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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 15, 2013

Pots and kettles

It's a dilemma for Joe Swan.

He thought he could handle both jobs: rescue Orchestra London from bankruptcy and put the city on the path to wealth creation. Either one is a tall order, but Swan is bright and articulate and at the time he took these on, he was rather at loose ends. He was up for a challenge.

But now the challenge is to his own integrity.

Whether he saw it coming or not is difficult to say; he has remained tight-lipped on the matter. That's probably a wise decision.

Swan became the executive director of Orchestra London in 2009 when it became apparent that the orchestra was in big trouble and came to the city for help. It needed the city's guarantee of a half million dollar line of credit to stay afloat while it was trying to get its financial house in order. That was in addition to the nearly half million the orchestra already receives from the city through an arts funding program. With his past connection to city hall as a councillor and then a controller, Swan was regarded as the perfect replacement for the departing executive director. He would know whom to talk to and what to say.

For his own part, Swan had been looking around for opportunities since the loss of Information London and his exodus from city council a couple of terms earlier. He had printed up some business cards which proclaimed him to be a consultant for nonprofit organizations and he did get a number of gigs, including an opportunity to rescue the ill-fated Ambassador London program and to find a home for the an assortment of London memorabilia including the collection of items housed in what was then the Guy Lombardo Museum. Neither project came to a successful conclusion.

He did better with the orchestra challenge. Despite significant misgivings, council endorsed guaranteeing the line of credit and continuing the arts grant. For its part, the orchestra would have to devise an acceptable plan for getting out the financial mess it was in and submit regular monthly reports to the city treasurer of the day.

But Swan missed his days on city council when he had been part of a group that pushed for an arena and other public buildings downtown. That had been a heady experience, expensive for the city, but look at what had emerged: the John Labatt Centre, hailed as one of the best such facilities in Canada and beyond.

Fortunately an election was just around the corner. He had considered running for mayor but with two heavyweights already in the race, the prospects didn't seem all that good. Then, at the end of the summer, Bernie MacDonald, London’s longest serving councillor, suddenly called it quits after 28 years. Swan remembered a connection to that ward that he had had in his youth and declared his candidacy. Despite the fact that he had left council in 2003, Swan's name was still fresh in the minds of the voters since he had been quite controversial in his day. Besides, he had run against Fontana in the general election of 2006 so his name had been on a lot of orange signs in Ward 3.

The voter turnout was low and the candidates were many. He won the municipal race handily and proceeded to take his seat at council where he quickly staked out his claim, first on planning committee and then a newly created Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee. He spoke a lot about wealth creation which would require some seed money and a fund. There would a lot of potential projects that would bring jobs, jobs, jobs.

One of the projects that came forward was from Orchestra London, except that the board of directors had created a new entity, Music London. The idea was to get some money from the city, other levels of government and the private sector to build a performance hall for various musical organizations. It could have a parking garage and maybe some condos on top. Already $75,000 had been raised from the private sector for a feasibility study and a steering committee was ready to go, a steering committee with lots of big names, especially in the development industry.

Of course, Swan was not present when these proposals were being brought forward. As executive director of Orchestra London, he had a pecuniary interest. He was careful to declare it and leave the room. Members of the board could make the actual presentation. Still, he couldn't get around the fact that he was chairing a committee which was selecting and endorsing a handful of projects one of which might be central to the success of the organization he was managing and which paid his salary.

He probably would have been wiser to remove himself from the committee entirely. That didn't happen.

What did happen, according to Norman De Bono of the London Free Press, was that in the wake of yet another difficult year in which the orchestra is barely breaking even and having lost a couple of major corporate donors, Swan called upon some people with money to help out the orchestra, including developers.

These developers do ongoing business with the city and are constantly seeking development approvals and zoning changes. Although Swan no longer sits on the planning committee which deals with development applications, he still comments and votes on them. According to a couple of political scientists at Western University, that constitutes a conflict of interest.

In fact, it's much the same as the matter that initially got Toronto's mayor Rob Ford into trouble. He started asking developers to donate to his private charity which helps underprivileged kids get into sports, a noble cause no doubt. But by asking people who depend on city approvals for their economic viability, he was putting them into an untenable position. They might think they had to donate to ensure a favourable reception at city hall. Ford was ordered by the integrity commissioner to repay the money but he refused, and even voted against the recommendation on council, still not declaring a conflict. The rest is history.

In Swan's case the conflict would seem to be even more pronounced. After all, the charity for which he was seeking donations is the one which employs him. That's about as pecuniary as it gets!

