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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Monday, February 28, 2011

On tonight's agenda: Budgets, bottles and boundaries

An $820M budget, a $20M downtown campus, bottled water, and sewage from Arva. All part of a Monday night council meeting. Which will get the most debate?

Council will have a lot of issues to contend with tonight. It has been three weeks since the last council meeting. Although council normally meets every two weeks, the intrusion of Family Day has thrown the schedule out of whack during its busiest time, the budget deliberations.

In the meantime, meetings go on as usual. Council concluded its setting of the budget in record time, requiring just one afternoon/evening for public input, in addition to the Saturday mall consultations, one meeting to approve the capital budget, and one to haggle over the operating budget. The entire process was completed in less than half the time required when the Board of Control was involved.

So much for the added workload without a Board of Control!

The final product was not unlike that of previous councils either. In short, there were only minor variations from what was tabled by the administration in response to guidelines set by council.

In addition, there were the usual standing committee meetings, a special meeting with representatives of Fanshawe College, and a meeting with the Members of Provincial Parliament.

Most of the reports from these meetings should get an easy ride at council tonight, since they involved the Committee of the Whole. The concerns have been aired and debated and votes taken. With respect to the budget, although there were differences on which cuts should be made and what should be protected from the axeman, it is doubtful that anyone will want to rehash them since the decision at Committee of the Whole was unanimous.

Similarly, the deal with Fanshawe College is likely to be approved with minimal debate. Despite very spirited debate which sometimes bordered on incivility, in the end council unanimously endorsed the previous council’s commitment to set aside up to $10M for the acquisition and renovation of heritage buildings to house a downtown Fanshawe College School of Applied and Performance Arts. Providing an additional $10M as part of the New Economy Project initiated by the previous council was also endorsed by all except Ward 10 Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen.

There will, however, be a couple of contentious items.

First, there will be the Arva connection.

Will Ward 14 Councillor Sandy White follow through on her plan to ask council to consider annexing Arva?

The item is currently a part of the Built and Natural Environment Report going forward to council. The recommendation is to direct staff to draw up an agreement to permit the additional sewage capacity that Arva is requesting. At committee, White seconded the motion to do so, joining Councillors Bud Polhill and Denise Brown in support of it. Councillors Joe Swan and Joni Baechler were opposed.

Now, however, she has had second thoughts, worrying about lost revenue from assessment growth. If her push for annexation fails, as it is bound to, will she still support the motion? This is likely to be a tight vote because the committee was spilt on the issue, staff did not support the request from Middlesex Centre, and the previous council was opposed to considering it. Finally, the Mayor will declare a conflict since he lives in Arva. That means in order for the motion to succeed, eight out 14 votes will be required; a tied vote is counted as a loss. The odds are that Arva will have to look somewhere else.

The second item that has drawn a lot of public interest is the issue of revoking the ban on the sale of bottled water at city-owned venues.

In response to a request from Nestle, Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen moved that bottled water be re-instated. The vote was tied with Councillors Steve Orser and Mayor Fontana supporting the motion and Councillors Bill Armstrong, Matt Brown and Harold Usher opposed. As a result, the motion lost and will be brought to council as a report rather than a recommendation. That means that you can only ask questions about it, not debate it.

In order to debate it you need to get leave to make a substantive motion about it. While that requires only a simple majority, it may not be easy getting it, especially when there are likely to be a significant number of spectators, most of them environmentalists, in the gallery. And even if you do get leave, getting the majority of council to reverse a decision that brought London positive international attention won’t be easy. The fallout of such a decision could be mighty embarrassing!

So there should be some interesting moments at council tonight. The fun starts at 5 o’clock. If you can’t be there, you can always tune in on Rogers Cable TV Channel 13 starting at 9 p.m.

I will arrive late since I have a rehearsal for The Dining Room at the Grand Theatre. That’s a fundraising play being held at the Grand on March 10th. A number of councillors and other well-known members of the community will be in it so get your tickets early.

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