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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, February 8, 2013

Meddling with medals

On Wednesday afternoon, I became the first person nominated by a London councillor for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee to actually be awarded a medal.

That happened, as so many things do, partly as a bit of luck and partly by design. It's not always easy to determine which is which.

The luck part was that my name is close to the beginning of the alphabet and the person ahead of me couldn't arrive until later. Another piece of luck was that, after winning a citywide election in 2006, I was blessed to have the opportunity to work with some very fine councillors who showed me the ropes and gave me the support and encouragement to throw myself into the task ahead and beyond. Two of these very fine councillors availed themselves of the once in a lifetime opportunity to honour a few residents of their city whose volunteer activities they believe has made London a better place.

In my case it was, among other things, spearheading the Age-Friendly London Working Group that eventually resulted in London being the first city in Canada to be admitted to the World Health Organization global network of age-friendly cities. It's an initiative that is alive and well today, both at city hall and in the community at large. Across London, there are hundreds of organizations that make the city attractive to people of all ages and which depend on the activities of seniors for their vitality.

Wednesday is usually my busiest day of the week. I am a member of the Society for Learning in Retirement London, a charitable organization which since 1994, with the generous support of the Westminster College Foundation, has organized weekly peer learning classes (think seminar style) for some 250 members five days a week using only the talents and energy of its membership. No one is paid; everyone is a volunteer. This year, I am honoured to be its president.

On Wednesdays, I take a couple of two-hour classes, teach a course on PowerPoint during the lunch hour, and finish the day by supervising some volunteers from Western University who hold a computer clinic for our members when classes are over for the day. But this day I had someone cover for me in the afternoon so I could get away early. It wasn't hard to find someone; we are all volunteers.

On my way to class that morning I had listened to a newstalk radio host suggest that the nominees for the Queen's Jubilee medal would have to wear paper bags over their heads in order to attend the city-sponsored reception that evening.

And no wonder. The whole medal thing was, to put it mildly, bungled by some of the members of council and the media had a field day with it.

It started with an email request from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in mid November asking councillors to submit nominations of those who had made a significant contribution to their community. FCM had at its disposal 4,000 medals to be given out to worthy recipients in FCM's 2000 plus municipalities. They were part of the 60,000 medals to be given out across the country in celebration of Queen Elizabeth's 60 years on the throne. A lot had already been given out through MPs and MPPs across the country but there will still quite a few left. The deadline for nominations would be December 31, 2012.

It seems this had been the second such announcement by FCM but, not surprisingly, most councillors weren't aware of it. There are a great many emails that are generic in nature and easily missed.

Harold Usher didn't miss this one, however. He raised the matter as an enquiry at council and urged his colleagues to take advantage of the opportunity. Nominate a lot of people. Maybe each other.

That soon became unnecessary. The mayor took it upon himself to nominate the whole lot. They were, after all, the best council ever.

The time was short; they had till the end of the week to advise the clerk of the names so that plans could be made for a reception in the new year. All the awards had to be made by the end of February.

Councillors differed in how they responded. Some acted quickly and thoughtfully, selecting individuals from different walks of life and engaged in different volunteer activities. They sent in their nominations online, giving the names, addresses and qualifications of their nominees.

That's what Joni Baechler and Nancy Branscombe did. They consulted each other about nominees and together they submitted 29 names. I was fortunate to be one of them. You can find them all here.

They did not submit the names to council, nor was there any requirement to do so. It was individual councillors who were to submit names, not council, just as MPs and MPPs named their own nominees without submitting them to parliament or the legislature. Those who chose to present their lists to other members of council did so, not for their approval, but for their information.

This is important because councillors were accused of endorsing their own nominations. Some of them may have thought they were doing so, but in fact they were simply acknowledging that the nominations had been made. When the mayor announced that he had nominated all of them, he was telling them what he had done. He may have hoped for approval, but he was actually just informing them of a fait accomplit. He also nominated a lot of developers and political supporters, and even someone who had been convicted of attempting to bribe councillors. But those were the mayor's decisions to make; he should be the one to justify them.

Some councillors obviously got carried away with it all, nominating 40, even 70 people, friends, supporters, even a family member. Others nominated very few, just a couple of their favourite couples. Several councillors never got around to nominating anyone at all.

In the end, those adjudicating the medals seem to have decided that some London councillors were too greedy. The medals ran out, and not all those who had been nominated would get one. And that went for the councillors too. Three councillors, Denise Brown, Judy Bryant and Sandy White, were informed there would be no medals for them. Matt Brown had already received one from an MP or MPP. Nancy Branscombe, Joni Baechler, Bill Armstrong and Paul Hubert requested that the medals they were to receive be redirected to four people who were worthy recipients but who would otherwise not be receiving one because they had run out.

The reception, which had been planned for recipients and their guests, expanded its guest list to all those nominated. After all, it is an honour to be nominated. There would be no awarding of medals; that would be left to be handled by the individual councillor.

Perhaps, but the whole thing was looking rather tawdry. The media was having a field day and who could blame them? There was talk about a protest at the Hilton where the reception was taking place.

I had been informed of my successful nomination earlier, before all these peccadilloes were revealed. I was thrilled and honoured, but more than a little troubled as the details and speculations emerged. So I was delighted when I received an invitation from Branscombe and Baechler to receive the medal at a small gathering at Branscombe's home prior to the larger evening reception.

And it was lovely. Baechler and Branscombe had arranged and paid for everything themselves. There were about 60 people there, the recipients and their guests. Only two or three of the recipients were unable to attend due to prior commitments.

And what a fine assortment they were: community leaders, heritage and environment activists, advocates for childcare and political participation, champions for poverty reduction and affordable housing, Each one was introduced and his or her achievements and contributions described to those assembled. It was simultaneously an uplifting and humbling experience.

