When an election-minded Melvin Douglas Lastman was casting about for a few sturdy planks with which to build his first megacity mayoralty platform back in 1997, he seized upon banning voice mail at City Hall as a surefire winner.Alas, the idea didn't make much of an impression on voters looking for something they could really believe in. So Lastman quickly dropped the plan and turned his attention to making promises of a property tax freeze. That seemed to do the trick, and soon His Melness ushered in what will one day be described as an era of great political misery.
Much to the fledgling bureaucracy's relief, voice mail survived at 100 Queen West and in civic offices across the merged metropolitan realm. And Lastman put aside all talk of eliminating the service as he'd once done in his former burg of North York.
"He suddenly discovered he was running a big city and not some rinky-dink municipality," an ebullient councillor Brian Ashton observed this week when the scheme made an unexpected comeback at council's 2003 budget marathon.
Here we have a cast of politicians who were elected to make hard decisions like raising property taxes by 3 per cent to raise the $6.4-billion that will be needed to operate the city this year, and they allow themselves to be sucked into a lengthy debate on the etiquette of telephone answering. And it wasn't the mayor with his hand on the vacuum hose this time.
It was that illustrious wing nut George Mammoliti -- the councillor for Ward 7 (York West), who's pushing his 20-year-old son to take on councillor Rob Ford in neighbouring Ward 2 (Etobicoke North) this fall. It's one hell of a hillbilly feud, and it was sparked when hardcore Conservative Ford allegedly called neo-Liberal Mammoliti a "Gino boy" and refused to say sorry for the slur. Maybe Mammoliti left Ford a bunch of nasty voice mail messages and his nemesis refused to return them, because the York Wester suddenly has a huge hate on for phone technology. And he's vowed to make it extinct during business hours if it takes him the rest of his checkered political career.
To hear Mammoliti tell it, most of the bureaucracy is now refusing to answer calls from the public, and he's had more than enough of it. "The people who are answering the phones are hiding behind voice mail," he charged. "I think it's wrong. They're screening calls. They know who's calling. They've got the screens."
Now, Mammoliti is not suggesting for one minute that councillors are doing that. Not even his buddy Rob Ford. "It's the departments that I'm frustrated with, and so is the public," Mammoliti said."
Frances Nunziata agreed with him. "I've never liked voice mail," said the councillor for Ward 11 (York South-Weston). "Most of the time it is being abused. Staff are just not answering the phones."
"Wow!" budget chief David Shiner exclaimed when councillors started lining up to speak to a Mammoliti motion requesting the chief administrative officer submit a report to council's administration committee outlining "the implications of elimination of the voice mail system at City Hall."
Shiner reminded his colleagues that they still had 30 departmental operating budgets to go through line by line and they should get down to the job at hand. But no, a debate immediately ensued. And to make the scene all the more bizarre, Norm Kelly -- the excitable councillor for Ward 40 (Scarborough-Agincourt) -- initiated a simultaneous discussion on the "current state of real-time technology in today's market place" and how it could be useful to a forward-thinking municipal corporation.
That's right. On one side of the council chamber you've got Mammoliti calling for a ban on voice mail messaging and on the other side of the room Kelly is dreaming of snowplows fitted with geographic location sensors so they can be tracked on TV monitors as they scrape frozen precipitation from the pavement.
"You're trying to run a city with a budget the size of a province's and people are talking voice mail," Ashton observed after absenting himself from the raging debate. "I'd say the busy signal is ringing in too many heads around this place."
In other words, a lot of mental receivers were off the hook.
"I say let's get on with some of the serious issues," Ashton suggested. "If you're concerned about voice mail, get good sound management policies in your offices to make sure people are responding effectively to calls. The way things are going, the world could end before we ever finish this budget."
Ashton may have that right. Soon after Mammoliti's motion for an anti-voice mail report was rejected by a 22-to-13 vote, the Ward 7 rep was busy making it clear he'd continue raising the issue at every available opportunity during the ongoing budget debate. If Mammoliti can't get something done now, he'll continue his crusade at various committees in the lead-up to November's municipal election.
"It's something I feel strongly about, and I'll keep pushing it as long as I can," the councillor vowed. He maintains there's a "groundswell" of public opposition to voice mail at City Hall but the majority of councillors just don't want to acknowledge the "silent frustration."
Countered Ashton: "I don't think Mammoliti could find a groundswell if he were on a surf board in the middle of Bay Street."
And here you thought municipal budget debates were all about serious money matters.
By the way, Kelly's call for a report on "real-time technology in today's market place and its applicability for use within the city of Toronto" was supported by a resounding 28-to-2 vote.
Thankfully, it has no current budget implications.