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Newsmaker of the Year

Council woes kept making headlines

MEDIA FRENZY: National and local news outlets descended upon city hall in December when all eight regional and ward councillors held a press conference to demand the mayor resign. She didn't. (Philip Alves/Vaughan Today)

Looking back at 2008, Vaughan Today’s editorial staff faced what turned out to be an easy decision when choosing Newsmaker of the Year. There were worthy runners up, but only nine could come out on top. Love them or hate them, you couldn’t avoid them in 2008.

They number just nine, a tiny fraction of the quarter-million that call this city home.

But the long shadow they collectively cast in 2008 stretched from their headquarters at Keele St. and Major Mackenzie Dr. to all corners of Vaughan and beyond.

Fights in council chambers and through legal documents, the media and duelling press conferences marred their year, which culminated in an unsuccessful city hall coup attempt.

The political bloodshed was riveting. Newsrooms across the GTA were kept abuzz with the sounds of ringing phones and clacking keyboards.

It all led to an easy decision: city council — Mayor Linda Jackson, regional councillors Joyce Frustaglio, Mario Ferri and Gino Rosati, and ward councillors Peter Meffe, Tony Carella, Bernie DiVona, Sandra Yeung Racco and Alan Shefman — is Vaughan Today’s Newsmaker of the Year.

Some bright news in a cloudy

Members of Vaughan’s city council were asked to reflect on the past year and tell us what their greatest accomplishment was in 2008:

Getting provincial approval for both subway extensions — to the Corporate Centre and up Yonge St. to Hwy. 7 — is a major accomplishment, particularly when you consider that York Region received the bulk of the transit dollars allocated for major infrastructure projects. 
— Regional Councillor Joyce Frustaglio

Leading the Strategic Planning Committee in establishing the city’s priorities through to 2020 and guiding the implementation of the 2008 initiatives to better serve the residents of Vaughan through these challenging times.
— Regional Councillor Mario Ferri

As chair of the Official Plan Review Committee, I am most proud that the Vaughan Tomorrow initiative. It has had the most citizen engagement in Vaughan’s planning history.
— Councillor Peter Meffe

Without a doubt, making a reality the Vaughan Community Health Centre — a state-of-the-art primary healthcare centre — the most significant step ever taken in the development of health care in Vaughan.
— Councillor Tony Carella

My request, unanimously supported by Vaughan council, to make defibrillators mandatory in public places, I feel, will improve the quality of life for future generations. No other city in Canada took the lead. Vaughan did.
—  Councillor Bernie DiVona

The greatest accomplishment this year was getting the Vaughan Corporate Centre Advisory Committee off the ground. The committee looked at ways to promote Vaughan’s largest and most important project in its history: the city’s downtown.
— Councillor Sandra Yeung Racco

As chair of the Accountability and Transparency Committee, I worked closely with the integrity commissioner and helped lead the development of the policy infrastructure required to ensure that, starting now and into the future, members of council will have appropriate guidelines to operate with the highest level of integrity.
— Councillor Alan Shefman

To be fair, the nine members of council did accomplish a great deal of good for their constituents. Even so, the cloud of controversy over city hall eclipsed the year’s positive news.

2008 began much the way it ended. Jackson found herself besieged by attempts to push her from office.

In February, Jackson was dealt a serious blow when a judge ordered an audit of her 2006 campaign books. She said she welcomed the audit at the time but when it was completed in June, Jackson was facing potential removal from office over allegations she contravened the Municipal Elections Act.

Armed with the auditors’ findings, council unanimously chose to appoint a special prosecutor to pursue charges. Not willing to sit idly by as events unfolded, Jackson launched a lawsuit against the city in August. She claimed the decision to hire a prosecutor hinged on a series of illegal, even unconstitutional, actions.

“It’s obvious that she wants to continue to run council I guess not so much from her office but from the courts,” Frustaglio said in response.

Council’s appointed prosecutor has yet to lay charges.

Like Jackson’s, an audit of Frustaglio’s 2006 campaign books found apparent contraventions of the elections act, but council’s reaction was quite different.

On Nov. 10, council decided against legal action but demanded Frustaglio do penance by donating money to charity and writing an essay on the importance of accurate election expense records to be published in local newspapers.

Soon after, Vaughan Today began receiving anonymous packages containing documents — some apparently leaked — alleging wrongdoing by Frustaglio.

Jackson said laws may have been broken and pressed for an investigation.

“This is the biggest setup I have ever seen,” Frustaglio said angrily at the time. “This is nothing but a witch hunt on the part of the mayor to bring me down to her level.”

While serious — yet still unproven — allegations of wrongdoing were being hurled in the city’s halls of power, other squabbles emerged.

At the end of March, infighting flared in council chambers over who gets invited to functions and who should be informed. On one side stood seven of council’s nine; on the other stood an increasingly isolated Jackson, supported only grudgingly by Rosati.

From there, council’s slide into dysfunction accelerated. In mid-April, councillors approved a look into the mayor’s 2007 office expenses. An extraordinary war of words ensued.

The political attacks levelled at her by her opponents was making Vaughan “the biggest laughingstock in the GTA,” Jackson told Vaughan Today in April.

“I don’t know if I am one of the so-called disloyal or uncooperative members of this council,” Shefman later said in response to this and other public remarks. “But because I don’t know, what she says is even more destructive and hurtful.

“Those comments are an attack on my integrity.”

He then offered an olive branch.

“Madame mayor,” Shefman said, “if there has been a misunderstanding, let us work together to fix it.”

Twenty-four hours later, the city’s audit committee ordered Jackson’s office expense audit, the result of which was a report released last month that sent councillors into a tizzy.

Though the report’s authors found some spending issues, they said the blame lay with council’s rules, not Jackson herself.

“Undoubtedly she’s lost the confidence of council,” an unsatisfied Shefman told reporters.

“I have never had their support,” Jackson responded. “Since before I was elected, they didn’t want me there. They don’t want me there.”

The stage was set for the final stunning act of council’s 2008 melodrama. On Dec. 15, all eight regional and ward councillors gathered before a crush of reporters to demand the embattled mayor quit.

At her own press conference later that afternoon, Jackson refused and vowed to continue to represent her constituents despite what observers were now calling a “dysfunctional” council.

Vaughan Today
In print: January 2, 2009, page 1
Online: January 1, 2009 [link]