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."

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Wedge politics

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 fa├žade, 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.

Wedge politics?

Just who is giving the wedgie?


Anonymous said...

Lord help London if Joe Swan is elected mayor. Through the Billy T affair and the Ombudsman's report, the citizens of London already know that he is untrustworthy. In the Fanshawe vote, he showed his arrogance and lack of care about what the citizens want and the rules, by saying "And who indeed were they (council) listening to? Since when did staff tell them what to do?”

As I understand it, staff recommends and does not tell council what to do. However, as a member of the Fontana Eight, Joe Swan jointed the other seven in frequently voting against London’s official plan which was produced with much citizen input. Joe Swan only cares about the Performing Arts Centre and what the developers want. He again showed his arrogance and untrustworthiness with spending money, lots, on signs before he had filed to run. Rules mean nothing to Joe Swan and the other members of the Fontana rat pack – Bud Polhill, Sandy White, Stephen Orser, Paul Van Meerbergen (who had in previous elections, six violatio

ns himself), and Denise Brown. Remember that these untrustworthy councillors cost the taxpayers $97,000 for lawyers. I guess they were really scared because they knew they were in the wrong. Hopefully the citizens will vote for anyone but a member of the Fontana Eight. Looks like Bill Armstrong has joined the gang and doesn’t mind working with someone who has proven he is untrustworthy. Birds of a feather! Looks like it’s time for Bill Armstrong to go along with the rest.

The Old Observer said...

Swan's tactics are disgusting and obvious. Let's hope that voters will see though this sneaky bottom feeder.

Shiller said...

Swan, with his hand out ANNUALLY, for hundreds of thousands of dollars for an institution the general public clearly doesn't support enough to be economically viable, going on about whether this is an appropriate use of taxpayer's money. Comical,

Worst council EVER....we'll 1/3 to 1/2 of it. Sad for London.

Anonymous said...

Joe Swan the Fontana ate succession plan?

Anonymous said...

The decline of Bill Armstrongs ethics and decency has been a sorry sight to watch. What has happened to this man. He has been around too long. Looks like he is desperate for reelection. Methinks he has lost the ability to earn a living without his council pay. Desperation seems to drip off of him. Aligning himself with the likes of Polhill and Swan. There was a day when I trusted this man and even voted for him. He is now unrecognizable. He has the stink of disgrace and sell out all over him. Desperate old politicians with nowhere else to go. Term limits. This is why we need term limits.

Rayson Clarke said...

I cannot think of a worse mayor than Joe Swan.

I cannot think of a better mayor than Joni Baechler.

Joni, don't leave us. We need you.

R. Cain said...

In the 20 years I've lived in London, the Fanshawe proposal to revitalize the core is – beyond the obvious super-projects (JLC, LPL, etc) – the FIRST ONE which makes sense to me.

For these seven morons to reject or impede it demonstrates that, in fact, they are 'no-brainers'.

It is a handy litmus test of this Council.

In one fell swoop I have lost respect for Bill Armstrong, Denise Brown and Joe Swan.

(And Mr Swan's contemptuous flouting of the campaign rules confirms he is not fit to be Mayor.)

For Denise Brown – after finally showing some backbone – to rejoin the Gang of Ate on such an important matter will cost her my vote in October.

These seven put the 'small' in small town mentality.

Heather B. said...

R.Cain said it well. Denise Brown had my vote up until now but not any more. Her vote was the same kind of small minded pandering to the peanut gallery when she first started. She developed some backbone after Harmony House but this is a big a step back. There is nothing that Denise Brown can do to get my vote after this. When Swan asks for millions for his fancy arts center we will have to remind him that people only want their taxes used for roads, firehalls and police. His own words will come back to bite him.

shocked but not awed said...

Thanks to the Swantana cronies London will have a new shopping mall by the 401 but won't have a bustling downtown campus. Seven second rate thinkers are determined to keep London stuck in the past. With Fontana gone who knew that Armstrong would step up to take his place on the Swantana voting block. When Branscombe and Baechler are gone God help us all.

EOA Observer said...

Parking Lot Sighting:

In front of Billy T's today: Bud Polhill attempting to explain his simultaneous support for and against the Fanshawe College proposal to Eastsiders.

No sign of recently damned to hell Bill Armstrong or re-convert to the dark side, D. Brown. But I didn't check the rear entrance of the Fontana... er, Swan room.

Anonymous said...

what's really funny (in a fishy sort of way) was seeing Swan and Polhill and Armstrong, all whom were in favour of spending 4x the money to help the private sector run an arena and hockey franchise in the core, but not another $10 M for Fanshawe.

Anonymous said...

What gives Joe Swan the right to say that "I" as a taxpayer want my money spent on police and fire and roads and sewers. NO I DO NOT!!! Just the latest misspoken word and major misstep of the CLONE of our past CROOK for a Major...SWANTANA. Two Peas In A Pod.

Joe Swan - How Can We TRUST Him To Run Our City???

Do not vote for this man or any of the FONTANA 8. Remember what they have done to ALL Londoners!!!


R. Cain said...

If Mr (10,000 jobs) Fontana was still in office seeking re-election you can bet the Gang of Ate would have voted FOR the Fanshawe extension.

Then the vote would have been a unanimous YES.

But even with Snow White under house arrest, the Seven Dwarfs march on, searching for a new leader to tell them what to think, what to say, and how to vote.

Small in mind, if not body.


Cast of characters – the Seven Dwarfs:

Doc - J Swan (potential replacement for Snow White)

Grumpy - P Van Meerbergen

Happy - S Orser

Sleepy - D Henderson

Bashful - D Brown

Sneezy - B Polhill

Dopey - S White

(with apologies to Walt Disney)

Anonymous said...

An unfortunate view that has been painted is that we don't hold much hope for the future council either. London's citizens have a long history of voting for the incumbant, probably because it's the name they recognise, and not of getting down to business and researching their candidates. A comment made was that their vote for Denise Brown was lost. Why would they have voted for her in the first place. I've known Denise Brown for many years. I think she's a very nice person. But under no circumstances would I ever vote for her. I don't trust her motives and her allegences point to that being a good instinct. The primary problem we have in London has been the quality of the candidates. Where are the people who could really use their knowledge and intellect to bring London out of the 1950's thinking and find innovative solutions to the challenges facing the city? Resurrecting downtown to it's former glory is never going to happen. Changing streetscapes, closing roads, diverting buses, gondolas and beaches aren't an answer. Performing arts centers, university and college campuses, education tourism (at full fare of course) are in my view the kinds of projects that attract attention of corporations interested in relocating to cities. Give us a slate of candidates that have a creative and business like approach to municipal politics and hopefully not too many skeletons in their .