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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."

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hugs and kiss offs

Within weeks of taking office in 2010, Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson, who had campaigned on a mean and lean government platform, was complaining that he needed more money. He wanted $10,000 to hire an assistant to deal with his heavy workload, especially all those reports to be read. He didn’t get that at the time, but a year or so later he and most of his colleagues voted themselves extra money for their expense accounts.

There were a few guidelines to go with the increased resources. They allowed, in addition to travel and other expenses that might normally be incurred in the course of serving constituents, for spending on assistants and a constituency office.

The latter was at the behest of Ward 2 Councillor Bill Armstrong. Although he enjoys occupancy of the best office on the third floor of city hall—a spacious corner office with windows all around—he doesn’t like to spend much time in it. In fact, he is rarely there except for a few minutes before and after committee and council meetings. He prefers to be closer to his work and his constituents.

One person who would love to have an office like that is Ward 12 Councillor Harold “Mr. Sensational” Usher. He does spend a fair amount of time at city hall in an office that overlooks Centennial Hall and the Civic Square. With its northern exposure, it doesn’t get much light and it is rather cramped. His interest, however, was not in Armstrong’s office—he recognizes the council-given right of a re-elected councillor to remain in his office—but in that of the departing Bud Polhill.

The policy directs that offices are assigned by ward in numerical order but allowing re-elected members to remain in their current offices or to request a specific vacated office. Seniority counts.

The three councillors not ousted in last month’s election had all received a reminder of the policy and Usher embraced it. He wrote a letter to council asking for dibs on Bud’s office. The letter came before the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee on Monday evening.

Usher was mortified. In the dying days of a lame duck council, the press had not found much to write about. It had become a story, complete with a picture of Usher at council looking territorial. Usher himself had been on city business representing the council at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and he had come back to this. All he had been doing was following council procedure and he had been pilloried for it. He requested that council take no action on his letter; he wanted it withdrawn. His colleagues were all too happy to acquiesce.

Armstrong came out in support of Usher. He too had received the reminder of the policy and he respected it. He would be happy to stay where he was, in the best office of them all. He wasn’t fussy, mind you. He was just following the rules. Those were the rules of the game.

But back to Henderson and his desire for a little extra cash to get some help.

Despite the increase in his expense account, it seems that no help was to be found. Instead, Henderson determined that his problem was not with workload, it was with communication. His message wasn’t getting out. Eight people were running the city and doing a darned good job of it too. But you wouldn’t believe it to read and listen to the local media. He had to get to the people directly.

He found the answer in social media; not, as some of his colleagues had done, by creating websites and posting blogs and newsletters, but by YouTube. He spent some $7,000 on video equipment and Dale TV was born. In all, it consisted of 10 episodes in which Henderson rambled about a variety of issues including annexation for a ring road and cures for cancer. He speculated that some of his colleagues might be interested in making a guest appearance on his YouTube channel, but none took him up on the offer. Last February, he added a blog in which he stated that he would not be seeking re-election.

But not seeking re-election is not the same as not seeking compensation. Henderson was up for the latter.

As this was the last meeting on the committee before the new council takes over, staff had prepared a report on benefits for outgoing members.

There aren’t many. There are of course pension benefits to which members have contributed. Additionally, outgoing members may have their other benefits, such as medical and dental, extended for three months at their own cost, just until they can get other coverage. Staff noted that the only change in this was to ensure that the offer was available to all outgoing members, not just those under 65. That change in language was applauded by Bud Polhill and Judy Bryant.

But Henderson was not satisfied. This council had displayed true democracy for three and a half years, he began when the mayor recognized him to speak. But a survey of other municipalities revealed that they were at the bottom of the heap when it came to remuneration. He exhorted his colleagues to have a group hug and unanimously endorse severance pay for the outgoing/ousted councillors. He moved that, since they were a lame duck council and limited to spending $50,000, an amount equivalent to four weeks’ severance pay be given to each departing councillor. Let’s have the group hug.

Mayor Baechler asked if someone was willing to second Henderson’s motion but, as has happened more often than not in the past, no one came forward.

Departing Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe was ready to support the idea of a group hug. But the notion of severance for council members appalled her. Apparently, Henderson had approached her by email in advance of the meeting to garner support for his request.

“Many councillors are already getting paid for work they didn’t do!” she had told him.

But the idea didn’t die out completely. Councillors Bryant and Polhill thought it would be worthwhile exploring. Perhaps staff could bring back a report to the next council.

Bryant has long argued that the workload is too heavy and the remuneration inadequate. She also thought it would help outgoing members deal with the demands of the Christmas season. As for Polhill, he had checked with human resources about what he had coming to him and it wasn’t much. He was leaving city hall after 26 years, as he pointed out, the way he had come to it. With nothing.

The motion, to refer this to the compensation taskforce, was defeated with only Bryant, Polhill, Henderson and Usher in support and Steve Orser and Sandy White absent.

As Branscombe pointed out, when you run for political office, you know what you are in for. It’s public service; it’s part-time.

You can win or lose, you can quit or be fired by the voters. You know the dates four years in advance.

Sometimes it’s a group hug; sometimes a kiss off.


Anonymous said...

Actually, Bud is forgetting that he is getting an OMERS pension (although give he is over 71, he might already be collecting it). It is a contributory plan which tax money from the City goes into and it is at least partially indexed for inflation. And, unlike Detroit's, it is very secure. Stop the whining people. If someone can figure the "right" amount to pay a council, let us know. Remember, once they get elected, you can't boot them out for 4 years and whatever they get paid, they get paid. You don't improve your work performance just because you get paid more.

Greg Fowler said...

Long before Dale bought the camera equipment, in fact even before he was elected, Dale met up with me at the Dundas Street coffee shop that I used to frequent. He was interested in the City Hall recording that I was doing and had lots of questions which I was happy to answer. So, he knew that it could be done very affordably and that I'd have been happy to help. Given his circumstances I'll just leave it at that.

Vicki Van Linden said...

In Dec. of 2013, the outgoing council voted to make London a 'No Kill' community, meaning that no companion animal who is either healthy or can be reasonably restored to health would be killed in the city shelter due to lack of space.

The outgoing council also voted to fund two initiatives that would help to bring us to that goal; a Cat Adoption Centre would be established (as cats are killed in the highest numbers), and the City would hire a Veterinarian to work full time in the city shelter.

Both of these projects are still in the works, but when they come into effect they can make a significant difference in how quickly we reach the 'No Kill' goal.

In the summer of 2104, this council updated the pet limit bylaws, including a provision that would make it easier for approved rescue groups to do their good work.

And, at the last meeting of this council, a Humane Urban Wildlife Conflict Policy was endorsed which directs us as a city to put more effort into pro-active programs to prevent potential conflicts between wild animals and people. This policy can be a tool for future work that should prevent the killing or displacement of wild animals.

These are significant changes, and the new council are now provided a good platform to work on regarding animal welfare.

Thanks to this outgoing council for these decisions. Each of those changes does not in itself solve problems, but give us better tools to work with.

Butch McLarty said...

To understand Dale's comments, I think I need to slam my head into a wall.

No thanks.