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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 4, 2012

The power of one in eight

To no one’s surprise, despite persistent calls from the media, the community and some councillors, Mayor Fontana has no intention of stepping aside while the RCMP investigates the allegation that he, while an MP and cabinet minister, used public funds to pay for his stepson’s wedding reception at the Marconi Club seven and a half years ago.

And why would he?

Apparently, he has not yet lost the confidence of his cabinet-styled council, eight of whom rejected an opportunity to debate the matter at council last week. Since it was an emergent motion, one which deals with a matter of some urgency, brought forward by Nancy Branscombe and Paul Hubert, a two-thirds vote was required just to consider the matter. That meant that ten votes were needed to get the motion on the table.

Instead, only six councillors voted in favour of having a discussion about it: Branscombe and Hubert, of course, as well as Bill Armstrong, Matt Brown, Judy Bryant and Sandy White who followed through on her earlier concern about the pressure exerted on council by the media and her constituents about the mayor’s woes. Joni Baechler was out of town; had she been there, she would surely have voted for the motion but to no avail. The remainder of council, including the mayor himself, determined that the integrity of the head of council had no place on the public agenda. They included six of the mayor’s steadfast allies—Bud Polhill, Joe Swan, Steve Orser, Dale Henderson, Paul VanMeerbergen, and Denise Brown—as well as Harold Usher who seems to have discovered that supporting the mayor may have some benefits.

There was some shemozzle in dealing with the question that left the public scratching its head.  Just what were they voting on? According to the clerk they were voting on “leave” but not all, not even the councillors, were clear on what that meant. Were they asking the mayor to leave? And leave what? City Hall or just the council chambers while the issue was being considered? After all, to many it seemed that on this matter, the mayor had a conflict of interest.

As it turned out, the question was just whether the council would give the movers of the motion the “leave” to bring the matter forward. Since that was denied, the whole discussion died, and the mayor’s vote was not decisive in the result. Nor was his participation a violation of the Municipal Conflict of Interest legislation which considers only “pecuniary interest”. In short, and here is where having a few Latin courses is helpful, do you stand to gain or lose monetarily by the outcome? If not, there is no conflict of interest. And while an argument could be made that not being in the mayor’s chair could dampen one’s prospects for income generation, that’s probably too general to count since he would continue to receive his salary while the investigation continued.

It’s why we need an integrity commissioner, one who can assist council with establishing a code of conduct that goes beyond the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, a code that sets some standards about how councillors treat each other and their constituents in the course of conducting the city’s business.

Certainly, council could have used such guidelines the previous evening when it met as a committee of the whole known as the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee. As a CTV reporter noted later, council had hit a new low in how it dealt with committee appointments.

Standing committee appointments, whether as members or committee chairs, are made for one year only, taking effect on December 1st.  Most of the business of council comes in the form of recommendations by staff to the committee; the committee hears delegations from administration, stakeholders, and the public and then, following debate among its members, makes recommendations to council. Council makes the final decision.

Committee appointments always contain a competitive element. Some committees have higher workloads than others. Community and Protective Services (CAPS), for example, usually has a very light agenda with not a lot of reading. The meetings start at 7 p.m. and are often over in no time. That appeals to some members. It is often the committee of choice for Armstrong and Usher, as it was this time. Denise Brown also indicated that it was her first choice, and she want to chair it since the committee she had been chairing (Public Safety) had been merged into it.

That’s an interesting new twist. Traditionally, the understanding was that once you had chaired a committee, you moved on and left the vice-chair to take over. You don’t own a committee or its chair.

But with the current council, that tradition had been soundly broken by Bud Polhill when he asked for and got the chair of the Planning and Environment Committee for the second straight year last year. He decided to go three for three.

Planning Committee has the heaviest workload. The agendas are long, the reports detailed and technical, the delegations many and demanding. It’s the committee that deals with the development industry. It was also the most popular committee this year, being the first choice of Polhill, Baechler, Branscombe, Hubert, Henderson and White. Despite the fact that most people would be sitting on two committees, no one listed it as his/her second choice.

