Don Wanagas City Hall: Mel-o-Drama

From ethnic slurs to fiscal hocus-pocus, Mel has been a major flame-out

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it was supposed to be a year of redemption for Mayor Melvin Douglas Lastman. But he managed to muck it all up.

WHO’S YOUR DADDY? In the dying days of 2000, he was revealed as a deadbeat dad with a secret family sired during a 14-year extramarital fling with a married woman. The revelation punctured the hot-air balloon of great expectations the mayor’s handlers had been floating in the wake of his easy re-election victory just weeks before. Lastman had bested a bizarre cast of mayoral challengers straight (and one not so straight) out of a Federico Fellini movie. But suddenly he had the embarrassing lead role in a drama with a weirdness all its own.

Even before the paternity suit landed in court alleging the mayor was an irresponsible cad who all but ignored the existence of two illegitimate sons, the panicked rush was on to rehabilitate the soiled reputation of Toronto’s chief magistrate.

“I’m going to be the best mayor this city ever had,” a supposedly chastened Lastman pledged at one point. Never mind that he’s the only mayor this city has had since its frenzied creation four years ago by those “bigger just has to be better” thinkers up the avenue at Queen’s Park.

MONKEY BUSINESS: Alas, the best laid plans of Mels and men oft go astray. And the scheme hatched to recast Lastman as a great statesman with the genius to secure Toronto’s disputed birthright from the Tory tyrants was on the skids before 2001 was 24 hours old. A group of reporters arrived at the mayor’s annual New Year’s grip-and-grin event with word that Ontario’s labour minister had suggested city council get its financial house in order before crying to the provincial government for money.Lastman responded by characterizing veteran Toronto MPP Chris Stockwell as an “organ grinder’s monkey.” The mayor said he was not inclined to deal with such lowly animal performers, and boasted he’d do his talking with the organ grinder himself: Premier Mike Harris.

With just a few arrogant words, the mayor managed to derail sensitive discussions between city and provincial negotiators that had been part of an effort to quietly secure the city an improved financial aid package. Lastman was quickly yanked offstage so deputy mayor Case Ootes and several other councillors could attempt repairs. But they didn’t accomplish much. Upset that he’d been benched, and frustrated by his own inability to get anything tangible from the premier, the mayor threw another fit.

“There is no way that Harris is going to run this city,” Lastman screeched. “Everything he has touched has turned to crap.”

Before the mayor’s aides could hustle him away, Lastman asked the journalists on hand to edit his statement.

“I shouldn’t have said crap,” he decided. “I should have said shit.”

With that outburst he all but washed his hands of the city’s financial crisis. He blamed councillors for failing to tackle the city’s budget woes and demanded that they make sacrifices he refused to consider for himself.

“It’s not me that’s the problem,” Lastman huffed defensively.

FINANCIAL GENIUS: But when he advocated selling off the few livestock at Riverdale Farm to help provide Toronto taxpayers with a “New Deal,” more than a few of his political colleagues started openly questioning the mayor’s ability to lead.”I certainly think the mayor’s actions warrant impeachment,” said councillor Michael Walker. He lamented the lack of a provincial law to enable removal of a burghermeister deemed incompetent.

“His actions have been patently irresponsible, and his every utterance is hysterical,” Walker said of Lastman. And Walker spoke with some authority. The mayor once referred to him as a good argument for birth control.

Lastman’s personal history would indicate he spent considerable time arguing the other side of the contraceptive issue. But by the time last summer rolled around, the mayor was undoubtedly spending much time wishing he’d never been born.

In April, council approved a nearly $6-billion operating budget that required a 5 per cent property tax increase. Despite Lastman’s arguments to the contrary, there were also cuts to municipal service levels. The mayor’s election mottoes had been “Mel Makes It Work” and “Toronto Runs With Mel.” No one can recall seeing a billboard that said “Pay More and Get Less.”

The rumblings of discontent began to grow louder when Lastman paid Mike Garrett, the city’s chief administrative officer, $500,000 to walk away from his job. This just months after the mayor had negotiated a new five-year deal with the top bureaucrat and then bullied council into approving the pact.

Now, all of a sudden, Garrett wasn’t up to the task. Lastman privately blamed the CAO for the city’s budget problems and refused to work with him.

“The mayor should look in the mirror, and maybe then he’ll see where most of the problems are,” councillor Doug Holyday said from the right side of the political spectrum at City Hall.

And the left was equally critical of Lastman’s sorry display of political leadership.

“There’s nobody at the helm,” worried councillor Jack Layton. “Nobody’s keeping an eye on the yardarm, the rudder or any other part of the boat.”

HICK IN POLITICS: As luck would have it, many of Lastman’s handlers had managed to park themselves on the committee scheming to bring the 2008 Olympics to Toronto. These folks decided it was a good time to hustle the mayor out of town. They’d use the former furniture and appliance salesman to pitch the city’s bid to delegates of the International Olympic Committee as they lounged around the sun-soaked Mediterranean and tropical Africa.Apparently, the thinking was that once Toronto secured the Summer Games, streets would be paved with gold and everybody would be too busy counting their money to care much about the mayor’s past failings.

It was a great theory. But the first time Lastman got away from his bid-appointed chaperones in Barcelona, he rushed up to the microphone of a freelance sports reporter and started going on about how he was dreading a trip to Mombasa, Kenya. The wife gets freaked by snakes, the mayor said. And he was having these frightening visions of himself in a big pot of boiling water with hungry natives dancing all around.

It’s hard to say which got more worldwide publicity — the stupidly racist statement or the subsequent apology where Lastman said “I’m sorry” 18 times.

According to councillor Kyle Rae, the mayor came off like “an ignorant country hick.”

“It’s embarrassing,” Rae said. “I can’t believe it. I’m stunned.”

Needless to say, Toronto didn’t get the Olympics, and the planned rejuvenation of the city’s neglected waterfront moved to a back burner. With his supposed “legacy” downgraded, Lastman has become increasingly reclusive and uninterested in civic affairs.

These days, Case Ootes has all but taken over the mayor’s duties on a council now reeling from revelations that city spending has been so poorly controlled that hundreds of millions of dollars have been frittered away on dubious consulting fees and computer leasing contracts.

People are looking to Lastman’s office for an explanation, but they’re not getting a credible one.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s backers are trying to decide whether they should bother enrolling their troubled ward in yet another political rehabilitation program.

With less than two years until the next municipal election, things have reached the point where many fear His Washup is beyond redemption.

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