To get a good reading on how low the level of leadership in this city has fallen, one need look no further than the "executive" committee Mayor Mel Lastman has chosen to help rescue his foundering political agenda. "I call it the attack of the clones," councillor Kyle Rae says of the crowd given authority over policy and finance.
The committee features deputy mayor Case Ootes and budget chief David Shiner. But it also includes the remaining cream of the councillor crop. You know, policy dynamos like Ron Moeser, Frank DiGiorgio, Norm Kelly, Sherene Shaw and Frances Nunziata. The real political heavyweights here in the big city.
Rae has served on executive committees consistently since he was first elected to the old city of Toronto council in 1991. But after spending the first half of the current megacity term sitting around the boardroom table with Lastman and his trained seals, the elected rep for Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) decided he'd had more than enough.
So while other councillors were clamouring for positions of supposed influence (and taking considerable umbrage when they didn't materialize), Rae was making it known to Lastman's minions that he wanted no part of the mayor's policy and finance committee. And he wasn't the only one who begged off.
"When flattery didn't work, they practically begged me to be a member," says a councillor who was aggressively recruited for an executive committee position by Lastman's office. "They couldn't believe that someone might not want to be on the team."
Rae feels bad for councillors Pam McConnell and Sandra Bussin -- the two token lefties who took reassignment to policy and finance knowing full well they'll be outgunned by the mayor's minions on every matter of consequence.
"I couldn't take it any more," the outspoken Rae says of all the lopsided votes he was on the losing side of. "The intent was to complete the agenda in 10 minutes. There was no intent to debate the issues."
Meaningful debate ended nearly two years ago when former councillor Tom Jakobek left the front line of municipal politics, Rae maintains. The combative right-winger may not have been everybody's cup of hemlock tea, "but at least with Jakobek on the executive committee we used to have some dynamic argument within the group."
"Now they just put their hands up when Mel calls for the "yes' vote."
The current situation isn't going to change with the new roster of acquiescent amigos Lastman has lined up. Ootes, Shiner and Kelly are reliable holdovers from the first half of the term. And Moeser, DiGiorgio and Shaw have all been well trained in the art of rubber-stamp calligraphy.
What's truly sad in all this is that Lastman had a diverse group of talented people from whom to choose his blue-ribbon panel. But that pool of political acumen was ignored in favour of some malleable characters who've done very little to distinguish themselves.
Let the mayor have Ootes and Shiner on board. But just think of the policy discussions that might develop if councillors like David Soknacki, Lorenzo Berardinetti, Jack Layton, Jane Pitfield, Doug Holyday and David Miller were enlisted to bring their diverse experience and expertise to the executive suite.
The way things are going now, major policy documents are being hustled into policy and finance without notice at the last minute. And, according to Rae, these policies are being pushed ahead "without discussion."
It's this secretive way of doing things that has angered so many Toronto politicians in recent weeks as Lastman and his underlings endeavoured to manipulate their dwindling herd of allies into chair positions on key council committees and city commissions.
"What we're facing is a kind of lock-down and power grab," Layton told his colleagues Tuesday as the wrangle headed into a fifth hour. Tempers were growing shorter and shorter as Ootes used every trick in the procedural book to get Lastman's slate approved. And for the most part, the tactics worked.
"I'm offended by it," Layton advised the deputy mayor. "It's tough and it's nasty and it's going to make this a very nasty place for the next 18 months. This is about nasty little-boy politics in the schoolyard."
That pretty much sums things up. As council heads into an election year, it's more divided than ever. And things are bound to get a lot rougher on both sides of the divide.
Lastman may have got his way on most of the committee appointments this week. But there were some notable surprises. For starters, Doug Holyday, the right-wing pariah from Etobicoke North (Ward 3), got 10 votes when he challenged Ootes for his position as Lastman's second-in-command. Holyday lost that one, but the defeat laid the groundwork for him to wrestle the administration committee chair away from Lastman's nominee, Paul Sutherland.
Meanwhile, Berardinetti -- one of the mayor's choices to sit on the "striking committee" that supposedly recommends who gets the committee plums -- demanded that his name be removed from the roster.
He was also a member of the group that put forward this week's selections. But, Berardinetti noted, he had absolutely no input on the recommendations.
"The first time I saw the mayor's slate was when Case Ootes brought it to committee and asked me if I was going to support it," he recalled. "This is no way to be doing things. It's not right. These decisions should be made in the open on the council floor."
Lastman's response to Berardinetti's decision was typical of the mayor.
"Ridiculous," he fumed. "Completely nonsensical."
And so it will go for another 18 months.