After six years of exile in the political wilderness on orders from a former mayor who once referred to him as a good argument for birth control, Councillor Michael Walker has finally been allowed to enter the City Hall equivalent of the promised land. He's the new chair of council's administration committee, an eight-member group responsible for overseeing the municipal bureaucracy.
This never would have happened under the old regime. In fact, the city's previous chief magistrate went out of his way to make sure the Ward 22 (St. Paul's) councillor had as little influence as possible on the formulation of civic policy. Lastman only failed in this regard once, when Walker, a veteran of two decades at City Hall, managed to finagle his way into the chair of the old midtown community council for the first half of the last term.
The former mayor paid a price for shunning the outspoken councillor. Walker became one of his fiercest critics, challenging virtually every move he made. Look up council's votes on initiatives the ex-mayor promoted, and it's very likely Walker was on the other side, many times all by himself.
"LBJ used to say it's better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out instead of outside pissing in," the former maverick says with a laugh. It's advice Toronto's new mayor is taking.
"It's very difficult when he's in opposition to you," David Miller concedes. Fortunately, the two men ended up on the same side of most important issues, and Walker gave Miller's mayoral bid his personal endorsement during the heated election campaign.
Still, there was considerable tension among senior civil servants when word first got out that Walker was being considered as the new head of admin. After all, he's been openly critical of most members of the top brass during a spate of contentious political events including the MFP computer leasing scandal, the bizarre awarding of a contract for the redevelopment of Union Station and the controversial firing of the city's director of corporate access and privacy.
But Walker insists he won't be on a house-cleaning mission. "We haven't got time to be dwelling on the past any more," he says.
"The mayor seems to be taking a conciliatory approach in the belief that a lot of people here had to survive under really difficult circumstances for the public service. He says everybody's got their jobs and a chance to prove they should keep them. I'm of the same mind. I've always supported public service.'
Miller clearly appreciates Walker's backing. "I think Michael has a lot to offer," the mayor says. "He's been elected for a long time and made a lot of positive contributions. I thought he deserved a chance to play a larger role on council."
While others might choose to characterize the councillor as anti-everything, Miller maintains he's always viewed him as "in favour of people being judged on their accountability." And so it should be with the civic administration. "I think he'll treat people fairly," the mayor says, "but if it becomes time to make a change, changes will happen."
Notes Walker: "In my opinion, there's a lot of talent in the bureaucracy and always has been. It just hasn't been able to flower at the commissioner level and, more particularly, at the lower levels of the administration." The new committee chair says he wants to "encourage and facilitate the free expression of ideas" by municipal employees.
"You'll get this filtering process where good ideas come up through the public service," Walker says. "Then the politicians can take the ones they like and leave those they don't. We have to pursue and implement an agenda for the future."
High on Walker's list of priorities for that agenda is council acting on recommendations on governance reform expected to come from Justice Denise Bellamy and the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry early next year.
He'd also like council to take steps to increase the public's access to information and to formalize a lobbyist registry at City Hall.
"We should just implement one and the province be damned," he says. "We can't sit around waiting for Queen's Park to pass the necessary legislation, and we shouldn't do business with people who don't register."
Walker also wants to see better labour relations between the city administration and rank-and-file workers.
"We had a wasteful, uncalled-for strike in 2002 that demonized the public service," he says. "I didn't support any of that, and I think the election of a mayor who is pro-public servant has been a tonic for municipal staff."
Obviously, it's been a tonic for Michael Walker, too.