Most had felt ambivalent about the award after being confronted with the derision of the media but, in the presence of the other medallists, we could only feel honoured to have been chosen by two of the finest councillors anywhere in Canada. We had discussed the possibility of not going to the city-sponsored event but after talking it over we decided we should go, that we should reclaim the once in a lifetime event despite the efforts of some to sully it.

And so we did. It was a low key affair, but well-attended. The mayor gave a short, enthusiastic speech after lining up some councillors beside him although not all attended. It was a fabulous day for London, he crowed. He had nominated these councillors because of the fine work they do each and everyday. There was polite applause. We were polite guests.

I didn't stay long, but long enough to receive some chocolates from Judy Bryant who had also nominated me for my contributions to civic engagement via my blog. Thank you, Judy.

I am not a monarchist, but I remember how excited I was 60 years ago when we celebrated Elizabeth's ascension to the throne. There was a parade in the town where I lived at the time, we got a half day's holiday from school, and there was ice cream for everyone. I had a new dress that I called my coronation dress, of crisp yellow cotton with a banner of light and royal blue stripes from the left shoulder to the waistline and continuing from the right side of the waistline to the hem. Over my heart there was an embroidered gold crown.

I loved that dress and was shocked to learn, many years later, that my mother had cut it up to make something for one of the grandchildren. She was a thrifty woman and, being of a similar bent, I eventually forgave her.

Just as I will forgive those who through their greed and vanity almost destroyed what should have been a wonderful day in London to celebrate all that is good and positive in our community. But it may take another 60 years.


Mr. Missouri said...

Gina, based on your description of the process, it seems individual councillors are charged with distributing the medals to their respective nominated recipients.

Given the names of 288 or so nominees and many of the 130 or so recipients remain a secret, with the consent of individual recipients/ nominees required before the veil is lifted, it seems possible councillors could wind up with several unaccounted-for medals.

A small cache of medals so to speak.

This process seems absurd, given the demonstrated untrustworthiness of some on London's current city council of 15 members.

Glen Pearson said...

Gina, you were a worthy recipient of the medal and are to be thanked for all the hard work you've done in this city, even long before you were on council. Joni Baechler and Nancy Branscombe are to be commended for showing how this medal ceremony should have been handled and financed. Very well done.

Glen Pearson

Anonymous said...

Nice... to see, Three Bee's doing what true blue Bee's do so well working together,
Frog .,.

Why's woman said...

Good morning Gina,

Congratulations to you and to others who were nominated for and received the Queen's Diamond Jubilee medals. The list of accomplishments sure shows people working for their community.

Your own accomplishments are lengthy! :-) I hadn't known much about the Society for Learning in Retirement. I'm not 65 yet so cannot take advantage of the free Power Point lessons. (do you know of any free on-line tuturials?)

It was also great to know that Councillors Branscombe and Baechler drew up their list together. It's a good example of thoughtful collaboration, more so because these two hard-working councillors don't always agree on things but prove they can work together to acknowledge the good things in their community.

Your clarification about the mayor's process - that he announced councillors' nominations to them and that it wasn't a vote - will allieviate my 93 year old neighbour's blood pressure ... somewhat. She actually stopped taking the newspaper, saying she got more than enough news about him through tv news.

Again, congratulations and very best regards,

Why's Woman

Anonymous said...

I don't think many will dispute that well-deserving citizens in most cases) received this award. Good for them. However, many were nominated, then informed by the city that they would receive an award, to be told later by the city that they wouldn't. That cheapened the entire project.

Harold Usher blames the media - it certainly was not the media. He might try accepting some responsibility himself.

The city of London got national press over this. Makes Montreal look pretty normal, I think.

I'm just asking for some professionalism at city hall that I could feel proud about. London can't even carry off a national medal program without looking cheap and tawdry? What's happening on Dufferin Street?

Frank Green said...

Congratulations Gina on receiving the Queen's Medal which you richly deserve for all your hard work and contributions to the community over many years. Also for having the best picture in the Free Press.

I was also happy to see that my old friend and former workmate Margaret Hoff was a recipient.

We should celebrate when good things happen to good people.

Embarassed citizen said...

You have no doubt heard of the Blues Brothers. In the Great London Medal Muddle we have our very own Bungle Brothers.

Take a bow Joe and Harold!

Anonymous said...

Gina, you deserve this medal and so much more from the city and people of London.

Thank you for the graceful blog above.

And thanks go as well to Nancy and Joni for recognizing Gina Barber and for their very honourable act of deflecting the medals from themselves and on to others.

The three of you are gems.

Paul Harris

colin hendry said...

Gina, if every one nominated for this wonderful recognition for community service was as well travelled and dedicated to others as you are, I would be cheering for them all. There are so many who go unnoticed and unrecognized while they labor in the love of what they are doing. Thank God for these people; thank God for you. Did you hear me cheering for you? I am proud to know you.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to congratulate those people who received a medal who truly deserved it. It looks like the two B's actually thought things through instead of just trying to pay back loyalty.

I for one found the whole bit with some of the councilors distasteful. Nominating your son because of 300 hours of community service? I could have done that for mine in that case, he's an army cadet who has way over the 300 hour limit and has been a staunch friend to those who are bullied. He has even taken a few hits because someone wanted to harm another student. But as I told him at the time, doing the right thing is it's own reward.

There are probably MANY people who should have received a medal and didn't even get nominated, to nominate someone based on family ties and politics is absolutely shameful.

To those who deserved it, I say kudos, for those who nominated those who didn't deserve it I say enough already. London is embarrassed enough by your behavior can we please put it to an end now.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Denise Brown know that every high school student in Ontario has to do 300 volunteer hours to graduate? Does she know that now?