I had my first encounter with Melvin Douglas Lastman in April 1996. He was mayor of North York at the time, and I was covering Toronto City Hall for the Sun. North York politics didn't get the same kind of media attention that was paid to the downtown councils hanging out at 100 Queen West and Metro Hall back then. This drove Mel nuts. So every once in a while the chief magistrate who was still doing furniture ads on the side would hatch a scheme to get a little coverage for his City with a Heart. And for himself, too, of course.It was no surprise, then, that on one particularly dreary spring day a fax from the wee guy with an apparent taste for prison garb arrived at the City Hall press gallery. The missive related how His Melness was some ticked off with a national survey published by Edmonton's planning department that awarded North York recognition as the burg with the highest property taxes in all of Canada. It just made matters worse that Alberta's capital was way down on the list.
"Comparing North York to Edmonton is like comparing a stylish brick bungalow to a clapboard outhouse," Lastman said. He noted that he'd been through the prairie city on the way to somewhere else once and remembered it as "a flat, dull town of empty malls surrounded by farmland. "How many of those Edmonton homes are clapboard shacks?" Lastman asked.
I was relatively new to Toronto at the time and hadn't had much exposure to the Bad Boy who was such an attraction for suburban voters. But I had grown up and worked as a journalist in Edmonton and couldn't believe that the mayor of a city so close to the centre of the universe could be so ignorant. So I wrote a column saying exactly that -- quoting Edmonton politicians and bureaucrats who characterized North York's mayor as unprofessional and no-class. Needless to say, Mel was not amused. We had an interesting telephone conversation that ended with him informing me that he'd never speak to me again. Ever.
But as luck would have it, the Edmonton Sun had picked up the clapboard outhouse story. An Edmonton radio station offered Lastman a free trip to Wild Rose Country so he could see for himself he was dead wrong. Lastman said OK and headed out west to finally confess that he'd been talking nonsense. As punishment, Mel stood on the steps of Edmonton City Hall, bent over and took a swift kick in the keister from a burly alderman who was once the city's chief of police.
When Lastman returned to North York, I ignored his earlier edict and phoned his office to find out if he'd enjoyed his trip to my own hometown. I was surprised when he took the call and advised me he'd had a good enough time to bother talking to me about it. That was pretty much that.
It may not have been the beginning of a beautiful relationship, but it was certainly the start of an interesting one. Little did I know then how Mel would come to dominate my working life. It wasn't until later in 1996 that the Ontario Tories came up with their brilliant plan to amalgamate Metro's six municipalities. Not long after that, Lastman started being mentioned as a possible first mayor of the new Toronto. It just so happened that Barbara Hall, then mayor of the old city of Toronto, was first out of the gate.
When I wrote a column pointing out some of Hall's advantages over Lastman, Mel went nuts again and phoned the pro-Lastman Sun to complain about my work. Soon thereafter, I stopped writing columns for the paper, Mel won the election and I moved on to write columns for the National Post and NOW.
I've had several opportunities to personally thank the mayor for the role he played in moving my career along in a positive direction. And I want to make it clear that my expressions of gratitude were always sincere. Why wouldn't they be? Lastman has always been there for me when I needed him, and I'm sure there are a lot of Toronto journalists who would express similar sentiments. In fact, more than a few of them have been quietly dreading the day that finally came this week when Mel took the podium at the Delta Toronto East and made it official.
"This will be my last year in office," he told a gathering in Scarborough Tuesday afternoon, January 14.
While I can't possibly agree with his statement that "Toronto's future is secure" after his five years in the mayor's office, I'm certain the future will be much less colourful. Naturally, this leaves me with rather mixed emotions. As a resident of Toronto, I believe the city can't help but be better off with Mel gone. We need a mayor who will pay close attention to all the important details Lastman ignored in order to play the role of municipal mascot. The North Yorker's departure will give voters an opportunity to elect a mayor who's not beholden to the same corporate interests that have had their fingers in everything that goes on at City Hall since amalgamation.
We hear a lot about how Toronto needs someone with a fresh face to come in and take charge. For my money, though, it would be better if the same old unelected faces were banished from the environs so the people to whom the voters gave responsibility for their affairs could at least try to get their jobs done.
But as someone who has spent the past six years making a living chronicling Mel Lastman's unpredictable and often outrageous behaviour, I must say that life in the City Hall press gallery will never be the same. The recipe for a story sure to get editors excited will no longer be "Add Mel and stir."
I suspect much of the city will go through a period of Lastman withdrawal, and I'd be less than truthful if I didn't admit that I also expect to be a victim of the malady. But I'll get over it, and so will Toronto. On that I'm willing to stake a clapboard outhouse.