Welcome to London Civic Watch

"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."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The honeymoon is over

Yes indeed. The honeymoon is over.

The honeymoon for the Fontana 8 that is.

Originally composed of the mayor and the councillors from Wards 1, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, and 14, it was clear the alliance was in trouble with the defection of Denise Brown, the councillor from Ward 11. She had been a Fontana stalwart, even voting to support the mayor in his determination to continue in the job despite the criminal charges facing him, but it seems that the tongue lashing from the Ombudsman over the first dubious pre-budget meeting which she had organized, and the CRA crackdown on the mayor's “charity”, had given her pause for thought. She no longer trusted his judgement or his leadership.

That left the mayor with Bud Polhill, Joe Swan, Steve Orser, Dale Henderson, Paul VanMeerbergen, and Sandy White, not an auspicious bunch with which to work. On the other hand, from time to time Harold Usher or Bill Armstrong have been happy to jump in where Denise Brown left off. It's heady, having your colleagues court you as you hold the power of the deciding vote.

But now, with every vote at stake, every former member of the Fontana 8 is facing a dilemma. If you don't have a majority on council, why bother kowtowing to the leader? An election is imminent; pretty soon people will start to pay attention to what you're saying and doing and even how you're voting. It's time to look out for numero uno.

That's true for the mayor, too. While he had seven in tow, he could afford to humour the weaker elements. So what if Ward 9 Dale Henderson's spur of the moment motions were incomprehensible? He could give him a helping hand, put a few words in his mouth and on the record, no harm done. Henderson's vote could be counted on in the long run, at council, in a close vote.

All that ended at Monday's Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee IEPC) meeting.

“Don't give me any more shit, Dale,” an exasperated Joe Fontana said to Henderson who had expressed reluctance to support handing over $50,000 to Sunfest so that it could extend its four day summer festival to five days in celebration of its 20th anniversary.

Henderson had wondered why Sunfest couldn't simply take advantage of a “City of London” day at the Budweiser. It was a freebie, after all. Why should the city taxpayers be handing over $70,000 to Sunfest when there was an opportunity to charge admission at the Bud and make a few bucks? Besides, Sunfest was getting all kinds of supports and grants from other levels of government as well as the odd contribution from the private sector.

Promoter and member of the board of directors Don Mumford pointed out that Sunfest does have private sponsors and about half of its proceeds come from the rents paid by vendors at the event. But think of the contribution that Sunfest makes to the local economy! A quarter of a million visits to the event, many of them from out of town. It's a destination event, filling up hotels, restaurants and retail outlets.

Although Henderson, as committee chairperson Joe Swan pointed out, was wrong about the $70,000 given to Sunfest by the city each year—it's only $17,000—he was not alone in his skepticism. Ward 10's Paul VanMeerbergen had difficulty with the prospect of seeing money go to a nonprofit, even if it does have charitable status. The taxpayers had made it clear they wanted a tax freeze, he contended. Fifty thousand for a festival would be hard for them to swallow. He would be prepared to refer that to the budget discussion but not, as the mayor had suggested at the outset, support the idea, not even in principle.

Traditionally, Henderson and VanMeerbergen have been two of the mayor's strong allies, rarely departing from his wishes, especially if the outcome is less than predictable.

It was frustrating for the mayor and the committee chair. This should have been a slam dunk.

Fontana, as he usually does at committee meetings, had tried to set the tone at the outset. As an MP, he had handed over the first government cheque to Sunfest, a cheque for $5,000. And look at it now! A quarter of a million visitors! London was certainly getting it's money's worth with its current $25,000 investment, $7,000 of which it took back in fees. It highlighted the city's diversity. Some of the best music comes for free. That meant they had to look to the longer-term sustainability of the festival. Of course, the matter had to be referred to the budget process as part of CAIP 1 funding but they could support it right now in principle.

CAIP 1 funding refers to Community Arts Investment Program. Each year the city sets aside about $1 million to help with the operating costs of heavy duty cultural organizations, traditionally the Grand Theatre and Orchestra London. But, in order to qualify, the organization must operate in the black and not have an excess of debt. A few years ago, Orchestra London lost its CAIP 1 funding when it asked the city to guarantee a half million dollar line of credit. Now, it receives what was the CAIP 1 funding by a special motion of council.

Joe Swan is the executive director of Orchestra London. One would think that, since his pay cheque is in part dependent on the Orchestra getting its accustomed funding which comes from the CAIP 1 stream, he would declare a conflict of interest on this item. After all, sending the Sunfest request off to CAIP 1 puts it into competition with other contenders.

However, Swan apparently thought differently and continued to chair the meeting and vote on the motion.

Matt Brown, freshly re-elected as vice-chair of the committee and widely rumoured to be running for mayor in the new year, was circumspect. He supported the festival; after all, 200,000 people couldn't be wrong, but he wanted to know where the money was coming from. Weren't there time-lines in connection with CAIP 1 funding?

Yes there were, in fact. The deadline was more than a month earlier. But, as Mumford pointed out, they weren't looking for long-term funding, just $50,000 for this one-day one-time event.

But that deadline of August 31st, too, had been passed. And even then, Sunfest would be in competition with six or seven or organizations that had filed their requests in time. Not that there was any money in any case. As VanMeerbergen had stressed, money was tight. As it is bound to be when you have a tax freeze and costs keep rising.

Fontana was frustrated. An election year is on the horizon and he has plenty of baggage without adding recalcitrant councillors to the list. He needs to be seen as supporting the arts community. His followers can't be marching to a different drummer. He was sick and tired of the naysayers.

“Give your heads a shake,” he expostulated. This was what economic prosperity was all about. It was an incredible investment in an incredible plan with incredible musicians. Eleven thousand Londoners were employed in the arts community. Look at how we can build a city.

Then came the excremental injunction to Henderson, who, for his part, suggested that it might be equally effective to simply hand out $50,000 on the street to stimulate spending. Just not quite that articulately.

So it seems the honeymoon is over. But breaking up is hard to do.Getting the divorce may take a little longer.

When the vote was called, all supported the motion to refer the matter to the 2014 budget. The “principle” of the matter was not invoked.


R. Cain said...

I used to be hooked on Coronation Street.
But who needs fictitious soap operas when this council is the real deal?

Bob Downer, Pres., Byron Pessimist Club said...

I was just saying to my lovely wife, Moana: All this drama at the
committee reminds me of a song that London's best ever morning man, Peter Garland, used to sing in his "Whiskey Trucker" persona:

"There's a three and two call in our love, dear

And I'm afraid you're gonna take a walk."

Anonymous said...

While it is true that the Mayor's comment to Henderson used inappropriate language, it did sum up exactly what I have often thought when I hear Henderson speak.

No more of this populist nonsense at election times. Voting for populists who run on simplistic tax freeze platforms gets us people like Henderson.

Anonymous said...

I like sunfest as much as the next person but why do the dolts at the horsehoe (more like horses' you know what) ask, where do your numbers come from. Except for JoFo who makes up numbers with the best of them, why should we believe the claim of 200 thousand visitors and many from out of town? There are no tickets sold so there is no way to figure how many are there and how many are repeat visits on each day (are there overnight stays?) It is all a guess. Just like the proported job figures, no one audits these things yet Council assumes they are real numbers. No wonder we are screwed.