Toronto’s Mayor in Pocket-Sized Conflict of Interest

The Toronto Star recently reported that the city’s beleaguered Mayor, Rob Ford has stumbled yet again. The Mayor, it seems, opted not to use the city’s standard (cheap) method of having business cards printed. He opted, instead, to go his own route. That might not be surprising a surprising move, coming from a maverick mayor, except for two facts. One is that his way cost a fair bit more. The other is that his way meant giving the contract to his own family’s printing business.

Three additional points are worth making.

First, this is an actual, bona fide conflict of interest. The Star reports City Councillor Josh Matlow as being critical of Ford’s decision, and wondering if the decision carried the risk of “a perceived conflict of interest”. Perhaps Matlow was pulling his punches, attempting to be collegial. But the term “perceived conflict of interest” is properly reserved for situations in which the concerned observers might understandably but wrongly think that the decision-maker had an external interest that could have influenced his decision-making, perhaps because outsiders are misinformed about who was responsible for what decisions.

Second, as always, it’s important to differentiate conflict of interest from corruption. The term “corruption” implies a level of intentionality not required to establish conflict of interest. You can be in a conflict of interest through no fault of your own. Whether there was fault, in the present case, is for voters (and quite possibly the city’s city’s integrity commissioner) to decide.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that the dollar amounts here are pretty small. The total cost of the business cards Ford ordered is just a tad over $1500. Compared to the city’s budget, or even just the budget for the Mayor’s Office, that’s pocket change. But one thing that corruption and conflict of interest share in common is that size isn’t always the issue. What’s at issue in conflict of interest is the need to protect the integrity of the institution, and in particular the way key stakeholders perceive its decision-making processes. Whether in business or in public office, it is crucial not just that top executives make the right decisions, but that they be seen as making decisions on the right basis.

6 comments so far

  1. Jason G on

    Two comments. First, it’s Rob Ford, not Tom Ford. Second, he was elected on a platform to curb wasteful spending – he called it “stopping the gravy train.” So not only is this action unethical, it is also completely contrary to his election platform.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Thanks. I fixed my silly typo. Though it certainly would be interesting if Tom Ford (the fashion designer) were mayor instead!


  2. Pete Bresnahan on

    It never ceases to amaze me that the rich and powerful seem obsessed with attacking the poor and downtrodden for having the sense of of ‘entitlement’. Irony is what makes life so entertaining!

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Not sure I understand your comment. Who is the ‘poor & downtrodden’ in this story?


  3. Pete Bresnahan on

    Although there is no direct reference to poor and downtrodden in your blog entry, I find it interesting that Mr. Ford’s opinion that citizens–including the less fortunate–should ‘get over’ the culture of entitlement that is weighing so heavily on government resources. It seems to me rather ironic that, at the same time he feels it is that he is entitled to spend a little more taxpayer’s dollars for his own needs than is necessary or fiscally prudent, Politicians and financiers seem to have a well honed sense of entitlement themselves. As far as conflicts of interest is concerned–politicians seem rather adept at attracting such situations as well.

  4. Pete Bresnahan on

    It seems to me rather ironic that, at the same time, he feels that he is entitled to spend a little more taxpayer’s dollars for his own needs than is necessary or fiscally prudent.

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