Let the games begin. Football in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Olympics in Sochi, Russia, municipal elections in London Ontario.
Although there are nearly nine months to go for the last of these, the posturing has already begun. It’s evident at council and in the media: councillors becoming surprisingly reasonable or outrageous, voting unpredictable, alliances shifting, as incumbents and wannabees assess the hurdles and opportunities on the way to October 27. And for at least one councillor, the drop dead date may arrive even earlier as rumours of a spring election swirl around Queen’s Park.
How else to explain what we have been witnessing over the last few weeks? Armstrong vs Polhill. Orser vs Hubert. Branscombe vs her own record on planning.
One thing that is clear is that the gang of eight, which according to Dale Henderson ruled London, rule no more. The defection of Denise Brown last year, followed by the Billy T’s fiasco and the legal bills that followed, put paid to that. Now it’s everyman for himself and the devil take the hindmost.
It’s taking its toll on our mayor. Throughout the past year and a half he has shown remarkable resilience and resolve as he weathered the shutdown of his multimillion dollar “charity”, the criminal charges involving fraud and violations of public trust, the civil suit from a former employee, and the public scorn for failure to fulfill his campaign promise of jobs, jobs, jobs.
But his state of the city address at the mayor’s breakfast said it all. Lacklustre and teleprompted, he recited a list of accomplishments most of which had been initiated by a previous council: Dr. Oetker, the Fanshawe College downtown campus, Skate Canada, the expanded airport, the yet to be built interchanges, the Southwest Area Plan. But London was still the greatest city in the world; all we have to do is believe. From what I could hear, the reception was muted and polite. This is London, after all, and we are nothing if not polite. At least, most of us.
At council, too, the dynamics have changed. With three years under his belt as a councillor, Matt Brown has thrown down the gauntlet. Although his announcement of seeking the mayor’s seat was somewhat underwhelming, Brown’s new position as the challenger makes him a force to be reckoned with. He is politically astute as well as ambitious. He has been handed a golden opportunity long before he could have expected it. Who would have thought that, after losing the nomination for the London West Liberal federal riding association to Doug Ferguson three years ago, and settling for second prize as the Ward 7 councillor, the forty-year-old schoolteacher would be a serious contender for the mayoralty?
That’s muted some of the disparaging remarks of earlier days, remarks like that of Joe Swan referring to Brown as “the junior councillor”. After all, most of those on council hope to be re-elected. You don’t want to unnecessarily denigrate someone you may be your leader in the near future. Still, that didn’t stop Sandy White from complaining that Matt Brown was staring at her while she was making remarks at the latest meeting of Strategic Priorities and Policy dealing with the budget. Brown quickly apologized; he was looking at her because he was paying attention to what she was saying, he explained.
It’s a no win situation. Frequently, White complains because people, including the mayor, aren’t paying attention to her when she speaks; when they do, she sees it as harassment.
But White herself has attempted to change her behaviour. Although many of her comments at committee and council meetings still consist of complaints and blandishments about and toward specific individuals, she seems to have put more effort into following the debate and raising the odd relevant question or observation. It just takes a lot of effort on the part of the listener to decipher them and they are rarely followed by action except to ask that people think about that or keep it in mind. Occasionally she will request a report, no hurry. So nothing happens.
But White is worried. She won the 2010 election with a lot of developer money. She has certainly delivered her own votes on planning matters to developers, but that’s no guarantee. The last time there were six contenders in total, five of whom were within a few hundred votes of each other. This time around, Jared Zaifman, who lost to her by a mere 116 votes, is running again. With a master’s degree in public administration, a respected developer family, and an engaging manner, he is likely to give her a run for her money.
Interestingly, White and Zaifman share an address. But before anyone gets too excited, it should be noted that the address is in the ward and for mailing purposes only. Neither actually lives in the ward they hope to represent. But then, since neither Dale Henderson or the mayor actually lives in the city, that may seem like a small matter.
When it comes to planning and development, Joni Baechler’s successful bid to chair the Planning and Environment Committee has certainly had a positive impact on the functioning of that committee and the council. Gone are the endless meetings and vague explanations for committee decisions. She knows the rules and has read the reports. Not much escapes her. She recognizes NIMBY when it appears before her and gives it short shrift.
