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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A levy, a fund, or diddly squat?

A rose by any other name...

Monday night’s meeting was the second for the newly minted council; the first took place after midnight on December 8th, a day and a half after the inaugural meeting that didn't happen due to weather conditions. But that one was simply an affirmation of the appointments to committees, boards and commissions following a rather disorganized committee of the whole meeting.

At that Committee of the Whole meeting, it was clear that most of the new members of council were faced with a huge learning curve. So far, progress has been limited.

At last night’s meeting, things started out well. An upbeat presentation by staff to the foodbank, a report from the Built and Natural Environment Committee that generated only a kudo and a few innocuous questions from councillors, a report from Community and Neighbourhoods Committee that passed unanimously without debate.

Wow, I thought. This meeting will be over before dinner.

That was before the Finance and Administration Committee (FAC) report.

Interestingly enough, the committee itself had met quite amicably last Wednesday. Most items had passed unanimously, and while there was plenty of discussion, it all seemed quite congenial, certainly more so than the Board of Control meetings of the previous four years.

The first items put forward by FAC vice-chair Judy Bryant dealt with re-affirming economic development decisions of the previous council and funding the New Economy projects. FAC recommended consideration of a one per cent “levy” in 2012.

A levy by any other name is still a tax. Ward 12 Councillor Harold Usher objected to the term “levy” and wanted to replace it with the term “fund”, not seeming to recognize that if you want to have a reserve “fund” from which you can draw, you have to find a way to put some cash into it. Ward 10 Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen seconded Usher’s motion and bedlam followed.

Eventually, Harold’s amendment was withdrawn to be replaced by one that council explore “other options” for getting money into the fund. In VanMeerbergen’s words, any hint of a levy or tax “is the wrong message to send”.

This caused Mayor Fontana to declare that “if anybody is messaging about a tax or a levy it should be me” noting that the motion was to “consider”.

"We've got diddly squat."
Mayor Fontana, in fact, spent much of his time out of the chair, weighing in on the debate and responding to councillors’ comments with little regard for procedure. From time to time, he simply weighed in without leaving the chair. All in all, his performance was quite reminiscent of former Controller Tom Gosnell ‘s chairing Committee of the Whole.

Certainly, the Mayor doesn’t hold back when voicing his opinions. In describing London’s economic development reserve fund, Fontana pronounced that, compared to other municipalities, “We’ve got diddly squat”, although Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe pointed out later that $67M in capital capacity is hardly “diddly squat”.

Noting that this is the amount that will become available over the next 10 years as a result of savings due to the advancement of projects through the federal/provincial stimulus funding for infrastructure, Branscombe explained that we have “a cash flow problem” that makes it impossible to fund all of the projects that form the New Economy plan for jobs endorsed unanimously by the previous council.

In the end, despite his pleas, the Fontana 8 failed to support him and the motion to explore other options to the exclusion of a levy in 2012 was endorsed by Councillors Bud Polhill (Ward 1), Bill Armstrong (Ward 2), Stephen Orser (Ward 6), Dale Henderson (Ward 9), Paul VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown (Ward 11), Harold Usher, and Sandy White (Ward 14). Those opposing the amendment and in favour of the original motion to consider a levy in 2012 were Joe Swan (Ward 3), Joni Baechler (Ward 5), Nancy Branscombe, Matt Brown (Ward 7), Paul Hubert (Ward 8), and Judy Bryant (Ward 13) and the Mayor.

In fairness, since the Mayor was the last to vote, some of his allies may have been confused about what he wanted from them. It makes the prospect of electronic voting, in which “follow the leader” is not easily accomplished, all the more interesting.

Then it was back to the main motion which was to affirm the New Economy projects which had been identified in June 2010.

Now it was Ward 3 Councillor Joe Swan’s turn to throw a spanner into the works. Noting that he was not familiar with the projects that had been approved by the previous council despite circulation of the reports with the agenda, he stated that he “was not in a position tonight to support number 6”, including the agreement struck with UWO to fund a joint venture for advanced manufacturing.

“I want to know what I am spending $10 million on. There is no background, no information.”

In fact, background reports had been circulated with the agenda and it is the responsibility of the councillor to obtain information in advance on any items that s/he may be unclear about.

The deal had been unanimously endorsed by the previous council, it was pointed out, and staff and the London Economic Development Council had proceeded on that basis. To back out of the deal now when a letter of understanding with a major foreign investor was in the works could have significant economic and legal ramifications.

Eventually, a motion was passed to approve the deal with UWO but defer the remainder to a meeting of Committee of the Whole at which time members would receive detailed presentations on the projects.

I have some sympathy for the incoming councillors. Several times while I was at Board of Control I objected to making a decision on big issues with limited background and time to study the issue.

Nevertheless, it is incumbent on councillors to read their full agenda, including the background reports, and to research the matters before them. It was clear that not everyone had done that. In the words of one councillor in referring to the UWO grant, “I read the report but I didn’t understand what it was about. But I talked to the UWO president and I have faith that it’s a good idea.”

Councillors also need to accept that the previous council made decisions that will have implications for the future. It is not possible to reconsider every decision made in the last four or forty years. Water under the bridge or over the dam, as the case may be.

My advice to council: Read your agenda, including the background reports; talk to staff and other councillors about the issue before the council meeting; check the procedure bylaw. That would go a long way to avoiding the kind of chaos I witnessed Monday night.

For a copy of the FAC report click here .


Ben Benedict said...

Great report Gina and an opinion shared by many Council Watchers. Makes you wonder why they ran if already they don't understand their role nor responsibilities so lets hope that it will get better as you are right to point out, it's a lot to take in. I'm still concerned abouth the 'London's not worth investing in' tax attitude with neighbouring communities developing and investing at a far greater rate with better results in terms of investing for the long run but lets remain optimistic until the new year and give everyone time to read there 'Christams' editon of Robert's Rules.

Protestant said...

I don't perceive that "London's not worth investing in" tax attitude.
What I see are investors reaching out and breathing life back into into rural communities, infusing hope where once it seemed that all was lost and gone to dust.
Ghosts towns revived, thriving and bustling with creative ingenuity is worth every penny.