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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."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Binging your colleague

Council is on a bit of a break and so am I. In both cases, it’s probably a good thing.

For those who take their council jobs seriously, this will be catch up time. Although what most of the public sees of councillors at work is a few hours every third week on Rogers TV, the fact is that there are a lot of other meetings to prepare for and attend, as well as constituent concerns to deal with and resolve. Getting a week free of meetings means being able to catch your breath and perhaps do some research on a special project or plan ahead for upcoming events.

Spending some time apart won’t hurt the relationship among councillors, either. The past few months have no doubt been very stressful for some if not all.

The rift on council is obvious for anyone to see. Tensions ran very high during the budget debates, with personal attacks becoming commonplace and increasingly nasty and divisive. The stakes were high and the votes close, 8-7 on key issues. Even the final vote, the one where in the past almost all have come together in a show of solidarity, resulted in 6 dissenting votes.

And it wasn’t only council that felt the strain. Ordinary citizens filled the public gallery to show their concern over funding for affordable housing and accessibility projects. That strain has not been resolved, either for council or for the public. When the mayor was interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi at a taping of CBC’s Q before a live audience at the Grand Theatre last week, he was taunted by a member of the audience shouting “affordable housing” for all to hear.

It was also the public that brought forward two complaints to the ombudsman about decisions being made or agenda promoted behind closed doors.

The first was in regards to council’s decision to be the first city in Canada to forcibly remove the Occupy protestors from a public space, in this case, Victoria Park. Council took two votes in camera, the first on the eviction, and the second, not to release the results of the first vote.  

The second complaint pertained to a gathering of six councillors, not in camera, but in a very public place, a local restaurant. Nevertheless, the lunch occurred just prior to a couple of committee meetings and the meeting at which the final decision on the budget would be made. And while some, like Bud Polhill, and Denise Brown claimed that there was no discussion of council business at the lunch, Dale Henderson acknowledged that such discussion did occur, an observation that has received concurrence from a couple of innocent bystanders. In his own belligerent fashion, Stephen Orser pronounced to television viewers that he would have "din din" with whomever he wanted.

Both Orser and Henderson took a line from the federal Conservatives' position on robocalls by declaring that anyone who objected was simply a sore loser.

One of the subjects under discussion was the survey on budget cuts that had been prepared by Paul Hubert and responded to by more than 1300 members of the community. It’s a level of citizen engagement on budget matters that is unprecedented in my experience. Nonetheless, a number of members took advantage of the council meeting platform to ridicule the efforts of their colleague.

It reminded me a lot of my first year sociology course. A study by Roethlisberger and Dickson (1939) showed that workers would engage in the practice of “binging” (in that case, punching on the upper arm) a fellow worker was too productive, thereby making the others look bad. He had to be brought back into line.

Hubert learned that a few days later when he asked for delegation status at the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee meeting chaired by Joe Swan.

He had made the request more than a month earlier. He had some ideas to present to the committee for its consideration, low cost ideas to stimulate employment. Since the committee hadn’t yet come up with any ideas, you would have thought they would welcome him with open arms.

But not so. Although he was scheduled to present at noon, he arrived early so as not to inconvenience the committee which had started at 11 a.m. However, he spent a long time cooling his heels because the committee went in camera to consider a property acquisition. That lasted for an hour and a half while the public and media waited in the hall.

When the doors were once more opened to the public, it was clear that a conversation about Hubert’s delegation had already occurred. Committee member Paul VanMeerbergen immediately moved that, since he had received the written proposal only that morning and he hadn’t had time to read it, the delegation be deferred to the next meeting, whenever that would be. Fellow member Denise Brown quickly seconded the motion.

It was clearly a slap in the face to Hubert. He had made the request in a timely fashion, he had taken time off work, he had brought members of the community with him. There is no policy that requires a delegation to provide a written report; he had sent a four page one along by email for the record and he had prepared a PowerPoint presentation to assist the committee’s understanding.

Councillor Denise Brown complained that she had done all her reading on the weekend in order to be ready for the coming week. She wasn’t ready for this. Committee member Bud Polhill said that he didn’t have internet at home, so he didn’t see the report until that morning right before the meeting. 

That’s a hard one. I do recall very clearly that Polhill would have his taxpayer-sponsored Blackberry with him at Board of Control meetings. Surely it was not just for show! But perhaps he could only use it as a telephone, not email.

But Matt Brown pointed out that we have an unemployment problem and that one of their colleagues was there to offer some suggestions. He wanted to hear from his colleague.

Hubert was fortunate that he had, as he pointed out, brought members of the community with him, one of them from the London Economic Development Council of which the city is the sole funder. He asked to have an opportunity to make his presentation; they could always consider it later.

The mayor suggested perhaps the committee could give him 5-10 minutes. Swan told him he could have 5, but there would be no discussion of his ideas. That would come at the next meeting. The remainder of the meeting was taken up with debating when exactly that would be, sometime after the March break.

So here we are. I’m happy not to be waiting in the hall during interminable in camera meetings. My guess is council members are pleased to get a little break from each other.

It’s not a good atmosphere at city hall. I was there for my own meeting earlier this week; many staff members had elected to take vacation this week as well. But there is an undercurrent of anxiety and depression around the place. People are leaving for early retirement or greener pastures; others are making plans or fear they may have to. It’s affecting their performance on the job and their relationships at home.

