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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shooting the messenger

Although I had planned to continue with a ward by ward analysis of the spending profile of our councillors, the statement on Wednesday by Councillor Stephen Orser that he has prepared a motion to present to council to fire Andre Marin, the Ontario Ombudsman has to take precedence.

It's not the first time that council members have speculated about this.

It's Marin's job to investigate allegations of violation of the Municipal Act with regard to closed meetings. Simply put, the days of backroom politics are supposed to be over. Council work is to be done in the open in meetings of which the public is appropriately notified so that it can attend if it so desires. Meeting behind closed doors is limited to a few specific matters such as receiving legal advice, contract negotiations, and property acquisitions. Other private meetings, whether on site or off, are a no-no if they involve discussions that advance the business of council. Normally, that means meetings that involve the majority of the members of a committee or the council as a whole.

The occasion for Orser's threats was the second investigation of an unauthorized meeting in as many years as a result of citizen complaints. This time there were 60 such complaints, compared to only three when the gang of six out of eight met at the Harmony Buffet just hours before the final budget vote in 2012. This time, it was a few days before the 2013 budget vote, and the get-together involved seven people: the mayor and Councillors Swan, Orser, VanMeerbergen, Polhill, Henderson and White. Not a quorum of council, but definitely a quorum of several committees since the mayor has ensured that his gang of 8 control almost all of them.

And the venue had changed too, to Billy T's, a bar and restaurant on the outskirts of the city. There the gang gathered, some arriving by the back door while Orser, the Sergeant at Arms, kept watch.

When news of the meeting was leaked to the media, each participant had a different explanation of why he or she happened to be there. Some came by accident, others by design but there was no meeting, they argued. No doubt, having had several weeks to consider the matter, their stories would have been a little more harmonious when they were being interviewed by Marin's team yesterday.

Later, three of them were interviewed by CTV. The mayor, who had made the arrangements for the meeting by booking the room, felt that it had gone well. The ombudsman was just doing his job, he acknowledged although previously he too had speculated about finding someone else.

Orser was more combative. He wants the ombudsman out, get someone a little more to council's liking, someone who isn't so outspoken or sarcastic, someone who doesn't maintain a Twitter account. Bud Polhill tended to agree. The ombudsman should be more remote, more like a judge.

But those who want to get rid of the Ombudsman have a problem: the public.

Andre Marin is popular with members of the public. He makes it clear he is representing them, not the council. He's accessible, outspoken, and he has a great sense of humour.

He has put his own stamp on the office of the ombudsman. He works hard and expects others to do so too. He's not impressed with the puffery of some councillors. He's not above taking them down a peg or two.

A man like that is likely to make an enemy or two, particularly when his job is pointing out government waste and inefficiency. Because he was doing his job too well, after five years on the job the Liberal government decided that, rather than renewing his position, it would require him to reapply and put him through some hoops.

That's when the smear campaign started, an orchestrated attempt by unnamed Liberals to remove him and to ensure he didn't get re-appointed. There were rumours about spending, about harassment, about racial discrimination, about ethical violations. Complaints were filed with the Human Rights Commission naming him and some of his administrators.

“It took almost a McCarthyism turn of events, with everyone trying to outdo each other on trying to throw some mud,” Marin said later after the premier finally intervened at the behest of the opposition parties. Thereafter, he was unanimously re-appointed by the legislature, with all parties singing his praises. The complaints before the Human Rights Commission were soon dropped or dismissed. Check the following video to get a sense of the smear campaign and the subsequent reappointment.

That was in 2010. Still, when the ombudsman made it clear that he would be doing another investigation of some of our councillors, one of those same councillors, Stephen Orser, began to revive the smear campaign, pointing out to other members of council an article about the allegations in the Toronto Star. Apparently he neglected to mention that this was old news and that the allegations hadn't gone anywhere.

Then, a day or two later, an email with the same allegations and providing a link to the two and a half year old story was sent to Steve Garrison of CJBK. We don't know who sent it, but soon Garrison was talking to Sandy White who suggested that she didn't feel safe being investigated by someone about whom such charges had been made. After all, she has a black daughter and some of her colleagues are black or have black children too, she alleged. How could a person like that investigate her?

When I listen to the tape of that interview, I realize two things: Garrison thinks that this is a current story, that the allegations have not yet been dealt with, and White knows full well that this is not the case. She acknowledges that “maybe [the charges] haven't been substantiated” but goes on to talk about how she feels unsafe. It is a bizarre conversation to listen to until you realize that this is simply the smear campaign all over again.

But you have to come up with something if you are going to try to fire someone who has a high public profile and who less than a year ago was honoured with the Ontario Bar Association's Distinguished Service Award. And when that someone doesn't actually cost the municipality a cent. To fire someone like that makes zero sense!

When confronted with the optics of picking one's own watchdog, Orser didn't see the problem. They could hire a local law firm. No law firm would jeopardize its reputation by being biased in favour of those who were issuing the pay cheques, he suggested. And besides, he argued, the ombudsman isn't really free. All those investigators descending on city hall? They'd be sending their bill to Queen's Park and the taxpayer would have to pay.

What he didn't acknowledge was that this ombudsman has stream-lined his office so that even with the addition of the job of being the closed meeting investigator, his budget hasn't increased. And he always comes in under budget.

It's true that the Sudbury council dismissed Marin last month. It had been investigated four times for violating the closed meeting law. One infamous case was when they gave themselves Elton John tickets that were supposed to be for the public. When you read about that council, their words and behaviours sound all too familiar.