No doubt the newspaper reports have been embarrassing for Swan, although it is doubtful that there will be any formal complaints. That's because, to make a complaint under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, one has to resort to the courts, a process that can be expensive and arduous. Had council chosen to hire an integrity commissioner when the matter was brought before it some months ago, it and Councillor Swan could have had the benefit of expert assistance in revamping its outdated code of conduct, councillors could have learned something, and embarrassment and negative new headlines could have been avoided. But Swan was among those who were vehemently opposed to the idea.

But here's the kicker:

Among those quoted in the London Free Press suggesting that asking developers for money doesn't look good and may give the impression of a conflict are Bud Polhill, Stephen Orser and Dale Henderson. In the last election, these were the biggest spenders whose campaign donations came predominantly from people in the development industry.

Bud Polhill is quoted as saying, “He has approached (developers) for money and now is supposed to be judging their proposals. There is a perception he has a conflict.”

If ever a pot called a kettle black! Back in 2007, when the financial statements for the campaigns of candidates were released, Polhill bragged to the Free Press about how quickly at the beginning of the campaign he got donations from developers for himself and for his son too. In 2010, he was the largest spender at $22,482.80. Again, it was mostly from businesses, unions and individuals in the development industry. And for the third term in a row, he chairs the Planning and Environment Committee which hears and recommends industry applications.

And Dale Henderson, the next highest spender, saying “...what if a developer gives him money and wants a development in southwest London?”

What if indeed! He too sits on the Planning and Environment Committee. His donors are a Who's Who of the development industry. Farhi, Sifton, Auburn, Decade, Ayerswood (think Reservoir Hill), Wonderland Properties, Hully Gully. And lots more.

Likewise Orser, suggesting that accepting a donation could give the appearance of owing a favour. If so, he owes many favours that won't be repaid with fridge magnets.

But somehow, in our approach to election financing, soliciting and accepting donations from persons with whom you are likely to be doing business isn't regarded as violation of a conflict of interest. That's hard for a lot of people to understand.

But it's what underpins our system. And we can see what it gives us.

Not the Best. Council. Ever.


Some Legacy for London said...

I have no use for Joe Swantana anymore.

He's morphed into everything he railed against for many years.

Political weasel immediately comes to mind

Will Rogers said...

I've said it before and I'll say it

We have the best politicians money can buy!

Anonymous said...

Another thoughtful and articulate post. One correction. Swan did not win ward 3 "handily"; 33.7%. In fact, the majority of voters did not vote for Swan, yet we have him.

Roderic Brawn said...

I am one of those people who worked on Joe Swan's New Democratic Party election team in 2006. Suffice to say, some of the people who worked on that team don't quite recognize the Joe Swan we know today. I do as a musician in town, although not a professional though I have a B. Mus. Hons. Ed. from Western University, and I realize how in some the concert facilities in this city leave something wanting. Wolfe is probably the best performing space for acoustic music. Aeolian is good too, but sometimes the electronics get misused. The churches in town have long been used as performing spaces, and some are wonderful! We need a performing space badly. If Joe can get a better performing space, well so be it. I think developers want a successful symphony orchestra so that people who would live in the monster homes they build, will come and live in London. In many ways the performing spaces are second class.

Gina Barber said...

@anonymous re Swan's winning vote: You are correct, of course,. There were several unsuccessful candidates whose raw vote and percentage result were significantly higher than Swan's. However, he did get almost 400 votes more than his nearest rival out of the 1,832 votes cast. Unfortunately, that's the way the "first past the post" system works. But that's another blog.

Chris m said...

Makes you sick to think of all the conflicts of interest going on in council. I swear if I knew enough about it I'd try to run LOL. After all I doubt I could do worse than some I have seen. But alas I get to sit and watch council ruin a once beautiful City and hope for the day when I can run away.

Anonymous said...

I was in the room for launch of Legacy London. I was inspired by the optimism and good faith among the group sitting around the table. The project got of to a very promising start. I was also in the room when Mr. Joe Swan became the group's consultant. City money was used to retain Mr. Joe Swan. The city did not want a museum or display center to honour the legacy of Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians. The world's greatest dance band came from some other London, apparently. We are not that London.
Under Mr. Joe Swan's leadership, the project fizzled, sputtered and lost all momentum. It was an engineered failure. A train wreck. Mr. Swan's role as engineer was to wreck the train.

Anonymous said...

When this council collapses it's big, corrupt, circus tent, this reader can only see Londoners future improve.

Disgusted taxpayer said...

I'm no fan of Swan, but what brassy hypocrites are Polhill, Orser and Henderson.

Or should I say, Larry, Curly and Moe!