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Being mayor means never having to say you're sorry

With its Greek columns and soaring domed ceiling, Mississauga's grandiose city council chamber is a fine setting for a display of hubris. Mayor Hazel McCallion, an almost godlike figure in Toronto's western satellite city, delivered a classic on Monday with her proud, no-regrets response to a damning inquiry report.

Inquiry commissioner Douglas Cunningham found that she was in "a real and apparent conflict of interest" when she promoted a hotel and convention centre project even though her son Peter stood to make millions from the deal.

Ms. McCallion could easily have defused those findings with a simple apology. Ninety years old and in her 12th term, she is such an icon that voters will forgive her almost anything. But saying sorry is not the McCallion way. Pressed by reporters to say whether she believed she had done anything wrong – anything at all – she repeatedly declined.

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Justice Cunningham, she insisted, had not accused her of violating provincial rules. True, but she was evading the point. What he said was that, although the mayor did not technically break the vague and inadequate rules in the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, "both common law and common sense" should have told her to give the project "a wide berth."

Instead, she pursued it with feverish zeal, pushing the project hard at every opportunity and remaining altogether blind to the simple and obvious rule that a mayor "cannot promote the financial interests of family members and must avoid any appearance of impropriety." Given Peter McCallion's financial interest, it was clearly "improper" for her to use the power of her office to promote the project, Justice Cunningham says.

That is putting it mildly. Even with the best motives, pushing a deal that stands to profit your own son is a textbook case of conflict of interest. Judge Cunningham finds that the mayor knew that Peter McCallion was at the very least a real estate agent in the deal. If the project had gone through, her son might have made "more money than he would otherwise have earned over the course of many years."

Yet, over and over on Monday, the mayor challenged the essential finding of the Cunningham inquiry: that she was indeed in conflict of interest. "If any citizen feels that I was in conflict, I think the commissioner has clearly indicated that I was not in conflict within the conflict-of-interest guidelines," she told reporters.

That was a quibbling, caviling response to Justice Cunningham's fair-minded report, which went out of its way to credit the mayor for her "careful stewardship" of Mississauga's interests over many years. Instead of acknowledging, much less accepting, the judge's criticism, she crowed about the praise he bestowed on her. "I want to thank the commissioner for the confidence he has in the mayor of Mississauga," she said.

Like many leaders who have been in power for too long, Ms. McCallion seems to think that she always knows what is best for her people. La ville, c'est moi. After building central Mississauga from farmland to skyscrapers, she became obsessed – to use her own word – with crowning the development of downtown with a convention centre and luxury hotel. Without them, she said on Monday, Mississauga would never be taken seriously as a major city.

Her drive, as always, is awe inspiring. But things have changed since she first came to office in 1978, when deals were made on a handshake and everyone knew everyone else. As Justice Cunningham finds, it won't do to say anything goes as long as it promotes the public good.

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By failing to admit her mistakes in this affair, Ms. McCallion has left an blot on her remarkable record.

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