Mississauga's venerable mayor is no stranger to conflict-of-interest allegations.
For Hazel McCallion, it was an unwanted holiday gift.
On December 11, 1981, the mayor of Mississauga was greeted by a process server delivering a writ. John Graham, a lawyer and former mayor of Streetsville whose political relationship with McCallion had deteriorated when they worked together during the late 1960s, filed an application accusing her of violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act and requesting that she be removed from office if found guilty. As the server handed over the paper, he wished McCallion a “Merry Christmas.”
It wouldn’t be the last time “Hurricane Hazel” faced conflict-of-interest charges. If Rob Ford consented to take advice from anyone on surviving his current legal fight, he could turn to McCallion.
Ironically, McCallion had helped draft a proposal to modify the act while serving as the president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario in 1979. At the time, she felt that there were so many loopholes for politicians to fall through, the best thing to do was declare a conflict of interest even if it didn’t exist.
The core of Graham’s complaint was McCallion’s participation in private and public discussions around freeing up land for future development in five districts of Mississauga. Among the affected areas was East Credit, where McCallion and her husband Sam owned five acres that would fetch a nice price. Declarations of her conflict were spotty: totally forgotten at one meeting and unmentioned at another for several hours, until immediately before a critical vote (legislation stipulates conflicts be declared at the start of the session). While McCallion excused herself from voting on resolutions on East Credit and a neighbouring district, she participated in decisions on the other three. She also strongly urged a dissenting councillor to vote favourably. McCallion defended her actions by noting that everyone knew she had property at stake, and that she had no more financial interest in potential development than any other Mississauga landowner.
In his decision from July 22, 1982, Judge Ernest West ruled that McCallion had breached the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act by participating in discussions about the affected land, failing to disclose her conflict at appropriate times, failing to abstain from any related vote, and attempting to influence others. West refused to remove her from office, noting that she had made “a bona fide error of judgement” and that “in the euphoria of the adoption of a resolution…the mayor departed from her previous cautious approach to the issue.” The incident didn’t dent the mayor’s popularity, as she was re-elected that fall. “Everybody learns from their experiences,” McCallion told reporters after West’s ruling.
Perhaps she didn’t learn enough, or she forgot the lessons more than a quarter-of-a-century later.
In September 2009, Mississauga council voted for an inquiry after revelations that McCallion participated in council discussions around a failed $14.4 million deal to buy land from the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement Scheme (OMERS) for a hotel near Square One—a deal that her son Peter was involved in. The mayor claimed she couldn’t recuse herself from city matters despite her son’s involvement, that she had declared her conflict during council meetings, and that conflict provisions didn’t prevent her from participating in private discussions before the matter arose in council.
McCallion received plenty of support from constituents who felt she was entitled to screw up, and didn’t appreciate seeing her reputation soiled. There were suspicions that one of the inquiry’s prominent backers, councillor Carolyn Parrish, was preparing to run for McCallion’s job. (If so, Parrish’s strategy didn’t work: she was defeated in the 2010 municipal election.) A rally organized by the “Friends of Hazel” in December 2009 included speeches from supporters like Don Cherry, who has developed a penchant for backing mayors who wind up in conflict-of-interest cases.
As the inquiry unfolded through 2010 and 2011, a key issue was Peter McCallion’s official position in the sale. Affidavits differed as to whether he was a principal in potential site developer World Class Developments (WCD) or merely its real estate agent. Peter testified that he didn’t realize he was a part-owner of WCD, and thus didn’t mislead his mother during their discussions. The mayor claimed ignorance of her son’s role in WCD, yet witnessed an agreement that gave him ownership. She insisted her involvement was an attempt to fulfill a long-term goal of bringing a luxury hotel to the centre of Mississauga and that she would have devoted the same attention to the project regardless of who was participating. Documents revealed that the mayor had frequently hosted her son’s business partners and made numerous interventions with OMERS before the deal collapsed.
When the second phase of the inquiry began in July 2010, the mayor attempted to limit its scope but was shot down by the commissioner of the judicial inquiry, Douglas Cunningham, who observed that she and other councillors were elected to serve public, not private, interests. To Cunningham, an unbiased exercise of their duties was “not only the common law, but the common sense standard by which the conduct of municipal representative ought to be judged.”
In its final submission to the inquiry in January 2011, city lawyer Clifford Lax argued that the mayor should have recognized her inappropriate behaviour and that her son and his partners “exploited her office for her own ends.” Lax acknowledged that McCallion didn’t technically violate the Muncipal Conflict of Interest Act, but that its scope should be broadened beyond simply declaring a conflict to council.
“It is no answer to say that a public office holder may promote the financial interests of a relative where to do so also promotes the greater good,” Cunningham observed when he issued his report in October 2011. “To accept this proposition would in my view lead over time to the erosion of public trust in municipal government.” Though the mayor didn’t break the rules as written, and didn’t receive any payouts, Cunningham felt she should have steered clear of the matter. He called for a stronger definition of conflict of interest that stretched beyond financial relationships, and for provisions to make it easier for individuals or organizations to launch claims against elected representatives. He also suggested that lesser sanctions like a suspension or making a formal apology should be created, so that officials didn’t have to vacate their offices regardless of the degree of their offense (a call some are echoing in Rob Ford’s current case).
Though she continued to defend her actions, McCallion supported Cunningham’s reforms. “In life, we all need guidelines,” she noted.
McCallion’s troubles continue. An affidavit filed by former Parrish staffer Elias Hazineh requests her removal from office, claiming that McCallion voted on development-charge issues in 2007 that could have saved her son $11 million on the hotel project. This week, a judge turned down McCallion’s request to hold a full trial over the matter.
Additional material from the August 17, 1979, December 14, 1981, December 16, 1981, July 23, 1982, and October 4, 2011, editions of the Globe and Mail, the July 8, 2010, edition of the Mississauga News, the October 3, 2009, and June 26, 2012, editions of the National Post, and the December 14, 1981, July 23, 1982, December 3, 2009, and January 28, 2011, editions of the Toronto Star.