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National Post - May 25, 2010 - By Megan O'Toole - firstname.lastname@example.org
Mississauga inquiry starts today
After months of speculation and bitter accusations, Mississauga's judicial inquiry is set to begin hearing evidence today, in a process already threatening to spill over into the fall election period.
At stake is the reputation of Mayor Hazel McCallion, whose involvement in two allegedly suspect business deals puts her at the centre of the controversy -- but her council critics, the most vocal being Carolyn Parrish, also have cause for concern about the fallout for their own political careers, observers say.
"The critics have to hope there will be a bombshell, because they have raised the stakes so high," said Tom Urbaniak, a Cape Breton academic who has written extensively on the McCallion mayoralty and plans to attend the inquiry this week.
Ms. McCallion's staunchest allies have labelled the process a "witch hunt" and a waste of tax dollars, accusing Ms. Parrish of attempting to discredit the Mayor in an effort to fulfill her own political ambitions. But Ms. Parrish, one of seven councillors who voted for the inquiry, says this ignores a number of genuine concerns about past city business dealings.
"I hope the results will assure the citizens of Mississauga that the cost of the inquiry was a reasonable price to pay to get at the truth," she said.
The first portion of the inquiry, expected to run for seven days, will examine a controversial deal involving Enersource, the city's electricity company, and pension giant OMERS. Signed a decade ago, the agreement gave Borealis, a subsidiary of OMERS, a 10% stake in Enersource and veto power on board decisions.
The deal become fodder for outrage a couple of years ago when Mississauga councillors attempted to cut the $32,000 stipend to members of the Enersource board -- and learned they could not, because of the agreement. (Ultimately, OMERS did allow Enersource board stipends to be cut.)
The Mayor has said she never read the 2000 deal before signing, nor was she briefed on its contents. In an interview last year with the National Post, she called the deal "unacceptable" and foisted part of the blame on then-city manager Dave O'Brien, noting "there is no record [he] advised us" of the changes; Mr. O'Brien declined to respond to the allegation at the time.
For its part, OMERS has told members they can "rest assured that all of our dealings with the city have been carried out to the highest standard."
Ms. McCallion will testify on the Enersource matter on June 2, preceded by a number of other witnesses, including Mr. O'Brien and Michael Nobrega, president of Borealis during the relevant time period.
The witness schedule for the second portion of the inquiry has yet to be released, but both the Mayor and her son, Peter McCallion, are expected to testify.
That portion will probe a failed $14.4-million land deal involving Mr. McCallion, who was linked to a company called World Class Developments. The company had hoped to purchase a 3.5-hectare parcel of land adjacent to the Square One shopping centre to build a hotel, but the deal fell through, and OMERS subsequently sold the land to the city, which leased it out to Sheridan College.
The deal between the city and OMERS spurred a challenge from World Class that ended in an undisclosed settlement to the development company, the details of which councillors would like to know.
Ms. McCallion faces questions of conflict over her alleged involvement in private meetings related to the World Class deal while the matter was before council; Ms. Parrish says she hopes the inquiry will serve to "strengthen, expand and clarify the current Municipal Conflict of Interest Act to accurately reflect the realities under which councillors, staff and citizens must conduct the city's business."
About 40 days have been designated for the inquiry, taking the process into late August, but delays could push that further. The cost, initially estimated at $2.5-million, is now expected to dramatically surpass that figure.
Mr. Urbaniak points out that while Ms. McCallion is not bulletproof, it would take a revelation of spectacular proportions to damage the Mayor, who at 89 has ruled the city for three decades, earning fierce admiration in Mississauga and on the national political stage.
"The danger for the Mayor, however, is that there will be some sort of revelation or revelations that result in a paradigm shift within the city," Mr. Urbaniak said.
"At the moment, the dominant paradigm is that the Mayor has been essentially acting in the public interest throughout her political career, and if there have been some missteps, those have been missteps that took place in good faith.... That paradigm, and here's the risk, could turn into a paradigm of betrayal."
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