Given the build up in the media over the last weeks and months, the charging of London’s mayor with fraud related criminal offences should come as no surprise. The London Free Press had hinted that the RCMP had concluded its investigation and something would be happening soon. Given the evidence already before the public, most observers would have been far more surprised had the investigation resulted in an exoneration of Joe Fontana.
The mayor himself seems to have given up on claiming that he would be vindicated in this or other allegations of unethical if not strictly illegal behaviour. There has been some stepping back in this, as in other matters.
In response to the reports of his involvement in running a sham charity, he responded that his charity “operates under the guidelines and regulations of the Canadian Revenue Agency" and that he “sleep[s] well at night”. A lawyer representing the charity even threatened to take LFP and a couple of bloggers, myself included, to court for our reports on the charity and its organizers. Nevertheless a few months later that same charity, according to his son Ugo who manages the day-to-day operations, had decided to sever its connection with the tax shelter that encourages it to issue inflated tax receipts. This after the Canada Revenue agency advised that it was investigating all charities connected with tax shelters.
On the matter of his stepson Michael’s wedding reception, he likewise expressed confidence that “a thorough and fair review will clearly demonstrate all transactions were proper and valid.” Not quite a denial of wrongdoing, but still a far cry from yesterday’s statement on his website that the allegations are serious but that he will not allow them to distract him from the task at hand. No hint of “I didn’t do it” or “I will be vindicated”. Just a simple, I’m not going anywhere. “I will not step aside.”
It is doubtful that, when he wrote those words, he did not know that charges would be laid against him. What he said, in effect, is that regardless of how bad it gets, he will not leave until someone makes him do so, that someone being the criminal courts. No vote of council, no public opinion poll, no media headlines will cause him to step down.
And why should he? Apart from being concerned about the reputation of the city and its government, that is. Apart from doing the “honourable” thing. There appears to be no legislative means of hurrying him along to allow the council to heal and the citizens’ concerns come first on the agenda.
The RCMP investigation took one month. The courts are to act much more slowly. A court appearance is not scheduled until the new year.
The current council has almost reached its halfway point. Should the mayor do the “honourable” thing and step down, as two mayors in Quebec have done even before charges were laid, there would still be time to hold a by-election for the top position. Two years is a long time; not that many years ago, that was the usual council term, an extension of the original one year term. If the federal and provincial governments are able to select governments in four weeks, there is no reason why Londoners could not pick a replacement mayor who, after all, is a local person, in that same time frame. It could all be decided at the end of January or earlier.
In fact, in the early years of the last century, municipal elections were held annually on New Year’s Day. I don’t know about sign crews in those days, but surely there wouldn’t have been any robocalls, or radio and television advertising. Some town hall meetings, but definitely not online.
But it is unlikely that Fontana, despite referring to himself as the Honourable Joe Fontana, is likely to do the honourable thing. He will probably stay put until the next election or a court conviction, whichever comes first.
And if he were to step aside as a temporary measure, with pay of course as long as he has not been convicted and is presumed to be innocent until proven otherwise, what then? He would leave a much divided council, one he has so cultivated preferring to rule with eight votes rather than try to work toward cooperation and consensus. He would also leave the remaining seven allies in control of all but one standing committee and his favourites in charge of all of those committees.
Currently, for short absences by the mayor, a monthly rotation of councillors act in the mayor’s stead, a day here, a couple of days there. Up next is Sandy White, followed by Bud Polhill. Neither one is fit to do this on an ongoing basis as a few hours of watching council will reveal. Sandy White as budget chief? Bud Polhill handling a meeting of council?
The alternative would be council selecting someone from among themselves but on whom could a divided council agree. For budget chief, you couldn’t do much better than Nancy Branscombe or Joni Baechler, but I can’t imagine either one getting the nod from Fontana’s remaining seven. When it comes to chairing meetings, both Matt Brown and Paul Hubert have shown themselves to be remarkably adept, good-humoured and even-handed, but they too would have difficulty winning the support needed. On the other side of the great divide, Joe Swan is good at chairing, but seen as more self-serving than interested in what’s best for the city. And even on the committee he chairs, he hardly point to a record of achievement.
So, although a rotation does not seem like an ideal solution, it may be better or at least more workable than any alternative. And if any of the incumbents have longer term leadership aspirations, it may make them a little more conciliatory just to get some cooperation to make them look good.
But this is all academic; the mayor will (probably) not step down. There are too many critical decisions coming up. Landowners and some developers may be happy with their “enterprise” and commercial zones all along Wonderland Road from Hyde Park to the 401, but there are other hopes and dreams to be realized—anti-aging resorts on city-owned property and more agricultural land to be turned into shopping centres and housing developments. Seven votes won’t make that happen.
Fontana’s statement from his lawyer’s office on Thursday at 1 p.m. will be interesting, but don’t expect any surprises.
Fontana’s eight needs Fontana.