a supposed changing of the guard in the corridors of power at City Hall has not been going at all well for the folks trying to make Mayor Mel Lastman look like the Energizer Bunny.In fact, the increasingly geriatric geniuses who've spent more than a year now attempting Lastman's political make-over must be wondering what possessed them to think a couple of youngsters like Bob Richardson and James Villeneuve could transform His Washup into a man of action.
The plan hit the skids almost the minute the mayor's office was compelled to reveal that Richardson was being paid $150 an hour to give Lastman's image a good buffing, in hopes that he'll be able to welcome retirement with at least a little dignity.
Thinking was, the bright young fellow with the curious pedigree of a failed Ontario Liberal election campaign and an unsuccessful Toronto Olympic bid could spend a couple of part-time months transforming the mayor into His Hip-and-Edginess. Richardson would then return full-time to his new ad and PR firm with a cheque for $30,000 in his pocket and a big notch on his corporate revolver.
But, hey, everybody's got to make a living. And the youthful wunderkind immediately went to work making his. News releases started flying out of Lastman's office as they hadn't done for ages. Mayor supports this. Mayor supports that. Mel goes here. Mel goes there. Film at 11.
Unfortunately for Richardson and his charge, just about everything they've trumpeted has blown up in their faces -- including the schlemozzle involving Richardson's private consulting company representing proponents of a new airline at the Island airport. More on that later.
The mayor did get the auditor general he campaigned for during his 2000 election walkover. But increasingly pugnacious councillors forced him to recommend current city auditor Jeff Griffiths for the post, even though Lastman had been quietly plotting to prevent that from ever happening.
True, after months spent opposing a judicial inquiry into the MFP computer leasing scandal, the mayor finally announced his support for it. But then Lastman turned around and unilaterally named a political task force to "set terms of reference" for the probe.
No damned way, was the unanimous retort from council's audit committee. Its members noted that Lastman's task force was stacked with politicians who have close ties to individuals certain to be subjects of the inquiry. For example, deputy mayor Case Ootes received a campaign contribution from Dash Domi, a key MFP account executive. Councillor Betty Disero just happens to be a close friend of former city treasurer Wanda Liczyk, and they recently vacationed together in Italy. Licyzk is central to the controversy sparked by a $43-million computer contract that ballooned to more than $100 million without council's knowledge or approval.
Lastman's attempt at interference so outraged the audit committee that it recommended Griffiths and senior city legal staff establish rules for a subpoena-powered investigation.
But that wasn't the worst of it. Last Wednesday may have looked like a perfectly good time to announce a $200-million deal with a big British film company for construction of a massive movie studio on waterfront land near Commissioner and Cherry Streets.
Problem was, the proposal had not been approved by the board of the Toronto Economic Development Corporation (TEDCO) -- the agency that manages port land real estate for the city.
No big deal. Jim Villeneuve is chair of the TEDCO board. The Labatt Breweries executive also ran Lastman's 2000 election campaign. And he worked in a senior capacity with Richardson on the city's recent doomed quest for the Olympics.
Alas, Villeneuve couldn't find enough board members to meet in person. So he proposed the project be approved during a telephone conference call one hour before the great unveiling at the Docks nightclub.
Councillor Brian Ashton, a member of the TEDCO board, was stunned that anyone would even consider such a ploy, given the controversy TEDCO found itself embroiled in two years ago. He sure as heck remembers how a former board chair gave sports magnate Steve Stavro a new lease on some prime waterfront land without first getting the board's formal say-so.
"I've had enough of this manipulation," Ashton says. "It just makes me sick. This may very well be a great deal for the city and the local film community, but there shouldn't have been any kind of official announcement until all the i's were dotted and the t's were crossed. This is no way to run a business. It sends a terrible message."
Ashton refused to participate in the phone powwow, so the studio announcement went ahead without a board vote. That finally came on Monday.
But an angry councillor Jack Layton, also on the TEDCO board, stood up in council yesterday and demanded to know by what authority Lastman had released confidential information related to the development at a media conference. Ironically, it is the mayor who's been pushing for a confidentiality bylaw to punish councillors who blab things he doesn't want made public.
"This was the most amateurish, unprofessional, disrespectful release of information about a project that I've witnessed in 30 years on city council," the Ward 30 (Toronto-Danforth) rep fumed. He said the board was left completely out of the loop, and another development firm that had bid to build the studio found out in the newspapers that a decision had supposedly been made.
"The whole process was going along fabulously until the spin doctors got hold of it and started demanding things happen super-lickety-split. It's a sad, shameful situation,' he says.
It's not the only one people are talking about. Last Friday, a consortium called Regional Airlines Holdings Inc. came forward with a proposal to operate a new airline out of the Toronto City Centre Airport. Never mind that much of the talk of late has been about shutting down the island runways.
"This proposed partnership with the city of Toronto and the Toronto Port Authority is a win-win situation for the government, for the waterfront and for the people of Toronto," the company press release proclaimed.
Anyone who might beg to differ with that assessment was advised to contact the consortium's communications adviser -- a company known as Afrm2. And guess who is its president? Bob Richardson.
"The timing couldn't be better for the kind of comprehensive communications management we're offering," he recently told AdNews, a daily online business publication. "There's a real demand in the private and public sectors for senior-level strategic advice and know-how.'
That may be. But Layton says there's no way Richardson should be getting money from the public purse to provide Lastman with strategic counsel. Not when his company is also representing private-sector clients eager to do business with the city. "This is a completely unacceptable arrangement and it has to be terminated," the councillor insists. "If the mayor wants to hire a spin doctor, he should do it with his own money."
That may the first piece of sound advice Lastman has received lately.