Welcome to London Civic Watch

"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."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

At the end of the night

Council meetings are like soap operas; even if you haven't tuned in for a few months, you instantly recognize all the players, their relationships and their situations. But sometimes the outcomes change.

By now it was nearly 9:30. Only one committee had reported and there was still another controversial item on the agenda, this time a development issue which motivated a significant number of ordinary homeowners  to turn up for the meeting. They had been waiting patiently for two hours while the Glanworth library took centre stage.

The methadone clinic. The focus of their interest was an application to build a pharmacy on Huron Street near Sandford which would require a zoning amendment. The surrounding community was incensed. The applicant was also involved in the methadone clinic on Dundas Street that has been the focus of a lot of concern. The neighbours didn’t want a similar operation in their community. 

Last fall, council had supported a moratorium on allowing any more methadone clinics until staff had had an opportunity to report on the distribution of methadone services around the city and their impacts. That moratorium known as an” interim bylaw” had been challenged at the Ontario Municipal Board which upheld it. With that knowledge, council felt comfortable about rejecting the application with little discussion. The vote to reject would have been unanimous except that neither Orser nor White were in the room. White was recorded as  opposing the rejection since she hadn’t logged out of the system before leaving the meeting. Nevertheless, the residents were happy. 

Finance and Administration Committee. 

The mayor's office. The controversial issue here was the mayor’s wish for an additional $50,000 to do his outreach. The committee had supported this request but the mayor had been present at the meeting. Only Councillor Nancy Branscombe voted against giving it to him; her position was that there was no business case, only a wish list. To let that pass by would be insulting to those non-profits that are constantly requested to provide a business case for even the smallest request.

With the mayor out of town, and plenty of dissatisfaction among the councillors, those who had supported the request began to fear it would be turned down. Councillor Denise Brown did her best to avoid that possibility by asking for the matter to be referred to the Dobbie Report on Governance. Since taxpayers are funding this consultant to the tune of $50,000, it makes sense to hear what the consultant has to say.

The money for this was to come from the savings generated by eliminating the Board of Control.  There would also be some money, about $120,000, for providing greater assistance to councillors.

Councillor Judy Bryant was not happy with yet another delay. “I don’t care where I get the money,”  she observed, “I just need some support. Why can’t we have access to this money?”

Councillor Joe Swan pointed out that “We need to be accountable to the public; it doesn’t matter how much we need the money.”

It’s difficult to claim you need more resources while telling everyone else that they need to come in at zero.

Scheduling council's values. Not only do some members of the council not have enough resources to do their jobs, some also feel time constraints. This became apparent when administration tried to schedule some meeting times for members to get together to complete some of the activities they had undertaken, in particular to discuss their values as a council. Councillor Dale Henderson for once was perfectly clear. “Do it some other time,” he suggested. “I don’t have time for this.”

Included in the proposed agenda was the clarification of roles and duties of council members. Several wanted to know what all this was about. Councillor Bill Armstrong wanted to know what meant by “duties”.

“It’s your motion,” CAO Jeff Fielding pointed out.

 Denise Brown suggested that her duties could be clarified in writing. She didn’t have time for this; she has a fulltime job. “Send it to me. I’ll read it,” was her suggestion.

Fielding was clearly frustrated.  “You wanted this,” he said. “You asked us to set it up.” He suggested that they talk among themselves.

Swan thought the meeting could be useful, it could help to clarify the role of councillors serving on agencies, boards or commissions, for example. But he wanted a shorter timeframe and he noted that not everyone has a daytime job. His work with Orchestra London means lots of evening meetings. He was particularly concerned about the number of evening budget meetings. Couldn’t some of them move into the daytime?

Listening to all these complaints with no end of the meeting in sight, Fielding observed dryly, “You’ll be amazed at the complexity of the tasks you have asked for. Council may want to become more efficient in its meetings.”

No kidding.

Ultimately, all but Henderson and VanMeerbergen voted to go ahead with this.

Built and Natural Environment Committee

Next up was the Built and Natural Environment Committee and, although it had a long agenda, the reports are often long, dry and technical. Not much fun to read, not easy to comprehend, and usually you get only a couple of developers’ agents in attendance, so there is not much incentive to grandstand. And in any case, it being close to 11 p.m. the public had all gone home. It was beginning to feel a little lonely in the gallery with only myself and livestreamer Greg Fowler to witness the proceedings.

