It had started off well enough, the first city council meeting with the new mayor, Joni Baechler, at the helm. Baechler took advantage of her new position to make a few opening remarks. She had heard loud and clear that the citizens of London Ontario wanted better behaviour from their council, more cooperation, less sniping. They wanted councillors to show respect for the staff, the public and each other. She hoped they could all keep this in mind as they dealt with some controversial matters before them that evening. Her remarks drew enthusiastic applause from the public gallery.
And, for a short time, they did. When voicing her concern about what might happen with the $70M from cashing in the Hydro London promissory note, Nancy Branscombe, who is noted for her blunt style, quickly rephrased her hope that councillors wouldn’t “do stupid stuff” to “make unwise decisions”.
Her quick revision created a bit of much needed levity. The atmosphere was tense.
I had heard that a significant contingent, make that the members of the former Fontana 8, were not happy with the new leadership and were looking for opportunities to undermine it. It had, after all, been a close vote.
It didn’t take long to discover where the leadership of the dissension lay—with none other than the disgraced former mayor’s closest ally, Joe Swan.
Swan’s mayoralty ambitions come as no surprise. Back in the summer of 2010, he had convened a meeting with a dozen or so politically inclined members of the community to ask them what they thought of him running to be mayor.
They had not been encouraging, and he had not been particularly pleased. He really wanted to run and he wanted their support. They, however, suggested he should go for a ward seat and then try in four years. He hadn’t been impressed with that advice, but then came the announcement from Bernie MacDonald that he wouldn’t seek re-election. Swan quickly discovered a connection to Ward 3 and offered himself to the voters. He won by a margin of 352 votes garnering 33.7% of those cast in a seven person race.
Back to the present. The showdown at council arrived all too quickly when the matter of giving Fanshawe College an additional $10M so that it could purchase and expand the iconic Kingsmill Building to house 1,000 additional students and their programs downtown came forward. Swan had been opposed to the proposal at the committee stage, in part because he felt snubbed that the matter hadn’t been submitted to the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee which he chairs. Instead, it had gone to the Corporate and Administrative Committee chaired by Mayor Baechler where it was warmly endorsed by the director of planning, the city treasurer, the city manager, Downtown London, the Chamber of Commerce and four out of five of the committee members. Everyone except Swan.
Swan had made his opposition known at the committee the preceding week. He wasted no time in lining up his support.
The motion to accept the Fanshawe proposal was put forward by vice-chair, Judy Bryant who pointed out the benefits to the city of having Fanshawe expand its programs downtown. It would save an historic building, it would double the value of the original $20M investment already made, it would liven up the downtown and generate spin-off economic activity.
It was a fabulous opportunity to invest in a sure thing; Fanshawe wouldn't be pulling up stakes and leaving town for sunnier climes any time soon. Fanshawe had already proven what it could do. This wasn’t a new proposal; it was an expansion of one already endorsed by council in 2011. The city had asked Fanshawe to create a downtown campus in heritage buildings and had offered to assist with the renovation costs.
Stephen Orser kicked it off. He wanted to refer the report back and use the money instead to save Lorne Ave School. A school here, a school there, they were interchangeable. The mayor ruled the motion out of order; it was contrary to the original motion. Orser scrambled to find something else. Eventually, he settled on referring it back to consider other educational uses including Fanshawe College.
Bud Polhill, who had supported the Fanshawe request at committee, quickly seconded the motion. He had changed his mind again, he said. He still supported the Fanshawe proposal but he thought maybe the province should be hit up first for financial support. He would have to vote against the proposal for the time being.
There followed some discussion of whether the referral motion was in order. Swan came to the rescue.
He wanted to break through the logjam. Their problem for three and a half years, he announced sadly, had been their inability to get things done because of wedge politics. People were trying to bend the rules and push stuff through without going through the proper procedures and channels, just to get their own way. They pitted councillors against each other.
And here was the perfect example. This should have gone through his committee but he had been circumvented. He would have pointed out that the province to date had only kicked in $6M for the Fanshawe Downtown Campus.
“We can do better,” he cried. “We’re not in the school building business.” The cost was too high, the province wasn’t interested, heritage would still be lost. All they would have was a façade, and facades are false heritage. He didn’t like the fact that Fanshawe had put out a press release about the deal with Kingsmill before it got to council. They should forget it and let a tax generating enterprise take it on.
What that would be, he didn’t say, but word has it that Shmuel Farhi has expressed interest in acquiring Kingsmill’s. And why not? It would be lovely to round out his collection of London heritage buildings. He would probably be happy to fix it up himself and rent it to Fanshawe, just as he had done with the Capitol Theatre, which the city agreed to rent for 20 years at an exorbitant rate.
And Farhi is a generous benefactor at election time.
The money wasn’t at issue, Bryant pointed out. It was there in the reserves. That’s what the reserves were there for, and this was a golden opportunity.
Bill Armstrong didn’t care if the money was there. He was a great supporter of the downtown, he claimed but it was a lot of money; he wouldn’t be supporting it. What he would be supporting, although he didn’t say so at the time, was the candidacy of Swan for mayor. And Swan had chosen the Fanshawe proposal to flex his muscles at his soon to be mayoralty rival, Matt Brown. He had to show that he, Swan, could swing votes his way, and that Brown couldn’t get his projects supported.
Branscombe was clear: she didn’t want to miss out on this opportunity for invigorating the downtown and job creation. She would vote down the referral. Decision time was now. Agreeing with her was Harold Usher, although he still believed that the whole motion to refer should be ruled out of order.
