“Is the London Free Press making a mountain out of a molehill in its exposure of the latest escapade of Mayor Joe Fontana and his band of six, seven or eight?”
That was the question raised at a seminar I attended recently and there were plenty of opinions among the fifteen or twenty people in attendance. There were those who felt this type of behaviour is inevitable in municipal politics, regardless of attempts to suppress it. People with similar views will gravitate toward each other; it's bound to happen. Besides, they are certain to be at some events at the same time and shop talk is bound to break out.
And so it is.
In all fairness, however, it was Phil McLeod who broke the story on his blog, The McLeod Report.
I wasn't all that surprised. A close friend who is a regular at Billy T's had mentioned more than a month ago that the Mayor had been checking out the premises for meeting space. Apparently the food is very good.
McLeod didn't name the participants in his original story, but Pat Maloney of the London Free Press filled in the details. It seems that all of the Harmony gang were there except Denise Brown who was out of town. Later she told CTV that she had learned her lesson from the ombudsman's investigation following the Harmony House buffet.
Good for her. Unfortunately the lesson didn't go as far as convincing her that an integrity commissioner would be a good idea, but still, it has saved her from having to demand the services of a lawyer at taxpayers' expense. And it saved her from being the social secretary and making the booking as she had done previously.
In her place was Councillor Sandy White. She hadn't been invited the last time around; gender parity is not part of the Fontana 8's guiding principles. But White wants recognition. She has a habit of getting shirty if her vote is taken for granted.
Also in attendance was Councillor Joe Swan. He had missed the Harmony buffet, being preoccupied elsewhere. But there is a lot at stake for him, especially in the decisions of the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee (IEPC) which he chairs. His employer, Orchestra London, has a proposal for a music hall—don't call it a performing arts centre, please—in competition with an expansion plan put forward by the Grand Theatre. He can't vote on that since he has a conflict of interest, but his buddies can. He needs them.
The Free Press story carried pictures of councillors imposed on the photo of Billy T's. Unfortunately, it also contained a likeness of Harold Usher who had not been invited. It's a natural mistake on the part of the media since Mr Sensational has taken to aligning himself with the Gang of 8 on some critical votes, particularly where development is concerned. That must be of some reassurance to the mayor. It compensates for the wavering support of Denise Brown and Sandy White. However, it was not sufficient for Usher to be included in this particular gathering.
Missing from the front page story was a picture of Councillor Bud Polhill. It's hard to explain how that happened since Polhill claims that the whole point of the meeting was to help him plan for a family event. Perhaps he needed assistance with identifying sources of financing.
The mayor had a different account. He had invited Steve Orser, Dale Henderson and Joe Swan to discuss some economic development matters. Somehow Paul VanMeeerbergen, who is also on the IEPC happened to wander in. That accounted for all the committee members except Matt Brown, but more than enough to make a quorum.
Apparently Henderson hadn't been apprised of the mayor's explanation. He averred that he just happened to drop in to the restaurant located on Highbury Avenue from his home in Komoka or Mount Brydges or wherever he happens to live. All we know for sure is that it's not in London that he pays property taxes. And, of course, he would be a natural for coming up with great ideas for Polhill's family event. If that's what they were there for.
So now we have three different accounts. Did they meet by accident? Where they there to plan a Polhill Party? Were they assembled to discuss city business, in particular, the business of a standing committee for which a majority was in attendance?
The last is the mayor's explanation and it is the one that clearly violates the Municipal Act relating to closed meetings.
The whole idea behind the legislation is to get away from the old boys' backroom politics. What the legislation says is if you have a majority of a committee discussing the business on which it gets to make decisions or recommendations, you are advancing the business of council and that can only be done in public with appropriate notification to the public so that, should members of the public want to attend, they can do so. You can't hold spontaneous meetings off site and away from public scrutiny.
This was not the first time that allegations of impropriety had been made on this score. A year earlier, just before the final meeting on the budget was to take place, a similar meeting had occurred at the Harmony Grand Buffet. On the complaints of two citizens, the Ontario ombudsman had investigated the concerns they expressed. His conclusion at that time was that the lunch had been ill-conceived and unsavoury but not illegal as there had been no quorum of the council or the committee of the whole.
This time would seem to be different. By the mayor's own account, a majority of IEPC was present and assembled specifically for the purpose of discussing committee business.
But for many observers, the issue is not whether there was a quorum or which particular items were discussed. What offends them is the clear implication that the mayor and seven of his henchmen/women are effectively thumbing their noses at the people who pay their stipends and who have entrusted them with their government. In the words of Orser, “I'll have din-din with whoever (sic) I want.”
It's an attitude of entitlement and untouchability. It's the absence of embarrassment, shame or humiliation. It's the assertion, recently made by Henderson, that eight people run the city. It ignores the fact that seven candidates—Bill Armstrong, Joni Baechler, Nancy Branscombe, Matt Brown, Paul Hubert, Harold Usher and Judy Bryant—received nearly 50% more votes than those seven who together with the mayor, form the gang of eight.
We have an embattled mayor. He is facing criminal charges. His charity has been investigated by the Canada Revenue Agency. Its status is about to be revoked for issuing inflated tax receipts. People are lining up to add their voices of complaint to the Ontario ombudsman over illegal secret meetings.
Earlier this week, a $300M proposal for redeveloping some land along the Thames River came forward to the Planning and Environment Committee. It may be a great thing for London, but the only thing that most people in the room could think of was the relationship between the proponent and the mayor and the fact the property on which this is to be built is owned by the city, not the proponent. That, and the fact that the mayor had announced this project more than a year ago without ever mentioning that the proponent was a member of the Board of Directors of his infamous charity and that the land in question was owned by the city and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority. It sounded like a done deal.
That proposal initially went to the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee, where it was met with great excitement. What a coup! Committee members were tripping over themselves in their enthusiasm to see it go forward right away, just fast track it, forget about process and due diligence. Just give FinCore the land and let's start building!
That's the same committee that met at Billy T's. The public can be forgiven for being skeptical about how innocent an encounter that was.
This mayor and this council has been given a lot of latitude. People liked the enthusiasm of the mayor; they were prepared to give the newcomers a chance.
But once public trust has been shaken, it's really hard to restore.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
No one likes to be mocked.