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.