Marin calls it a “rogue” council. There's not much you can do about them. If you call them to heel, they just bite you. Or fire you. They are a law unto themselves.

By law, they have to have a watchdog. A watchdog watching out for the public. But with this gang, its more likely to be a doberman on a short leash.

Not something to inspire public confidence.

Update: As of a few hours ago, an estimated 8,000 residents of Sudbury had signed a petition demanding the reinstatement of Andre Marin. Attempts to have the petitions presented by the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association were not successful; however, it appears that a councillor is prepared to present it to council on its behalf when council meets next Tuesday. Get your pencils ready: there may be a petition coming to you in the near future!

By the way, that's not the only petition that's circulating around with respect to the Ombudsman. There are also calls for giving the ombudsman power to investigate the Children's Aid Societies, a move that so far has been resisted by the provincial government. Next week, Monique Taylor, NDP MPP for Hamilton Mountain will be re-introducing the a bill to this effect to replace the one that died when the legislature was prorogued last fall.


Anonymous said...

The only reason Orser wants the Ombudsman ousted is he is Fontana's whip man and this whole gang who met at Billy T's is really worried as to what the Ombudsman will find out and believe me it won't be good. I know where Billy T's is on Highbury and believe me they did not meet there by chance. It is way out in the boony's and if you blinked you would miss it. Stephen Orser should just keep his mouth shut, take his lumps and quit whinning. He is nothing but an embarrassment to city council and his ward.

A taxpayer said...

Thanks for this expose, Gina.

I see the fine hand of the Mayoral maestro orchestrating this attack, just as he organized the lunch at Billy T's. He has plenty of stooges to call on for various roles in his amateurish drama.

Orser, of course, is a walking, talking attack ad and master of chaos creation. He can raise havoc faster than a Fleming Drive keg party without even working up a sweat.

Sandy White is getting quite accomplished at playing the phoney race card for political purposes and Bud Polhill is always good for some kind of harrumph of bitter dissatisfaction.

Steve Garrison ought to be ashamed of his ignorance and willingness to be used so stupidly, but then, his Liberal roots run deep.

The mayor ought to remember however, that the smear campaign at the provincial level did not work.

Neither will Londoners be fooled by these crude, blatant tactics against the Ombudsman.

It is quite obvious who stands to gain by this attempt to degrade Mr. Marin.

R. Cain said...

Q. What are the opening odds on council's eventual vote to oust Mr. Marin?

R. Cain said...

Councillor No should be conflicted because if he toes the line he will be guilty of wasting taxpayers' money.

Vicki Van Linden said...

On one of the Dale TV episodes, Councillor Henderson suggests that the mayor should sit on the board of the local news paper. He seems to think that this would be an appropriate thing to happen.

One of the under-pinnings of a free democracy is a national press that is free of government interference. The fact that Henderson does not know or respect this is very disturbing.

The idea that members of any level of government should be able to fire the watchdog, rather than shaping up so that you don't need a watchdog, is also really disturbing.

We can't let Orser get away with this. Do please contact your councillor and do your best to make sure that this motion goes nowhere if Orser does bring it up.

I don't want to sound overly dramatic, but the next election will be critical for London and I hope that we will all remember how serious things have become. We need to work hard for good candidates. And, we need to provide support for those that still sit on council and are doing their best to keep things from deteriorating further.

Anonymous said...

Answer: City council does not have a chance of ousting the Ombudsman. It is only in their own tiny little minds they think they are so powerful they can do this.

T. Hard said...

What do you get when you combine a Steve Orser with a Dale Henderson?

Two soon-to-be-ex-councillors with video equipment and a junk truck.

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that most councillors don't know the difference between the Open Meetings that require either the free Ombudsman or a paid city staff member free from councillors' bullying; the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act (enforced by the courts); and the Code of Conduct (which may or may not be monitored by an Integrity Commissioner).

Anonymous said...

Do you think they really don't know the difference between an open meeting and back room dealings or do you think they just don't care. Nothing will happen to them if Andre Marin finds their meeting was illegal. All they are doing now is continuing to get their name in front of the voting public since most people who vote don't actually do any research or go to any of the debates. Surely the people of Ward 9 would NEVER have elected Henderson if they had actually heard him speak - he was his usual crazy self at the debates. They voted for him because of all his big signs. So, when your ward 4 constituent goes out to vote and the last thing he sees is his Steven Orser fridge magnet who do you think he will vote for if he doesn't follow politics? We need everyone in every ward to go out and help the candidate of their choice get elected. It is the only way to stop this.

Anonymous said...

We all know rhat these meetings occur all of the time and always have in all cities. A public lunch is a public lunch. Should we now count numbers ahaving lunch and dismiss anyone arriving over quarum. I think some people need to grow up. We all slso know how easy it is to encourage people to lodge a complaint. I don't take much stock into how many complaints ther were. Chris D.

Out to Lunch said...

To: Chris D. ~ You can hardly call a get-together in a private, pre-booked backroom at Billy T's Tap & Grill a "public lunch" by seven council members, including the mayor.

Toss in the fact it occurred Just a few days before the final budget meeting at city hall.

Lynne Swanson said...

Council voted against an Integrity Commissioner. Orser and others want to "fire" Ontario's Ombudsman.

Yet, several Councillors support a mayor who is facing criminal charges for fraud, forgery and breach of public trust.

What does that tell us?