In all the bustle around new mayor David Miller, the divvying up of City Hall posts and upcoming meetings with the feds over finances, no one's giving much thought to the almost lonely MFP hearings up at the East York Civic Centre. Suddenly, the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry doesn't seem like such a big deal any more. Drop by the hearings these days and you'll find the public gallery in the old borough council chamber virtually empty. It's much the same upstairs in the room where journalists used to congregate in great numbers to hear tantalizing testimony from witnesses who might be able to shed some light on how the city's $43-million computer leasing contract ended up costing taxpayers more than $100 million.
When I visited one day recently, there was but a single newspaper reporter in the press office. And this was while a star witness, former city treasurer Wanda Liczyk, was on the stand explaining her prominent role in a scandal symbolic of all that was wrong with Mel Lastman's civic administration.
Few people's names have come up more often than hers in the sorry saga featuring well-connected lobbyists brokering lucrative backroom deals while senior bureaucrats were wined, dined and otherwise entertained by corporate agents lined up for the city's business. But anything Liczyk's sworn musings might add to the tale now seems passé.
This has much to do with the election of Miller, of course, and his promise to sweep City Hall clean of corruption. There's a keen sense that the public has already endorsed whatever the inquiry's findings and subsequent recommendations may be.
Those close to the judicial proceedings picked up on a serious mood swing immediately following the November 10 ballot. For the longest time, there was a tangible perception that no matter what the probe might uncover, influential forces at the highest political and corporate levels would somehow find a way to minimize it.
Things started to change a bit after the provincial election in October, when the Conservative government was defeated and every single Tory MPP from Toronto was thrown out of office. Miller delivered the coup de grâce. Overnight, the seemingly perpetual hold that unelected power-brokers like former Metro chair Paul Godfrey and his lobbyist pal Jeff Lyons had on local political culture was broken.
"Before the civic election, it felt like we were always running against the wind," one inquiry insider said this week. "Now it feels like the wind is at our backs. It's a radically different sensation."
Justice Denise Bellamy has certainly helped nurture that newfound emotion. Six days before the municipal votes were counted, she made an important move to ensure that her inquiry would be relevant to the new government at City Hall. The judge decided to postpone the planned second phase of her probe into a series of controversial software contracts related to the MFP deal and publicly announced she'll begin "an in-depth examination of issues related to good government" early in the new year.
"Much of the work we have done deals directly with integrity, lobbying, conflicts of interest, codes of conduct, tendering practices, transparency and accountability," Bellamy told the inquiry on November 4. "This list makes it evident why I believe the inquiry can better serve the city's interests by making our information available earlier."
It was clear to the judge even then that "whoever is elected mayor plans to address these integrity issues as an early priority. I hope my recommendations will improve the way the city conducts business and help avoid problems before they arise," Bellamy added.
The timing of her examination of governance issues couldn't be better for Miller. "I think people spoke loudly and clearly that they want to see real change at City Hall, and I'm going to do everything in my power to make that real change so we truly do open up the system," the mayor-elect said in an interview this week. "In a fundamental way, that's what the MFP inquiry is about."
Bellamy's focus on government reform will be indispensable in this regard. "I think somebody who's objective and in the position she's in can probably make some very strong and positive recommendations," Miller maintained. "They'll be very helpful in getting changes through council, because, frankly, who's going to be able to say no to recommendations from an inquiry like that?"
Bellamy's report could also be a useful tool when it comes time for the new mayor and council to consider making changes at the top levels of the city bureaucracy. Miller has given chief administrative officer Shirley Hoy and her commissioners assurances that they'll get a chance to prove themselves before any major alterations are made to the ranks of senior staff. This was a wise move, considering that a bureaucratic shakeup now would sink upcoming municipal budget preparations into chaos and further complicate a fiscal process that's already rife with serious challenges.
As things now stand, the next three or four months will be a serious test for Hoy and her colleagues. Who knows? The mayor and council may be witness to creativity and innovation unlike anything they've seen in recent years. But if that doesn't come to pass, they'll have Bellamy's recommendations to guide them in rebuilding a bureaucracy too often accused of ignoring the public interest for the sake of political expediency.
In other words, the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry still has the potential to be a very big deal.