Unfortunately, the city clerk did not concur with that view.
Matt Brown tried to steer the discussion back to the issue. The downtown was London’s calling card to the world, he pointed out. This proposal fit in perfectly with Council's Strategic Plan, the Downtown Master plan, the London Plan. It would be an economic engine at no impact to the tax levy. They couldn’t afford not to do this.
Sandy White was up next. Respectful discourse is difficult for her but she gave it a shot. She wondered whether the whole thing shouldn’t be referred to the budget process.
By then, Paul Hubert had taken the chair in order to allow the mayor to get on the speakers’ list. He pointed out that to do so would delay the whole process by six months.
White didn’t care. She was going to vote against the thing anyway. She had had emails and phone calls from constituents, especially seniors, who weren’t interested in the benefits to the downtown; they didn’t want money spent on it. And besides, she had met a young European entrepreneur at a digital conference who had told her that they were going about this all wrong.
At this point, her resolve to be respectful dissolved completely as she lashed out at “those who stand on their soapboxes like they know”. Clearly, they didn’t know, she implied. The young European entrepreneur had said so.
Then the mayor spoke. Fanshawe had reached out to them seven weeks ago. They had all been given the information. They had had plenty of time to get the details. There had been meetings and the city had asked Fanshawe to do more. The chair of the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee (that’s Joe Swan) had been present. And now they wanted to defer? Talk about bureaucratic red tape!
This would stimulate other development and create jobs. This was supported by the planning director, the city manager, the chamber of commerce, the city treasurer, Downtown London, London Economic Development Corporation. These were the experts who were there to guide them? Who were they listening to?
The gallery burst out in enthusiastic applause.
Russ Monteith's turn came next. He had been selected to replace Baechler as ward councillor when she became mayor and this was his first meeting although he has years of experience on council. He works downtown and had talked to a number of downtown business owners. They were all pretty keen on the idea, thought it was a good deal. Two thousand young people downtown? They want it to happen.
And to whom would they refer this back? To the staff that had already recommended accepting it?
“If you vote for the referral,” said Monteith, “it’s over.”
Everyone was waiting to hear from Denise Brown as the only person who hadn’t spoken. Ever since she got burned by the Grand Harmony Buffet investigation by the ombudsman, she has distanced herself from the Fontana 8. With Armstrong joining that crew, things were looking tight. And Dale Henderson was away, so a tie vote was possible.
That was my prediction on Twitter. The referral would lose on a tie, but I wasn’t sure what would happen on the main motion.
Denise Brown took the same line as White. Her constituents weren’t in favour; they didn’t want to spend $10M on students. She wouldn’t support the proposal. She liked the proposal but wanted the province to come to the table; education was a provincial matter.
The mayor reminded her that the province, through its funding of Fanshawe College, was already contributing $46M.
Brown was flummoxed. “Well then,” she sputtered, “I’m going to support the referral as it is because otherwise I’m going to have vote against the whole proposal.”
It’s a reasonable argument, some might say, to support the will of your community. But when have you seen a proposal that constituents want to spend $10M on? Unless it is in their immediate neighbourhood, of course. That’s why you elect a councillor, to provide vision and leadership, to understand the impacts and the possibilities. Otherwise, just take a survey and forget the middleman. Or woman.
And so it went. Despite compelling arguments from the city manager to “get on the train”, this project will not go forward. First, the referral, as predicted, failed on a tie vote. Those wanting a referral were Swan, Orser, Polhill, Paul VanMeerbergen, Armstrong, White, and Denise Brown. All original members of Fontana 8 plus Bill Armstrong.
And then the main motion came up for consideration.
Swan sprang to his feet. He had hoped that referral would have been their bridge to the future and could have kept the project alive. But taxpayers want their money spent on police and fire and roads and sewers.
“If we give [Fanshawe] this, will they come back for $40M?” he wanted to know.
And who indeed were they listening to? Since when did staff tell them what to do?
“There will be a clear choice and it will come soon,” he predicted. “We had an opportunity and it seems to be lost. Wedge politics from people who have an agenda.”
Mayor Baechler suggested that his comments were neither respectful nor helpful. At that, both Swan and White began to quibble although neither had been recognized by the chair. White was asked to desist and when she did not, the mayor suggested she step outside the chambers to collect herself. White suggested that the mayor step outside with her. It was an audacious, if stupid, challenge. The mayor demanded an apology and after some delay, White muttered, “Maya (that's how it sounded) culpa, there you go,” and it was on to Orser.
Orser took the opportunity for a call to arms. “I ask you now, if you are running in the election, the seven of you who voted for a referral, to stand strong and vote against the motion,” he exhorted.
Baechler reminded him that there was to be no campaigning at city hall. She has been so advised by the city clerk. It was illegal.
Orser tried another tack. Taxpayers were clear. They wanted their tax dollars spent on fire, on police, not on these projects being pushed by the seven who wouldn't be there after November.
Nancy Branscombe tried to break the tension.
“Well! I’m ready to rumble,” she laughed. “Just a little levity.
'We’re not building a school, we’re building a city,” she continued. They had the money. They wanted to be a world class middle sized city. They should draw on their educational institutions; it was a small investment in the big scheme of things. It was a no brainer.
Perhaps it was. But even as a no-brainer, seven didn’t get it. They voted no. The opportunity was lost on a tied vote.
Just who is giving the wedgie?