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poor gail nyberg. just when she thought it was safe to get back on the hustings, along came yet another reminder of her past life on the school board to take one huge bite out of her city council ambitions.Life just isn't fair.
This time last year, Nyberg was still smarting over a civic election loss to Case Ootes, the deputy mayor. Many political pundits had favoured the former chair of the Toronto District School Board to wrestle Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth) away from Mel Lastman's stand-in.
But that was before all hell broke loose over a TDSB decision to demolish the playground equipment in nigh on every schoolyard in its domain. Nyberg helped author the controversial edict, and her association with the resulting mayhem was just what the Ootes campaign needed to paint its much-feared opponent as a candidate unqualified for life in the supposed big league of municipal politics.
Nyberg's support soon started to slip, and the election-day outcome wasn't even close.
Now fast-forward a few months and press "play." First, Frances Lankin retires as MPP for Beaches-East York. Then, councillor Michael Prue becomes the riding's new NDP member of provincial parliament. All of a sudden, the Ward 31 chair in the council chamber at City Hall is sitting empty.
As luck would have it, Nyberg just so happens to live in the ward. And she wasted little time in announcing her burning desire to fill the vacancy. Next thing you know, the former school board chair has been installed as an early favourite to win the December 3 by-election.
Alas, once again, a funny thing has happened on the way to the polls. Just when Nyberg seemed to have her political life back on track, word leaked out that the Toronto District School Board will be paying its director of education the tidy sum of $360,000 (18 months salary plus a six-month sick-leave "gratuity") when she leaves its employ next month to take another job with the provincial ministry of education.
Who, you ask, negotiated this remarkable "exit package" with Marguerite Jackson back in 1999? Why, none other than the former TDSB chair, Gail Nyberg.
According to the campaigning council candidate, "it was no coincidence" that confidential details of Jackson's golden handshake were leaked in the heat of the Ward 31 by-election race.
"Let's be realistic. The timing was planned," Nyberg insists during a break from canvassing at her Dawes Road campaign headquarters.
She figures someone with school board connections planted the story in the media last week. And there is certainly no shortage of suspects -- chief among them one Bruce Davis, a partner in prominent municipal lobbying firm Urban Intelligence.
Davis was a key player in Lastman's successful 1997 mayoralty bid and ran Ootes's victorious campaign against Nyberg last year, while at the same time getting himself elected as a school board trustee. But he vehemently denies any involvement in the leak.
"I've never even seen the Marguerite Jackson contract," he says. "The fact that it's come out at this time is Gail Nyberg's problem."
This fall, Davis has backed the candidacy of Michael Tziretas with money, help and advice. But in an apparent effort to make sure Nyberg is again kept out of the winner's circle, Urban Intelligence has also contributed cash and staff to NDP candidate Janet Davis's Ward 31 war effort. (By the way, candidate Davis also has her own school board connection. She's vice-president of CUPE local 4400, which represents TDSB support workers.)
Small wonder so much attention is being paid to education issues during the campaign. With the TDSB again putting pressure on council to ante up a few million dollars more to help keep 85 school swimming pools open next year, one of the questions inevitably asked is: How can the board cry poor while it's handing Marguerite Jackson a cheque for $360,000 so she can move on to an even better-paying job?
"Am I happy with that payout? No," says Nyberg. "I never was happy."
But she argues that she "inherited" Jackson's contract with the pre-amalgamation North York school board and had limited means of amending it.
"You know, I'm good, but I can't break contracts," Nyberg advises. "It's a shocking amount to me, and I understand people's angst about it, but I also understand it isn't out of line in terms of a CEO for a $2.1-billion corporation."
Over at Janet Davis headquarters on Woodbine Avenue, campaign workers are convinced the $360-G handshake has so damaged Nyberg's standing that the sprint to the Ward 31 finish line is between their champion and the 34-year-old Tziretas.
"It hasn't hurt," Davis herself acknowledges while knocking on doors along King Edward Avenue. But she also offers that voters seem to like what she stands for: publicly funded, community-based programs for kids (including swimming programs in school pools) and no contracting out of core city services.
"I oppose this direction and it has got to be stopped," says Davis of the controversial "alternative service delivery" initiative currently under consideration at City Hall. On that and all else she has the backing of Prue, next-door councillor Sandra Bussin and the local NDP's formidable election campaign squad.
Tziretas, meanwhile, is selling himself as the vanguard of "a new generation of leadership." All the same, the one-term, pre-amalgamation East York councillor is getting considerable financial and strategic help from Toronto's political establishment, both in front of and behind the scenes. Thanks to the all-too-public endorsement of former Metro chair and now federal Liberal MP Alan Tonks -- not to mention the tacit support of Ootes and the increasingly beleaguered Lastman camp -- the Tziretas offensive has "status quo" written all over it.
"The people of Toronto are paying good dollars, you know, and they deserve to be represented properly, and they deserve properly delivered services," says the young tax accountant who locates himself "at the centre of the political spectrum."
The centrist view on alternative service delivery?
"Council has to start refocusing on essential municipal services, looking for opportunities to cut waste," Tziretas advises. "Properly funding services does not mean over-funding."
Will that position be enough to put him over the top at the polls on Monday night?
"Voter turnout will be the key to winning," offers Nyberg, who, in spite of the latest blast from her past, maintains she's still well positioned to take the coveted prize.
We'll just have to wait and see.