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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, November 28, 2011

Drove his chevy to the levy

Since I was out of town on Friday I missed the second meeting of the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee (IEPC), but I was not particularly surprised by the turn of events that I read in Saturday morning’s London Free Press. “With Fontana out of town, councillors diss his 1% levy” read the headline.

That committee chair Joe Swan has a problem on his hands with the composition of the current committee was evident from the beginning. Councillor Matt Brown is probably the only one of the members that is likely to approach any recommendation with an open mind, and to research it and evaluate the pros and cons before coming to a decision.

The same cannot be said for other members. Certainly not Paul VanMeerbergen for whom, as someone employed by the auto industry, spending on anything other than roads is anathema. He has certainly had significant influence on his seatmates, Dale Henderson on one side, and Denise Brown on the other.

The latter sits on this committee. Her comment on the proposed 1% levy to fund growth projects was that her constituents were opposed. They might accept it if it were for infrastructure, she suggested, but not for the wish list of a new city hall, a performing arts centre, redevelopment of hospital lands, or bringing UWO programs to the current city hall properties.

I found that observation interesting. Only last Monday the ward 11 councillor voted against the proposed water and waste water rates for 2012 even though they are part of a 20 year plan to upgrade our infrastructure. But perhaps for her too infrastructure only refers to roads, a form she can appreciate as she is employed by the Aboutown taxi company.

Councillor Steven Orser, a strong champion of the mayor, has shown a stubborn streak on any spending that is not associated with crime control or an overpass in his ward. He, along with Councillor Bud Polhill who also is usually very close to his Liberal friend Fontana, voted against the levy when it appeared out of nowhere on the council agenda a couple of months ago. Polhill, however, missed the meeting of the committee. As acting mayor while Fontana is in China drumming up business, he probably had other matters to attend to.

So even if the mayor had been present, the vote would not likely have gone his way. But it is also likely that, had the mayor not been out of town, it would not have been brought forward, although hints had been dropped at the previous meeting.

In response to my previous blog on this committee’s proceedings, a viewer wondered how the committee membership is established. It’s a good question, particularly with a new committee. Joe Swan had made no secret of the fact that he wanted to chair this group which would deal with the big spending items, the council wish list. Speculation has it the Swan wants to run for mayor and he wants an edifice to symbolize his accomplishments.

That puts him in a difficult position, since he is ostensibly the mayor’s biggest booster and the mayor has already signaled that he intends to seek re-election. It makes it even more important that he have an effective committee of his own to herald his achievements.

So why didn’t he get a committee that could share the vision?

It’s not that chairs get to pick their own committee members; ultimately the decision of who serves on which committee is the responsibility of the council. But usually a lot goes on behind the scenes in an informal fashion. Members are recruited for or discouraged from serving on this committee or that until some sort of balance is achieved. Then they indicate their preferences and an effort is made to accommodate these as much as possible.

That tends to work reasonably well if you have only three committees and everyone serves on only one. You can usually get your first or second choice. But under the new and improved governance model there are six committees and you must serve on two but may add a third if you’re feeling energetic and with time on your hands. That makes the whole thing unwieldy with first, second, third and fourth choices for two or three committees. It’s hard to keep track of it.

When I had to make my choices on first joining council, I thought I would probably do well on Community and Protective Services, given my social science background. It was Joni Baechler who convinced me to put Planning Committee as my first choice. She also recruited newly elected Nancy Branscombe. Together with Judy Bryant we became the Bees (or Killer B’s, as some would have it). With a solid progressive vision, we were able to bring forward an official plan with urban design guidelines, provisions for affordable housing, a growth management implementation strategy. We fought for regulating the location and design of drive throughs and protection woodlands and wetlands. We managed to bring in a system of landlord accountability for the condition of rental properties. We kick-started a number of city-led area plans.

Those are the things that a well-structured coherent committee can do. I’m sure that Joe Swan has a vision for his committee, too. Where are the members who share that vision? A majority of council supported the projects that administration rolled out at the meeting. A majority also supported the 1% levy. Where are those members? Did he not try to recruit them or did they just get lost in the myriad of committees to be populated?

Or had he try to recruit them and failed?

