Not any more

Howard Moscoe: A merry prankster who made a difference

In Canada on September 2, 2010 at 07:46

It would be easy to dismiss Howard Moscoe as nothing more than an inconsequential buffoon whose quips and capers periodically grabbed headlines in his three decades in office.

Mr. Moscoe, who has announced he will not run again for city council in October, is city hall’s merry prankster. When Mel Lastman’s toupée was auctioned off for charity, Mr. Moscoe bought it for $35, then used it to dust his council seat. When he was chair of the TTC, he often tried to add “pizzazz” to the system by riding the rocket in full costume, sometimes for charity, once appearing dressed fetchingly as Little Bo Peep.

A master of city council mechanics, he buried a move to hike city councillors’ salaries in a routine motion. Councillors discovered they had been tricked into voting themselves a raise – an act guaranteed to annoy voters – and had to rush to undo it.

During the 2003 election, when Mr. Moscoe was laid up in hospital with a heart condition, he was worried that opponents would claim he was unfit for the rigours of office. So he kept his hospitalization quiet, answering calls and e-mails from his sick bed as if he were in his city hall office and even popping out of hospital for photo-ops. Few people knew he was “campaigning” from a sick ward.

But there was design to Mr. Moscoe’s devilry. He knew that to get things done in the free-form, party-less city hall system, you had to focus attention on an issue, even if it meant playing the fool. In that respect, he admits, he was a lot like his old foe Mr. Lastman.

His mastery of the workings of council gave him an edge over less attentive councillors. Unlike many of them (hello, Rob Ford), he actually read the reams of reports that go before council every session. So he came to meetings well prepared, armed with slyly fashioned motions that often caught others unaware. “If you’re not careful, he messes you up,” says fellow councillor Adam Vaughan. “You have to read his motions, twice. He was the most devious and clever and imaginative councillor.”

This combination of directed goofiness and administrative guile allowed him to score a fair number of little victories. Thanks in part to him, the city prohibits landlords from charging for visitor parking (so you can visit your grandma without having to pay). He helped push through a rule requiring large stores to provide public washrooms. He backed a plan that requires condo developers to provide free one-year transit passes for every unit.

A professed champion of the little guy, he pushed for the rights of struggling street vendors and taxi drivers. Recently, he was an important figure in the city’s decision to launch a massive makeover of the rundown Lawrence Heights housing project in North York. City council gave him a rare standing ovation when the plan passed.

Mr. Moscoe often visited the press gallery, full of beans and grinning broadly, to boast of his latest crusade. Some of those were quixotic to say the least. Angered when U.S. stores refused to take his Canadian small change, he tried to get the city to take revenge by forcing Toronto retailers to reject American coins. He could be a pain in the neck when he wanted to be. As chair of the Toronto Transit Commission from 1998 to 2006, he often meddled in things that were best left to TTC officials, and two general managers left amid reports about his interference.

Mr. Vaughan says Mr. Moscoe “had the ability to drive those in power crazy.” In fact, “if he was on your side he could drive you crazy too.” His style could “inspire and confound you all at the same time.”

Even many of those who opposed him admit they will miss his zest, humour and hard work. Mr. Moscoe says being a city councillor was “the most exciting job in the world.” Far from being dysfunctional, he says, city council is “actually the most functional form of government” – an interesting argument in these days of rampant anger at city hall. Without the bonds of party discipline and ceaseless partisan wrangling of federal or provincial politics, he contends, an engaged and creative councillor can make a difference.

Mr. Moscoe did.

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