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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."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The gang of eight that rules London

He may have been politically incorrect, but Dale Henderson spoke power to truth when he announced that London had embarked on a new era, an era in which eight people are running the city.  

The motion put forward by the Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) Committee, that the mayor step aside with pay until his criminal charges were resolved, was not “about Joe” at all, he claimed. “This is about how we run the city, who runs the city and we are doing a great job. The Eight are doing this and we’re going to stay together.”

Despite an impassioned rebuttal by the usually mild mannered Bill Armstrong who is not one of the eight, and a some gently apologetic words of disagreement from Bud Polhill who is, Henderson stuck to his guns the following morning on 980 radio. The eight running the city are business types, Liberals and Conservatives, he maintained. The rest, at least six of them, are socialists and NDPers.
That threw some light on my experience on the previous evening at city hall where the historic vote took place.

When I arrived, well in advance of the scheduled meeting, a few rows of the benches in the gallery where already occupied. I usually enter from the right and sit at the far right, not from any political leanings but because that’s where the sole electrical outlet is located in case my laptop needs to be recharged. But on this occasion, my usual spot was already occupied as was the row behind it. I picked my way to an empty spot in the middle of the back row; it was as close as I could get to power.

Some guffaws from the landing behind me drew my attention. There was  Orser the enforcer hailing the assembled spectators. With him was Derek McBurney, the very person Orser had previously picked out of the audience to sit on an advisory committee in preference to someone who had actually applied. Earlier in the summer McBurney had warned me that someone was going to get sued for their statements about the mayor’s involvement in a charity, the one that was handing out inflated tax receipts.
Photo by Abe Oudshoorn

“Hey, Gina. You’re surrounded by Liberals,” Orser guffawed. “You should take out a membership.”

And indeed, those assembled looked nothing like the usual grassroots citizens and activists who keep watch on city council. They were mostly middle-aged men in suits, quite distinct from the youthful activists and Old South homeowners who arrived later to support the Normal School. One of the men joked about how they should all have worn their red ties, but only one had chosen to do so. A large sign from the mayor’s 2010 campaign was proudly displayed to identify the group. Clearly, Orser hadn’t given up his role as Joe Fontana’s sign organizer. There were at least a couple of dozen Liberal Caucus members present.

Among them, but arriving a little later, was Dick Rastin, executive director of the Street Connection, which had received donations from Fontana’s charity and the City of London taxpayers via Stephen Orser’s expense account. There was also someone who had known Fontana and his buddy Vincent Ciccone in Timmins. They were no choirboys, he acknowledged, but he was there to support Joe; let God and the courts be the judge of his behaviour.

Although some of us had arrived well before the starting time of four o’clock, it was almost six before the motion asking the mayor to step aside came to the floor.

The mayor had wisely declared a conflict and left the council floor. He designated Harold Usher to chair in his stead.

Usher was visibly nervous; he was shaking as he assumed the chair. Perhaps it was this nervousness that resulted in his barking at the audience that he would not put up with any noise from them; they would be kicked out and indeed one foolish spectator was shortly ejected.

As vice-chair of FAS, Paul Hubert read the motion asking the mayor to step aside, with pay, until the charges had be cleared through the courts. Baechler, who had prepared the motion for FAS, seconded it.

And then, Usher dropped a bombshell: he declared that, based on what he had heard in the in camera session from the city solicitor, the motion was out of order. It could not be debated.
Baechler was stunned. Clearly, that was not what she had heard from the city solicitor. She objected to the chair’s ruling.

Usher was adamant. “You will have to challenge the chair,” he retorted.

“I do. I challenge the chair,” Baechler replied.

The audience fell absolutely silent. This they hadn’t anticipated, to have the debate aborted a second time.

The clerk read the question. “Will the ruling of the chair be sustained?” There was not debate. Each councillor was to respond orally.

“Yes,” said Polhill, leading off as the incumbent for Ward 1. No surprise there.

“No,” said Armstrong. That too was expected.

But then, “No,” said Joe Swan. That wasn’t anticipated. Nor was the “No” from Sandy White. After all, they can usually be counted on to support Fontana’s agenda. Swan had opposed allowing debate on this earlier when it had been proposed by Nancy Branscombe as an emergent motion. White had supported allowing debate at that time so her “no” was less surprising. The remainder voted as anticipated with Orser, Henderson, VanMeerbergen, and Denise Brown agreeing to rule the motion out of order and the remainder, Baechler, Matt Brown, Hubert, and Bryant voting “no”. Thus, Usher’s ruling was overturned. It was sensational for the audience, if not for Usher.

