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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, March 30, 2014

Sins of omission

There was plenty of indignation at Corporate Services Committee last week. And other places too.

The mayor was indignant because Councillor Joni Baechler had made “disingenuous and disparaging comments” about him and others on the radio that morning. In fact, all but five councillors had been implicated as not doing their homework, he stated. That seemed to include him as well. And she had said they were not deserving of a raise. They weren’t working as a team.

How could she say such a thing? he wondered out loud. There had been plenty of 15-0 votes. The last budget had been an 11-4 vote. They were indeed a team and had many accomplishments to show for it: an industrial land strategy, great economic initiatives. How could a member trash the team like
that? Even if she wasn’t running again. In fact, he wished she were running, he’d be happy to debate her, hold up his record against hers.

She had better apologize.

This tirade was the opening of the meeting in which they were looking to give themselves a raise, a measly raise of 1%, but a raise nonetheless, and it was giving them some discomfort. The last thing they needed was someone suggesting it wasn’t warranted. How then would they earn accolades for rejecting it? How can you get praise for giving up something you don’t deserve in the first place?
In any case, they all worked 24/7; it was a fulltime job even if it wasn’t classified as such. All those meetings and then events in the evening too, although not everyone went to them, the mayor noted. He knew. He had asked them to go.

It wasn’t the first time that a councillor had been critical of colleagues, Bud Polhill pointed out. But he wasn’t going to name any names. As for the pay raise, he had opposed an increase for the police so he wanted to be consistent; he would donate it to a charity if it was forced on him.

Harold Usher was indignant too. He hadn’t heard the radio broadcast but that didn’t stop him from holding an opinion about it. He had been called by someone—he didn’t say whom—who wondered why he wasn’t reading his reports and doing his homework. But he does! And he does a lot of other things too. He too wanted an apology if someone said or implied anything to the contrary.

Judy Bryant wasn’t really indignant; she just felt it was inappropriate for any of them to be talking about this. It wasn’t on the agenda, and the subject of the allegations wasn’t even there to defend herself!

Someone who was there, however, was Steven Orser, the drama queen, he who had recently advised a fellow councillor to “keep his snout” out of his ward. He likes to apologize too; it allows him to refer to the initial allegation. He had heard the original interview on Steve Garrison’s morning show. He didn’t think that what she had said was technically “deflamatory” (sic) in nature; it was more a violation of the code of conduct.

Councillor Joe Swan agreed. It was a pity they didn’t have a code of conduct. That was how this should be dealt with. And how was that coming along, anyway, he wondered, directing his question to the city clerk.

Council had already passed the code of conduct last fall, Cathy Saunders reminded him. What was still needed was an integrity commissioner. She had been working on it that very morning. They should have a report soon, in April or May.

Not a moment too soon either, considering that I had raised the matter at Board of Control back in 2007. But there had been a lot of foot dragging and opposition then which only became more pronounced with the new council. In fact, it was Swan who had informed staff, colleagues and the public that they didn’t need a babysitter, while Baechler kept pushing for a code of conduct and someone to enforce it. Her position had prevailed only after a series of newspaper stories about the mayor’s extracurricular activities had surfaced.

I too had heard the broadcast that morning, although only by way of a podcast after a series of tweets alerted me to the controversy.

Garrison had asked Baechler if council deserved a raise. She responded in no uncertain terms that no, they did not. Although there were some hardworking members at council, many didn’t read their reports or do their homework; they come to meetings unprepared. As a result, the meetings are not as productive as they should be and they can’t point to many accomplishments. It’s not good for decision-making. When pushed, she named a few members who, she felt, were working hard: Matt Brown, Paul Hubert, Nancy Branscombe, Judy Bryant came to mind. She could name others as well, she said. But as a collective, they hadn’t done well, hadn’t served the city well and were not deserving of a raise. They are assessed as a collective, that how things get done, not on the basis of their individual merit. So they didn’t deserve a raise.

Andy Oudman was in on the interview. He likes to prod interviewees into making extreme statements. Who weren’t doing their homework, he wanted to know. But Baechler didn’t bite. She again named some who did prepare for meetings. But, she pointed out, she often tweets “READ THE REPORT” when members insist on asking for information that is already in the report. “You figure it out,” she suggested.

And what about the mayor, Oudman wanted to know. Did he serve a raise?

Baechler didn’t hesitate. No, he didn’t. There were too many controversies about his conduct. And he couldn’t bring a fractious council together. That was his job as head of council.

