word has it mel lastman is not a very happy mayor today. Bad enough that he had to order a special meeting of city council just five days before Christmas. He also had to ditch the thong and haul his toasted buns back to Toronto from Florida, where he'd been trying to get an early start on the holidays.
Such are the sacrifices you have to make when you're in charge of The Big City. Especially when it starts to look like you were either asleep at the wheel or simply refusing to notice while the cost of a computer-leasing contract jumped from $43 million to more than $80 million in just over two years. All this thanks to a novel arrangement that saw the interest rate the city paid on the leasing deal with MFP Financial Services go up every 90 days -- from around 4.5 per cent to 12 per cent.
To hear Lastman tell it, he didn't have a clue what was going on. Never mind that MFP gave generously to his re-election campaign last year and has provided considerable financial assistance to the mayor's annual charity golf tournament. Never mind that one of Lastman's key fundraisers is a lobbyist for MFP and that a former member of the mayor's staff went on to find gainful employment with the Mississauga firm. And never mind that dashing MFP account executives wined and dined the likes of Wanda Liczyk, former city treasurer and long-time Lastman protégé, and other senior staff involved with the contract. Some were flown to a Toronto Maple Leafs playoff game in Ottawa just before the deal was signed back in 1999. Nice work if you can get it.
All just one big coincidence, of course. And that's how the whole controversy will continue to be portrayed to an all too gullible public if Lastman gets his way today and convinces council to sign an out-of-court settlement with MFP. Better that than take the company to court, where bothersome documents like statements of claim have to be filed.
Almost from the minute word of the skyrocketing computer contract started making the rounds at City Hall, there's been an obvious campaign to keep details of a suspected boondoggle from coming out. Reports to council were withdrawn at the last minute, and the mayor's office did its damnedest to prevent the matter from being investigated by the city auditor.
Councillors finally went behind closed doors on the MFP contract two weeks ago, at what was supposed to be their last regular meeting of 2001. They spent more than 12 hours in debate before publicly approving a lawsuit against the firm. Politicians were threatened with a fate worse than debt if they divulged details of the action, but it was supposedly initiated in hopes of recovering money allegedly over-committed to the computer deal.
Alas, strong suspicions were raised that the real reason for the legal action was to keep a lid on details of what actually went on during the MFP negotiations. At the same time, work would begin on an out-of-court settlement with the company that would ensure that any damaging information stayed confidential.
Well, it didn't take long for that speculation to be confirmed. Last Friday, city lawyers spent more than two hours telling council's audit committee that MFP wants to settle the dispute. Before you knew it, today's (Thursday, December 20) special council meeting had been called.
"I know it's close to the holidays, but time is of the essence," Lastman declared in a communiqué from West Palm Beach. "We've been doing our best to negotiate a settlement with MFP to avoid costly litigation."
Most of today's proceedings will be conducted in private, with hordes of lawyers offering councillors expensive advice on the expediency of accepting around $3.2 million from MFP to make a big problem go away.
But the whole scenario is following a classic political strategy employed whenever there's an overwhelming desire to sweep something under the carpet in a hurry while keeping negative repercussions to a minimum.
What better time to call an extraordinary meeting than on the Thursday before Christmas, when the public's attention is focused on other things? You make a decision, grab your coat and head out the door for a little yuletide R&R. By the time you get back to the office in January, whatever hubbub the vote caused has died down. It's a transparent ploy, but one that often works.
Sources say MFP's cash offer is contingent on the company being absolved of any wrongdoing. Also, former city employees involved with the contract would be immune from further action related to the case. In return, the city is expected to insist that all details of the contract negotiations be kept confidential.
Although the extension of the MFP contract from three years to five, without council's formal approval or knowledge, is at the heart of the controversy, some councillors fear the deal could be extended again as part of a settlement.
But no matter what's in the pact with MFP, concerns about spending controls at City Hall aren't going to quietly disappear.
Councillor David Miller, for one, has seized upon the issue and the way it has been denied meaningful public exposure. He has done this in such a dramatic way that some colleagues are talking openly about supporting him as a candidate for mayor come the 2003 municipal election. This has inspired quite the discussion on council's left, where former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall had been hoping to mine considerable backing for another run at the job she lost to Lastman four years ago.
Miller's improved profile has clearly spooked Tom Jakobek. In spite of a recent setback in the field of hospital administration, the city's former budget chief still dreams of rallying the right behind his advance on the chief magistrate's office. But Jakobek, too, has been sucked into the MFP affair. He made the July 1999 motion that allowed bureaucrats to amend contracts without council's blessing. The former east-end kingpin was hard at work this week trying to get his side of the story to the local press so Miller doesn't end up with a weapon he can use in some future mayoral debate.
Then there's Case Ootes. As deputy mayor, he has assumed many of Lastman's duties during the past year. This gives Ootes something of an advantage in the right-wing establishment search for a champion to succeed His Washup. But if the mayor takes a hit on the MFP front, his proxy will be wounded, too.
And we thought this was all about saving the taxpayers some money. That's probably the furthest thing from most political minds right now.