Polhill, Henderson and White are currently on that committee, White and Polhill having served for two terms. Based on my observation of the committee’s proceedings, I would conclude that neither White nor Henderson read the agenda reports. White rarely asks a question of staff and her remarks to applicants tend to be limited to “How quickly do you want this done?” As vice-chair, when called upon to explain a decision, she leaves it to staff to defend even though she supported the decision in direct opposition to the staff’s recommendation. Henderson frequently comments on applications but his remarks are impossible to follow and usually come out of left or right field. Occasionally, a member of the development industry or the public will write down a motion for him to bring forward.

Branscombe and Baechler have served on planning in the past, but not recently. Back in 2007, I served with them and Judy Bryant on planning. We shared concerns about economic, environmental and social sustainability in planning and development as well as aesthetics; it was not an “anything goes” approach. For that, we were referred to as the “Killer B’s”. Hubert has never served on planning; he felt it was time to do so despite the heavy workload involved.

And so it went last week. Some committees were popular, others less so. Swan’s Investment and Economic Prosperity committee was the first choice only for him and he wanted to continue to chair it, but VanMeerbergen made it his second choice, as did Matt Brown and Hubert, both of whom also offered to chair.

Several councillors indicated no interest in chairing any committee: Armstrong, Full-time Orser, Branscombe, VanMeerbergen, Bryant and White. Henderson offered to chair any and all the committees.

Historically, much of the appointment process happens informally. People chat with each other either behind the scenes or at committee. Efforts are made to recognize individual interests as well as creating some balance in experience, aptitude and perspective on the committees. In fact, flip charts listing the various committees had been set up for the meeting to allow for just that prior to making an overall recommendation.

But that’s not what happened. Just as the mayor seemed to be suggesting a short break to allow for some negotiations, Polhill muttered somewhat shame-facedly that he had a suggestion. He had a list printed up, he had talked to some other members of council and he had, he thought, something that might fit the bill.

The mayor was quick to take it and copies were immediately distributed to all.

And there it was, in black and white: five committees with five members each on which everyone got his first or second choice, everyone except Joni Baechler who was out of town.

Branscombe came to Baechler’s defence. Why was the most knowledgeable councillor being left off planning, she wanted to know. Everyone knew that nobody on council knows more about planning matters than Baechler.

“That’s just an opinion,” retorted White, whose resentment of Baechler has been obvious for years.

If it is “just an opinion”, it’s one that is widely shared among past and present councillors, the media and city hall staff. Nobody knows more about planning legislation, the application processes, the development charges legislation and history, the status of development applications, than does Baechler. And no one works harder and more effectively than Baechler to educate herself, other councillors and the public on planning matters.

Usher, too, was not thrilled. He was listed for both of his first choices but his offer to chair one or both of them had not succeeded. Only those firmly in the Fontana 8 camp were selected to chair a committee: Denise Brown and Joe Swan for the second time, Bud Polhill for the third time, and even Paul VanMeeerbergen although he hadn’t indicated any interest in doing so!

But most offended was Paul Hubert. He too came to Baechler’s defence, but was told by Swan that if he wanted to make room for Baechler on the planning committee, he should leave it himself; room could be made for him on IEPC, his second choice. (Later this was reiterated on morning radio by Bud Polhill who, when asked why he didn't step down to make room for Baechler, explained, "I don't want to.")

Hubert declined the offer, but it pointed out another issue: two of our most articulate and hardworking councillors, Baechler and Hubert, had been appointed to only one committee along with Armstrong, who spends as little time at city hall as possible. 

But Hubert had another reason for being dissatisfied with the process. He had, in the spirit of conciliation, met with Fontana the previous week, and presented his own suggestions for committee appointments balancing the need of the committees for expertise with the interests, skills, and wishes of the councillors. Fontana had been appreciative of his efforts. Hubert had had every reason to believe his suggestions would receive a fair hearing.

In that, he was deceived. The list presented by Polhill had come straight from the mayor’s office. The only one on the list identified by first name was Bud. No wonder Polhill had looked sheepish.

When Hubert tried to put forward his suggestions, the mayor would have none of it. First, they had to deal with Polhill’s motion.

