Welcome to London Civic Watch

"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."

Monday, November 19, 2012

The halfway mark

Tuesday will mark the halfway point for the council elected in 2010. It a point at which councillors begin to cast their minds to the next election, unless they have firmly resolved not to run again.

That’s rare, especially if things seem to be going well. But then, things don’t seem to be going all that well at city hall. But 2010 brought a trio of new councillors to the horseshoe—Denise Brown, Matt Brown, and Dale Henderson—as well as several retreads including Mayor Joe Fontana, and Councillors Joe Swan and Sandy White. The remainder—Bud Polhill, Bill Armstrong, Steve Orser, Nancy Branscombe, Joni Baechler, Paul Hubert, Paul VanMeerbergen, Harold Usher and Judy Bryant—were re-elected.

So that’s quite a turnover, 40% to be exact. And certainly, the new council embarked on a sharp break with the past. Although the previous council had focussed on bringing in a progressive agenda of sustainable development, not all members had been enthralled with the results. Councillors Rogers Caranci and Cheryl Miller decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere (as candidates for the federal Liberal Party and the provincial Progressive Conservative Party) but neither did well in this endeavour.  It seems that former municipal politicians are not in high demand on the Hill or at Queens Park. VanMeerbergen found that to his regret in the 2008 general election, as did Joe Swan in 2004 when he ran for the NDP and Bud Polhill when he was trying to get the nod from the Liberal Party over Khalil Ramal. Nancy Branscombe failed in both federal and provincial bids, although she is prepared to try again.

Joe Fontana is an exception, of course, having made the transition from municipal politics to federal office and back again, although it took some time and the break was not quite as clean as one would have hoped. Sometimes things come back to haunt you.

When Fontana ran for the second time, he had suggested that he would be willing to forego his paycheque from the municipal taxpayers; after all, he had a generous Ottawa pension to support him. But somehow, those musings never caught; instead, soon after winning the election he began to look for ways augment his financial situation—a few more dollars to add to his $700 per month car allowance, $50,000 for engaging the public through a personal website, a media relations assistant, an increase in his salary to match that of an MPP. Oh, and of course, councillors pay should go up too, maybe to 50 to 60% of the mayor’s pay, whatever that would be. And maybe he should get $800 every time he attended a meeting of London Hydro despite a council policy against paying elected officials for sitting on boards and commissions.

There were those on council only too willing to assist. Paul Hubert felt that the mayor’s remuneration did not speak well for the regard being shown for the office of mayor. Steve Orser sounded the full-time councillor refrain; councillors should quit their regular jobs and be available 24/7. The pay should reflect that.  Harold Usher knew of lots of councillors and mayors who were paid a lot more, maybe twice as much, from his networking at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities meetings held across the country.

These observations were made last March when council was considering whether or not to accept a 3.1% pay hike in keeping with the recommendations of the independent taskforce. It had reviewed council remuneration, found it adequate, and recommended that increases be limited to the average of those surveyed by the Labour Index or the consumer Price Index, whichever was less. The recommendation, adopted by council, included the proviso that the increase be awarded only if the wages of the non-union staff were not frozen. Since they hadn’t been, council felt no pangs of guilt at accepting an increase. And besides, another review was in the offing in 2013, prior to the next election.

At the time, the mayor had felt that that would be too long to wait; he wanted some kind of a report incorporating his suggestions much sooner. However, no motion to that effect was made and the matter was not taken up by staff.

Probably just as well. Given the mess that council currently finds itself in, the public is likely to be less than sympathetic to a demand for more money in the mayor’s pockets or those of the rest of council.
The issue comes before council again only because the taskforce requires some members who have to be appointed by council. While most of the taskforce are nominated by their respective community organizations, there is room for three members-at large from the community, one of whom must have served on a municipal council and not have served on any committee of London’s city council. So far, only two volunteers have come forward, neither meeting the council experience criterion.

The previous taskforce have done a lot of work on this, surveying other jurisdictions to develop comparators in evaluating appropriate remuneration. But one might be reluctant to undertake this task a second time especially when, having received the report and endorsing the recommendations, some on council immediately want to give instructions to the contrary.

This year council was eligible for an increase effectively equivalent to the cost of living because a salary adjustment for non-union staff negotiated in 2010 took effect in 2012. But, according to the terms of the council compensation policy, if staff doesn’t get a raise, neither do the members of council. And since council is already scrambling to find $25M to meet its target of zero tax increase, you can bet that there will be no discretionary raises.

Non-union staff, of course, continues to be eligible for merit increases, but not so council. In every jurisdiction surveyed, the taskforce found that all members of council received the same pay, regardless of performance or time spent on the job.

But, what if there were such a thing as merit pay for councillors? Who would be deserving of, say, an extra $10,000?

