Karpluk: Ethics Lessons from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

I think it is fair to say that the fire service understands the importance of ethics and that it is a key ingredient in leadership. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines ethics as “rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad.” Rather than complicate things, I hope we can agree that ethics in the fire service is really a fundamental understanding of common values and principles where we clearly understand the difference between right and wrong.

So, what brings me to an ethical blog? I want to explore the tale of two Mayors from two “great” cities in Canada - Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

In the later part of June 2013 the Elbow and Bow rivers spilled over their banks and caused the evacuation of about 75,000 Calgarians out of their homes and in areas of Calgary’s downtown core. I followed Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi with great interest for days as communicated with the media while dealing with the flooding issues, the hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure, devastation of residential areas and the evacuation of citizens.

This is nothing new to cities in North America and Calgary isn’t the first city to be hit by a flash flood, but what I remember most is how Mayor Nenshi handled himself with integrity. He became known for the “Nenshi Nouns” that he didn’t speak while he was very stressed and dealing with people who felt it would be fun to canoe on the Bow River while it was flooding areas of Calgary. Mayor Nenshi stated, “I have a large number of nouns that I can use to describe the people I saw on the Bow River today. I am not allowed to use them…I’m not allowed to invoke the Darwin law.”

I have to admit he had my attention at that point. He could have used his nouns, but he knew it would be ethically wrong. During many of his interviews he was visibly drained and yet he lead with integrity and professionalism.

Recently Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert poked fun…Ok, they had a great time slamming Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. (feel free to check out the YouTube clips.)

I want to take you on an interesting journey on the Mayor Rob Ford ethical train wreck.

Before I proceed, I want to make it clear that my intentions are not to point fingers and hold a flag and parade with my personal judgment. I do however feel very strong that the ethical expectations for those in the fire service is very high, and I believe the same goes for those in the political arena. In this blog, I merely want to identify the importance of ethics in not only our profession, but in those who have direct control over our profession.

One of the things taught in media training courses is that you need to be honest with the media. If you don’t know the facts, state it and move on, but be sure to get the facts and communicate them when appropriate, and project to the media your honesty and sincerely…at all times. Countless leaders have made mistakes, but when they “sincerely” admitted to their mistakes, and demonstrated by their actions that they are “sincerely” sorry - then the general population usually follows in the spirit of forgiveness.

Let’s see how a sincere apology can work for the leader that is clearly in the wrong.

In April 2006, while being a city councilor at the time, Rob Ford was escorted from a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game for being intoxicated and belligerent. At first he adamantly denied being at the hockey game and according to Wikipedia he later stated, “I reflected on it last night, and talked to my family. I came forward and admitted it. That's all I can do. I mean, I'm not perfect-being in politics; you're in the spotlight all the time. I made a mistake. I made a major mistake. I really regret it.” This sounds like an apology to me.

Actor Mary Walsh of the CBC satirical show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, is known for her ambush interviews of politicians. This is what her character does and the viewers love it. On Oct. 24, 2011 while in costume, Walsh approached Mayor Rob Ford in the driveway of his home to conduct one of her ambush interviews. To make a long story short, Ford ended up calling 911 as he thought he was being attacked and used profanity when talking to the 911 dispatchers. At first he denied it, but later admitted that he used the f-word and he “apologized” for expressing his frustration inappropriately. Sounds like another apology to me, but…sincere?

Let’s fly past all of the media stories on Ford’s inappropriate behaviours, and suspected drinking problems from March to May 2013 to when the Toronto Star came forward on May 17, 2013 to state that reporters had viewed a video clip of Rob Ford inhaling from what appeared to be a crack pipe. Ford denied it and in the following weeks he fired his chief of staff, while others left the sinking Ford ship for other career opportunities.

In August 2013, while attending a festival, Ford was observed as slurring his words and acting inappropriately. The next day he responded to criticism by being open and honest and admitted to "having a few beers" Later in August he admitted that he smoked marijuana and stated, “I won’t deny that, I smoked a lot of it.”

Ok, I’m not sure if this is an apology or just being honest. Let’s think on this one. Maybe if italics were used for his apology it would come across as sincere.

On Oct. 31, 2013, Toronto's police chief Bill Blair reported to the media that the Toronto police service viewed a video clip with Mayor Ford smoking from a crack pipe. While continuing to deny the allegation, Mayor Ford said “I have no reason to resign, I’m going to go back and return my phone calls, gonna be out doing what the people elected me to do and that’s to save taxpayers money and run a great government.”

Hmm…not sure what to say here. Ok, got it. In the best interest of those that elected him, he wants to continue to do what the people elected him to do, regardless of his lack of an ethical compass. Yup, I think that is it.

On Nov. 3, 2013 during his weekly radio show, Mayor Ford admitted to making mistakes and referred to a St. Patrick’s Day party that got out of control. He further stated, “I can’t change the past. I have to maybe slow down on my drinking. I don’t know what else I can say.”

I know, I know, this is past the point of being crazy. Let’s see-is this an apology or admission? Let’s go with the admission because he stated that he has to slow down on his drinking.

On Nov. 5, 2013, and after months of speculation Mayor Ford finally came clean and admitted to having smoked crack cocaine and stated, “Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine but … am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Um, probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago." When questioned by the media why he didn’t admit to it earlier (remember there was a media flurry from March to May regarding this) Ford stated, “you didn’t ask the correct questions.”

Admittedly he did issue an apology - albeit due to the fact that the Toronto Police service possessed a video clip clearly showing Mayor Ford smoking from a crack pipe. If I use bold and italics it could make the apology appear sincere. I know what you are thinking…I am judging. No, I am just emphasizing key points based upon fact and adding my “sincere” remarks.

Please keep following me because I do have a point to make at the end.

On Nov. 7, 2013, another video was released by the media of Ford in a drunken state where he was making threatening comments. Again, Ford admits that he was “extremely inebriated” (his justification for his actions) and stated, "All I can say is again I’ve made mistakes. It’s extremely embarrassing. The whole world’s going to see it. You know what? I don’t have a problem with it. But it is extremely embarrassing, but I don’t know what to say but again I am apologizing. Again, when you’re in that state ... I hope none of you have ever or will ever be in that state.”

Was this another apology?

With his release of the Rob Ford Bobblehead on Nov. 12, 2013, one really has to wonder what part of crisis communications he ignored. Can you say all of it! Remember what I said earlier - I am not passing judgment, I’m trying to communicate the importance of ethics in not only our profession, but in those that have direct control of our profession.

On Nov. 15, 2013 Mayor Rob Ford’s ship sank; he crashed and burned when he publicly made revolting sexual comments about a former female staffer. His shocking comments brought immediate reaction from city councilors that starting calling for his resignation. But, it’s ok, because later in the day, he apologized for his crude remarks…again.

At the end of the day ethics is not only about a fundamental understanding of common values and principles where we clearly understand the difference between right and wrong - it demands of us to regularly examine our moral and ethical compass to ensure that ethical codes of conduct are not only based upon sound principles - but adhered too.

Let’s remember that the actions of one key political individual do not reflect upon the great people of Toronto. A sincere apology goes a long way, but as the world watches the events unfold on the Rob Ford story it is obvious that he has made a mockery out the meaning “sincere apology” and his actions should be a lesson for all to see.

Maybe its time to check and make sure the ethical compass in our departments is clearly visible for all to see.  

The last time I checked crack cocaine was illegal. I’m just saying…