"It feels like the way it was before Jeff [Fielding] came,” said one. “You never know what’s going to happen next.”

That's great fodder for blogging, but not so good for the citizens who elected a council to see it through some rocky times, or for the staff which attempts to ascertain the will of council.

Let's hope a new city manager is hired soon, and that he or she can provide some stability at city hall.

It's a mighty task.


Anonymous said...

Too many citizens of this city are being ignored by the ones they set in the chairs in chambers to work on their behalf and listen to them. After the disrespect shown with the chickens, the ridicule i've heard from council who don't like what others have to say, the petty dictatorship that seems to have seeped in, and the unprofessional conduct. I'd be very glad to leave this city and never again show my face here. My husband can't find work, and we're tired of living on a meager ontario works check while politicians debate what they THINK we WANT instead of ASKING US and then making it happen.

Anonymous said...

Oh and I quit Strengthening neighborhoods. After all, what is the use in being in something to better a city that clearly isn't interested in any opinions or ideas that differ from their own railroading. What a waste, and oh...I hope that the council members that acted inappropriately are all given a harsh punishment by the review our wonderful whistle blowers made happen.

Anonymous said...

As I watch what is going on at City Hall I feel extremely discouraged. About a year ago I became a member of the city's Community Engagement Task Force. We were charged with developing a policy for the city to ensure improved communications with the citizens of London. We worked hard, developed what I believed was a good policy.It was presented to council, and adopted. As I watch the goings on at City Hall I now realize it was all just for window dressing. This council has no intention of listening to the citizen, and no intention of listening to any ideas that don't match their own. I can only say that I hope people remember this come next election!!aystakee

colin hendry said...

After 8 years on a municipal council, I came away with a lot of misgivings. Citizens have short memories. Municipal politicians are hardworking, dedicated and sometimes living on other planets.They pay a fortune to run; they do their level best to be right; they have their biases because they are human and they make mistakes. But after two Masters degrees in Municipal government studies--I cannot conceive a better model of democracy in action. Colin Hendry

Anonymous said...

one adult dependant youth living in my benefit unit was asked to make a list of what he needed,...what he needed was decent shoes and boots so he could walk 2k twice a day, back and forth to the highschool in his own home district neighbourhood, which he was required to attend, and not be late or truant, and wasn't on a bus route. They offered him a buspass he couldn't even use, so they kept it for themselves and he got nothing. That kind of stupidity is all over Ontario. You can't get away from it. It way worse in the rural towns...absolute desolation.

Oliver Hobson said...

Whilst I have some sympathy for Hubert and am appalled at the way he was treated by his fellow councillors; welcome to the world of your average citizen.

Over the years I have spent countless hours researching and compiling information for presentation at city hall.

I've called from East to West in Canada, several places in the United States and the UK looking for answers and reports that would add value to matters being considered, authentically or not.

I've sat on a variety of task forces, the most recent of which was to do with Community Engagement. Six months. That was the sentence.

Along the way, I've been fortunate to come across many fellow citizens who have been equally, if not more generous with their personal time and resources.

They too wanted to contribute to the improvement of a community in which we live.

While citizen engagement and input is the sign of a healthy place for some, there are councillors who regard it as a sign of their own personal political failure, lack of authority and control.

It isn't.

A competent governor knows they cannot govern without the consent of those governed.

They know good governance is a shared responsibility and that 'consent' doesn't just happen once every four years at election time.

They know that genuine public consultation and vibrant citizen engagement occurs from the bottom up and the top down in an ongoing process of giving and receiving consent.

When consent is being reconsidered scandal by scandal, peaceful civil disobedience and disorder results.

A mark of poor governance if ever their was one.

Interested Party said...

What a sorry, shameful and petty display. Such disrespect shown to any delegate is shameful, but the disrespect shown their own colleague speaks volumes about the pettiness of these very small minded councillors.

I long to see some courtesy and professionalism from councillors, and if that is too much to ask, then just some simple manners would be nice.

Joe Swan seems to be completely out of his depth as the lead of this economic development committee. Why did he want the job? He seems to have little interest in it.

Anonymous said...

The idea that they haven't read the material kills me. They have accepted and acted on walk in changes to planning applications by developers (unless I am missing that they had a private meeting with developers). They accept added communications (but rarely read them), and they do all sorts of stuff on the fly. So was this a deliberate put down? We may never know.

Saddened observer said...

Mr. Hubert deserves cheers and thanks for trying to show some leadership when it is so sadly lacking.

SHAME on the moral midgets for their jealousy-inspired attack.

Classy Arva said...

I caught a re-broadcast of the CBC
Q show last week. The Mayor's B***S*** made me mighty proud.

bill brock said...

Affordable housing we all have been had! There is no crisis except the one some staff and politicians created! As of yesterday there is more then $6 million dollars in the reserve; this is twice as much as projected!
Secondly there is over 200 million dollars in reserves and Council move theses around at their pleasure! Citizen engagement sucks! Control by politicians and misguidance supporting their behaviour is wrong. The general population goes unheard by design; not by their lack of interest!!!
Bill Brock

Chris Rudan said...

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