Judy Bryant kicked off the debate, repeating Hubert’s earlier assertion that no one took joy in this but the reputation of the city was at stake. She was followed by Denise Brown who had done a number of flip-flops on this issue and who had been recently been appointed to replace the mayor on the Police Services Board. She tried to get the city solicitor to back her up in her reservation about the legality of the motion.

Jim Barber was not about to reveal advice that was given in camera. He recited the pieces of legislation that he had discussed with them and left it at that.

Baechler had sought independent legal advice from which she concluded that there was no legal barrier to the motion; it was a request, not an order, which allowed council publicly to respond to the situation and represent their constituents concerns. It was symbolic, not directive. The mayor had a perfect right to ignore the request if he chose.

Then it was Orser’s turn. In typical theatrical style, he waved a framed copy of what he called “The Charter of Freedoms and Rights” that he had brought in from his office. This motion was illegal, it wasn’t part of the Municipal Act. There were possibilities—however distant or remote—of criminal action! It was tantamount to rendering a judgement. The mayor wouldn’t be able to get a fair trial. It was unfair, it was wrong.

“People come from around the world for our freedoms and rights,” he bellowed. This was nothing but media football. “If it bleeds, it leads,” he informed his colleagues.

It was quite a performance lasting six and a half minutes although the time limit is supposed to be five.

“Allow the individual to have a fair trial,” he cried piteously.

Then Henderson stood up. He had heard (sic) a lot of press and received a lot of emails about how this was not moral but he had been there two years now and he had learned a few things. This was not about Joe, this was about a divided council voting 8-7, 8-7, 8-7. This is about the seven wanting to get rid of one so that it would be 7-7. Eight people were running the city and things were changing. Job descriptions were changing, people were leaving. He was one of eight business people running the city. They were doing a great job and were going to stick together.

Armstrong was outraged. He couldn’t believe what he had just heard. Eight people don’t run the city. This was out of line with democracy. If eight run the city, then what are we doing here, he asked rhetorically. His outburst drew a hearty round of applause from an overflowing gallery.

Polhill, while agreeing that it had been an 8-7 council, had to disagree with the direction his colleague was suggesting. He felt they should work together, try to make it a 15-0 council.

It was the closest that Polhill will likely ever get to saying anything supportive of Armstrong. The two have been at loggerheads for years, with Polhill doing everything he can to discredit and unseat Armstrong and secure ward 2 for his son, thereby establishing his “dynasty”.

Usher left the chair in order to get his say. He found this whole thing disheartening. This was his home, his city. Yes, he had received emails, passionate one, but not that many, not a tumultuous (sic) number, but probably more in favour of the motion than against it. But he hadn’t left it at that. He had gone out into the public and spoken to people. And guess what? The people he spoke to were just the opposite of the emails. They felt hurt by the motion. They wanted the city to get back to normal.
But some members were feeding the media. He would never do this, harming our city by feeding the media. They knew the person (Fontana) wouldn’t go. They should just leave it be.

It was a direct slap in the face to Baechler and Hubert, to accuse them of exploiting the situation of the mayor for personal gain. Especially Baechler, who has been a friend and mentor to him for many years.

But Usher has changed over the years. Always sensitive to perceived slights, he has become more and more obsessed with being respected and admired. For many, the novelty of his being “sensational” wore off many years ago, but Usher keeps trying to prove his worth by pointing to his credentials and exercising his authority whenever possible. His email signature line contains every position on every committee, board and commission or neighbourhood group on which he has ever served. The mayor played his cards well in sending him to represent him at a national mayor’s conference. Although he was denied an opportunity to chair any committees this term, he probably realizes that he will have to curry favour with the eight for any future opportunities.

There were only two more speakers. Paul VanMeerbergen was opposed to the motion. He would never turn on a colleague or deny him due process, he said. Sandy White decided that she could not support it because, although it was supposed to be a symbolic motion, she couldn’t find the word symbolic in it.

Then Hubert, as mover of the motion, had the opportunity to sum up his argument.

“No one is impinging on his rights and freedoms,” he pointed out. This was not about the mayor, it was about the integrity of the office of mayor. Elected officials have to be above reproach. Even CEOs of corporations, if charged with a criminal offence have to step aside until they are cleared. Criminal charges shake the faith of the public in the institution.

He took offence at Henderson’s implication that those not part of the eight had no business acumen. 

“I run two businesses,” he pointed out.

As he was speaking, Usher pointed out that his time was running out. It was a clear attempt to muzzle him. Hubert quickly requested an extension, something that is normally granted automatically for an additional five minutes.

“How much time do you need?” asked Usher.

