One item that received a lot of attention from council as part of the budget deliberations was a request from the African Community Council for city funding for a homework club for at risk members of the community.
This request initially came to council last August via the Community and Protective Services Committee (CAPS) which recommended that the request for $49,000 and change be referred to the 2011 Budget process for consideration along with other such requests. As well, CAPS recommended that the group work with the civic administration to identify alternative potential sources of funding. It was also noted that the group had already received a small amount of money through Community Services to assist with this project.
The recommendations were passed by council.
Accordingly, Mr Deeq Abdi, president of the African Community Council, made his pitch to Committee of the Whole early last month.
It sounds like a valuable project, providing homework assistance to African youth, many of whom are experiencing academic difficulties and therefore getting into trouble. The families are described as having few resources to assist the teens with their problems at school.
The club would provide 30 to 50 youth with 2 hours twice a week of homework assistance provided by trained volunteers from Brescia College. The program would operate out of Saunders Secondary School as a drop in centre and allow recreational learning (e.g. games) as well as academic tutoring. The money requested would be used for a part-time coordinator, an independent evaluator, some snacks and incidentals.
An unusual feature of this request was how aggressively it was being championed by the mayor. Apparently, during the election campaign he had accepted Mr. Abdi’s invitation to visit Montcalm Secondary School where the project has already been implemented and was very impressed with it.
That project has received $75,000 over two years from the Trillium Foundation and some money from the Ministry of Health.
What is curious is that the request to council was also for a pilot project. If one was already up and running, why would the one proposed for Laurier also be described as a pilot? And why was there no reference to the Montcalm project in the request, nor any reference to the funding received for it? Instead, the proposal refers to projects in other cities in Ontario and other parts of Canada. Also not mentioned was the fact that the group had already received $5,000 in seed money from Community Services.
These omissions led to some questions about the exact nature of the request. Was the request for one time funding to get started on a two-year pilot or was it for core funding, meaning that the city would be expected to continue to support it year after year? Are there not already homework clubs or homework assistance and tutoring provided by the city through the public library, through United Way, through the Board of Education, through church groups? Should the city fund one cultural group in preference to others? Should the city take on new programs, especially one that would appear to be a provincial responsibility, at a time when council had committed to a tax freeze? Should the city be in the business of education? How many other homework groups would be lining up for funding?
Despite these questions, the proposal received passionate support from Councillor Sandy White in whose ward the project would be located. When Councillors Harold Usher and Steve Orser raised some of these issues, they were accused by White of having personal issues with the applicant or his cultural group; the word “racism” was bandied about.
Ultimately, at Committee of the Whole, members voted 7 to 6 in favour of trying to find a one-time source of money to meet the request. Voting in favour were Mayor Fontana and Councillors White, Polhill, Armstrong, Orser, Henderson, and Denise Brown. Opposed were Councillors Baechler, Branscombe, Hubert, VanMeerbergen, Usher, and Bryant. Councillor Matt Brown declared a conflict as he is employed by the Thames Valley School Board.
Also declaring a conflict was Councillor Joe Swan, his reason being that just prior to the vote White reminded him, “We give a lot of money to Orchestra London (Swan’s employer),” which certainly sounded as if she expected some reciprocity.
This is a serious issue: how can we allow members to intimidate each other into abstaining from a vote?
This fiasco was repeated at Monday night’s council with a somewhat different outcome.
Councillor Hubert raised the issue again, confirming that the applicant was indeed seeking ongoing funding. He and others expressed concerns about taking on a provincial government responsibility; the costs of a program which runs only 4 hours per week and which depends on unpaid volunteers but has a paid coordinator for $30,000 per year; the fact that the city already invests heavily in programs such as Strengthening Neighbourhoods and the Child and Youth Network.
Despite an unequivocal statement by Usher to the contrary, White repeated her allegation that Usher has a personal issue with the applicant and while she didn’t believe that it would influence his vote, nonetheless she had heard about an all-candidates meeting where there was conflict between Usher and Abdi and had received emails about Black History Month et cetera.
By this point, councillors and members of the public were beginning to whisper about the impropriety of these comments. Usher got up to protest. The mayor asked White to stick to the issues rather than personalities. She replied that she wasn’t using personalities, she was “using examples.” She was not censured nor did she retract or apologize.
The mayor was clearly annoyed about the likelihood that the recommendation would not receive the required number of votes. It had succeeded at Committee of the Whole only because Councillor Swan had declared the conflict. Without that, the best that could be hoped for was a tie, which constitutes a loss.
“I could go up and down the list of organizations that we support,” he complained ,“so why so much attention on this one? I don’t understand what this is all about. I thought we had an agreement.” Calling the project a “good investment” that will keep kids in school and out of jail, he warned: “We’ll pay one way or another.”
When the vote was called Councillor Swan voted against it as did Councillor Denise Brown. Those were the only departures from the previous vote.
On this whole sorry issue, two things stand out for me.
First, councillors need to learn to conduct themselves better and, when they make inappropriate personal remarks, they should be required to withdraw them and apologize. A reminder is not good enough.
Second, I am concerned about the mayor taking such a strong stand in support of one particular group seeking funds when so many groups are coming forward. The mayor cannot afford to seem to play favourites, in appointments to committees or in grants to community groups.
He is the head of the whole council and mayor for the whole city.