Denise Brown, Councillor for Ward 11, must be feeling dizzy after her 180 degree turn and back again on the matter of whether Mayor Joe Fontana should step aside until the criminal charges laid against him have been dealt with by the courts.
It doesn’t auger well for the support of Councillor Joni Baechler’s motion when it goes to council on December 11. Baechler acknowledged as much in a media scrum after the Finance and Administrative Services Committee meeting at which the motion had been passed, with Councillors Paul Hubert and Nancy Branscombe supporting Baechler’s motion. Mindful of what had happened to Toronto mayor Rob Ford an hour or two earlier, Mayor Fontana decided to play it safe and recuse himself while Hubert took over as chair. It also meant that he didn’t have to answer any media questions after the meeting.
So the motion asking Fontana to take a paid leave until the charges have been dealt with passed by a vote of 3 to 1, a solid vote. But the critical one, the one that would signal a change in support was missing.
Brown had her reasons, she claimed. It wasn’t that she didn’t think that the mayor’s problems were becoming a distraction, generating an inordinate amount of emails and phone calls; heck, half her time on council business was spent on dealing with these. I would hazard a guess that, given her vote on the issue, her workload isn’t about to go down anytime soon.
But listening to city solicitor Jim Barber weigh in on the motion had given her pause. Barber had asked the committee to determine whether the motion was in order and was it constitutional and legal. The committee could, if it wished, get legal advice either in public or behind closed doors. He suggested that they might want to turn to the city clerk for advice on the criteria for holding office and how one becomes disqualified. And it mattered whether the motion was simply symbolic or did the mover expect it to be acted upon by the courts?
Baechler assured him that it was purely symbolic. There was no intent to assess the guilt or innocence of the mayor. She herself had sought legal advice before bring the motion forward.
Acting chair Paul Hubert then asked for the deputy city clerk to provide advice on the matters raised. She advised that the matter could be considered but it was up to the chair to rule on the admissibility of the motion.
At that, Hubert rules the motion in order and Branscombe quickly seconded it.
Baechler had read her prepared statement; she didn’t want to al lib on such a serious matter. Every word counted.
Denise Brown was the first to comment. She pointed out that the past few weeks had not been easy, listening to constituents raise concerns “fuelled by media”. She had planned to agree with the motion but now, with questions raised about the legality of what they were doing, she couldn’t support it.
Steve Orser is not on the committee but this self-appointed guard dog for the mayor was there at his post. The motion was illegal, he declared; it wasn’t in the Municipal Act.
This was an interesting observation. It calls to mind the quote from T.H. White in The Once and Future King: “Everything not forbidden is required”, the corollary of which is, no doubt, “Everything not required is forbidden”. In this case, in Orser’s interpretation, if it wasn’t provided for in the Municipal Act, it must be illegal.
Besides, he added, “He won’t do it (step aside). We have to move on to other things. It’s in the courts. Move on.”
Branscombe pointed out, lest anyone get the wrong idea, that councillors have been back to work. “Only, it’s more difficult,” she pointed out. The motion didn’t have the force of legislation but she wanted to be on the public record.
And that indeed was the gist of Baechler’s motion; it was not to require the mayor to step aside but to give voice to all those constituents who had phoned and emailed their representatives. They had an obligation to address the matter in the only forum they had, an open debate and vote at a council meeting.
This may be the last opportunity to hear those voices. After the beginning of the new year, the committees will be stacked by the mayor to have a preponderance of his supporters. Only the Community and Protective Services is not so constituted; its business, not dealing with issues of development or handing out dollars, is not seen as being that significant. And besides, all of the chair positions will be held by Fontana’s 8.
Why did Denise Brown back off?
That’s anybody’s guess. It's not the first time she has flip-flopped. She did the same thing on the issue of the integrity commissioner, going along at committee but then voting against it at council.
Whatever the reason for her about-face, it is clear that despite the allegations and charges facing Fontana, his supporters are hanging on. They have taken to heart the famous expression by Benjamin Franklin in 1776: “We must all hang together or we shall most assuredly all hang separately.”