Oh, there have been a few exceptions. Orser has gone off on a tangent from time to time, breaking ranks over fluoride and chickens, while Brown and VanMeerbergen won’t support anything that costs money whether it is councillors’ expense accounts or a levy or support for the arts. Henderson himself often is an opposition of one to proposals that he hasn’t read or understood. And no one is expected to toe the line when it comes to a matter in his/her own ward.
But on matters of development, the pattern is pretty obvious. Regardless of staff recommendations, the gang of eight toes the line. The question is not what the vote will be, but how it will be arrived at and how quickly the okay will be given.
Often, Swan will pave the way, as he did on the rape of Reservoir Hill. Although council had fought the over-sized development on that wooded hill overlooking Springbank Park for more than a decade, Swan led the charge to take the authority to deal with the condo development away from staff and hand it back to planning committee and council. He, with the support of other members of the eight, directed staff to come back with a recommendation that would allow the developer to go ahead with a plan that was almost identical to that which had been rejected by councils to that point. Then he tried to blame staff for the recommendation that he had authored. You can take Springbank Drive to Byron to see the pitiful result.
So it was interesting to read Swan’s letter to the editor in Friday’s London Free Press. Fontana 8? He hasn’t heard of it. There is no voting block; he votes as an individual.
It’s interesting, though, that when Henderson made his claim, Swan remained silent. Even Polhill, although he didn’t deny the existence of the voting block, disagreed that this was how things should proceed; he just thought they should all work together and make it a 15-0 rather than an 8-7 council.
Most of us, though, have heard about the Fontana 8 for a long time.
I first became aware of the move in “the right direction” during the election of 2010 when Orser boasted that he could round up a cadre of eight votes to push through an agenda. I heard about it again at an all-candidates’ debate in Riverbend when Henderson, when asked what he could do, said that he was in discussion with candidates in other wards to create a block of eight. He has repeated that mantra on other public occasions since being elected.
Still, Henderson is right, there has been a lot of 8-7 votes, or 9-6 votes, and if you don’t know who’s who you need only look at the composition and leadership of council’s standing committees and who supported that composition.
The morning after the historic vote on whether the mayor should be asked to step aside while his criminal charges of fraud, forgery and breach of trust are dealt with by the courts, Henderson went further about the voting bloc. According to AM980 radio, he identified the eight as Liberals and Conservatives who hate the remaining “socialists and NDPers”.
While I was on the previous council, Orser had several times informed me that his party colleagues, the Liberals in London, were furious about the outcome of the 2006 election. They felt that they had been caught asleep at the switch and wanted revenge. They were working on it; they were livid.
Whose election they were upset about, he did not say, nor did I ask. But I would guess, as an identifiable member of the NDP, I would be one of them. I was also not unaware of the rants against me by former radio host, Jim Chapman, who was working with a number of developers and “business” persons (Shmuel Farhi and Jim Donnelly come to mind), both Liberals and Conservatives, to get a council more to their liking. In fact, Chapman’s website rants discrediting me were printed and distributed by Henderson at local grocery stores.
While I served on council, I also found that some of the members were very big on party politics. That’s not surprising; people who run for office at any level are likely to have some political leanings; it goes with the territory. But I also found that blind allegiance or hostility to one party or another didn’t stand one in very good stead in municipal politics. Concern about one’s community often cuts across party lines. I found it easy to work with people who were interested in the issue rather than their flying their party colours. It’s hard to label the decision to provide recreational facilities or curbs and gutters as left or right.
Finally, Henderson claimed that his team, the ruling Fontana 8, have business credentials which other members, the tax and spenders, are lacking. So let’s have a look at these claims.
Is there a Fontana 8?
For the most part, it would appear there is. It’s reflected in the votes and the committee assignments. No one who is not a member of the eight holds a committee chair position. Only those who are not members of the eight—Baechler and Hubert—have been denied serving on more than one committee. For Baechler that means that she spent 13 minutes in meeting her committee attendance requirements for the current rotation.
That the votes are not always 8-7 doesn’t mean that there isn’t a voting bloc. Harold Usher votes with the bloc from time to time and gets scant reward for his effort, except from the mayor. But his overtures are not much appreciated by the others as it weakens the power each has. Would Denise Brown have ended up on the Police Services Board if she had not ruminated publicly about asking the mayor to step aside and suddenly found legal reasons not to?
