Backroom deals! The term has been used around City Hall quite a lot lately. "Say it enough and maybe people will start believing it," seems to be the thinking of the mayor's opponents. The $98-million soccer stadium at Exhibition Place that council recently agreed local taxpayers should fund to the tune of $10 million? Backroom deal, according to councillors who voted against the project.
The $100-million film studio that council approved when it granted Toronto Film Studio a 99-year lease on 12 hectares of vacant waterfront land back in September? Backroom deal, according to competing movie studios that were cut out of the action.
The council-approved sale of some 80,000 city-owned light poles to Toronto Hydro to fill a $60-million hole in the municipal operating budget? Backroom deal, according to private sector electrical companies that lusted after lucrative maintenance contracts.
What's going on here? Wasn't all that cloak-and-dagger stuff with the secret handshakes and meetings behind closed doors supposed to end when David Miller swept into the mayor's office two years ago?
This is a theme that Miller's opponents on council have been exploiting with increasing regularity the past few months. The mayor figures the public can see through the histrionics.
"People know that this administration has created a city government that is open and accountable," Miller maintains. But politics is about public perception, and there's a concern in Miller's inner circle that the stink, real or perceived, may begin to stick.
Councillor Brian Ashton, a Miller ally, says he's concerned about the "perception" that backroom dealing is going on.
"I'm worried that we haven't been able to shake off the stink of previous scandals," Ashton says.
The councillor for Ward 36 (Scarborough Southwest) says there's no question the mayor has "raised the bar" on municipal government ethics.
But "Miller has to walk this fine line of being a strong, major-city mayor who's accountable and transparent while being able to work in a business environment so he gets projects completed," Ashton says. "That makes it easy for opponents and critics to point a finger, sniff around and claim there's a bad odour in the air."
Budget chief David Soknacki, a Miller ally who voted against the soccer stadium deal because he doesn't believe taxpayers' money should be subsidizing pro sports teams, says the mayor's critics are "crying wolf."
But he worries that all the comparisons to the MFP computer leasing scandal are diminishing in the public's mind just how serious that corruption scandal was.
"I'm concerned that the more they say 'MFP,' the more people are going to say, 'There they go again.' And if there ever is a real problem, it won't be taken seriously."
The right's attack strategy began taking shape almost the minute Justice Denise Bellamy handed in her report documenting the corrupt and underhanded practices that led to the MFP computer leasing scandal.
Yet he'd barely stopped congratulating the Bellamy inquiry when Miller had to deal with his own crisis in a municipal licensing and standards office where the boss allegedly helped her soulmate/lover get a promotion so he, in turn, could give jobs to his friends.
Action was swift. The offending bureaucrats were shown the door, and life went on. But the mayor's critics have seized upon the MLS saga as evidence that Miller's administration is not immune to unbecoming bureaucratic behaviour. The words "just like MFP" have become a mantra for those who want to take a stand against almost any proposal the mayor happens to be shepherding through council.
Last week it was Councillor Mike Del Grande who attempted to make the connection when he claimed council was making another MFP-style mistake by committing to a stadium deal with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
The chief magistrate's opponents on council may be content to push this gambit indefinitely. They seem to be landing a few punches, albeit glancing blows. How long before the public starts believing the theatrics remains to be seen.