*This post has been updated as of Tuesday February 28 based on this, this and this article. I was at first hesitant to speak of the lunch between city councillors as fact, and called it an “alleged” lunch. It has been confirmed that this lunch did occur, formal complaints have been made to the Ontario Ombudsman, and the Ombudsman’s Office is reviewing the incident to decide if a formal investigation needs to be launched. I have changed the phrasing of this post in light of this information, and extended my post to include the information from the London Community News article.

*Further updated this post (will need to create a new one soon!) on February 29 in light of this article. Councillor Henderson says those that are making complaints are “sore losers”, he also says that policy such as affordable housing was discussed. There was speculation that this may have happened before, but it is now confirmed. I’ve changed the wording of this post to reflect this. Abe Oudshoorn (@AbeOudshoorn) also has a great blog post about this.

Extending from my other posts about citizen engagement and London politics, I’ve been thinking about secrecy and corruption in government. In particular, I’ve read on @butchmclarty ‘s site that a portion of London City Council met together for lunch before the Tuesday marathon Council session that included passing the 2012 city budget. This is concerning enough, but it seems that Councillor Dale Henderson (who signaled he was considering changing his decision to approve a $1M cut to affordable housing ahead, as written here) may have changed his vote back to approving the cut based on conversations he had at this lunch. This concern seems especially valid considering the other councillors said to be present were Mayor Joe Fontana, Ward 1 Councillor Bud Polhill, Ward 4 Councillor Steve Orser, Ward 10 Councillor Paul Van Meerbergen and Ward 11 Councillor Denise Brown (6 all present), who all approved the cut to the affordable housing reserve, as well as the other cuts from the “B” list with the goal of reaching a 0% tax increase, and that if one councillor changed their vote the cut would fail instead of being approved.

From this site, I also discovered that the definition of what constitutes a council meeting for council members in Ontario municipalities are based in part on events that unfolded in 2009 and were investigated by the Ontario Ombudsman (the report can be read in full here). I discovered with interest that the events occurred in the small town of South Bruce Peninsula – also known as Wiarton, my hometown.

Part of the concerns that the Ontario Ombudsman was observing was the fact that some Wiarton councillors were meeting together after Town Council at the local Tim Horton’s. The summary of the report found that though it wasn’t appropriate behavior, because it represented less that a majority of Town Council (the agreed amount to produce a quorum) it didn’t break any rules. So it’s a question of optics – what it looks like to the public. The councillors involved argued that they were only meeting socially and even encouraged members of the public to join them, but members of the community still felt that this wasn’t correct behavior for town council and made the formal complaints which started the inquiry.

This brings us back to the lunch last Tuesday. At best it was an inappropriate get-together by several London city councillors, that is still concerning as it appears to be a gathering of councillors united in supporting a 0% tax increase, except for Councillor Henderson, who the group may have been concerned would vote against them. At worst, this was a concerted effort by a group of councillors meeting to sway another councillor to continue to side with them, knowing that if Councillor Henderson reversed his previous decision their vote would fall 8-7. This is especially of concern now that we know that the topic of affordable housing was discussed, according to Councillor Henderson. I find the number of councillors especially telling – as 6 doesn’t constitute a quorum, no record needs to be taken of the meeting, so they can meet without ever disclosing having done so.

This event has created a discussion with opposing views on what is and isn’t appropriate for councillors to be doing. Here are some of the comments made:

  • Ward 11 Councillor Denise Brown argued “We didn’t have a meeting whatsoever; we had a lunch. We went to a public place so it would not be seen as a meeting,” Brown said. “If we wanted to, I am pretty sure any of us could have come up with spot for a private meeting. But that wasn’t it; we went to a public restaurant and had people sitting around us.” *Note: Despite not wanting it to seem like a meeting, Councillor Henderson has since stated city business including the affordable housing reserve was discussed. To me, this constitutes a meeting.
  • Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler argues that “Members of council are equal participants at the council table. When you start pulling aside a select group it is seen to be backdoor deals and private deals. So yes, I have a big problem with it.”
  • Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe voiced concerns similar to mine, that if nothing else the optics are very bad, especially considering the lunch happened before a contentious budget session where most of the votes succeeded or failed by votes of 8-7.
  • Ward 1 Councillor Polhill argues that the issue of the lunch is a non-issue and is only being raised for political reasons.
  • Ward 14 Councillor White believes that Council colleagues sharing lunch is a good sign of congenial relations. “If they were just having lunch, I think it is great they were getting along. It sounds like they were just having lunch and relaxing”.

I find it interesting that even on questions of ethics, politics still creeps in. I believe that this lunch warrants some form of inquiry into the conduct of our City Council and how it meets, and if this lunch was just a meeting among colleagues or something more. As I understand it, Council is held to a higher standard than other workplaces, despite the fact Councillor Denise Brown argues that she met with coworkers in other jobs she has held over a friendly lunch, and therefore should be allowed to in her position on Council. But as Councillor Polhill alleges, perhaps some councillors and others like myself are against it because we don’t agree with how he and the others that happened to be around that table voted. If the nonpartisan and arms-length Ontario Ombudsman becomes involved, however, it will be interesting to see his ruling.

This topic makes me think about the wider concerns about secrecy in politics. As I started writing this I was watching the first episode of the British 80’s political satire Yes Minister with my brother-in-law Ed Stephens (@qualitypunk). The episode is called “Open Government”, and provides an excellent reminder that political secrecy isn’t remotely new. One great example from the episode:

Bernard:  But surely the citizens of a democracy have a right to know.

Sir Humphrey Appleby:  No. They have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity in guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity.

Another comment made in the episode: “If people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong.” How true!

So if secrecy is so imbedded in the political process, what can be done to combat it? One project I am very excited about is an app being developed by L0ndoner Gavin Blair (@gavinblair), appropriately named “Open Council” – the project website can be viewed here. The basic goal is to produce an app that allows the user to easily access information such as who their councillor is, how they can be contacted, how they have voted in each Council meeting, etc.

The project is currently seeking donations to help get it off the ground, I’ve gladly helped to contribute to the project as have many others. The fundraising goal for the project is $5000, it is currently at almost $2,200. There are many perks for contributing to the project, including having beta access to the app when it is close to being completed.

As citizens we need to keep all levels of government accountable. I’m excited for projects such as Open Council that will make this process easier, but as citizens have mentioned on Twitter, this app will be most helpful assisting online activists that are likely already engaged in our political process.  So we must continue to find ways to share the valuable information easily accessible by such means as the Open Council app with our offline neighbours and friends. We’re all citizens, and we’re all in this together.