*This is a continuation from my previous post, Open Government.
*Updated: When the story first broke, altlondon.org author Butch McLarty (@ButchMcLarty) pointed out that a quorum of 3 standing committees was formed by this lunch, including 2 that met after the lunch occurred. The details are posted here (at the bottom of the page). This concern was echoed yesterday by Councillor Joni Baechler. He has also pointed out to me the signposts that point towards an improper meeting – not having staff or media present, as well as not offering any notification of the meeting or producing minutes.
Extending my posts on London politics, I’ve been thinking more about government accessibility, accountability and transparency.
A couple weeks ago the Ontario Ombudsman André Marin received two complaints that select members of City Council (including Mayor Fontana) met together over lunch Feb. 21 before the budget meeting that included several controversial decisions – this story was first released by altlondon.org, and later picked up by the local mainstream media. The Ombudsman’s office reviewed the complaints to determine if the complains warranted a full investigation. Yesterday it was announced here, here and here that the Ombudsman has officially launched an investigation into the lunch.
The Ombudsman’s office has said that it will now work to determine if the lunch was simply a get-together, a proper or improper meeting, which will include conducting interviews with those that were present. This announcement has further stirred debate over the rights of council members and if they should be able to meet as they please – as Ward 4 Councillor Orser has observed, he will have “din-din” with whoever he chooses.
I also find Councillor Orser’s reaction to the news an investigation is underway interesting – he stated “I’d like to see the complainants come forward and I’d like to have my chance to face my accuser”, citing section 19 0f the Ombudsman Act. In response, Ombudsman spokeswoman Linda Williamson has stated that complainants are able to remain anonymous unless they choose to come forward.
Council and citizens seem divided on whether Council shouldn’t be allowed to meet freely – Councillor Orser stated:
Six members of council in any shape, form or fashion having lunch at the Harmony is no different than having supper between council breaks in groups of six at the top of city hall, except anyone can go in the Harmony, the public’s banned from city hall.
Councillor Joni Baechler welcomes the investigation and said that although less than half of Council doesn’t constitute a quorum, the rules also apply to council committees. She stated to the Free Press:
I think (the rules) are really important . . . the public has to trust the government is doing their business in an open and transparent manner,” Baechler said. “If they’re not, that’s a problem.
Orser argues that he has nothing to hide, and there is nothing untoward in their meeting together. I disagree. These are my concerns surrounding the situation:
1. The Council members that met (Mayor Joe Fontana and councillors Bud Polhill, Stephen Orser, Dale Henderson, Paul VanMeerbergen, and Denise Brown) had all signaled they would vote to approve the “B” list cuts during the preliminary budget meeting February 9th. As stated previously, Councillor Henderson signaled he would approve the affordable housing reserve cut, then days later said he may change his vote based on citizen concern over the cut. This lunch occurred, where (according to Henderson himself) they discussed city budget business, including the affordable housing decision. That night, Councillor Henderson voted to approve the cut as he originally intended. Was his decision influenced by the discussion over lunch?
2. Councillor Denise Brown said that this get-together was only a social lunch, but Councillor Henderson gave a contrary statement, saying they had discussed budget business, which I interpret as being a meeting of a partial council. Which statement is correct, and why did one of them lie?
3. Orser argues that this lunch was more accessible than when Council gets together at the cafeteria at the top of City Hall – are these get-togethers also between a select group of council members, or the entire council?
4. Some citizens have voiced opinions similar to Councillor Orser’s, that Council members should be allowed to meet with who they choose. However, in reality, many workplaces stipulate that colleagues may not meet together. When select council members get together, it creates an inclusive/exclusive dynamic, where councillors are either in or out of this group – all the more concerning when the parties meeting have all signaled they would vote the same way in the budget session. Councillors are expected to act individually on behalf of their ward constituents, not as a voting bloc. The local media has repeatedly reported that Council is becoming more divided, I’m concerned that meetings like this will only deepen the divide.
5. The Council members involved should ultimately have known better – this is the second investigation the Ombudsman’s office has opened concerning the transparency of London City Council in the past 6 months. In the past week Marin’s office completed the draft report for the investigation it launched after complaints were made about how Council operated as it made the decision to evict Occupy London from Victoria Park. This detailed Free Press article describes the elements that the Ombudsman is investigating, and many other citizen concerns that may not be subject to the report. The draft report has been submitted to Council for input, before the final draft is made public, likely later this month. For these reasons and more, I believe that those under investigation are aware of the Municipal Act (specifically Section 238 and 239) and the restrictions it places on them.
6. Council members should be conscious of when they may be forming a quorum, whether it is of the entire council or of committees. As stated above, the members that met for lunch constituted a quorum (majority) of 3 standing committees they are members of, 2 of which met just after the lunch. Whenever a quorum is formed, it must be declared a meeting, which includes taking minutes of what is discussed. When this meeting occurred, it wasn’t formally acknowledged and no minutes were taken. So under this criteria, this meeting breached the Municipal Act.
So – is this a legitimate concern or needless interference in the lives of councillors? To me it is about our city operating an open government and being accountable to London citizens. As the Ombudsman states in this article, “I applaud any movement toward transparency”. Under the Ombudsman’s leadership Ontario municipalities are moving towards further openness and transparency – a trend London is as yet sadly falling behind in. I hope that Council can learn from these investigations, and begin to take a leading role.