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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."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Will the real Fontana 8 please stand up?

Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson claims there is a voting bloc of eight on council who run the city. He didn’t name them, but most of us could name them easily without checking out their dance cards: Polhill, Swan, Orser, Henderson, VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown, White and of course, the mayor. On most matters, especially contentious development issues, they vote as one.

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.               
And finally, what about those business smarts that Henderson claims define his eight?                    

  • 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.


Vicki Van Linden said...

Henderson's rant about party politics on city council was very disturbing. In his view, the 'Gang of Eight' run the city and the rest of council can take up knitting and whittling during council meetings.

As well, in his view, only Liberals and Conservatives run the city. Everyone else should also find a hobby to busy themselves with during council meetings, as they do not matter.

This is insulting not only to the councillors that he sees as the 'opposition' but to every single voter who put those councillors in office.

Gina, I recall that you worked well with councillors of all political stripes during your time on Board of Control. I remember seeing you at an information meeting that a non-profit group hosted, which you attended with Nancy Branscombe, a wel-knownn Conservative. Though you are a prominent member of the NDP party in London, I never saw you inject party politics into municipal government.

I want to thank you for the dignity, fairness and respect that you showed during your time on council, both to other members of council as well as our citizens. I thank you as well for your continued interest in our city by continuing to report on the decisions of council.

I long for dignity, fairness and respect to return to our city's governance.

Would people of good will, fairness, dignity, skill, and respect for all Londoners give serious thought to running in the next election?

Could we start an effort now to promote candidates that will serve all of Londoners and not just certain special interest groups? Is there anyone willing to begin organizing such an effort?

We have two years to prepare. We should get to work now.

Interested Party said...

London needs an integrity commissioner. Is there a way that we can have this put before the voters at the next municipal election?

It seems unreasonable to give the power to decide this to council. It is like asking any group of people if they would enjoy having someone who is outside their group be able to police them. Most groups of people would say they would not.

As well, it is particularly hard to take that two of our council members do not choose to actually live in the city they constantly praise. If they love London so much then why do they prefer to live outside its boundaries?

Simply needing to own property in our city is not the same as making a commitment to live your life among London neighbours. This too, should be handled as a referendum at the next election.

Is there any way to get these two items on the ballot?

1. Do the Citizens of London want an external integrity commissioner to provide guidance to members of council?

2. Should it be a requirement that any candidate for office have their primary residence in London, and have lived in the city for at least 4 years prior to running for a position on council?

The length of residency requirement would be to prevent someone from moving in just prior to the election.

Rick Odegaard said...

Excellent summary and analysis, Gina. I'll be accessing this just before the next election to re-educate myself on the council line-up. Point of clarification, Denise is a manager at Aboutown.

Lily Tomlin said...

Very complete listing of allegiances and backgrounds, Gina.

You have laid the facts bare in a most useful manner, as usual.

If my memory serves, the Budster sought a Liberal nomination on at least two occasions.

As for Swan's letter to the Freeps,
it's just another example of repeating the same lie. He seems to think that if you do it often enough, the little people will be fooled.

Try to avoid cynicism.

Anonymous said...

Now I understand why the word rape wasn't even allowed to printed in the freeps...I just read to the part about the rape of reservior hill and that word interfered with my ability to process intellectual information. It's like an invisible solid cold black iron cannon ball hitting me straight in the gut and I could read on and on and on and not remember one darn word except that one. Rape. Somebody wrote that word, rape, on a stopsign I often use, near a school crosswalk on a three way intersection. There's been lots of roadwork and construction there for years now, and still the sign has never been cleaned or replaced. ... recently just up the street, in the same school zone...someone has scrawled Harper in similiar script.
So anyway Gina, mostly, I don't know what the hell you were talking about...the lights are on but nobodies home.
I'm happy The Normal School will remain in the public sector, cause I'm normal, and so is my neighbour.

Hydro Juice Monkey said...

