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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."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Calling council to a count

If a council vote were to be held today on whether or not to retain an integrity commissioner, it would be interesting to know how the members of council would vote.

When the question was put before them a few meetings ago, a solid majority were opposed. Among them were Ward 11 Councillor Denise Brown who argued that councillors didn’t need a baby-sitter, and Mayor Joe Fontana who pronounced all members of council to be beyond reproach. Their integrity should not be questioned.

Also opposed was Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen who opined that an integrity commissioner would simply give disgruntled councillors a platform for political retribution. Joining him was Councillor Stephen Orser who raised the spectre of horrendous cost escalation, and Councillor Dale Henderson supported him, pointing out that “tens of thousands of dollars” had been spent on the ombudsman already. The fact that this was absolutely false—there were no costs to taxpayers at any level for the investigation—didn’t deter him from repeating the claim and probably believing it as well.

Besides, he went on, there was no need for an integrity commissioner because this council had a new vision supported by eight to seven votes at every meeting. What more could one ask? Eight votes is the new integrity.

Also joining those opposed to the recommendation previously approved unanimously by the Finance and Administrative Services (FACS) Committee was Councillor Harold Usher who felt it wouldn’t work for a council with members who lacked mutual respect.

So the motion lost 9 to 6, with Fontana’s eight added to Usher’s vote.

That was back in mid –September, after the news about the mayor’s extra-curricular activities with dubious charities and tax shelters but before the allegations and subsequent criminal charges with respect to fraud, forgery and breach of the public trust by the mayor hit the media.

But the matter was not quite finished. At that September meeting, council also requested that the Code of Conduct be updated and some information about a lobbyist registry requested by Councillor Joni Baechler be brought forward.

It’s more than a little ironic that staff is reporting back to the FACS Committee about these matters less than a week after the mayor was charged with the three criminal offences and days after a Free Press report revealed that he had spent a tidy sum of money--$236.31—to treat a lobbyist for payday loans businesses to a fancy meal.

In any event, staff has pointed out that it needs more time to review the code of conduct and the lobbyist registry. It needs some legal opinions before it can complete its recommendations. 

The mayor, in the meantime, has recruited some legal opinions of his own. His lawyer, Gord Cudmore, has informed him that, according to his understanding of the term “presumption of innocence” that his client is indeed innocent. Therefore, Joe Fontana was able to stand before members of the media last week and proclaim, “I am innocent”, something that he hadn’t done to that point.

The legal information that the public has acquired under these unhappy circumstances is that there is no legislation that can require an elected municipal official to stand aside or resign in the face of serious criminal charges. Even if convicted, s/he could continue to hold office as long as any jail term doesn’t necessitate an absence of more than three consecutive months. Since the court case itself is likely to take a year or more, when you add in the possibility of appeals, it appears that Fontana will have no difficulty finishing out the remaining two years of his term.

So what is the public to do? Soon council will begin deliberating the next year’s budget. A mayor facing fraud charges will be leading that process. In a few months, the eyes of much of the country and indeed the world will be on London as we host Skate Canada. A mayor with breach of public trust charges hanging over his head will be welcoming the visitors.

It’s embarrassing and humiliating. But what can be done? Writing letters to the press? Making phone calls to local radio shows? Letting your councillor know how you feel? And how do councillors communicate to their constituents their concerns about being caught in this dilemma?

The only place for councillors to discuss this issue is at council in an open transparent meeting, but the last time Councillor Nancy Branscombe tried to bring an emergent motion forward asking the mayor to step aside, her colleagues failed to give her the needed ten votes to put the issue on the table. The following day the charges were laid.

At FACS Committee on Monday, another motion asking the mayor to step aside until the charges have been dealt with will be brought forward by committee member Joni Baechler. At committee, the motion requires only a seconder to put it on the table for discussion, and only three members to pass it. With a committee consisting of Baechler, Branscombe, and Paul Hubert, all of whom have indicated support for it, the motion is sure to pass. The mayor, who should declare a conflict but probably won’t, is less likely to get the support  of Denise Brown this time around. She’s been distancing herself from Fontana since the charges were laid.

