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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."

Sunday, July 28, 2013

"Be careful. Be very, very careful."

It looks like a relatively lengthy agenda for the council meeting on Tuesday but that's to be expected when councillors go on a summer schedule and meet half as frequently as during the rest of the year. But perhaps some of them will be anxious to get to their families or cottages and keep the issues they raise and the remarks that they make to a minimum.

It's not as if there hasn't been time to hear the arguments at the committee stage. However, not all councillors are present at every meeting and some may take issue with the recommendations made. Some items that are rubber stamped by the committee may be cause for comment and debate at the full council meeting, and some matters have not been fully resolved by appropriate committee and will require a last minute meeting before the issue goes to the full council.

The controversy surrounding Neighbourhood Watch London (NWL) falls into this last category and the Community and Protective Services Committee (CPSC) is planning a last minute conflab to obtain additional information about its status before releasing the money that council has set aside for it.

Apparently, it came as no surprise to CPS members that there was trouble in NWL paradise. There had been a lot of emails and one or two had even attended its meetings.

Neighbourhood Watch is a national brand which in London has just celebrated its 30th anniversary.
Who hasn't seen the blue and white signs at the entrance to a community pronouncing it to be a Neighbourhood Watch community? According to the website, over 450 neighbourhoods encompassing about 30,000 London households participate in NWL.

The basic concept behind Neighbourhood Watch is that crime can be prevented if neighbours connect with one another and inform each other of any unusual activity on the street. The focus has been on property crime, particularly home and automobile break-ins. There has also been an emphasis on cleaning up graffiti and there is a recently introduced Business Watch program. NWL liaises with the local police force, exchanging information about property crime.

That kind of effort requires some coordination and funding. To handle this, a five person board of directors is chosen by the "affiliate" membership. The board hires an executive director and an administrator. They are paid out of an annual $97,000 grant from the city as well as any other donations and sponsorships they can muster as a registered non-profit organization.

But there have been problems at NWL. Last year, an executive director went on maternity leave. Shortly after her return, she was terminated. She filed a wrongful dismissal suit, claiming that her dismissal was a result of her asking too many questions about policies, including financial policies, drafted in her absence which had not been approved by the membership. Apparently, one or more board members “filled in” for the executive director and paid themselves in violation of the by-laws; they simply drafted new by-laws to cover the “emergency” situation. Both city staff and councillors were alerted about the concerns but no action was taken.

Things came to a head in April of this year when the board held an annual general meeting but failed to provide a financial statement or an auditor's report. That meeting eventually led to another at which members voted unanimously to kick out the board. The board, for its part, decided that the meeting was not legitimate because the board hadn't called it. At a subsequent meeting, members appointed a board of inquiry to investigate the situation.

Things went from bad to worse. The board chair humiliated a staff member by circulating a printout of her personal Facebook page. He went to the police claiming that a volunteer coordinator had used an email circulation list of other volunteers without authorization. She had used it to alert other members to her concerns about what was going on. He was informed that it was not a police matter and would not be investigated. A well-respected board member resigned. Then a conscientious administrator did likewise claiming board interference and harassment.

The money that the city provides is paid in quarterly instalments. The issue before the committee was whether or not the instalment should be paid. Staff recommended that it should be. None of the foregoing concerns were mentioned in the report to the committee members.

Then, minutes before the CPSC meetings was to take place, Lynne Livingstone, managing director of community services and neighbourhood and children's services received an email. Apparently, the entire board of directors had resigned.

The committee decided to deal with this bit of news behind closed doors. What to do?

That indeed was the question when they emerged for the public meeting. Staff had recommended releasing the funds pending an acceptable midyear report which wouldn't be available until the end of the month. But that was before the latest bombshell.

Joni Baechler pointed out that NWL along with Block Parents provide a valuable crime prevention function with lots of volunteers. Would it not make sense to refer this back to staff to get these organizations together with Pillar, an umbrella organization of nonprofits, to see how they might work together to deliver the service? That would be her suggestion. The mayor seconded the motion.

But Bill Armstrong wondered about the legal status of the organization. If the board of directors had all resigned, whom would they deal with? What was the legal entity? Perhaps they should wait to see if another board would be appointed.

