as toronto teetered on the brink of a crippling transit strike this week, Mayor Melvin Douglas Lastman was nowhere to be found. The diminished chief magistrate had packed his bags and split town for Hollywood to give movie moguls the latest dish on the Canuck buck and to herald the amazing financial advantages of shooting film on the Great Northern Backlot.While cranky negotiators for the Toronto Transit Commission and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 were lusting for amphetamines to keep them bargaining through Sunday night, Lastman was fussing over which diamond-encrusted cufflinks to wear to the swank industry soirée at the Canadian consul-general's posh digs the next night.
No doubt he was also pondering which loonie joke to tell the assembly of profit-minded producers. The mayor's favourite offering is the one about golfer Lee Trevino in a Hogtown restaurant, where he pays for a coffee, cigar and newspaper with a $10 U.S. bill and gets something like $12.50 Canadian back in change. When Lastman got wind that the bit was getting stale, he just started substituting Tiger Woods for Lee Trevino. Simple as that.
In some circles, a mayor might be criticized for being out of town when a potential crisis is looming. But in Toronto, Lastman's escalating absences are being widely welcomed -- indeed, orchestrated -- to keep His Washup from making a complete ass of himself.
"Listen, the mayor took a lot of heat when (image consultant) Bob Richardson was brought in to help him get his act together," recalls one City Hall insider with close ties to Lastman's office
"But the move has really paid off," he says. "The mayor hasn't really embarrassed himself or the city since Bob came on board."
Point well made. Richardson was enlisted in late January, soon after the mayor made the front pages shaking hands with a bemused Hell's Angels member during the motorcycle gang's over-hyped convention at the Holiday Inn on King West. Since then, Lastman's public agenda has been very carefully organized and scripted to minimize political missteps.
The mayor played a secondary role in the recent budget debate that saw the Davids, Miller and Soknacki, in heroes' roles crafting a palatable spending compromise. With a few exceptions -- like last week's rally for Canada's winter Olympians at Nathan Phillips Square -- Lastman has been keeping a very low profile. Increasingly, his musings on matters of great public importance are limited to brief written statements issued by his office while he's away at the condo in Florida or, like this week, promoting the Californication of Toronto's waterfront in Los Angeles.
"I want to congratulate both the Toronto Transit Commission and the Amalgamated Transit Union for reaching a tentative agreement" was the word from Hollywood on the seemingly successful labour negotiations. "No one wins when a strike happens."
That missive was followed by another under the headline, "New Film Lab Great for Toronto: Mayor."
"This is terrific news," Lastman was quoted as saying of Deluxe Film Labs' decision to relocate its existing processing facility from Adelaide Street to South Etobicoke. Clearly, there's no end to the inspired verbiage that can be produced when the mayor's speech writer is part of the mission to Tinseltown.
Of course, you need all the help you can get when retiring premier Mike Harris is making the rounds on the same celluloid cocktail circuit, trying to convince everybody that turning the city's waterfront into Hollywood North was really his idea, not that legacy-hungry Lastman's. Harris made a studio announcement of his own down by the docks just last week to support his argument.
Meanwhile, back at City Hall, former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall put in a surprise appearance at a health board meeting where a strategy to ban garden pesticides was unveiled. Citizen Hall applauded the "principled position of leadership" the board has taken in starting a debate on the coexistence of "healthy children and lovely lawns."
"Often, what you do is blaze a trail," declared the woman who will soon be freed from the chair of the National Strategy on Community Safety and Crime Prevention and ready to get serious about her 2003 mayoralty campaign.
"I'm here to ask you to continue to blaze the trail," Hall told the health board -- to much applause from a public gallery obviously friendly to her political environment. Things are bound to get even more interesting in the months ahead.
In late June, for example, Lastman will host the so-called Toronto City Summit -- a meeting that is supposed to bring community, business and political leaders together in hopes of finding a balm for the social and economic woes that plague the country's biggest municipality.
Traditionally, Lastman "hosting" such an event means he delivers a hysterical opening speech denouncing the bandits at Queen's Park and Parliament Hill and then disappears. But word is, the mayor will tone down the rhetoric and eliminate the vitriol in his welcoming address to the summit. He'll then sit back and let the four conference co-chairs run the show.
One of those co-chairs -- Rogers Cable president John Tory -- has political tongues wagging overtime right now. In a group that includes Toronto Board of Trade president Elyse Allan, Canadian Urban Institute president David Crombie and United Way president Frances Lankin, the one-time Canadian Football League commish seems something of a curiosity.
But it helps make sense of the increasingly audible chatter characterizing Tory as the latest flag to be run up the pole by a corporate cabal desperate to see who might salute him as a candidate to replace Lastman 19 months from now.
It certainly won't hurt to have Tory (a long-time member of the mayor's "kitchen cabinet' who's already submitting think pieces on city-building to the dailies for publication) front-and-centre at the summit. By the way, this is pretty much the same kind of gathering Lastman dismissed as nothing more than a venue for grandstanding when councillor David Miller and others first tried to plant the idea in his head amidst all those resettled hair follicles.
Once the summit is out of the way, the mayor's handlers will turn their attention to the economic development missions Lastman will lead to the Orient and around the Mediterranean this year.
"A mayor is a terrible thing to waste," one adviser mused with a smile.
Same goes for opportunities to keep the guy out of town and out of harm's way. And who knows? Absence may actually make some hearts grow fonder.