“I won’t be too long,” Hubert assured him. Only Orser voted against granting an extension.

“Reliance on a block of votes is harming the very outcomes that Councillor Henderson so often asks about,” Hubert pointed out to Henderson.

“We need to reach out, “he concluded. Eight people don’t run the city. Council runs the city. Fifteen people run the city.”

However, eight people voted down the motion that night. Although the mayor did not participate, Harold Usher joined the voting block of Polhill, Swan, Orser, Henderson, VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown and Sandy White. These are, according to Henderson, the business brains of council. The gang that runs the city. The Dufferin Street Crew.

Supporting the motion were Armstrong, Baechler, Matt Brown, Hubert and Bryant. Branscombe, who had tried to put forward the previous motion was absent. According to Henderson, they are irrelevant socialists and NDPers who would drive up taxes and destroy the city.

Tomorrow: Who does what and what colours do they wear?


Anonymous said...

I have lost faith in the integrity of the office of the Mayor. It appears that our Mayor, whoever he or she is, can do and say whatever they please. They can be a dictator.

As for this 8-7 split...I thought that in municipal matters where public money was being spent the vote was supposed to be 2thirds, not half plus one.

Veteran Observer said...

After sitting on a Board with Harold Usher for several years I came to the conclusion that he is, well, er... not very bright. To that add a lot of insecurity and the firm belief that his true genius is not recognized.

The result is a man easily manipulated by a clever operator.

Cynic said...

Bud's seemingly polite intervention should be read as just another effort by the Budster to come out on both sides of every issue.

Curious George said...

I think you are correct, Gina, in reading Mr. Malaprop, Dale Henderson's comments as the best guide to what the whole gang of 8
(or is that 9, Harold?) really thinks.

Not to put too fine an edge on it:

"We got the power, so **** em!

It seems clear that Fontana won't run again but I wonder how many of the Gang will get tossed by the next election.

Interested Party said...

Would this council be as bad as it is if Fontana did not allow dolts like Orser to run wild and unchecked? Would a first-timer like Henderson behave in a more dignified manner if he was not propped up by the Bully-Team of 8? Is the Fontana 8 about to become the Fontana 9 as it seems Harold (the sensational) Usher now wants to play with the power team? Will London soon be firmly in the clutches of a few business and landowners who will bleed out our future for quick profits today? Will Joe Swan finally reveal what game he is playing at, as people remember when he had some integrity but has now one to the dark side? Will London's next council members come from communities even farther away, as long as they own some land in London?

And, where is Batman when we need him? Our city is in so much trouble that only a caped crusader can save us from the dark forces of the Fontana 8, soon to be 9.

The answers to some of these questions might never be known. Some will become revealed sooner than we like.

just askin' said...

How come NanBran didn't show up for the meeting? Is she trying to steal the flip-flop crown from Denise Brown?

I suppose that she is trying to keep her skirts clean for the upcoming provincial election. Good luck with that Nan.

Kathy Clee said...

I had to work until 8 pm that night, but made it to the gallery at about 8:45. There were maybe a half-dozen people left by then. I held up the red card that had been printed in the Free Press for about an hour. J-Fo looked up at it and shook his head. I nodded in return.

We can't leave this up to the city councillors. All of us need to make our voices heard! I will be back out with my sign in front of City Hall Friday from about 3 until it gets dark. Please join me if if can. If you can't, call and write the mayor's office and cc your city councillor. Write short letters to the editor of the Free Press.

London deserves better than this.

Jack said...

It is so comical that the dud from Ward 4 calls the information about the Mayor a media circus when he is a master of manipulating the media to get his name in the paper doing "when it is stupid, it leads" over and over again.

President, London Whiners' Club said...

I concede! I give up!

After Sandy White's pathetic attempt to justify her craven vote for Fontana, complaining about the absence of the word "symbolic," she can have my office and position with full rights and privileges.

Justin Bieber said...






Here's the real reason that Nancy Branscome missed the crucial "vote Joe up or down" meeting.

No, she wasn't scheming Dolt McGuinty's demise with Timmie Hudak.

No, she didn't come down with the flu.

No, the dog didn't eat her homework.

A friend of mine at Entertainment Tonight Canada tells me that NanBran was off to California with her nine-year old son to launch his acting career!

That's right: ACTING CAREER!

Social Scientists please note: the maternal instinct trumps the drive for political revenge.

Let's hope that, if no one else in the family, at least the kid's a trooper!

As for me, I always welcome competition.

Timmie said...

So Nancy is a stage mother.

Who would have thunk?

Hope it doesn't interfere with the Common Sense Revolution, Part II.