They ought to post warning signs around City Hall. The place has turned into a dangerous political minefield. It doesn't seem to matter where councillors step these days -- they're almost certain to come down on one incendiary scandal or another.Things have gotten so bad that the pols are increasingly fearful that the explosive repercussions could prove fatal to many of their number. If the MFP Inquiry doesn't get them, maybe that secret Union Station deal will. And now they've got the Mob to worry about as well. Where will it all end?
The truth be told, our elected elite have been looking forward to a respite this week from the heavy barrage of disturbing revelations that have been emanating from the old East York Civic Centre. That's where Justice Denise Bellamy and her legal team have been trying to figure out how the city's $43-million computer contract with MFP Financial Services grew to more than $100 million.
The Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry is on a seven-day hiatus, and the embattled denizens of 100 Queen West hoped they might be able to focus on other municipal business when they gathered for their first regular meeting of the election year 2003.
But no such luck. Late last week it was revealed that some highly confidential documents related to the controversial awarding of a contract to redevelop historic Union Station had been put through a shredder in the city's legal department. It was all an honest mistake, chief administrative officer Shirley Hoy insisted. The error was made long before a nosy citizen filled out a request for the paperwork under the Access To Information Act, she declared.
All the same, there was considerable suspicion that the mishap had something to do with the fact that the favoured bid was put forward by Union Pearson Group, a local consortium with close ties to Mayor Mel Lastman and his lawyer son, Dale.
Suddenly, an administration committee recommendation that a final decision on the Union Station deal be deferred so the city auditor or the provincial ethics commissioner can have a look at the secretive process used to pick a winner was the featured item for this week's council meeting.
But by the time the long-awaited session began on Tuesday, February 4, the rail terminal imbroglio had been usurped by another matter that wasn't even on the agenda. All the morning papers featured stories about a reputed Mafia kingpin who'd been charged with impaired driving in Montreal. When police stopped Vito Rizzuto last year, he was behind the wheel of a 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee registered to OMG Media Inc., a company that has a long-term contract to supply recycling bins to the city of Toronto.
OMG officials quickly denied any links to the man police have characterized as the most powerful mobster in Canada. And Rizzuto himself maintained he'd simply borrowed the vehicle from a long-time friend who just so happened to be an OMG director. But that didn't stop the spit from hitting the fan at City Hall.
"It's like we're being cascaded with one scandal after another," said councillor Howard Moscoe. "It seems that every time we open our closet door, another skeleton rattles out. There's a big pile of bones out there."
The city's arrangement with OMG has been plagued with controversy since it began in 1999. The company pays a fee to place 4,500 stainless steel waste bins on city sidewalks, and then sells advertising on the receptacles. The city collects the trash and recyclables for disposal.
The scheme started out as a pilot project and was later expanded citywide. Some councillors wanted to give OMG a 10-year contract without putting it out for tender. That plan was eventually rejected by council, and a request for proposals (RFP) was issued.
But according to councillor David Miller, "The criteria for the RFP were written so narrowly" that it was virtually impossible for other companies to qualify, so OMG ended up with the contract.
"It's another example of things being done behind closed doors," he says. Just like the MFP contract and the Union Station deal. Miller said the city auditor should look into the OMG contract.
Last year the company and the city got into a dispute when OMG stopped making payments, claiming hundreds of its bins had been damaged by municipal snow-clearing equipment. The city finally had to write off more than half the money it was owed, and the company agreed to pay off the balance owed in monthly instalments.
"Nothing has come to my attention that would suggest this a bad contract for the city," says councillor Brad Duguid, the city works committee chair.
"I'm not sure there's a need for the auditor to take another look at it," he added. "My concern is more one of doing business with a company that may have a direct link to organized crime. At this point, that hasn't been established, but I've asked our staff to contact police. If there is (a link) I will ask our legal staff to look at removing ourselves from that relationship entirely."
Councillor Betty Disero was works committee chair when the OMG contract was approved. She's satisfied everything was done in a proper manner.
"I don't think part of our due diligence is to ask the question "Do you belong to the Mob?'" she said of the link that's now been made between OMG and organized crime. "It's a little bit embarrassing, but I don't know if there's any legal relevance to it."
But Moscoe was adamant that council has a problem on its hands.
"The overall picture of what's happening at City Hall is abysmal," he said. "We're all getting buried by all this scandal, because people don't make the fine distinctions. They say everything is rotten at City Hall. People don't have the wherewithal to separate the guilty from the innocent and the good guys from the bad guys. That's the problem. Council is starting to look really bad. It's a legacy we may all have to shoulder in the next election."
Kaboom, kaboom, kaboom.