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The Boston Globe

Opinion

LAWRENCE HARMON

Wild and crazy mayors

Are eccentric municipal leaders all that bad for the cities they run?

New antics from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford are in the news almost daily.

Reuters

New antics from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford are in the news almost daily.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino turned down a bet last May with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford on the outcome of a Bruins-Maple Leafs hockey playoff series. Apparently Menino can smell a troublemaker 429 miles away.

Since that time, Ford has imploded. A video of the out-of-control mayor smoking crack has fallen into the hands of police. A photo of Ford consorting with suspected gang members has been posted on the Internet. A video shows him in full rant threatening to rip out the throat and poke out the eyes of some real or imagined political enemy. He admits to driving under the influence of alcohol. And on Monday, the 300-pound Ford pancaked Pam McConnell, a petite city councilor, in his rush to confront jeering members of the public in Toronto’s council chamber.

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Ford could benefit from some time in what psychiatrists politely refer to as a therapeutic milieu. And if his rampages continue at the current level, the milieu might need to come equipped with a tranquilizer dart gun and an ample supply of leg and arm restraints.

Arturas Zuokas, mayor of the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius, drove a tank over an illegally parked vehicle.

Youtube

Arturas Zuokas, mayor of the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius, drove an armored vehicle over an illegally parked vehicle.

Ford is hardly the first mayor to go wild in office. Yet there is no method to his madness, unlike the seemingly bizarre actions of other municipal leaders. Take the case of Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas. In 2011, he commandeered an armored personnel carrier and crushed a Mercedes Benz that was illegally parked in a bike lane in the Lithuanian capital. Over the top? Sure. But Zuokas’s action showed creativity and civic spirit in a way that smoking crack cocaine never could.

Reykjavik Mayor Jon Gnarr favors Jedi robes as office wear. Last year, he rode through the streets of the Icelandic capital wearing a pink dress and mouthing the lyrics to songs by Pussy Riot, an all-female Russian punk band whose leader was locked up in Siberia after a musical protest. Unusual fashion choices? Maybe. But Gnarr succeeded at drawing attention to the plight of political dissidents. Ford’s antics only draw attention to himself.

Toronto’s city council has stripped Ford of his substantive duties. And there are calls for provincial officials to intervene and remove Ford by amending the charter of Canada’s largest city. But the current cuckooness glosses over how Ford managed to convince voters to elect him to the mayor’s seat back in 2010. His proclivity for erratic behavior and boorishness was already known from his days serving on the city council. The answer, it turns out, speaks volumes about the deepest concern of many city dwellers — waste in government.

Mayor Jon Gnarr of Reykjavik, Iceland, favors Jedi robes in the office, but last year he rode through the streets wearing a pink dress and mouthing the words to Pussy Riot songs.

Associated Press

Mayor Jon Gnarr of Reykjavik, Iceland, favors Jedi robes in the office, but last year he rode through the streets wearing a pink dress and mouthing the words to Pussy Riot songs.

During the campaign, Ford impressed voters with his promise to “end the gravy train’’ of runaway spending by a progressive city administration. Toronto Life columnist Philip Preville and others have pointed out that the newly elected Ford made good on that promise. Ford aligned himself with fiscal conservatives, dissolved the board of the city’s incompetent housing authority, outsourced much of the city’s trash collection, trimmed the city budget, and negotiated union contracts that didn’t soak Toronto taxpayers. He also takes a keen interest in finding solutions to residents’ problems — and takes their calls personally.

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“Are you aware that 2,200 people call me?’’ he demanded of critics who are calling for his resignation. Even while fighting — unsuccessfully — with his personal demons, Ford manages to keep a count of constituent calls.

City dwellers will put up with a lot of nonsense from any mayor who takes tight fiscal control of the city and responds to them personally. Not as much nonsense as Ford is dishing out, mind you. But a lot.

Author Benjamin Barber cites the prominent features of a successful urban mayor in his new book, “If Mayors Ruled the World.’’ Chief among them is “a preference for pragmatism and problem solving over ideology and principled grandstanding.’’ Ford, for all his problems, fits that definition.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for Boston Mayor-elect Marty Walsh. Walsh is the personal antithesis of Ford: sober, thoughtful, and discerning. He is a man of principle — a self-professed “son of labor’’ who “will wear my record of fighting for working people as a badge of honor.’’ Yet 48 percent of voters rejected Walsh in the recent election, many of them fearful that his close ties to organized labor would translate into bloated public payrolls and higher property taxes.

Even in Boston — with its Puritan roots — many residents might be tempted to opt for a wild man who respects their wallets over a fastidious gentleman who doesn’t.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com

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