Decide it over a drink

Is it OK for Mel to talk city biz with beer exec who runs his campaign?

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It’s a humid, overcast Monday morning as I pull up to the clubhouse at the Rattlesnake Point golf course in Milton. NI’ve dropped by the annual Labatt Charity Golf Classic to catch up with James Villeneuve, the lucky guy who well-placed sources say has been picked to manage Mayor Mel’s coronation tour… er… re-election campaign.

But he’s not only Mel’s campaign chief. He’s also Labatt’s director of regulatory affairs.

After I explain to a perplexed woman from the beer company that I’ve come to ask Villeneuve a few questions, she whizzes off in a golf cart to go look for him.

I notice a large moose outside the clubhouse with “Mayor’s moose” painted under its snout and the Labatt “Out of the Blue” slogan painted on its side — perhaps a tribute to Mel’s off-the-cuff style?

The young lady returns and informs me that Villeneuve’s with out-of-towners and can’t break away from his golf game. Give him a call tomorrow, she says.

Villeneuve also dodges a NOW camera at the tournament dinner.

The next day, he’s pulled away from the office on a family matter and unavailable for comment.

But I certainly have a few questions for him and the mayor.

Something unseemly

For starters, isn’t there something unseemly about having the mayor’s would-be campaign manager angling for exclusive sponsorship of a proposed bandshell in a city park?

Villeneuve has been Labatt’s point man on the company’s contentious proposal to pay the city $1 million to build a new bandshell in Woodbine park and relocate all of the summer Beaches events, including the popular jazz festival, out of Kew Gardens.

Mel personally took an interest in the matter when local merchants and Labatt’s rival, Molson, the current jazz festival sponsor, raised a stink. Not wanting to ruffle the feathers of either beer company, he’s been working on a compromise that would see the city build the bandshell and recoup its costs by charging fees of event organizers.

City Hall lobbyist Bruce Davis, whom Labatt hired to help sway council on the proposal, says, “Our client did discuss the matter with the mayor’s office and with staff, and we think we’ve come to this resolution.”

Davis adds that Villeneuve “is the key person” for Labatt on this but has pulled back on the file in the last couple of weeks because of a new baby and his involvement in the Olympic bid.

The mayor’s spokesperson, Jim Warren, tersely points out that the mayor hasn’t publicly announced who his campaign manager will be, and adds that Mel always discloses conflicts.

“If he’s had conflicts in the past, he’s always declared them,” Warren claims.

Organizational role

Whatever. Villeneuve, a Tory with some prominent Liberal friends, played an organizational role in Mel’s successful 1997 election bid.

He was appointed chair of the Toronto Economic Development Corporation following Fred Eisen’s resignation last March in the wake of reports about Steve Stavro’s sweet land lease in the port lands.

Meanwhile, Labatt is busy supporting a number of initiatives dear to Mel.

The beer giant’s the main corporate sponsor behind Moose In The City. It’s also a major backer of the Toronto street festival.

As well, Labatt is the premier sponsor of the city’s Olympic bid, putting up $2.5 million for the pitch. Villeneuve also sits on the bid’s board of directors.

Sure, Molson sponsors events like the Indy and even Toronto’s own beer. They were also gold sponsors of Mel and Marilyn’s 1998 arts ball.

But, arguably, the Labatt connection goes deeper. Mel’s eldest son, Dale, made a name for himself orchestrating the sale of Labatt, along with the Blue Jays, to Belgium’s Interbrew a few years back.

With Mel expected to run without a serious challenger, this campaign won’t be as much of a slug-fest as the 1997 battle-to-the-wire with Barbara Hall. But the mayor may be taking re-election a little too lightly.

He and Villeneuve are expected to join Premier Mike Harris and Heritage minister Sheila Copps on a trip to the Sydney Games to pitch Toronto’s bid sometime in mid-September, a mere eight weeks before the municipal election.

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