Randall Denley: Doug Ford’s chief of staff has to go

Premier Doug Ford has a decision to make. It’s one that he may find difficult, but it shouldn’t be tough at all. Ford’s chief of staff Dean French is a loyal, long-term friend and political supporter. French is also singlehandedly undermining Ford. He has to go.

On the day Ford was trying to revamp the image of his government with a major cabinet shuffle, the last thing he needed was yet another appointment controversy, but that’s exactly what his chief of staff handed him.

French’s gaffes are almost hard to believe. Why appoint a 26-year-old, a pal of his son, as Ontario’s agent-general in New York? By all accounts, Tyler Albrecht is a good lacrosse player, but he’s a kid just getting started on a financial career — hardly the sort of person who is going to open doors for Ontario businesses in the American financial capital. And the $165,000 salary for the job is about the same as what an Ontario cabinet minister makes.

French also put forward the name of Taylor Shields for the role of agent-general in London, England. Shields is an assistant vice-president of marketing for an insurance company, but she’s also apparently a second cousin of French’s wife.  Most would draw an obvious conclusion about which was her greater qualification. That job pays $185,000.

The last thing Ford needed was yet another appointment controversy, but that’s exactly what his chief of staff handed him

It is no surprise that governments hand out jobs like this to their friends, but it helps if they are at least mildly qualified for the work. This week’s list of appointments included the former president of the Ontario PC Party and a former Ford staffer. Both have sufficient experience for their jobs.

Once French’s personal connections with Albrecht and Shields broke, Ford quickly rescinded their appointments. But the damage was done. The story line was an easy one: Ford was trying to smoke through cushy jobs for pals and he was caught.

The thing is, Doug Ford does not vet the people being appointed to positions like this. Ford is not that kind of hands-on manager and he should be able to trust his senior staff to recommend appropriate choices. This is clearly a case of French putting his own interests ahead of those of the premier and the party, and that should never happen.

The core responsibility for a chief of staff is to keep his boss out of trouble, not get him into it. Ideally, the public shouldn’t even know the chief of staff’s name. Unfortunately, French has made himself into a bad news story and this isn’t his first mistake.

Last fall, French got into a big shouting match in caucus with MPP Paul Calandra, who had the temerity to suggest the MPPs hadn’t received enough information about the implementation of the cannabis retail policy. More recently, at a caucus retreat, French dressed down a female MPP who told him MPPs weren’t getting enough support to sell the party’s message. She broke down in tears (French later apologized).

Nor do these seem to be isolated incidents. PC caucus members claim that French often treats them like problems to be managed, and acts like he’s their boss.

French’s supporters say he has done some good work and is responsible for much of the aggressive pace of change the government has achieved. At the same time, lurching ahead with insufficient forethought has become an unfortunate hallmark of Ford’s government, and one he has to change.

Those who know Ford well describe him as a friendly and reasonable person, good to work with. Unfortunately, French undermines that image internally and, increasingly, publicly. It turns Ford into the guy who’s basically decent, but who owns a pit bull.

It is not as if French has overwhelming qualifications to be a premier’s chief of staff in the first place, other than his close connection with Ford. He’s an Etobicoke insurance guy who helped on various Ford family political campaigns. Prior to his appointment, he had no experience helping run a government.

Although loyalty is French’s strongest suit, his management style and lack of judgment is undermining his friend’s premiership. If French really wants to help Ford, he can do him a favour and resign. If he doesn’t, Ford has to act. French has become a liability greater than any of the cabinet ministers who were shuffled this week. It is time for Ford to be as tough as people think he is and show his pal the door.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and former Ontario PC candidate. Learn about his new book Spiked at randalldenley.com. Contact him at [email protected]