Monday afternoon’s Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee, aka Committee of the Whole, should have some interesting moments.
It’s not a long agenda: the new model for water rates, a report on the plans to engage the public in the budget process, a concern about the discontinuation of the Services Review Committee, and Councillors get to choose their standing committees for the following year. Last year that resulted in the debacle we now have. Let’s hope this time around the committees are better balanced and, in some cases, have more effective chairs.
But the really intriguing aspect is that this will be the first meeting of the council since the allegation about the mayor’s billing the taxpayers for his son’s wedding reception back in 2005 first surfaced. Although the mayor claimed that once he had reviewed the documents he was confident that the record would show that all his transactions were “proper and valid” so far he seems to not have been able to “get to the bottom of this”. And instead of issuing a denial of the allegations, he has chosen to get legal assistance. That quickly ended any possibility of getting answers as the mayor was advised to avoid all comment while the RCMP investigation is underway.
In the meantime, another issue involving the mayor’s financial dealings has resurfaced. During the summer, Chip Martin of the London Free Press had written a story about the mayor’s involvement in a scheme whereby the charity he chairs partnered with a tax shelter to enable the issuing of charitable tax receipts well in excess of the amounts actually donated. In the 2010/11 taxation year, the charity had issued nearly $72M in charitable tax receipts, a huge jump from 2008/9 return when Fontana had joined the charity at the invitation of old friend and business associate Vince Ciccone who was running afoul of the Ontario Securities Commission.
While the story about Trinity Global Support Foundation seemed not to attract a lot of public interest, its publication was enough to rouse the ire of its board of directors which is composed of several of Fontana’s friends as well as his son Ugo as president. It responded with threats of lawsuits against the London Free Press, blogger Phil McLeod, and me if we did not apologize for, retract and correct the information we had presented.
But late last week we learned that Glooscap, another charity partnered with the tax shelter used by Fontana’s Trinity, had lost its charitable status. That made four charities so far that had met that fate. And the Canada Revenue Agency issued a warning: “The CRA is reviewing all tax shelter-related donation arrangements (for example, schemes that typically promise donors a tax receipt worth more than the actual amount of the donation), and it plans to audit every participating charity, promoter, and investor.”
This time, the story did catch the attention of Newstalk radio. CJBK host Andy Oudman was especially riled about the mayor’s involvement in a charity that would, if a Kijiji advertisement last November was to be believed, net you a charitable tax receipt of $27,000 in exchange for a $500 “donation”. Oudman encouraged listeners to call in to express their outrage and many did, including financial advisor Ted Wernham who had his own share of integrity issues and financial problems while he was a councillor in the 1980s and 90s.
Despite undoubted pressure on them to speak out on the matter of the mayor’s integrity, the current council has been remarkably circumspect. For once, Dale Henderson has had no comment. Paul Hubert and Joe Swan would like to see the mayor clarify the situation and restore integrity to his position, but both agree, along with Bud Polhill and Harold Usher that it’s up to him. Nancy Branscombe and Joni Baechler want Fontana to come forward with an explanation of the payments made to the Marconi Club; they seem to be leaning toward the mayor’s stepping aside until the matter is resolved. (Update: Since this posting, Branscombe and Baechler have called for the mayor to step down). In a surprise twist on Friday morning, Fontana stalwart Sandy White appeared to agree.
“Our city council can’t take much more,” she told CJBK’s Steve Garrison. “Hopefully we can collectively ask the mayor to take a break.” However, when interviewed by CTV, she backed off by saying only that if the mayor wanted to take a break, she would feel comfortable in supporting him in that decision.
Still, it was clear from her remarks that council is feeling the pressure of the public and the media. Only Steve Orser believes that the allegations have not had an impact on the functioning of council. For him, it’s just another lynch-mob.
For his part, Fontana continues to attend at least some of the committee meetings, has resisted suggestions that he should step down from even the Police Services Board, and believes that the issue “will not impede nor affect my work as mayor.” In short, he has no plans to step down and it is doubtful that he is chastened.
Certainly, the commitment to better behaviour made at the last council meeting did not last long. By the following Monday at the planning meeting the mayor was blatantly playing favourites with industry stakeholders in the SouthWest Area Plan, rudely dismissing the presentation of one applicant who hadn’t had the foresight to donate to Fontana’s campaign, and welcoming the comments of others who had. Then, having forced a community delegation to wait three and a half hours, until one o’clock in the morning, to make its presentation, he began whispering to one of the committee throughout the first presenter’s remarks.
“I can talk and listen at the same time,” he told her when she paused to object.
Indeed, he is a multi-tasker. He seems to have many interests, political, entrepreneurial and social. But sometimes you have to focus on what your priorities are.
According to Fontana’s own statement, his work as mayor remains his priority and chief obligation. If so, he may want to consider the impact that his other concerns and interests have on his ability to execute that role effectively. For now, he seems to have lost the confidence of his constituents and at least some of the council as well.
His constituents will not have an opportunity to express their concerns for another two years. But the council will meet as a Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee on Monday afternoon.
And what priority is more pressing than the integrity of the head of council?