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."

Friday, May 4, 2012

The week that was

I have a leisurely style of writing. When I open a new page, it seems as if there is all the time and space ahead of me. Whatever will I do with it all? And so I write the first sentence. But before I know it, I have typed a thousand words and there are so many more in waiting.

That happens over the week as well. There are so many stories in the meetings, each clamouring for time and space. And suddenly, the week is over and a new cycle of meetings begins.

Tuesday’s council was unusual, of course, in that there were so many issues that engaged the public.

At the end of the first debate on the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, there was an appreciative round of applause from the gallery from spectators in T-shirts with the message STOP CETA. The mayor suggested that, although they were welcome to stay, there were others waiting to get in for the next issue, Reservoir Hill.

As it turned out, everyone was asked to leave the gallery. Before proceeding with a debate about the recommendation to approve the site plan for a 12 storey 165 unit building on the wooded hillside, council wanted some advice from its solicitor.

Fifty minutes later we were back and the debate began.

The outcome was clear from the first speaker, Bill Armstrong. He was very sorry, he couldn’t really say too much, but they had gotten some legal advice and he had to support the developer’s site plan. It wasn’t this council’s fault, it was the fault of those councillors years ago who had neglected to protect the land when they had the opportunity.

Orser and Polhill made the same argument. It was too late, there was the threat of litigation, they had no choice. Usher, who had voted in opposition to this point, now also succumbed. When council had given the green light to the developer in September, it had committed itself, he believed. Reversing that now would surely result in litigation. Those who had turned on that green light remained silent.

But others agreed with Joni Baechler. "I will never support this plan until it meets the spirit of the Rosenberg decision,” she announced as she traced the history of the application through the Ontario Municipal Board and the courts. When people began to applaud, she asked them not to; she needed every second available to explain this and she had only five minutes. She took 10.

She was supported by Nancy Branscombe, Paul Hubert, Judy Bryant and, surprisingly, Matt Brown. He had voted with the “go ahead” contingent in September. He had changed his vote.

It was too little, too late. The motion to approve the development passed 10-5. And although some hopes had been raised about a possible land swap, necessitating another in camera discussion at the end of the evening, I didn’t stay for the outcome; it was clear that was wishful thinking. and the Reservoir Hill debates, especially among the members of the audience, that was nothing compared to the booing and interruptions of speakers in favour of continuing fluoridation. I was pretty sure this wouldn’t go through; the anti-fluoride literature was too alarmist, its proponents too single-minded. There had been a barrage of emails and internet links from a few people. And they were badly behaved. Had I been a councillor trying to come to a decision, I wouldn’t have been favourably impressed.

There were two good arguments to be made on the anti-fluoride side: the lack of toxicology tests demonstrating safety and the lack of choice for the resident when you point something in the water. Although some councillors did their best to make them, the booing, the undiscriminating applause, the hurled accusations from the gallery made rational decision-making all but impossible.

The next day, I received a copy of an email sent to council from one of the members in the gallery. It read:

Dear Council Member
I apologize for my behavior in the gallery last night during the fluoridation vote. Unfortunately in my passion to get safe water, I took the advice of a member of council who advised our group to be loud and heard in the gallery.

It also was too little, too late.

As for which council member would have advised such a tactic, I can only guess. But it was no excuse. Any adult should understand that rudeness is never a winning approach. The motion to continue fluoridation passed 10 to 5.

The tactics of one of the members of council in support of eliminating fluoride also backfired. Steve Orser had placed a copy of a propaganda poster linking Hitler to fluoridation on each councillor’s desk. Joe Swan had held it up for all to see as he chastised the members of the audience for their behaviour and tactics, at which point Orser took responsibility arguing that it was his way of trying to find out about what happened to his father when he was a prisoner of war.

It was an insultingly weak excuse. He did it for the shock value, just as he has done with other issues, whether it is bringing his child into the debate or displaying diapers for chickens. He has no respect for boundaries and his behaviour is becoming increasingly outrageous.

During the previous council term, we passed a resolution to obtain the services of an integrity commissioner, an independent person who could assist council with setting standards of conduct, investigating allegations of misbehaviour and making recommendations on appropriate disciplinary action. We even put money in the budget to make this happen, but it hasn’t. And so there appears to be little recourse.

Even though there is not much to be done about the behaviour of council, the motion about decorum in the public gallery was still up for debate. The motion had already been significantly revised, with no reference to laughter, applause or eating and drinking in the public gallery. Denise Brown thought applause should be prohibited; it just takes up too much time. Despite the fact that it had been a pretty hectic night on that score, Paul Hubert, who was presenting the Finance and Administration report suggested that it would be overkill. His response earned him a smattering of applause from the gallery.

The final item was the request from Swan and White to re-jig the meeting schedule. The meetings went on too long and there were too many, White complained. She had no time to meet with her constituents or answer their calls.

Denise Brown concurred. She had taken this on as a part-time job. But they were meeting past midnight and she had another meeting at 8 the next morning.

