Now why would high priced lawyers make a trek from Toronto to London to witness a media conference, you may ask. Who is going to pay for that?
I answered that question in the song that I wrote at the time, Ode to Billy T. The last two lines are:
But the Bay Street lawyers that they hired don’t agree.
And they’re the ones whose bills are paid by you and me.
Pay for them we will, it appears. On the agenda of the Corporate Services Committee for Tuesday is a simple statement: “The full cost of outside legal counsel provided to the seven Members of Council interviewed by the Ombudsman was $97,148.31, including HST.”
Maybe in a billion dollar budget $100K doesn't sound like much, but it's money that would go some distance to clearing snow from sidewalks or filling in some of the many potholes in our roads. And that from a contingent of councillors who pride themselves on pinching pennies and keeping taxes low.
It didn't even create any of the touted 10,000 jobs. Not trusting local talent to represent them, they hired the most expensive out of town solicitors they could find. And of course, city legal staff couldn't help them; after all, city employees work for the interests of the city, not those of councillors run amok.
How did they get those lawyers? And why did they need them? Or did they?
Now that the figure is out, councillors are running for cover, hiding behind a group decision. Harold Usher, not one of the seven or Ate, suggests that it was a decision of council, nobody's fault. What he failed to mention was that he was one of those who, while not part of the illicit meeting, supported providing independent legal counsel at taxpayers' expense.
Joe Swan, who made his debut at the second meeting while passing on the previous one at the Harmony Grand Buffet, argues that this is simply part of indemnification. Not really. Indemnification protects council in the normal conduct of council business, not illegal meetings or, as they claim, just a little social get together.
And why did they need legal counsel in any case?
All seven—Fontana, Polhill, Swan, Orser, Henderson, VanMeerbergen and White—claimed that they were there by chance, that they didn't discuss city business, that the occasion was strictly social. It was an unlikely story, given that some used or asked to use a back entrance to a previously booked private room in a restaurant far off the beaten path on a weekend afternoon. They were planning surprise parties and meeting constituents, or just dropping in for lunch, they claimed. But when they learned the London Free Press had been called, they quickly got the hell out of there.
When word got out to the public, complaints started flooding the ombudsman's office, 60 in all. You can't blame people for being miffed. After all, we went through the same scenario a year earlier and three intrepid citizens filed complaints at that time about the lunch involving six of the Fontana 8 just hours before a crucial budget vote. And now here we were with five of the six, plus two more, the weekend before the crucial vote. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me, the complainants must have thought. By now, they knew whom to call.
It is the job of the ombudsman to check out complaints about secret meetings involving municipal elected officials. There are rules prohibiting them. After looking at the complaints and doing a little checking, the ombudsman decides whether an investigation is warranted. That involves talking to the people involved and anyone else who may have some relevant information. All interviews are confidential. When all the information has been assembled, the ombudsman writes a report on his findings, indicating whether or not the complaints have been substantiated, and if so, remedial action that should be undertaken to avoid future violations. Knuckles may be rapped, but nobody gets fined or goes to jail.
When the meeting had taken place at the Grand Harmony Buffet two years ago, Andre Marin, the ombudsman, had declared that gathering to be “ill-conceived but not illegal”, but advised council to pull up its socks so there wouldn't be a repetition. But here they were again.
And the stories! Everyone involved had a different version, about why they were there and what was discussed. And not just for the ombudsman. They talked on radio, too. And they had made phone calls to each other, many phone calls, before the meeting and after it broke up so suddenly. The records were all there, who they called and for how long they talked. Denials became excuses, stories and recollections changed. What to believe?
Marin decided that, since the stories conflicted and changed so much, his investigators had to return a second time. This time, the seven would be put under oath.
It was a scary thought for some. Orser, who had been calling for Marin's head, got panicky. He wanted a transcript of his previous statements but was told he couldn't have it before the interview. He would be allowed to look at it at the time of the interview. That made it hard to prepare. He wanted a lawyer.
They had talked about lawyers when they got in trouble the first time but hadn't actually used them. This time, Orser again led the charge, demanding he have legal representation. Others immediately followed suit and, quick as you can say "in camera meeting", they were all looked after. But not before Orser, realizing that this might not look all that good on his campaign literature, decided to vote against the motion he had initiated.
He was one of four who did so, the other three being Joni Baechler, Matt Brown and Paul Hubert. Nancy Branscombe was absent. The motion passed 10-4. Why Bill Armstrong, Harold Usher, Denise Brown and Judy Bryant supported it is hard to say. However, they did, and with the addition of the Billy T's lunch club vote, you and I are $100,000 the poorer for it. The record suggests that all seven voted on themselves as well as each other. The matter was settled with a single vote.
On the news, Orser declared he was sorry, sorry for starting this whole lawyer thing. I swear, he was tearing up as he proclaimed his regrets.
It's not the first time. He likes to stir things up, hold up diapers for chickens or pictures of swastikas, accuse fellow councillors of sticking their snouts in his ward. He gets a lot of attention. Then he says he's sorry. He's our own Rob Ford.
Not sorry enough to pay his own costs, mind you. I haven't heard of any of them offering to do that.
Sandy White, who had her own turn at being sorry some months ago, is belligerent. To her, the $100K is just a distraction; all the fuss is interfering with the important issues that council needs to focus on. Whatever those issues are, obviously they are not about honesty, integrity or respect for the taxpayers' dollars.
As for the ombudsman, he is clear that they didn't need lawyers. He put them under oath only because he needed to get a straight story from them and it hadn't happened to that point. He has no power to punish, only chastise. His decision can't even stop them from seeking re-election.
It makes for a rocky start for the Fontana Ate most, if not all, of whom are seeking your vote next October. “I'm sorry,” is not a good sound bite or campaign slogan.
But it's a field day for the media whether print or online newspaper, radio or TV. And, hey, even bloggers deserve a little bit of fun once in a while.