There was a telling incident during the council meeting last week. The issue of the water and sewer rates came forward to be confirmed. It had been hotly debated at Committee of the Whole the previous week where it had narrowly passed, 8 to 6. Those supporting the rate increase to renew and upgrade our water and wastewater systems were Councillors Armstrong, Branscombe, Baechler, Matt Brown, Hubert, Usher, Bryant and Swan. Those councillors are the ones who are forward thinking and economically responsible. That’s where he should be looking for allies. Yet, when Baechler, in advocating for the rate increases, outlined the many development projects that depend on a sound infrastructure, he rudely interrupted her, telling her she was belabouring the point, everyone had already read the report, they knew it all already. Sandy White needed little encouragement to join in the heckling which was then further endorsed by Swan before Judy Bryant asked the acting mayor to intervene. “Try and control yourselves,” was Polhill’s response.

It’s not the way to win the support you need to make things happen. Swan is an excellent chairperson but at present he doesn’t have the support of his committee. He’s going to have to do better at bringing people on side. Heckling people, especially people you agree with, probably isn’t the best way to do that.

And by the way, not everyone had read the report.


Anonymous said...

I don't think Mr. Swan should waste his time, talent and slick suave dubonaire qualities running for Mayor of London. He'll never win and just go down in history as a handsome flash in the pan. He should be an Ambassador for a worthy cause, on his own dime.

As for Denise Brown. She got elected because she convincingly promised to say NO to any tax hikes. I'm not particulary impressed by her willingness to sell of assets such as London Hydro, as I think that's sort of like a tradesman selling his tools so he can get by for one more year without having to declare bankrupcy, but as long as she keeps on saying NO to taxhikes, I really don't care how rationale or sensible her excuse is. Bravo Denise.

Hank said...

I enjoy your perspective on the current council activities, but I don't think it's fair or unbiased to refer to the mayor as Pohill's " Liberal friend Fontana". By making that statement, you're implying that Mr. Pohill is making decisions based on party loyalty and not his own good judgement, and, furthermore, you're insinuating that Liberals are untrustworthy. With the variety of different political affiliations of current and past councillors, it's misleading to single out one party as having any kind of sway on council.

Anonymous said...

Your scalpel has never been sharper
nor your diagnosis more acute, Dr. Gina. Didn't barbers used to double as surgeons?

With his pompous voice and empty head, Councillor Van Meerburger reminds me of a puffed up Ted Knight on the old Mary Tyler Moore show.

And Councillor Swan should be the last one to be interrupting others. His condescending drones should be recorded for use at insomnia clinics.

anon one

Anonymous said...

Hank, if you need to know how Bud makes decisions, he never saw an idea he didn't like after he saw which way the wind was blowing.

Anonymous said...

Good point, Anonymous.

I recall how Bud voted in favour of the grand $170 grand Stonehenge entrance to the city up by the airport. When the flack started flying, suddenly he didn't think it was such a good idea. Nothing like being on both sides of an issue. Now that's LEADERSHIP!


Gina Barber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gina Barber said...

@Hank You may be right. Although 4 of the committee members are Big L Liberals, they do not all vote as a block. However, the current mayor has introduced party politics into this office more than the previous mayor with photo ops in the lead up to elections, being featured prominently in pre-election provincial householders (mailings), etc.Unfortunately, he has also cosied up to big and small C Conservatives as well during the lead up to the mayoralty campaign and that is now coming back to bite him when he wants to go into spending mode.

Bud's Liberal boss said...

Bud the Spud has been like a weather vane in a windstorm since Day One.

Oliver Hobson said...

Doesn't look like you can slip a cigarette paper between Fontana and Swan (a new vaudeville act surely?)on major issues.

As for Swan's attitude toward Baechler...that's just tall poppy syndrome. Most unbecoming.

Why's woman said...

I need to give this column a second read through to sort out all the players. As always, thanks for the work on it.

You mentioned that Coun. Van M. works for the auto industry ... I've never thought where (else) he and others work. So, what company does he work for?

Best regards,

Gina Barber said...

To the best of my knowledge, Van Meerbergen is in charge of business development at Lamko Tool & Mold in London, a specialized manufacturer of equipment for the auto industry. Prior to this he was the Ottawa parliamentary assistant to Member of Parliament, Terry Clifford.