what is it with mel lastman and the chairs of the Toronto Transit Commission? The mayor just can't seem to find anyone he can get along with.Lastman spent most of the inaugural megacity council term wondering how in the hell anyone ever convinced him that crowning Howard Moscoe sultan of subways would cure the cantankerous lout of his chronic antilastmanitis. The treatment didn't work, and a seriously disgruntled chief magistrate was soon busy hatching plots to knock the burly North Yuk New Democrat off his throne.
Every failed putsch just fuelled Moscoe's burning contempt for his long-time nemesis. And the mouthy fellow was never shy about using the TTC pulpit to express his opinions on the mayor's failings.
Lastman finally got revenge following his re-election to a second term 18 months ago. One of the first things he did was make sure the new transit commission was stacked with Mel-friendly councillors who'd guarantee Moscoe lost the chair. And so it was that Brian Ashton, the garrulous Scarborough quipster, became the man providing direction at the TTC.
Councillor David Miller, another veteran transit commissioner, had also been hot for the chair. But the mayor's aides told him the more conservative Ashton would have a better shot at cutting deals with the powers that be at Queen's Park and in Ottawa than some articulate pinko with portraits of Tommy Douglas hanging on his office walls.
Ashton, meanwhile, was considered a reliable ally. He'd be more inclined to take direction from the mayor's office. As past chair of council's economic development committee, Ashton had joined Lastman on a number of international trade missions, where he became notorious for injecting himself into media interviews whenever the mayor started going off-message.
Alas, Ashton is now about to be unceremoniously dumped as chair of the TTC. It's debatable whether he'll even get back onto the commissionas as a member.
It's widely acknowledged that Ashton has done a decent job politically of keeping transit on track. He's made the case for increased funding both inside and outside City Hall. And no one should discount the role he played in negotiating a new labour contract with Local 113 of the Amalgamated Transit Union when a massive strike seemed a virtual certainty last month.
But in spite of all this, the mayor has become so incensed with some of the critical things his erstwhile chum has said about him that novice transit commissioner Betty Disero stands poised to take over the TTC helm when the current council term reaches its midway point next month. No matter that she hasn't been much of a friend to public transit.
Lastman figures he can count on Disero. Good old Betty's not going to turn on the mayor the way that ingrate Ashton did. Word is, Ashton had his epiphany riding an articulated streetcar east along Queen Street toward the Neville Park loop. The Road to Damascus it wasn't. But the councillor was soon waxing eloquent on how Lastman's often bizarre antics made him a leadership liability.
"You get nothing," was Ashton's recent judgment when the mayor stumbled through a sub-banal speech to the city's influential board of trade that gave no hint of even a blurred vision of Toronto's future.
It was hardly surprising, then, that "nothing" was precisely what the TTC chair got in terms of recognition when federal transport minister David Collenette and industry minister Allan Rock showed up at City Hall last week to announce that Ottawa has earmarked $76 million from the Canada-Ontario Infrastructure Program for Toronto's cash-strapped transit system.
A smiling Lastman was on hand to mug for the cameras, of course. And Disero was front and centre. Even David Miller managed to be there for the announcement that should mean a 10-cent transit fare hike will no longer be necessary on June 2. But Ashton was nowhere to be seen. It turned out the mayor's office had made a point of not inviting him to the news conference.
"Brian made a lot of effort to work with the feds, especially Collenette," said Miller, who was also heavily involved in lobbying Ottawa for transit dollars. "As chair of the TTC, he should have been there."
Sources familiar with the protocol associated with the event said Collenette and Rock were taken aback by the mayor's pettiness. "But this is Mel Lastman we're dealing with, so nobody was too surprised," one insider remarked.
Councillor Doug Holyday suggested council should respond to the snub by supporting a motion of thanks to Ashton. "I don't think it's fair that the mayor tries to take all the credit when someone else did the work," Holyday said. "I, for one, am quite tired of it all."
Ashton knows his days atop the TTC are numbered, even though provincial legislation allows the chair to serve the full three-year term. "There's a two-tier process now," he mused. "First you've got to get back on the commission." Council's striking committee pretty much decides who goes where. And that committee is dominated by Lastmanites like deputy mayor Case Ootes and Disero, who's finishing up 18 months as head of the works committee.
"I think I've done a reasonably good job at the TTC, and I'd like to continue as chair," Ashton maintained. "What this city needs more than anything right now is continuity and stability."
Don't count on Betty Disero to provide that at the TTC. She was the only commissioner who joined Lastman in voting down a proposed increase to the TTC's municipal operating subsidy during the 2002 budget debate. Then just last week she showed up at a commission meeting to suggest the city conduct an audit of the TTC's finances. Chief general manager Rick Ducharme intimated that the commission could have his resignation if it supported such a motion. Heck, the next thing you know, Disero will want to hire private-sector transport firms to operate selected bus routes. Powerful lobbyists are already busy making such a case in the corridors of City Hall.
"Rick was offended, as he should have been," Ashton said in Ducharme's defence. "To have the city telling the TTC how to do its books is like the Three Stooges advising Einstein on the theory of relativity." No wonder Lastman wants the guy gone. It doesn't matter how good he might be for transit if he's bad for the mayor's badly bruised ego.