m=Mel Lastman started 2002 shaking hands with Hells Angels and ended it giving the finger to the people who elected him when he went to the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry and refused to accept any responsibility for the bad things that happen at City Hall. What a mayor! What a year!
Soon after Lastman showed up at the Holiday Inn on King West to do an impromptu grip-and-grin session at the big biker gang convention top cop Julian Fantino had warned everybody to stay away from, the mayor's handlers decided to hire an image consultant for their guy. The $150-an-hour job went to one of Lastman's long-time advisors, Bob Richardson, who'd just finished a nice gig as vice-president of Toronto's failed bid for the 2008 Olympics.
"We're going to take a last shot at rehabilitating him," was the way one of the mayor's once close associates described the miracle Richardson was expected to perform on Lastman's badly tarnished public image.
"It's going to be the old college try," the insider told NOW in late January. "Everybody realizes the mayor has been squandering opportunity after opportunity to make it look like he's still the man in charge at City Hall. We'll see if more air can be blown into the old punching bag."
Well, the air went in. But it leaked away rapidly through all the old punctures in the chief magistrate's reputation that had never been properly patched.
There were still legal issues around the second family Lastman sired during a lengthy affair with one of his appliance store employees. And the unfortunate remarks the mayor made about being afraid to travel to Africa on Olympic bid business because cannibals might cook him for dinner continued to make Lastman an international laughing stock.
"The party's over," Councillor Kyle Rae predicted. "He's going to face a public that doesn't respect him. Everybody's just waiting for the next misstep, the next gaffe, the next faux pas."
Richardson was well aware of this reality. And it soon became apparent that his strategy wasn't aimed at enhancing the mayor's image as much as it was at protecting it by keeping him out of the increasingly critical public eye as much as possible.
Unfortunately, Lastman's handlers couldn't keep their ward under constant lock and key. And they were as stunned as everybody else when the mayor showed up to give some welcoming remarks at the annual Board of Trade dinner and launched into what was described as a "weird, meandering speech" laced with offensive old jokes and offering no vision of the city's future.
"The maitre d' could have made a better speech," said councillor Brian Ashton.
In fact, Lastman's address to the captains of industry was so disconcerting that the usually Mel-friendly Toronto Star had cause to editorialize that the mayor should either "pull himself together or step down."
Lastman did neither. But he did orchestrate the ouster of the mouthy Ashton as chairman of the TTC. And the mayor's office soon started pushing an agenda that gave broad hints that Lastman's 30-year political career is really on its last legs. Suddenly, issues and developments near and dear to the pocketbooks of his corporate friends and supporters were at the forefront.
It wasn't hard to fathom that matters like the redevelopment of historic Union Station, the expansion of the Toronto Island Airport and the establishment of a new water board dominated by appointed members were being fast-tracked because of a growing sense Lastman and his operatives wouldn't be around after next November's municipal election.
Hence, the Union Station redevelopment was handed over to a local consortium that includes a company controlled by Larry Tanenbaum -- an old friend and supporter of the mayor who also has direct business links to Lastman's lawyer son, Dale.
Another consortium put together to build the controversial bridge that council recently approved to the Island Airport also has Tanenbaum's company -- Kilmer Van Nostrand -- as a partner. The so-called fixed link is supposed to clear the way for a new regional airline to increase tenfold the number of flights to and from the money-losing terminal. But it would effectively destroy the mayor's supposed vision of the city's waterfront as a "magical, clean place where the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to swim in." The proposal also makes a mockery of the new Official Plan recently approved by city council.
Fortunately, the mayor and his pals backed off on the plan for a quasi-independent water board when they couldn't quell widespread public opposition to the scheme.
But back to Bob Richardson and that famous "last shot" at rehabilitating the mayor. By spring, the image consultant had left City Hall with little to show for his efforts other than many empty rolls of duct tape used to control Lastman's lip movements. By July, the mayor was back shooting off his mouth as almost 25,000 civic employees walked off the job when their union locals failed to negotiate new collective agreements with municipal management.
Toronto's chief executive officer argued that the unions were seeking "jobs for life" on behalf of their members, even though the job security provision they went on strike to protect had been put into their contract by the mayor three years earlier. Lastman said that by rejecting the city's "best and final offer," employees were "pissing away" their summer. He also suggested they were anti-Catholic because their withdrawal of services could ruin the Pope's visit to Toronto for World Youth Day celebrations.
And so on and so on and so on. After 16 days of garbage piling up in the streets, the province stepped in and legislated city employees back to work. An arbitrator was eventually appointed, and damned if Tim Armstrong, when November rolled around, didn't give the union the contract it had wanted all along -- complete with the job security provisions Lastman had called "jobs for life." In the nicest way possible, the former deputy minister of labour said the mayor was full of crap. The mayor said pretty much the same thing about the arbitrator.
But it was Lastman's performance at the inquiry commissioned to probe the circumstances of what was supposed to be a $43 million computer lease agreement between the city and MFP Financial Services that really showed the mayor's incapacity to provide the leadership Toronto needs to get itself moving ahead.
The information technology deal has ended up costing taxpayers more than $100 million so far. But Lastman denied any knowledge of how that happened without council's approval. Hired staff was to blame for the mess, he said. The mayor was just too busy doing what mayors do to actually read contracts or to be aware that his trusted former treasurer, Wanda Liczyk, and several of her colleagues were being vigorously entertained by MFP brass who treated them to many hockey and golf games.
"The mayor always gets the blame," the chief magistrate complained. "He doesn't get the credit. He gets the problems."
In Lastman's case, the problems are largely of his own making. Thankfully, by this time next year he should finally be on his way out City Hall's door. It's just too bad Toronto has to wait that long.