The mayor was impatient. Neighbourhood Watch was an “incredible organization”, he acknowledged, but it could take three or six moths to straighten it out.

“We should take it over,” he urged. Terminate it or fix it. It needed to be reconstructed “from the ground up.”

Both Livingstone and solicitor David Mounteer advised caution. The relationship between the city and Neighbourhood Watch London was a financial one. They had a service agreement. To get involved in the internal functioning of the organization was a recipe for disaster, Mounteer warned. 

“Be careful. Be very, very careful,” he said.

Harold Usher had received a lot of emails about this. It was a “sticky situation.” The organization seemed to be “falling apart” and “melting at the seams.” Perhaps they should wipe the slate clean, stop the funding.

Livingstone offered a possible option: they could terminate the agreement and then bring the appropriate players together to create a new service which could then be submitted to the 2014 budget process. But since the two staff members were dependent on the city funds for their pay cheques, the impact on them should also be considered.

And losing the board and staff would leave the coordinators, the volunteers, in limbo, Usher pointed out.

Committee chair Denise Brown interjected that she had been in communication with someone who had told her that there were in fact four board members. Who they were and how they got to be board members was unclear.

Baechler dismissed this piece of intelligence. They had a report from staff that the board had resigned, that was what they had to go by. She hadn't been able to find a copy of their bylaws and how they would replace board members, but Neighbourhood Watch, in her opinion, was still functioning. Someone was in the office, someone was answering the phone. She didn't want to revoke the payment. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of volunteers, that were part of a national brand. They should flow some dollars but attach strings. The dysfunction couldn't continue. They should get Pillar to help them.

The mayor, who had seconded her original motion, agreed. But, he noted, they were getting conflicting information and they hadn't received the requisite reports. There was no hurry. They could wait until next week, table it to a special meeting one hour before council. Then they could get all the facts.

For once, he was being careful, very, very careful.


Chris McDonald said...

Is there any particular reason why right now I feel almost as if I was reading a very, very bad novel with an even worse plot line?

This whole thing seems a bit "crazy".

Anonymous said...

About time the mayor started being careful.

Could it be that, as with the Blue Jays, there's still hope for a little sanity?

Andrew Castaneda said...

I have followed this Neighbourhood Watch drama for a few months now, and have been disgusted by some of what has come out in the media; clandestine board members and their arbitrary, self-interested decisions, juvenile in-fighting, and the culmination into the use of a person's own social media post against her to question her suitability for involvement in this semi-legitimate organization.
Neighbourhood Watch now is a pathetic distortion of a good idea; it is the bureaucratization of a notion that strengthened communities. What seemingly was lost was the inclusiveness they represented; no longer an amalgam of concerned neighbours, NW's such as this have become ways for neighbourhood cliques to 'legitimize' themselves (and make some money in the process).
A true 'neighbourhood watch' doesn't need a board filled with anonymous suburban drones, it doesn't need an office (seriously, why do they have an office that employs people?) and it doesn't need funding for much else other than ensuring that those wishing to contribute to neighbourhood safety can do so safely and effectively. Nearly any expenses, at face value, are frivolous, even with documentation (a formality done away with a few times, it seems).
The boogeyman response is 1000% invalid, especially in the suburbs, where the risk of real crime is next to none statistically (it's mostly petty property crime). As for some of London's rougher neighbourhoods, it shouldn't be left to residents to police their community; that's why we overpay our police.
It is my recommendation to all involved on behalf of NWL, who are resisting change, that they grow up and shut up. This is people in the real world telling you that you're wasting time and misappropriating money under the guise of 'providing security', while bastardizing an idea proven to strengthen communities. You are a source of instability, not security, and Londoners deserve much better.
As for the use of one's social media against them; I was absolutely disgusted that an adult felt this was a suitable course of action; this event only highlighted the small minds we are talking about in this matter.
That they are being given tax dollars in a city where we can't even be bothered to use those for accessibility retrofits and affordable housing morally and intellectually offends me.

Anonymous said...

Is was more interested in the Civic Works Cte where waste management was discussed again. Is the Mayor still involved in the business that he was sued for not paying that guy from Romania?