We should have known that city council would find a way to turn something as fundamental as tsunami disaster relief into a nasty political wrangle. So much for ending the year on a harmonious note. And welcome to 2005, when Mayor David Miller stands accused of being a zero compared to the departed Melvin Douglas Lastman in terms of instant cash reactions to human suffering. How to hurt a guy!
Councillor Michael Walker says he didn't mean to give Miller a New Year's Day headache when he said Lastman had way more class when it came to "those from-the-gut kind of responses." Hell, Mel wouldn't have thought twice about pledging $1 million of city taxpayers' cash to ease the misery of the millions of people struggling to survive in wave-ravaged South Asia.
Not for him all of Miller's waiting around to coordinate relief efforts with the feds and province while the city's emergency management office puts together a volunteer roster of municipal paramedics, public health nurses and water treatment wizards. I mean, what kind of self-respecting socialist opts for careful long-term planning over a quick fiscal fling?
"I figured this was a natural for the New Democrats and the mayor. I figured he would embrace this," Walker says almost apologetically.
He's been busy calling the offices of his political colleagues trying to round up the 23-councillor majority he'd need to go over Miller's head and convene a special meeting of council to debate the $1 million donation. The Ward 22 (St. Paul's) rep calls it "an exercise of collective compassion" that "would make everybody feel good that they were doing something.'
But he's come up short on councillors who share his passion for a special meeting. Walker confides that he lost a couple of votes he'd been counting on when Miller called a special meeting of council's policy and finance committee for Thursday, January 13, to "ensure a sustainable response."
"I invite all standing committees to submit any ideas and recommendations,' the mayor's invitation reads. As it happens, Walker chairs council's administration committee.
"Normally, you'd expect someone who's the chair of a committee to pick up the phone and speak to you," Miller says. "But for whatever reason, the councillor chose to write a letter and draft a motion" calling on council to provide quick monetary relief. The mayor says he called Walker immediately to tell him what the city was already doing.
"I asked him to work with us," Miller adds. "The response was 'a special meeting. '" And Walker continued his campaign. Some councillors accuse him of playing political games.
"It's an issue that allows him to stand on the other side of the fence from the mayor," says Councillor Kyle Rae. Rae sides with Miller on the need to "coordinate our efforts with the provincial and federal government so we can deliver a lot more relief over a much longer time. A million dollars will just disappear," he says. He notes that Walker's support for the mayor went up in smoke when "he didn't get everything he wanted on election finance reform" earlier this year.
But Walker insists his motives are pure. "I didn't initiate this to do anything but the right thing."
Councillor Brian Ashton says he has no problem with attending a special council meeting. But he says the fight over holding one could have been avoided had Walker spoken to Miller before he started drafting motions. And maybe the mayor "should have acted on behalf of council in a more timely fashion," the Ward 36 (Scarborough Southwest) councillor adds. "I think the city's been timid and unfocused in its relief effort."
Still, the councillor agrees that $1 million in cash isn't going to be much more than a symbol of Toronto's good intentions, and the more sustainable response Miller advocates is what's necessary. "Everybody's racing with their hearts instead of their minds," Ashton says. "My biggest fear is that when the tsunami disappears from the front pages, a lot of these villages won't find that kind of commitment."
It will be buried under politics and egos.