That means the matter will go to council on December 11th. Will it have any effect on the mayor? Probably, but not enough to convince him to step aside. There are too many irons in the fire to leave now.

But it will be an important measure nonetheless; it will afford councillors the opportunity to state unequivocally where they stand. That’s important information for the voters to have, now and two years hence.

If our city treasurer were facing fraud charges, there is no way we would allow him to present a proposed budget for council’s consideration. And yet the public is being asked to tolerate the decision-making on the budget to be led by a mayor in that very position.

The mayor is entitled to the presumption of innocence; he can have his day in court and expect a fair trial on the facts of the case. But as long as he insists on being the head of council and the representative of the city and its inhabitants, he is harming the very people and institutions he claims to love.

He needs to step aside. He shouldn’t have waited to be asked.


Mike Sloan said...

Now that criminal charges have been laid, I think it's really selfish of him to step aside and find an interim mayor.

He really does have poor judgement.

On the dinner with Stan Keyes that he expensed to the city, well, that has to be the first time in history that an elected individual paid for dinner with a lobbyist.

Anonymous said...

I note in your excellent blog Gina that you say. “The mayor, who should declare a conflict but probably won’t,..” He voted not to allow Nancy Branscombe‘s request for a motion. Again another example of his lack of integrity. Not recusing himself. He did the same thing with the request to raise the amounts paid to London Hydro board members. He is on the board and he voted for a pay raise. He has no shame. Joe must go. I cannot allow myself to imagine Joe Fontana, criminally charged with his shady charities and friends, welcoming all to the Word Skating championships and being televised all over the world. What a disgrace. London deserves better.

On the Take said...

Why can't everybody just leave poor JoFo alone?

He's only making $5-K a week for crying out loud.

So what if he likes fancy wines on our dime? If you were in the jackpot he's in, you'd be guzzling the vino too.

London Diamond Spacerships said...

ALIENS LAND IN LONDON, ON: "Take me to your Leader. Hold it a minute. Let me chain my wallet to my belt. I hear he's a flim-flammer."

Tired of cheaters said...

These fraud charges are very serious, but the nasty stuff about the so-called charities and tax-shelters point to a complete lack of character. If you are truly upset about all of this then call your councillor as soon as possible. Even if your councillor is a Fonatana supporter they should hear that London is getting sick and tired of this miserable man being in the mayor's chair. This weekend Bud Polhill explained again that the municipal act does not allow for the councillors to remove the mayor. At this point we all get that so stop running on with that same old song. Find a real comment to make or don't say anything at all. The Fontana 8 have a lot to be ashamed of because they propped up this arrogant man instead of giving real thought to each every vote. Now each one of them are tied together with someone who has these bad reports and charges laid against him of cheating and misconduct. If the Fontana 8 want to clear their own names then they had better think long and hard about whether they want to stick with this nasty man any longer.

Anonymous said...

Orser says that he is very loyal, saying that he is loyal to Fontana.

Orser should show more loyalty to the people who actually pay him. As Mr 'Full-time' he knows who that really is.

Orser wants to run for higher office and maybe he thought that good old Joe could help him out with a Liberal nomination. I wonder how much pull with the Liberals old Joe has now. Maybe even Orser should consider cutting old Joe loose.

Interested Party said...

It would be nice if Stan Keyes were to buy dinner for some people on Ontario Works. Since we Londoners bought him a nice big dinner, he should at least spend the same amount buying food for some of the poorest people in our city since those are the people that Pay Day Loans often exploit.

How about it Stan. Any decency left inside your lobbyist soul?

Anonymous said...

This City needs an integrity commissioner ans fast! Seems to me the mayor and possibly a few others on city council are taking full advantage of their positions and ripping off the taxpayers of London. As for calling my councillor, I can't do that. I am in Ward 4 and you know who represents Ward 4!