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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, July 4, 2011

A powerful appointment

There was one other noteworthy appointment at the June 20th meeting, the appointment of a new director for London Hydro.

For this matter, and the Annual General Meeting of the Shareholder which followed it, council convened as a Committee of the Whole. London Hydro is owned by the City of London. Council represents the city as the sole shareholder and makes appointments to its board.

This year, Rick Witherspoon, initially appointed as a representative of labour via the London and District Labour Council, was being replaced. If you thought that perhaps he might be replaced by another representative of labour, think again.

This is, I believe, the most lucrative appointment that the city has to offer, next to the London International Airport Authority board position which is currently held by Ken Kalopsis, spouse of Councillor and Conservative Provincial Candidate for London North Centre, Nancy Branscombe.

Although the stipend is not mentioned on the City or London Hydro website, in 2010, according to a March 9, 2011 report made to the Finance and Administration Committee, the amounts paid to the hydro  board members were $25,862 to the chairperson and $17,500 or $16,300 for other members. This apparently includes a basic stipend and a “per meeting” payment for the board and its committees. A rather handsome figure for a dozen plus meetings. Not too surprisingly, there was a lot of interest in the opening. Fifteen applicants to be exact.

And quite a varied lot they were. Corporate lawyers, small business persons, a former London Hydro employee, a former Ontario Hydro executive, a transit worker, a security guard. A former mayor.

When the item was placed on the floor at the meeting, Councillor Sandy White opened with the understatement of the year. “Mr. Mayor,” she said, “Last time we had a vote on citizen appointments it was really awkward so can we keep that in mind?” No kidding.

And indeed, the discussion that followed was awkward.

Councillor Denise Brown has apparently learned a thing or two about getting what you want. She managed to get her nominee, Connie Graham, on the floor first. Her choice was quickly seconded by Councillor Nancy Branscombe.

Well, why not? Connie had done her spadework, writing letters to the Mayor and Denise Brown, to whom she had also given a donation during the last campaign. And she’s on lots of other boards, too, so she has plenty of experience.

I was a little surprised at Branscombe, though. I appreciate they are fellow travellers when it comes to party politics, but I still remember how outraged we were back in February of 2007 when Connie’s husband Bill Graham of South Winds Development Inc. cut down  half of an 18-hectare woodlot in an environmentally protected area near Lambeth before the city was able to stop him. The property had been listed on then Councillor Cheryl Miller’s real estate company’s website as an "excellent location for a residential development site." Miller is now the PC candidate for London Fanshawe.

The city laid charges and Bill Graham ended up pleading guilty, explaining that he had gotten bad advice from his “professional consultant”. He was fined $2,500 and ordered to give $7,500 to Reforest London for their reforestation programs. In addition, Graham voluntarily offered to embark on a five year $5,000 a year program to Reforest London to plant trees and seedlings. Still a pittance when you consider the value thousands of mature trees. And good free advertising too, every year at tree-planting time, on Reforest London’s website.

The following year I received an email from Connie Graham, asking me (and all other members of council) to respond to a survey on issues in city planning. She said she was “helping the Planning Dept out by surveying Council and BOC on attitudes related to Urban Planning”. Apparently, she had been hired to help gather information from members of council about implementing urban design guidelines that, together with information from developers, would form the basis of a “communications strategy”. Graham said she was given this task by the marketing firm contracted by the planning department because “I personally know most members.”

All of this may have been perfectly innocent or coincidental but it is curious how people manage to pop up at opportune moments. I never did fill out the survey; I didn’t see the need to hire consultants to survey ourselves. I was happy to make my positions known at planning committee and council meetings.

So now, Graham was being nominated for a plum appointment.

Not everyone was comfortable with what was happening. You don’t want to insult anyone, but if you think that another candidate should be considered, you have to defeat the one that is already nominated. In this process, there is little opportunity for evaluating the merits of each and every candidate.

Councillor Judy Bryant tried to find an alternative approach: refer the list to the Finance and Administration Committee (FAC) to develop a shortlist of three candidates and interview them. Her motion was seconded by White. This approach was favoured by several others. Councillor Joni Baechler pointed out that in the past this had been done by Board of Control but it would be pretty daunting to be interviewed by the entire Committee of the Whole. Sending the process to FAC seemed the way to go. She suggested that Committee of the Whole could provide a shortlist and FAC do the actual interviewing and come back with a recommendation.

Councillor Paul Hubert agreed. Set the qualifications, interview them about the important issues and then recommend. He suggested adding Bruce Smith and Josh Morgan to the shortlist. That drew an objection from Councillor Bud Polhill who pointed out the latter is already chair of the library board.

Mayor Fontana was getting upset with the turn of the debate. “That’s what happens when you don’t have process and procedure,” he complained. “Or people don’t want to follow them.” He didn’t want people whose names had been suggested to be embarrassed. Interesting, that, since at an earlier meeting the established process had been specifically circumvented with his collaboration.

Councillor Joe Swan wanted nothing to do with a referral or interviews.  He wanted simply to look at the qualifications, forget the interview. An interview makes it political, he suggested, by letting the interviewee know what the interviewer’s issues are. He wanted an “independent thinker”.

Councillor Steve Orser pointed out that he had had the agenda since the previous Friday, lots of time to check out the contenders. To hold another meeting would just bog down staff. He was prepared to support Connie Graham.

But Branscombe had done her own interviewing. She had called the applicants and been assured of where they stood on what was for her the critical issue for London Hydro. Were they prepared to sell London Hydro? “That’s a deal breaker for me,” she announced.

Apparently, she felt that Connie Graham was on the right side of that issue. Interestingly, however, she didn’t mention mergers and acquisitions, which were the issues on which council was divided a few years ago.

As for Graham herself, she put it this way: “I believe that London Hydro has much unrealized potential to enhance it's (sic) asset value to the City of London, and I think my particular skill set can be of use to the organization as the energy industry becomes more strategically competitive. London Hydro is a critical piece of our economic development strategy.” Not particularly reassuring words at a time when council is looking for quick payoffs and payouts in a struggling economy.

But she won handily in the vote that followed. All but Baechler and Bryant supported her nomination. Councillor Usher was still in the hospital.

It’s a $300M asset, contributing $6.7M to city coffers each year and providing reliable electricity to 147,000 customers at competitive rates.

And we’ll need all that energy and more for heating and cooling if we keep cutting down trees.


Oliver Hobson said...

"...Interesting, that, since at an earlier meeting the established process had been specifically circumvented with his collaboration"

Are you referring to the Mayor collaborating in the ill treatment of Barry Wells or the underhanded and deceitful practices employed to try and shut down the back yard chicken discussion?

and the back yard Chicken Issue?

fred said...

Or how the chickens are coming home to roost?

The consolidation of clout amongst the 'elites' is becoming so painfully obvious on so many levels any more the most distressing thing I find is that more people's feathers aren't righteously ruffled...

Socrates said...

I thought the original terms of reference for the Hydro Board when the province devolved control to the city included a representative from labour. When was that changed?

The Cynic said...

Don't worry, like others before her, Connie will take some of the money and donate it to certain elected officials re-election campaigns. This helps her business (consultant, eh?) and her husband's (or is this the council's way of paying back the fine imposed on his tree cutting)? It is so hard to be sure these days isn't it?

Anonymous said...

You know, Gina, a person could get cynical.

anon one

Anonymous said...

Yes one could get cynical. It seems the "Veneer" of democracy is pretty thin. We humble citizens are just here to pay homage/property taxes, to the developers and Ceo's.who run this city.