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.