.

Mr. Beyer's desk is the front line of the Ford Nation call centre. He personally answers between 80 to 120 calls a day, more when there's a committee meeting or contentious issues in the news, which happens regularly under the current administration.

In a nearby administrative office, the rest of the customer service team pick up hundreds of other calls, while wading through the approximately 250 electronic messages received each day at the e-mail account. Mr. Ford also regularly gives out his own cell phone number, frequently referring the ensuing calls to his team.

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The phones are staffed between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, after which the answering machine picks up, often reaching its 100-call limit overnight.

On his desk, Mr. Beyer keeps a stack of paper where he records the subject of each call he takes, making a tick below subheadings such as "Inquiries," "Library support," "KPMG," "Margaret Atwood" and "Doug complaint," the last a reference to the mayor's brother, Ward 2 councillor Doug Ford.

Mr. Beyer began his career in broadcast journalism, and met the current mayor 10 years ago through mutual friends. After helping with social media during last year's election campaign, Mr. Beyer volunteered to be the face of the Ford office, and calls his boss a "trailblazer, in terms of customer service."

That means ensuring callers talk to a real, live person, even if it's not necessarily the mayor himself. Mr. Beyer answers many of the callers' queries himself, referring them to departmental contacts or simply expressing sympathy for their plight. At the end of the call, if a constituent still wants to speak to the mayor, Mr. Beyer will jot down his or her name and number on a special pink memo pad. He usually meets with Mr. Ford at the end of each day, when he will hand him a stack of about 10 pink slips held together with a paper clip, calls the mayor will return that evening.

Mr. Ford likes to maintain direct contact with "taxpayers" and famously kept a box containing the names and phone numbers of constituents he had spoken to during his tenure as a city councillor. It is politically astute, this promise of personal access, even if it's now channelled through a growing staff. Individuals feel heard at the highest level of municipal government, contact they are unlikely to forget come election time.

When it comes to the formation of policy, however, the mayor's claim to base decisions on voter feedback does not appear to be entirely democratic. Mr. Beyer says Mr. Ford likes to get "a sense of what the day's calls were about" from his assistants, and his chief of staff will regularly drop by to see how many people have sent e-mails about a given issue (880 e-mails about Jarvis bike lanes, for example).

But calls to the mayor's office are not formally logged into a centralized database, and Mr. Beyer throws his unofficial tallies away at the end of each day.

"It can be skewed because there is a huge silent majority out there and a lot of people who are in favour of what you're doing, they're not calling to say you're doing a great job," explains Mr. Beyer.

Although few mayors are as inclined to hand out their personal cell phone number, Mr. Ford is not the first whose office has welcomed calls from the public. Mr. Ford is not the only mayor who takes calls from the public.

Under the previous occupant, David Miller, the reception desk was manned by Dalton Jantzi, as well as two dedicated constituency liaisons.

Stuart Green, Mr. Miller's former press secretary, said callers with specific problems were referred to councillors or other city departments, as well as the 311 service, which tracks and monitors the subject and resolution of every call.

Those who called to talk politics would be routed to a member of Mr. Miller's eight-person policy staff, according to their area of expertise.

Like Ford's team, they did not record every phone call from someone who wished to express displeasure with the government. But they did log every call that required a response, creating a database searchable by name and issue.

In Mississauga, too, all calls to Mayor Hazel McCallion's office are logged by an administrative assistant, according to Carol Horvat, the mayor's executive assistant.

But Mr. Beyer does not believe Mr. Ford's system needs to be more regimented or formal even if it is, as claimed, the basis of his decisions.

"Not to any great degree. We feel the overall pulse and get a feel for the constituency," Mr. Beyer says. "And we may get calls that are generated by the media or vested interest groups or a union."

A three-member crew takes calls that might otherwise go through 311

"No one's cut anything yet. It's certainly something to be concerned about. I'd be happy to share your concerns with the mayor."

Brooks Barnett has worked the phones since March, his desk decorated with councillors' phone numbers, departmental contacts, as well as a copy of Margaret Atwood's Payback, a can of condensed beef gravy and an Obama bobblehead doll, which he claims was left by a member of the previous administration.

Like the two other "special assistants" who sit glued to their phones, he is 24 years old and a recent graduate of a political science program. Mr. Barnett is also a member of the Liberal Party, but does not feel conflicted about his current job, even if it involves him being regularly berated for his boss's actions.

"The mission seems to be cutting down on waste, I think that's good policy," he said. "That shouldn't be a one-sided issue."

The team, which includes day-one staff member Brian Johnston and Emily Thomson, who was hired in May, receives regular policy briefings to keep them informed about city departments and Ford policy.

They all monitor the mayor's e-mail account, organizing messages into an endless stream of folders tagged: "Middle finger," "solid waste," "integrity," TCHC audit." "marathons," "shark fins," "naming rights" and "graffiti."

Instead of referring each query to a specific policy expert, the team handles the calls and requests themselves, investigating answers and liaising with various departments. They will occasionally even take their own meetings with constituents.

But in an administration hell-bent on weeding out "gravy," the team insists they are not simply replicating the work of other city departments, or logging complaints that could be more accurately tracked through 311.

"Other offices might not want to hear their problems," said Mr. Johnston. "Or you can't actually get a real person on the phone."

A call to the mayor's office does seems to guarantee action. Mr. Johnston said that after receiving a complaint about a city service he will usually contact the appropriate divisional head, who must then follow up with him to explain how the problem has been resolved.

"They're on things pretty quickly," he said.

While some frustrated Toronto residents have clearly been trying to find a resolution to their problem for a while, Mr. Johnston says others obviously make the mayor their first call. But the team insists they are not facilitating queue jumping.

"It doesn't always mean you get everything you want," he said. "We can only do so much."

Service above self

"You're sure it's from the barber shop? Did he say what it was that you caught? If this was over a year ago it could be a challenge ... they're still open? You're going to have to file a complaint."

Under the lip of Mr. Beyer's desk is a small button labeled "Emergency" – a panic button that brings building security running. Another device automatically locks the glass doors to the mayor's reception area, and Mr. Beyer pressed it when Ontario Coalition Against Poverty protesters stormed the building in February.

In addition to phone calls and e-mails, people will often show up at the mayor's office unannounced and demanding an audience, like the woman who believed she was being given electric shocks through her TCHC bed at night, and the homeless man who wept on the office couch for half an hour.

"To be honest, we get some really psychologically damaged folks. I really feel for them," said Mr. Beyer. "You have to understand the challenges people in this city are facing. You can't be dismissive."

Ms. Thomson describes the job as "emotionally exhausting" and said she is so tired of talking on the phone by the end of the day that she prefers to send text messages to friends and family. You never know what to expect when the phone rings, she says, noting that the woman who is worried about an alien invasion first contacted the mayor's office with a legitimate neighbourhood concern.

"I thought she was calling because it hadn't been resolved, and then one day it was just all about aliens," she said.

Mr. Beyer's personal approach is to take everyone seriously at first, and he points to the Rotary motto "Service above self," which is printed on the back of the business cards of every member of the mayor's team.

And while most of the calls he fields are "way beyond our control," Mr. Beyer does not believe his services are unnecessary or a waste of time in a busy mayor's office.

"They feel heard," he says of callers. "They can say, 'I was so mad I called the mayor's office.' And if they feel better at the end of the day, that's a good thing."

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