  • Bud Polhill? A strong ally of the mayor, he had the grace to look a little embarrassed when he submitted Fontana’s slate for committees, thereby effectively controlling them. He’s hoping to take over if the mayor goes.
  • Bill Armstrong? Armstrong spends his time protecting himself from Polhill on his right and currying favour with Swan on his left. That’s tough to do since both are staunch Fontana allies. He has a tendency to invoke provincial party politics whenever he can.
  • Joe Swan? Swan has ambitions for Orchestra London and for himself. He’s walking a fine line at council with respect to both, so he needs to keep the mayor on side. He’s been invaluable to the mayor in anticipating what he wants for developers, most notably a huge development on Reservoir Hill and “flexible” zoning. A smooth talker who wants to be mayor.
  • Steve Orser? There’s nothing he won’t do for a headline and he usually gets one. He spends most of his time and expense account handing out fridge magnets and watches. He likes to remind the mayor that he needs his vote by staying away from time to time and causing a tie.
  • Joni Baechler? There probably isn’t a better-prepared councillor in Canada, especially when it comes to financial or planning matters. Unfortunately, that has earned her some hostility from Fontana’s supporters and Fontana himself. Hence, she got bounced from the committees she’s most needed on—planning and finance.
  • Nancy Branscombe? A plain speaker who does her homework and gets the picture, Branscombe has lost some political capital by jumping at other political opportunities leaving the voters feeling jilted.
  • Matt Brown? He made a few missteps early on until he found his feet. He’s generally well-prepared and thoughtful and does good constituency work. He did screw up on the Reservoir Hill, however, and when he realized his mistake it was too late.
  • Paul Hubert? Articulate and intelligent, Hubert has tried to act as a conciliator to bring a divided council together, but with little success. It’s not happening, as he learned when he attempted to present a proposal for more balanced committees. The mayor had other ideas.
  • Dale Henderson? He has lots of ideas if anyone could figure out what they are. Incoherent and ill-informed—he wasn’t aware London gets water from Lake Erie—he doesn’t or can’t read his agenda, can’t ask intelligible questions and doesn’t understand the answers. But he’s excited about being part of Fontana’s 8.
  • Paul VanMeerbergen? Ideological to the extreme, he’ll support Fontana on anything as long as it doesn’t involve any spending. He championed the developer at the expense of his own constituents over Reservoir Hill.
  • Harold Usher? He’s not so sensational anymore. He is having difficulty comprehending the agenda from time to time and is reversing himself on longstanding issues. He’s becoming increasingly preoccupied with getting enough respect.
  • Denise Brown? Now that she’s no longer on planning, she sometimes asks questions that reflect having done some reading. But it’s still pretty limited. Like VanMeerbergen, she can be very ideological. Recently she blamed the public library for the closing of video rental stores and city hall for undermining the wedding business.
  • Judy Bryant? Being the only voice of sanity on the Planning and Environment Committee has taken its toll. Bryant seems tired, although she’s well-prepared and well thought of in her ward.
  • Sandy White? It’s hard to believe that White is a social worker; she seems so immature and petty. She has a tendency to throw a concern onto the council floor but doesn’t try to follow up on it. She has a soft spot for the underdog, as long as it doesn’t involve developers. They always win out. She likes to chide other councillors and staff for their choice of words. She hates bloggers, probably for the same reason.

And that’s the lot. Except for the mayor, of course.But that's another story for another day.

To whom would you award a merit increase?


Paul Harris said...

Joni Baechler. And ONLY Ms Baechler.

Anonymous said...

Counselor Joni Baechler, Nancy Branscombe and Judy Bryant.
As for the balance, so, so to total disappointment.

Anonymous said...

Beachler, Branscombe, Matt Brown, Paul Hubert, and an honorable mention to Denise Brown who has some promise.

A pay-roll deduction for Orser and Henderson for being useless in their own special ways and a complete good bye to the current mayor (we can hope, can't we?)

Everything you said about Sandy White is true. It is difficult to watch her in action. Heaven help us all.

Anonymous said...

These public servants get paid with money that's collected from taxes. I thought zero increases meant zero increases both ways, and I've 100% lost faith, hope and trust in the whole damn lot of em.

Anonymous said...

ON what basis would you award merit increases? There has to be a defined criteria before you hand out money. And would the extra money make anyone a "better" councillor? I doubt that.

Veteran Observer said...

All in all, not a pretty picture you paint, Gina.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your approval of Matt Brown because I think Matt compromised his integrity on the vote to keep fluoridating. I can supply support my statements upon request. Matt Brown knew that there were no toxicology studies or safety tests on the long term use of the toxic waste, hydrofluorosilicic acid used to fluoridate. He was invited to do his own due diligence to discover for himself all the facts provided by Safe Water London were truthful and that fluoridation was dangerous --that there were no toxicology studies as stated by Councillor Baechler to all of council. Yet he chose to vote to keep putting an untested for toxicology or safety in the water. I emailed him and asked him why he voted that way. NO REPLY. Since he chose to not reply I have chosen to think that as he is very ambitious politically, he voted politically rather than with integrity of voting for the well-being of the citizens of London. $270 was paid by Safe Water London to test my tap water for chemical contamination not bacterial. The 2010 Olympic anti-doping technology was used to test the water and the results came back warning me that the water was chemically contaminated and dangerous to drink. A second water test where the person has lead pipe only from street to house came back ‘DO NOT DRINK” and she has bad health and has been drinking that water for twenty years. So literally, Matt voted in my mind to get ahead politically and didn’t give a damn about the health of the citizens. Matt Brown is my councillor unfortunately whom I supported during his campaign and whom I will not support in the future as I prefer to have someone I trust until the trust in broken. I am an idealist and like to think the councillors do the best for the citizens although I am learning that few of them do. I hope everyone remembers who belong to the Fontana eight when the next election comes as none of them should be returned in my opinion.