The fix was in; the motion passed despite a few grumblings from White that she should be the chair of planning or CAPS since she had a Master’s Degree and Orser objecting to the fact that Henderson, despite having asked to chair all four committees, got nothing.

Branscombe had had enough. She couldn’t stand to see the way Baechler was being railroaded by her colleagues.

“This is disgraceful,” she exploded. “You can put me on any goddamned committee you want. I’m leaving.” The few people in the gallery who had been shocked by the proceedings on the floor, burst into a round of applause.

But when you have eight votes, you can do whatever you want.

You can create committees on which you have three out of five votes. You can appoint chairs who can control the agenda and report to the media. You can block out dissenting voices.

You can’t do this if you lose one member. Seven gets you a tie, and a tied vote loses. That’s why the Fontana 8 can’t afford to let the mayor step aside. They have to keep eight votes. Each member of the eight has enormous power, because anyone of them can act as a veto.

And that’s why they can’t reach across the ideological divide: a Fontana 9 or 10 reduces the power of each and every one of them. They won’t be able to hold a council, or a city, to ransom.

It’s the power of one in eight.


Oliver Hobson said...

Excellent! Bang on. Thank you, Gina Barber.

william thomson said...

Nice analysis with one exception. We don't need an integrity officer. We need people with integrity. Getting caught should not be the best reason for not doing the right thing.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Just wow! This is well explained and so disheartening. How do we make a difference in this? I'm sorry to say I'm in one of the Wards of the '8'. Although I'm not that well informed I would like to be able to think I did something that at least tried to make a difference. Thanks for sharing your insight.

Mad as Heck said...

Ugly, ugly, ugly. Spud Molehill is a poor chair and always has been. He and Harold like the extra cash that goes with being chair. Chairs don't set the agenda so it has to be the money. White doesn't know the difference between a development agreement and a plan of subdivision so if she thinks she knows anything about Planning, she is fooling herself (big surprise, eh?). And since Orser is too busy full time tooting his own fog horn, he has no time to try and chair a committee. There would be no one there telling him how to vote. we are poorly served by the Swantana 8. They are in it for themselves and not for the benefit of the whole. I am rooting for the RCMP to lay a charge and the CRA to strip Joe`s phony charity of its charitable status. Then he can slink off to Arva (not part of London) and count his pension money for all I care.

Anonymous said...

Fontana's puppets that is what it is all about and to hell with the people of London. They are only in this for themselves and I am totally ashamed of each and every one of them. They are definitely not serving the people of London, only themselves and each and every one of the councillors should be booted out of office. One comment said we need integrity amongst the councillors. How do we ger that when none of them has no clue what the word means! City Hall council is in a sorry state of affairs for sure.

Anonymous said...

Fontana's puppets that is what it is all about and to hell with the people of London. They are only in this for themselves and I am totally ashamed of each and every one of them. They are definitely not serving the people of London, only themselves and each and every one of the councillors should be booted out of office. One comment said we need integrity amongst the councillors. How do we ger that when none of them has no clue what the word means! City Hall council is in a sorry state of affairs for sure.

Secret Admirer said...

Congratulations! Gina.

No one, not Patrick or McLeod, or even Chip, captures the mean dumbness or dumb meanness and short-sighted self interest of the Gang of Eight as well as you do.

Keep up the good work.

David Radcliffe said...

Fascinating analysis. It would all be laughable, if it were not so absurd and irresponsible.

Betsy Odegaard said...

Bravo, Gina.
It is not just Londoners who are the losers here. Fontana is trying to outflank his critics and leave a flattering legacy, but his cronyism and petty manoeuvering will fail him in the end. He’ll not be well served by puppets and will end up carrying the blame for four lost years. I only hope Baechler, Branscombe, Hubert, M. Brown et al hang in there and continue to speak out forcefully for the kind of city we all want to live in.

Anonymous said...


The Mayor is a Crook, The Council is a Joke and Our City is Suffering.

Business As Usual???

I am Applaud!!!


Anonymous said...


The Mayor is a Crook, The Council is a Joke and Our City is Suffering.

Business As Usual???

I am Applaud!!!