And NIMBY did indeed rear its ugly head last week with some blatant pandering for votes by Ward 2 Councillor Bill Armstrong who argued that the development of a 14 unit single story apartment building to provide housing for adults with special needs, in this case, adults with autism spectrum disorder. The building would be on Clarke Road, a major arterial road at the east of the city. The building would be separated from the residential neighbourhood by privacy fencing and landscaping. The application had been there before but had been sent back for some modifications. But the changes failed to appease the residents who appeared at the public participation meeting. They wanted none of it. They were all “fearful of what would happen to their community if this building was allowed to go forward.”
Armstrong, who has been a strong proponent for affordable housing in the past, began trying to pick apart the proposal. Who were these people who were going to build this? Were they incorporated? Where would they get the money? What about the water that would run off the roof of this building? Every spring there were flooding problems.
Baechler pointed out that adequate drainage is part of the site plan; it’s the same for every application. Water has to be retained on the property. The means used vary, depending on the situation. As for who would own and occupy the property, the city does not assess their financial means. A reputable developer was making the application for the zoning amendment. Under Baechler’s competent guidance, the committee supported the application unanimously.
But when the matter came to council, Armstrong made the same arguments against the proposal. Curiously, although she did not speak against the application, Branscombe too voted against the staff and the committee’s recommendation. Curious because normally she and Baechler see eye to eye on matters of development. Curious too because normally a councillor would not vote against a committee recommendation without giving reason for doing so and trying to convince others of her position. But an election may be just around the corner.
Armstrong too has his concerns about the election looming ahead. Bud Polhill’s son has run against him twice and he’s been catching up. In 2010, Steve Polhill lost to him by exactly 300 votes; that’s too close for comfort. A third contender had garnered just under 300 votes. But what if it is to be just the two of them this time around? Or what if a third contender took votes from him, rather than diluting Polhill’s votes?
The competition between them has been fierce, mostly taking the form of hostility between Armstrong and Bud Polhill, the latter anxious to ensure the Polhill legacy to the city. Most recently, we were treated to the sight of the two fighting over the noise wall along the Veteran’s Memorial Parkway, both desperately wanting it as an election offering to the residents but neither willing to allow the other to take any credit. At the zero hour, Bud Polhill declared that he couldn’t support what he had already agreed to because the motion indicated a “wooden” fence and in his opinion, wooden fences turned black and were ugly.
"Both councillors are well-intentioned," Joe Swan observed as they were squabbling about this.
Maybe. But not toward each other.
And so it goes. Intense competition does not tend to bring out the best in people. At week’s end, we were treated to an account of events at a community meeting in the east end, a task force established to deal with matters of safety.
It’s Ward 4, Stephen Orser territory. He’s been pushing for cameras to deal with street crime. In his mind, it’s the only solution. However, the task force was established to deal with issues of community safety more generally and, in this initial meeting, the members were there to establish their terms of reference and discuss their definitions of safety. At one of the tables was Ward 8 Councillor Paul Hubert.
What was he doing there, especially after Orser had told him at a recent council meeting in no uncertain terms to “keep your snout out of my ward”?
Well, Hubert was doing his job. He’s the city council representative on the Business Improvement Association, a position that should have been assumed by Orser, but he refuses to take it. In fact, he has butted head with members of the BIA and he thinks it should be disappeared.
A good friend of Orser’s was at the same table, a Fiona Graham who has filed papers to run as a candidate in Ward 13 and who has a reputation for being difficult. According to witnesses at the meeting, including at the table. Graham wanted to hijack the agenda by talking about getting rid of social service agencies in the area and installing CCTV. Hubert reminded her that that topic would be appropriate later, right now they had to focus on the task at hand. Apparently, Graham flounced off, went over to the table where Orser was sitting, and together with another participant left the room. No voices were raised, according to other participants.
Yet we were treated to an article in the Free Press the following morning which reported that Graham was alleging that Hubert had yelled at her and attacked her verbally. She wanted him removed from the task force and made that request in a letter that Orser hand delivered to the city clerk. It’s a mystery how the London Free Press learned of it.
And so the games begin.