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Mississauga conflict-of-interest inquiry should be called the Hazel McCallion show

For at least the past decade, Hazel McCallion, the mighty Mississauga mayor, has been described in the condescending terms the society which considers itself sophisticated and kindly reserves for those of its elder citizens who are not outright drooling, wheelchair-bound, in nursing homes.

She is spunky, even cute. Why, she still drives! At 89! She's as sharp as a tack, as even her critics admit, albeit usually in order to plead that she should leave the building now, while she's on top of her game - for her own good, they always say, by which they usually mean for theirs.

The thing is, as anyone who knows her or has even seen her in action recognizes, a reason Ms. McCallion would have all her marbles - another favourite of the wet-behind-the-ears set - is so she is well-armed to rocket some at your head.

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She is fierce, extraordinarily capable, with a schedule that most of the 30-somethings I know couldn't begin to handle, extremely funny with an actor's timing, bold and brazen.

As someone in the know remarked to me Monday at the Mississauga courthouse where the Hazel McCallion show, which is what this inquiry should be called, is being held, "She may have rounded a few corners, but…"

This person shrugged and grinned sheepishly, as if to acknowledge that any corners rounded by Madam Mayor were rounded to efficiently get the bloody job done for the city (whose downtown, as someone reminded me, is organized around a shopping centre) that she so plainly and inexplicably loves.

The inquiry is an elephant gun in search of a target. Bets are it is going to settle for the flea in its sights.

Sparked by calls from Ms. McCallion's political opponents on Mississauga council and thus born of highly partisan roots, the inquiry is purportedly examining a development deal in which her son Peter was involved, the mayor's robust advocacy of that deal, how the two of them respectively conducted themselves (my unlearned verdict is the son did not so well, the mother just fine) and how good or not the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act is in guiding politicians and private and corporate citizens (answer, not very good).

As Madam Mayor pointed out on Monday, before she told Commissioner Douglas Cunningham she was counting on him to make a few pointed recommendations in this regard, that bit of legislation makes it mandatory for a politician to declare a conflict if a son or daughter is doing business with the city in question, but not if it's a son- or daughter-in-law.

It isn't in dispute that the mayor's son was involved in a deal to build a luxury hotel in the city core; council, staff and the mayor all wanted it.

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In the space of a few weeks back in the spring of 2008, when the deal first made its way to council, she declared a conflict - "I would like to declare a conflict; my son represents one of the investors," she said - not once but three times.

On the fourth occasion, when discussion on the deal was deferred, she forgot to declare the conflict, but so well was it known by then that though the videotape of the meeting showed she didn't stand up to 'fess all, the minutes reflected that she had. "Staff was well aware of my conflict," she said, "just as council was." She guessed staff "assumed I had done it."

She knew that Peter stood to gain a commission if the deal went through; what she didn't realize was that his role later changed to that of investor.

She seemed peeved and surprised that he had been.

Asked by her own lawyer, Liz McIntyre, what she would have thought of Peter's ability to pay back the $750,000 he'd borrowed, she said, "Very slight. It was a very complicated agreement."

A few questions later and she mused wistfully, "I often wished I had a relative who had a lot of money to invest" in city projects.

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"You could have worked him over," the commissioner said with a sly smile, referencing the mayor's admitted tendency to "work over" developers, vendors and the like in her office. "I've thrown lawyers out of my boardroom in order to get a deal for the city," she'd said during that exchange.

Ms. McIntyre asked her once about a note in which a developer said he told the mayor "we need to get an NHL team in Mississauga."

"Do you remember that?" Ms. McIntyre asked.

"No," said the mayor, "but it sounds good."

There was a long pause.

Then she added, sweet as pie, "It would be nice to have one in the GTA."

She should be running for the Toronto mayoralty too. I've no doubt she could squeeze it in.

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