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National Post - June 10, 2010 - By Tom Urbaniak
Hazel is human after all
Mississauga city council has had quite the task this week. It has been trying to repair the damage and manage the unwanted attention arising from the municipality's tepid response to allegations of abuse and routine hazing in part of the transportation and works department.
There is a public expectation that Mayor Hazel McCallion will manage to deal with the problem and punish delinquents. After all, her residents claim that she "runs" the city.
Even municipal administrators have attributed extraordinary powers to Ms. McCallion. In 2005, former Mississauga city manager David O'Brien was asked to provide advice on good government to the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry. He waxed eloquent about the Mayor's influence: "Don't break the rules because, man, if you break the rules in our city, Hazel's going to pick you up by the scruff of the neck and give you a kick you-know-where."
For decades, Ms. McCallion's friends and advisors have been happy to emphasize that the long-serving politician is a hands-on executive, personally in control of matters large and small.
Unfortunately, this glorious super-image can work against a leader when unsavoury stories come to the public's attention, even if the leader herself is not directly at fault. That's exactly what's happening now to Ms. McCallion.
In every tribute video and newspaper insert produced to mark Ms. McCallion's birthdays and important anniversaries, a parade of luminaries can be seen and heard describing the diminutive Mayor as a "force of nature," as a "hurricane" and as an altogether very powerful person. Few defy her, we are told.
The image is even ingrained in the young. I will never forget a third grader's line in a submission to an essay contest I judged some years ago: "I have been to City Hall with my class. Our Mayor has everything under control!"
The Mayor herself has actively promoted this completely in charge aura. One of her favourite zingers is "I spend the taxpayers' money the way I spend my own, which is seldom." Even during her testimony last week at the Mississauga Judicial Inquiry, Ms. McCallion referred to "my council" and "my economic development director."
Over the years, Ms. McCallion's constituents were never really briefed on the actual powers of the office of mayor. Until now. Ironically, it's the Mayor herself who is trying to do the briefing.
It seems quite likely that Ms. McCallion was never informed in 2000 of the last-minute addition of a veto clause for Borealis, minority shareholder in the commercialized Enersource hydro corporation. Certainly there are no records that the city manager, the same David O'Brien who jokingly feared the Mayor's physical strength, brought this before council for endorsement. Justice Douglas Cunningham, head of the Mississauga inquiry, will have to sort out the chronology.
Some of the Mayor's many passionate fans will be surprised that their heroine does not read every clause of every contract she signs or sniff out alleged abuse in the transportation and works department, or fire misbehaving staffers on the spot. They will be perplexed now as they hear that the Mayor does not actually have such capacity or such formal powers.
For years, Mississauga's masses were largely disengaged from local public affairs -- less than a quarter of those eligible bothered to vote in municipal elections.
If constituents had an occasional gripe about a bad sidewalk, malfunctioning traffic light or errant dog, then they could get in touch with the Mayor directly on her live cable-television program or at one of the many events she attends. She would promise to follow up with the appropriate staff immediately and get back to the complainant. Ms. Mc-Callion would tell her citizens to "rest assured" that she was handling their problems.
For the residents of a young, growing city, it was comforting to have this kind of benevolent assurance and oversight from an experienced, almost parental, figure.
So it must be painful to realize that, all the hype notwithstanding, the Mayor of Mississauga is human after all, that city council has the same problems as other governments and, to top it off, that there is some waste and abuse in Mississauga. Ms. McCallion likes to joke that recipients of civic certificates of recognition ought to be content with a folder instead of a frame because of the city's frugality. Alas, she does not have the same authority to lower the $138,000 salary of a works supervisor whose conduct has been called into serious question.
There is a silver lining in Ms. McCallion's defensive posture of late. The city is growing up and examining itself. It is coming to realize that citizens cannot just "rest assured" that one person, even a remarkable politician, will truly have everything under control.
- Tom Urbaniak is a political scientist at Cape Breton University and author of Her Worship: Hazel McCallion and the Development of Mississauga, published by University of Toronto Press.
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