Swan pointed out that they were a smaller council with only 15 members, no Board of Control. The workload had increased significantly.

But Branscombe and Baechler disputed that; they had not noticed an appreciable increase in the workload; it had always been a heavy workload. “It’s not a job, it’s a calling” said Branscombe.

Steven Orser said, “Full-time.” He had given up his business to do this and now he had to take calls from constituents of other wards because their councillors, having other employment, weren’t available. He didn’t name names.

Fontana felt bad for all of them. These long meetings were hard on all the councillors.

And so they are. But why are they so long? Would the fact that they are re-visiting the same issues again and again have anything to do with that? And what about the role of the chair to maintain order and move things along? And why do councillors have to ask basic question of staff at meetings? Can’t they contact them in advance of the meeting? It’s called, doing your homework. And why, if they are so busy, are they taking delegated authority away from staff or other agencies?

Bryant agreed that the load was heavy, but she was also concerned about the load that long meetings was placing on staff who had to be back in the morning, bright and early.

Nobody expressed concern about the members of the media, the TV and the press, the bloggers and the tweeters.

The motion to ask staff to solve this problem for them was passed 13 to 2 with Branscombe and Baechler opposed.

So to whom can staff complain?


Anonymous said...

Regarding every aspect of City Hall we fail to look at the big picture. Nothing is really as simple as it appears. With every action you have to wonder what is the angle. This is the worst Council I have ever witnessed (not) working. We are aware of all the cliches about politicians. Take such cliches more seriously. When you hear of improprieties, corruption and other ugly personal rumours and gossip, its a lazy response to say, "well of course, what do you expect its a sleazy politician, they're all like that." No they are not ALL like that! If one becomes that, it is our fault for not demanding better in our election process. Why vote for the same old Joe when you could try a new avenue, a fresh start. This council and many of your choices that you brought back, like a failed MP (elect him Mayor) and old familiar faces like Swan and White and Polhill and Orser and VanMeerbergen have so many personal issues. Re-electing them reminds me of the woman who gets clocked in the head on a regular basis by her husband and she renews her vows because its all she knows.
If you want long term vision you have to choose those who have it in their personal lives, not someone reckless who hasn't much time left on this earth and continue to govern their own lives accordingly. The People have the power to clean this up. Its our fault we have become a joke of a City, Province and Country,since none of these (so-called) leaders were acclaimed: there were other names on every ballot.

Robert R. said...

In more than 50 years observing and participating in meetings I may have seen a worse chair than Mayor Fontana, but I really can't remember when.

The problem, of course, is that instead of running an efficient, fair meeting conducive to debate and democratic decision making, the Mayor is mainly concerned with getting his way and making what he thinks are clever put-downs of his foes.

Gina, I think your blogging buddy, Phil McLeod, had an excellent suggestion when he said Council should elect one of its members to run the meetings. I would add, in the interests of keeping them honest, that this election should be an annual event.

This one change would likely cut meeting times in half.

Interested Party said...

I agree completely with the idea that it does not need to be the mayor who chairs the meetings, but what would guarantee that the councillor elected by other councillors would do any better?

Is there a mechanism for the City Clerk to be the chair? The City Clerk knows the rules of Municipal governance and is an impartial player in municipal meetings.

Interested Party said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sandy Levin said...

Board of Control was an elected finance committee, no more, no less. If you go to the on line archive for City Council, you will note that most of the items on the Board's agenda were approvals of tenders. When there were big issues like the last revitalize downtown effort Council set up a Downtown Millenium Committee that Swan chaired. Board of Control did not do heavy lifting. Some policy issues like changes in procurement went through the Board (just like they would go through the current finance and admin cte), but they still had to pass the full council.

Anonymous said...

"Unfortunately in my passion to get safe water, I took the advice of a member of council who advised our group to be loud and heard in the gallery."

Who might this councillor be who gave this advice? Could it be the same councillor who tried to get a muzzle order placed on people in the gallery?

This just gets worse and worse.

Anonymous said...

In regards to fluoridation, I prefer Stephen Orser any day over the ten councillors, who for whatever their reasons chose to continue the addition of a product to fluoridate London’s drinking water without toxicology/safety studies. The dissociation theory espoused by the Water Quality Manager does not preclude safety studies. A researcher at St. Joseph’s hospital with a Ph.D in chemistry will happily testify HFSA needs toxicology studies. Four of those voting to keep Londoner’s drinking water with an untested toxic waste product would not even meet with me to hear my information on fluoridation. Is it time Londoners including city council learned that authority is not always correct or that it acts for your best interests?

Robert R. said...

To Interested Party.

The Clerk is not elected, and should not, in my humble opinion, chair the meeting of the elected representatives.

Secondly, as to a quarantee that an elected chair from Council would do better than the Mayor, I suggest you watch some of the meetings on TV. On those occasions that the Mayor vacates the chair, most of the temporary chairs, (Hubert and M. Brown come to mind) do a far better job than Fontana.