Joe Swan once tore a strip off Denise Brown for catering to development interests regarding climate change research. He claimed to want to get the lobbyists of out city hall. But when it came time to support a lobbyist registry or an integrity commissioner or voluntarily listing one's interest for the public to see, he wasn't interested.
What about party politics?
Several members of council are clearly aligned with party politics.
With respect to the eight,
- Bud Polhill is active in the Liberal party and tried to gets its nod to run in an election a few years ago.
- Steve Orser has been a sign man for several Liberal candidates, including Joe Fontana.
- Denise Brown is in the employ of a Liberal heavy weight, although whether she is a Liberal, I don’t know.
- Sandy White parted ways with the NDP in order to seek her fortunes by seeking—unsuccessfully—the Liberal nomination in London-Fanshawe a few years ago.
- Joe Swan joined the NDP to be its London North Centre candidate in the 2006 general election but party members are beginning to wonder what he was doing there.
- The mayor represented London North Centre for the Liberals for many years.
- Paul VanMeerbergen ran for the CPC in London North Centre in 2009 without taking a leave of absence from council.
- Henderson is unclear about his party politics; he’s not sure but he may have been a member of the Christian Heritage Party at one time. So much for the eight.
For the remainder,
- Bill Armstrong is NDP; his wife is the MPP for London-Fanshawe.
- Nancy Branscombe is Conservative, having run for the Reform/Alliance Party and more recently, the provincial PC’s in London North Centre. She was recently re-elected as the provincial candidate in the election to come.
- Joni Baechler is not a member of any party, having publicly supported various political colours as one time or another, depending on the candidate.
- Matt Brown sought to represent the Liberal party of Canada in London West in 2009, entering the municipal race when he lost to Doug Ferguson.
- Paul Hubert’s party politics are not known to me but he tells me he has never voted NDP.
- Judy Bryant is not a member of any party although she sported a Liberal sign on her lawn in the most recent election, but it’s possible that that was authorized by another member of her family. (Update- Bryant ran under the NDP banner in the 2014 provincial election, coming second to Deb Matthews.
- Harold Usher has not indicated membership in any political party that I am aware of.
- Fontana dropped out of university to become a drummer in a band. He has also been an insurance broker/salesman, a property manager, an entrepreneur in several unsuccessful business ventures, etc. but mostly a politician.
- Polhill has a small longstanding business fixing cars.
- Swan has had a varied career as an executive director of some nonprofits and as a project consultant. He is currently the ED of Orchestra London which has a proposal for a performance hall before the Investment and Economic Prosperity which he chairs.
- Orser had a small junk removal business from which he retired to become a “full-time” councillor
- Baechler is a former mental health worker and artist.
- Branscombe is a former real estate agent and served on city council in Peterborough.
- Matt Brown has worked in sales and marketing and operated a small learning centre before becoming a teacher in 2004.
- Hubert is executive director of Pathways Skill Development and Placement Centre and President of CleanWorks London.
- Henderson, is an engineer; he has several failed businesses to his credit, the most recent being the London Music Theatre Hall (former Imax). I understand he does, like drummer boy Fontana, have some musical talent.
- VanMeerbergen is an automotive parts sales representative.
- Usher, like Henderson, is an engineer who previously worked for Bell Canada.
- Denise Brown is a manager with Jim Donnelly’s Aboutown taxi company.
- Judy Bryant is an architect.
- Sandy White is a social worker with the Children’s Aid Society.
But when it comes to reading and understanding the budget, I’d put my tax dollars on Branscombe, Baechler and Hubert.
As for tax and spend: it’s the Fontana 8 who are gung ho to spend taxpayers money by extending the city and its services ever further out to meet developer and landowner expectations of growth and profits for themselves. And they have a wish list of projects that they have no idea how to fund except to tell the staff to find the money. Creative financing, Fontana calls it.
So far, they have managed to freeze taxes, but at the expense of dedicated reserves, increased user fees and increasing debt. They have committed to projects that won’t see a return on investment for many years. They will leave a mess for the next council to clean up.
Let’s hope it’s not another Liberal/Conservative Alliance of eight. Let’s work to get a council that respects and welcomes diversity, in occupation and experience, in political philosophy and party allegiances, in ethnicity and gender.
We don’t need a business council; we need a council that respects its citizens and represents them, that is willing and able to read its agenda and do its homework, that listens to all the voices and works toward consensus.
We can only hope that not too much damage is done before we as citizens get to choose that kind of council.