Be very skeptical of JoFo's latest brain waves

THIS JUST IN, DEC. 13: One of JoFo's latest brain waves is "Potential redevelopment of London Hydro lands at 111 Horton Street East for residential/ commercial use.

"Recommendation: The City of London enter into more formal discussions with Kilmer Brownfield Equity Fund L.P. and London Hydro regarding the potential sale and redevelopment of the land at 111 Horton St. East."

Late last year JoFo tried to sell/ restructure London Hydro from under us, then earlier this year JoFo wanted to giveaway our city hall, Centennial Hall, Centennial Apartments and Reg Cooper Square to Western for $2 (forcing us to pay for a new city hall), so Londoners should be very skeptical of this one ~ as well as anything else proposed (such as Orchestra London's bid involving a new performing arts centre. CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Joe Swantana® is the executive director of Orchestra London).

Anonymous said...

Who is Kilmer Brownfield and does Fontana have any "friends" or business partners there?

doug rogers said...

Labels have become poisonous insults in contemporary politics. None of the gang of eight act the least bit 'Liberal', but all of them chant a Neo-con agenda.

G. Babbitt said...

Kilmer Brownfield is an equity fund headed by Kenneth Tanenbaum. The company was started with a $20m investment from Kenneth's father, Larry who is head of Maple Leaf Sports and has been a major Liberal Party fundraiser.

Anonymous said...

Like everyone else here, I am grateful for this insightful analysis, and yesterday's. Helpful stuff that makes it clear that those of us outraged by the Mayor's manipulation of Council is not just 'sour grapes' because 'our team' isn't winning. Our outrage comes from the corruption of the only process we can count on to protect the City, corruption at the hands of a Mayor who lacks all credibility no less. It's too much.

So now on to this bizarre proposal to sell the London Hydro yard. I wonder if Joe knows where this property actually is. No matter how you look at it, this lot is behind Labatts, and beside the Toxic Blob! And isn't a huge part of this land also a mill race that has been filled in? What could you build there? It would make an awesome park, that's for sure. But glamorous apartments? Not so much.

Anonymous said...

Due to my outrage about the recent vote of 8 not to ask the Mayor to step aside I wrote to the Fontana 8and the Mayor. I rec'd 2 responses. Sandy White wrote that the city solicitor was clear that "council would be at great risk of legal implications should we participate in the motion, or willingly work against the law. In fact we would have little to no legal protection under the Municipal Act should anyone decide to take action against us." This is not the impression I got from the article about the legality of the motion in the Free Press. Where lies the truth?

Anonymous said...

Henderson was a Christian Heritage Party candidate in the past.

More to point we have many citizens in London who are very upset and angry about this council. When do we start and who will be organizing the campaign to remove them in 2014?

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that since there's no more PUC, the only thing that London Hydro building is used for is billing, which is done by a couple of corrupted computer systems which could easily be moved to a basement storage office space in City Hall and none of their customers would even notice.
The building could easily be converted to residential condo's and that would be a much better usage of the property IMO.

Vicki Van Linden said...

In all seriousness, could we perhaps rent a library meeting room sometime in the new year - nothing too big or costly - so that concerned citizens could get together and talk about how we can promote some good, solid candidates for the next election.

The kind of people that will serve all of London, not just the developers, are often people who do not have access to large donors, as it appears Dale Henderson did. Remember his large number of big, expensive signs?

During the next few years, if concerned people met occasionally we could draw up a platform of concerns that matter to us, such as responsible urban growth and protection of social housing for the city's most vulnerable.

Let's think this over and decide if this is something that we could begin in January or February of 2013.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to be able to run in such a position, but I'm not popular, nor am I likely to be. (not that outgoing LOL). Also I don't have the financial capital for such an adventure. Oh and I doubt i'd fit in much lol, I'm a Green party person :)

Anonymous said...

re London Hydro building - Hydro does more than just billing. Who do you think maintains the electrical distribution system in the city?