Fontana shouldn’t have been hurt or even surprised by this. Wasn’t it Baechler who, only a year and a half ago, urged Fontana to step aside until the matter of the criminal charges against him were resolved?

As for working hard—and this is my opinion, not something mentioned by Baechler—I have no doubt that Fontana works hard. But meetings that he is in, whether as a member or the chair, tend to be long-winded and onerous, with lots of cross debate and confusion. It is always a breath of fresh air when he is away and the members can get down to business. It would make for an interesting piece of research, comparing the length of meetings with the mayor present to those he doesn’t attend. Unfortunately there are too few of the latter.

At this meeting, however, the mayor was present. Not present was Joni Baechler, the source of the indignation and the target of the uproar. She is not a member of the committee. But she did hear about the mayor’s remarks from the Twitterverse and off she went to city hall to deal with the allegations. She arrived at the meeting to ask to be allowed to speak. At the end of the meeting, she was told, but when the meeting was about to be adjourned, Usher, Swan and Polhill walked out. Quorum was lost; there was no meeting to speak to.

The media was there, however. 

“I’m being muzzled”, Baechler complained. The allegations against her had been made in public but she hadn’t been allowed to defend herself in public.

But surely Baechler didn’t say anything, even by omission, that the good citizens of London, or at least those who pay attention to such things, don’t already know. Those who watch from the public gallery shake their heads in disbelief at some of the ignorance that is promulgated by this council and the irrational decision-making that ensues. Council-made policies overridden, provincial legislation ignored, consultants’ reports rewritten, staff recommendations rejected.

And the ideas touted! Gunpowder-free cigarettes, commuter gondolas, a beach at the forks of the Thames, diapers for chickens, monetary incentives to return discarded needles, a more than doubled expense account for fridge magnets and DaleTV. No wonder it has been dubbed the Worst. Council. Ever.

Council members who don’t read their agendas is nothing new. When I was on Board of Control, one or two members would often be seen opening their agenda envelopes as they entered the meeting room. But, being experienced, they were either able to fake it or kept quiet until they figured out what it was about.

The current crew has no such inhibitions. They ask questions that have been answered not only in the report but also in the staff presentation on the report. When staff answer such a question, the same question is raised again by the same speaker or by someone else who wasn’t paying attention. Some spend more time out of their seats than in them. Others give the same ideological speech regardless of what the issue is on the table. Still others spend their time chastising their colleagues, staff and the public for presumed errors and injustices. How staff members can say, “The councillor makes a good point…” is beyond understanding. Sometimes they haven’t.

These things have happened and continue to happen on council and at committee meetings. A sensible question at planning committee, except by Hubert, is a rarity. Fortunately, the others don’t say much unless the mayor is there to let them know what he wants. He has done his homework. He knows what he wants. And what he wants is to make the applicant happy. Forget the rules, the policies, the impacts. All they do is hinder GROWTH.

But other members of council who do their reading and research, who understand the implications, who work on behalf on their constituents, are supposed to not notice this. They are to pretend that everyone is working hard, that everyone understands the issues, that everyone is acting on behalf of their constituents. No one should cry, “The emperor has no clothes.”

No doubt the matter will be taken up at council next Tuesday. Baechler has received lots of support from her constituents. How much support she will receive from those she didn’t name as hardworking remains to be seen. It should be an interesting meeting.

Stay tuned.


John Swales said...

Excellent Gina!

Carmi Levy said...

Amen. To every word. Can we force everyone at 300 Dufferin to read this?

erainia said...

The nerve of that Joni stating her opinion like that. Whatever is this city coming to?? Sounds like an uppity woman to me. Joe is going to stand his record against hers? That I would like to see! Last I heard, she was not facing charges under the Criminal Code! Smokin' Joe, and the good ole boys and cronies, all huffing and puffing indignantly while the city crumbles around us with no money spent to repair anything for years! What was it my Grandmother used to say, "None proclaims innocence so loudly as the guilty". Joni was one of the few on council who cared about this city. It is a loss to all of us that she is leaving.

Anonymous said...

Beachler works hard. No one can say otherwise. She will be missed. Branscombe too. Other councilors work hard too. Some have been around too long. Most economic strategies are last century ideas. Urban sprawl and shopping centers. Sad. We need term limits as much as a code of conduct. Are there young people running? Young people who can read agendas? Young people who want more from life than a job at Walmart?

Anonymous said...

Hey, of course the mayor tends to be long-winded and onerous. Firstly, it's his (and my) heritage; Secondly he enahnced these traits as a federal politician