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Lobbyists in Toronto’s city hall under Rob Ford

Since Mayor Rob Ford took office and declared the city “open for business” lobbying activity at city hall has exploded.

Three times more lobbyists signed up with the city in 2012 as in 2010. The number of subjects they’re pushing has doubled. Allegations of misconduct have tripled. And the daily communications logged between lobbyists and public office holders appears to be 10 times higher last year than the year before Ford took office.

And with the numbers on the rise, lobbyist registrar Linda Gehrke worries there is dwindling awareness around the “ethical” guidelines set out in the code of conduct.

But for many councilors, the most worrisome result of the new reality is that average citizens and community associations — people without the means to hire Bay Street professionals to plead their case — are being shut out.

“Unless you can hire a lobbyist, you can’t get a vote through the mayor’s office,” said left-wing councilor Adam Vaughan, a staunch opponent of the mayor’s.

It used to just be “the big money items. Now it’s every item. Two lobbyists were just working the floor of council on whether to widen a sidewalk,” he said referring to the recent debate over valet parking at Pusateri’s.

This year, even the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association felt they couldn’t go it alone during budget negotiations.

For the second year in a row, Toronto Fire was being targeted for cuts. The service stood to permanently lose 101 currently vacant jobs, five trucks and a station, at a time when the union was begging for more resources to deal with a booming population.

President Ed Kennedy tried to plead his case to the decision makers, but he couldn’t get meetings with a sizable chunk of councilors, particularly on the right and those recently elected.

“And we didn’t seem to have the ear of the mayor’s office like we wish we would have. Like we had before,” said Kennedy.

Kennedy then called Sussex Strategy Group, the most prominent, powerful and sought-after lobbyist firm working city hall. The mayor backed down on the cuts.

Rob Ford’s opponents, such as Vaughan, like to accuse the mayor’s office of having closer ties with lobbyists than any of his predecessors.

Toronto only began tracking lobbyist activity in February 2008, but the data does suggest the mayor has a more open attitude towards the practice than the previous mayor, David Miller. Miller was strongly opposed to bribes and pandering, but Rob Ford openly embraces backscratching and backroom deals.

According to records obtained through the city’s Open Data website, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff Earl Provost and Ford rank fourth and fifth on the list of most-lobbied public office holders in Toronto. In 2010, no one on Mayor David Miller staff appeared in the top 20.

“Mayor Ford believes in customer service excellence and no other mayor has ever been as open and available to everyday taxpayers, residents and business leaders. This data simply confirms this,” Ford’s spokesperson said in a statement.

When the online registry went live in 2008, 237 lobbyists signed up. The number fell to 98 in next year and stayed about the same for 2010, with 103 new registrations. In 2011 — the new council was sworn in in December 2010 — new lobbyist registrations jumped to 207. By 2012, a total of 343 new lobbyists registered. Just two and a half months into 2013, already 169 new registrations have been logged.

The statistics around actual lobbying are even more staggering

One note of caution: the following figures can only be used to assess a general trend, because 29% of the time, the year of the meeting was not recorded. Even taking this into account, the increase in communications — such as a meeting, email or telephone call — appears to have skyrocketed since the Ford took office. In 2010, the database showed lobbyists recording 587 communications. By 2012, that number hit 5545.

Allegations of misconduct are also on the rise.

In 2010, the registrar launched 10 investigations. In 2011, that number spiked to 46. In 2012, Registrar Linda Gehrke looked into 30 cases. The majority of instances relate to unregistered lobbying, lobbying around procurements and to a lesser extent, ethical issues.

“And I think we are getting to the point where people know generally about registration, but there may not be as much awareness of the requirements of the code of conduct,” she said.

Gehrke has launched an investigation into the events of Oct. 16, when Councillor Ana Bailao was charged with impaired driving. Before her arrest Bailao was drinking at a posh downtown lounge with a small group, which included Sussex lobbyist Jamie Besner, Ford’s former chief of staff Nick Kouvalis — who does market research for Sussex — and Councillor Mark Grimes.

The optics weren’t good. Sussex is working for MGM casinos. Bailao is considered an important swing vote. And Grimes chairs the board for Exhibition Place, the preferred casino site.

Gehrke is not permitted to speak about her investigations or even confirm if they are occurring. Both Bailao and Besner say no city business was discussed, but some councilors say it’s the type of socializing that got the city in trouble more than a decade ago.

Shortly after amalgamation, the city signed a $43-million contract with MFP Financial Services for computer equipment. An inquiry was called after the contract nearly doubled without authorization from council.

Evidence emerged that city officials had been lavishly wined and dined by an MFP salesman; Madam Justice Denise Bellamy’s final report suggested that “inappropriately close relationships” between public officers and lobbyists were partly to blame. Establishing a lobbyist registry was a key recommendation of her report.

For Councillor Janet Davis, who on Thursday returned to her desk to find a gift bag from The Capital Hill Group on her desk, the status quo is not an option.

The bag contained a large sugar cookie with icing, and a card celebrating her “contribution to politics” on International Women’s Day. “It is completely unacceptable,” she said. “I know it’s not worth very much. It’s a cookie. But it’s still an attempt to influence councilors.”

Davis has lodged a complaint with Gehrke’s office.

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