When Mel Lastman announced back in January that he was finally ready to pack it in, he insisted he wouldn't be a lame duck mayor for the rest of the current council term."I'm going to keep being Mel Lastman," he said. "I'm going to keep fighting to ensure that this city on the hill continues to shine."
Those words sent shivers down the spines of more than a few Torontonians who'd hoped Lastman would simply ride off into the sunset and let the city start getting over all the political misery he inflicted over the past five and a half years. Ten more months of Mel being Mel? That was 10 months more than a lot of folks figured they could endure.
But as things have turned out so far, those people really had very little to worry about. His Melness has turned out to be far worse than a lame duck chief magistrate. He's a migratory duck who is regularly making himself comfortable in his Florida condo and fuming that Canada didn't join his Yankee hosts in their big attack on Iraq.
"He's irrelevant," says councillor Kyle Rae. "There are a lot of people who are relieved he's gone south. It's just gone quiet around here."
How quiet? Well, consider this: Lastman spent most of his first term as megacity mayor trying to oust councillor Howard Moscoe as chair of the TTC. Mel was frustrated at every turn and had to wait until after the 2000 municipal election to dump Moscoe and replace him with the more pliable councillor Brian Ashton. Ashton's spine quickly stiffened, however. And when, at Moscoe's urging, he started telling the mayor what a dolt he was on critical transit issues, Lastman arranged for Ashton's mid-term demise and saw to it that councillor Betty Disero assumed the chair.
But now Disero has quit politics so she can lobby City Hall on lucrative garbage matters. She became quite the expert on issues of trash and refuse during her time at the head of council's powerful works committee. And since she didn't want her political position to interfere with her pursuit of private-sector happiness, Disero resigned. Oh, by the way, Howard Moscoe is once again chair of the TTC.
"Sweet vindication," he exulted after a majority vote by his council colleagues on the commission returned him to the post Lastman never wanted him to have.
"Mel's office had no influence," says councillor, mayoral candidate and transit commissioner David Miller. "They lobbied really hard, but we were able to speak to people and build a coalition to make sure Howard got the job."
A key component in that coalition was budget chief David Shiner. He was widely considered a diehard Lastman loyalist who could be counted on to do whatever the mayor told him to up until the end. But clearly the budget chief saw no reason to be nasty just for the sake of being nasty. He voted for Moscoe over councillor Sherene Shaw and sent Lastman's heavies skulking back to their second-floor hangout unfulfilled.
"I think even he sees that Mel's influence is gone," was how Miller explained Shiner's action. Unlike the mayor, the budget chief obviously isn't bothered that Moscoe is a big supporter of Miller's mayoralty ambitions.
This may explain why Lastman put in a personal appearance at the special council meeting held last week to pick an interim councillor to fill the Ward 30 (Toronto-Danforth) seat left vacant when Jack Layton was chosen leader of the federal NDP in January. In fact, the mayor's camp came unexpectedly close to getting their colleagues to reject the Toronto and East York community council's recommendation that Laura Jones be appointed to represent Ward 30 until the November 10 election. Some rather bizarre voting mishaps resulted in a fourth-ballot deadlock between the one-time school trustee and former councillor Tom Clifford. The city clerk finally drew lots, and Jones became political caretaker.
Kyle Rae says the embarrassing episode just illustrates the fact that Lastman is completely without positive political influence for the remainder of this council term.
"You would have thought he'd try to take a leadership role in replacing Jack with someone who shared (Layton's) outlook, in order to maintain the integrity of the ward," Rae offers. "But no, he votes the other way."
Councillor Olivia Chow says Layton was convinced the mayor would support Jones's selection as his replacement. "(Jack) wanted to find someone who would work well with the constituents," Chow says. "He connected with the mayor's office to work out a process to make sure the transition was smooth. He thought there was an agreement, but that agreement wasn't honoured. He was very disappointed."
As disappointed, perhaps, as some other councillors were this week that Lastman was nowhere to be seen as the city was gripped by fears of Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The mayor should have been front and centre to ease public concerns about SARS, but that task was left to deputy mayor Case Ootes.
"That's the way it is around here," Chow states.
How lame is that?