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."

Monday, February 13, 2012

A chilling effect

It was a gruelling eight hours of budget debate as the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee looked for ways to cut spending by $7.6M so that the mayor’s campaign promise of a budget freeze could be realized for the second year. But for those who had come to observe the proceedings from the public gallery, the most irritating part came when after half an hour of presentation from the finance department, the council voted to eject the spectators and moved into confidential discussion.

It wouldn’t take very long, the mayor assured us, suggesting that we spend some money in the 12th floor cafeteria. “We can use the money,” he joked.

There were at least two categories of people who took his advice and headed for the elevators: the general public and the heavy hitters in public administration. The latter was composed of the top paid managers in the municipality, including the fire chief, the police chief, the medical officer of health, the chief administrators of the library, the Grand Theatre, the museum as well as heads of various city departments. While their salaries wouldn’t approximate the top players in the health care field or the university, there would be few whose names wouldn’t be on the sunshine list. When they had finished their coffees, they rejoined the others who were still cooling their heels in the lobby. A few of us had to leave temporarily to avoid parking tickets as the last minutes of the two hour limit ticked by. No hurry though, it would be nearly 5 p.m. before we would be called back to the meeting that had started at 2 o’clock. A lot of tax dollars were going to the paycheques of those who only stand and wait in the event they should be called upon to provide information. Ironic, that, when the emphasis is on greater efficiency, getting more for less.

And certainly, that is what the discussion would be about, how to get a better bang for your buck, find ways to economize, without taking on excessive risk of citizen backlash or legal liability.

It had come time to turn to the B list of cuts. These were the ones that would be difficult and painful. Staff had put forward a series that would clear the march to zero, but not all were recommended. 

Nevertheless, all would be considered.

A few savings came easily, those that resulted from additional revenue from the province, as the police had done, of from greater flexibility on how provincial standards might be met. And with respect to the Middlesex London Health Unit, council decided to bite the bullet, pay up, and call in the big guns, the provincial assessor, to deal with the recalcitrant Dr. Pollett.  

But there were others where members of the public gallery were left to speculate on what had gone on behind closed doors and what might the implications be for the city, its employees and those of us who pay the bills in anticipation of service.

Council is limited in what it can discuss in camera. Generally, the items are restricted to buying or selling real estate, labour negotiations, litigation, and personal information about identifiable individuals. In the context of budget cuts, in camera meetings make employees of the corporation nervous. Most of the items for the in camera sessions dealt with labour matters.

It didn’t help that council came out of the in camera meeting with bigger cuts for labour than were originally recommended by staff. And it was clear that there had been some terse exchanges prior to the return to the open meeting.

But you can’t talk about this once you are back in public. Even though the cuts to the corporate staff had escalated from $1M to $1.5M, neither rhyme nor reason was provided to the public. Only the dollar figures were presented. When Joni Baechler rose to protest the additional cut “with no thought or argument,” and the hypocrisy of those who stood with the workers on the EMD line but… Here she was quickly cut off by the mayor who warned her not to divulge what had taken place behind closed doors.

Her comments were echoed by Nancy Branscombe who suggested that a hike of half a million dollars could well result in job losses. She too was warned about maintaining confidentiality but she didn’t like “hiding behind in camera.”

Sandy White took umbrage. She likes to paint herself as being on the side of the workers and the poor. She had been very vocal about the injustice to the EMD workers and had brought several resolutions to council on that very score. She certainly didn’t want it to be perceived that she favoured job cuts.

“Mr. Mayor,” she said. “I am not impressed. We had a discussion about humanity and decency. What just happened here violated all of that.” It was clear that she was not referring to the potential layoffs as she voted in favour of the cut.

As it turned out, White wielded considerable power that evening. With a council divided down the middle, one vote makes all the difference.

Several of the councillors, including the Mayor, were ready to cut almost everything to reach that magic number: forget grass-cutting, clean up of the parks in winter, wading pools. The mayor, Joe Swan, Dale Henderson, Paul VanMeerbergen, and Denise Brown were prepared to cut them all. Usually, they were joined by Steven Orser and Bud Polhill. Swan and the mayor were prepared to cut even the pothole filling program.

For the most part, White joined them as well. Although she is a social worker, she supported cutting the contribution to the program mandated to meet the needs of persons with disabilities by $500K and the new affordable housing budget by $1M. She voted for closing wading pools and reducing hours at outdoor swimming pools. She didn’t see a need for maintaining the flower gardens in the parks in the summer nor picking up the garbage there in winter.

On the other hand, she did find some merit in maintaining the snow clearing budget, keeping up appearances on the Veteran’s Memorial Parkway, street-cleaning and grass-cutting, and maintaining regular hours at the community centres and thereby managed to protect them.

In the aftermath of the budget decisions, White found herself somewhat subject to criticism on Twitter and Facebook. A lot of people in social work circles aren’t thrilled with the cuts inflicted at the expense of the city’s most vulnerable. In response, White contacted one of the dissenters’ employer to complain. It's not the first time.

"If ppl say something u object 2 and u call their employers it has chilling effect. Ppl lose their voice,” tweeted the target of her complaint. 

Indeed. That pretty much sums it up in 140 characters or less.


Mike Sloan said...

If Ms. White did contact someone's employer about their comments on social media, and I assume it is true, she's not only unfit for city council, but unfit to be a social worker. I'll say that to her face, and she can contact anyone she wants. Outrageous!

Anonymous said...

Gina wrote: "White contacted one of the dissenters’ employer to complain. It's not the first time."...That's called political interference into the private life of an individual. It's a vile and malicious thing to do, that can cause irreparable damage to a persons reputation and ability to achieve their potential and sustain meanful employment in the community. This doesn't just hurt the individual, it also causes a loss of that persons contribution to the community.
I've heard about disabled employees who are capable and willing to work rather then collect social assistance, loosing their jobs after a call to their boss from "the welfare department", and I've heard the welfare departments rationale for doing this is that,...there's not enough jobs for everyone and if somebodies eligible for welfare that's what they should be living on and leave the workplace open for people who aren't eligible for social assistance benefits.
Whose not eligible for social assistance benefits and why not?

Lily Tomlin said...

I note that during a brief visit from Arva the Mayor said that he had kept his promise re a tax freeze with no cuts because he had always promised no cuts to CORE services.

What you consider to be an essential service, of course, depends on whose ox is being gored.

Since Joe got more money to play with and a brand new website, hey what's the problem?

David Dingwall said...

I certainly hope that the high paid pooh-bahs of civic administration were able to put their coffee bills on the old expense account.

Java ain't cheap any more!

Matthew said...

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres...

Duffy said...

Sandy White was not the only member of Council to show their true colours. After last week's budget cuts and the plundering of the housing funds, Councillor Swan will at last be able to rid himself of the title "Corley Drive Socialist". No self respecting socialist would have voted the way he did.