The Arva connection. This item has been before council several times now. The question is: Should London provide increased sewage capacity to Arva so that a wealthy landowner can build units in direct competition with the London market. At the committee meeting only Councillor Joni Baechler had opposed it. It would cost London $45M in lost tax revenues.

Councillor Sandy White suggested that that numbers were inflated although it is doubtful if she had read the detailed staff report and recommendation. She thought was just a report, not an action item. 

Councillor Nancy Branscombe was opposed, but used the opportunity to promote a fellow Conservative provincial candidate. She hearkened back to a statement from then Councillor Cheryl Miller that she wouldn’t support services outside London “until every citizen in London has servicing.” Bryant and Usher agreed. There is plenty of serviced land available in London.

Henderson had another watershed moment. 

This is why I ran,” he claimed. “We missed getting a ring road. Reality doesn’t want to talk about a ring road. We’ve got gridlock coming at us big time. Trucks will go right through London. Now’s the time. Talk to the township. ‘Give us the dotted line and we’ll have a ring road and we’ll give you the services.’ We’ve got an election coming on; they’re spending money on hospital beds. Vote against this and we’ll get a deal and get a billion dollars from the government.”

That was the gist of it. He was speaking very quickly and I know I missed a few words and lines. But he wanted to use the provision of sewage disposal as a lever to extract land from the township to put in a ring road.

His suggestion didn’t get much traction. Swan, who was delivering the report, told him it was a different issue. He couldn’t make a motion at this time.

Councillor Matt Brown pointed out that any homes built outside the city are homes not built in it. People don’t build or buy two or three homes just because serviced land is available. Baechler agreed, pointing out that the city has infrastructure in the ground that has to be paid for and maintained through building permits and taxes. People who buy in Arva won’t buy in London. And nobody supports this: not the residents, not the development industry or the homebuilders, not Londoners.

Councillor Stephen Orser didn’t care. He wants jobs, in Arva, in London, he doesn’t care where. He accuses those who are opposed to extending the services to Arva of being willing to stop development at any cost. They don’t care that people’s lives and jobs are at stake.

At this, Councillor Paul Hubert takes umbrage. “We’re not playing games with people’s lives.” He demands an apology. Orser gives a conditional one.

Finally, the vote is taken. The motion loses 8-6, with Armstrong, Baechler, Branscombe, Matt Brown, Hubert, Henderson, Usher and Bryant opposed. Swan, Orser, VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown, White and Polhill in favour.

A few minutes later, they debate sending a letter to the provincial government about the pace of development just outside the city limits. Baechler points out the irony of this, but few have read the report or comprehend it. Everyone who voted to help Arva expand now votes to express his concerns about development on the periphery.

Advertising on underpasses. One more controversial item: putting advertising banners on rusting railway underpasses. It passes easily. The agent, John Matsui, is relieved. He lost the Arva battle but since he is also a lobbyist for CN,  which will be happy it can sell advertising rather than painting its structures, his future looks good. One out of two is not bad.

As for council, it’s just a pilot project, it won’t make any difference in the long run. Just like the portable signs that blight our arterial roads.

Emergent motion. And then, a lovely gesture. Joni Baechler moves that the city donate the planting of trees in Goderich, not seedlings but large trees, to replace some of those destroyed by the tornado. Joni grew up there, but I don't think anyone will claim that she has a conflict of interest. Her motion carries unanimously.

At last, it’s over. Only a little past midnight. For me, at least. For council, it will be nearly 2:30 a.m. when they finish the confidential items. I’m sure they were all alert and made sound decisions on our behalf.


tutis.ca said...

Thank you for your hard work. These are wonderful summaries!

Jack Yellin said...

What's the Dobbie Report on Governance? Is it a back handed way to raise council salaries?

Jack Yellin said...

The "savings" from the elimination of Board of Control is not a savings. It was in this year's budget because the task force recommendation on councillor salaries came in after the budget was passed. It only becomes a savings next year unless it is included in next year's budget as a new cost for "Council support." So much for the savings or don't members of Council get this? Oh right, they are too busy to understand this stuff. We are forked.

G. Babbitt said...

Sorry to be boring, but I would echo tutis, thanks for these summaries. It is too bad we don't have a local newspaper.

Gina Barber said...

@Jack Yellin
The city engaged a consultant to report on the implementation of the proposals from the governance taskforce. A report from the consultant is anticipated shortly.