one year later

One year ago it was revealed that Mayor Fontana and most of the “Fontana 8” met together for lunch ahead of the final 2012 budget votes. It raised serious questions about the group’s conduct, what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour from councillors, the consequences of such actions, and what can be done about it. I tried my best to follow the issue, and wrote these three posts about it.

These are some of the highlights:

  • Councillors on either side of the invite list saw the event very differently. Councillors Baechler, Branscombe and others that weren’t at the meeting stated that the situation raises serious questions about public perception, and all Council members operating in a transparent manner. Councillor Baechler commented: “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.”
  • Councillors that were at the meeting insisted that it was only a meeting of colleagues, which happens in many other professions without incident. Councillor Orser said in a statement to local media that he would have ‘din-din’ with whomever he likes, while Councillor Henderson said that the complaints about the meeting were coming from “sore losers”. There was some conflicting stories of what occurred, Councillor Denise Brown stated that no business whatsoever was mentioned, while Councillor Henderson said that the contentious cut to affordable housing was talked about, as well as other budget matters.
  • Complaints were made to the Ontario Ombudsman about the event, which set into motion his office’s process. An initial probe of the incident lead to the Ombudsman opening an investigation, including interviews with Council members to get to the bottom of the incident. This was the second time in six months the OO opened an investigation into London City Council, the previous one pertaining to Council’s conduct in using in-camera sessions to debate evicting Occupy London from Victoria Park.
  • The Ombudsman concluded in his report that the meeting didn’t contravene the Municipal Act, but was ill-conceived. He wrote: “I am more disturbed by the fact that a number of council members gathered in the manner they did shortly before an important council meeting on the city budget. While these council members did not have the legal authority to exercise the collective will of council, the public impression left is still unsavoury,”.
  • Comments made by councillors exposed a great deal of confusion about the role of the Ontario Ombudsman. He asked to speak before London City Council to clear the air, and was accepted to speak before council at the end of August 2012. He addressed accusations such as that his office was being used  as a “political weapon”, responding that his office takes in over 18,000 complaints annually, and only those thought to have merit based on initial probes are fully investigated.
  • A great deal of debate about the Ombudsman and his role was part of the fall-out of the investigation. Some councillors continued to berate him even after the public meeting, insist that the complaint process allowing anonymity is undemocratic, and that the investigation was a waste of taxpayer dollars. Others argued that this process indicates that, although the Ombudsman’s office does great work, the Ontario Ombudsman Act needs to be strengthened to give the office more authority. As well, it has been argued that this process further exposed the need in London of an integrity commissioner.

This takes us to this week.

On Monday, London civic blogger Philip McLeod reported in this post that the Fontana 8 (minus Denise Brown) had met the previous Saturday for a friendly get-together at Billy T’s Tap & Grill. However, the details are a little hazy. A couple members were invited by Mayor Fontana to chat, not at all about city business, and a few others happened by. Or, they were all invited? It was very public, in one of the main rooms. Or, it was in a private room, but only because the owner recognized who they were and insisted? Or, no wait, Mayor Fontana booked a private room specifically for this purpose?

Needless to say, this raises a great deal of questions, especially as the final budget decisions will be made February 28th. The story has been further exposed by the Free Press and Metro News, with many citizens questioning the wisdom of conducting an almost identical meeting on the anniversary of the lunch that triggered the previous Ombudsman investigation. The Free Press now reports that Mayor Fontana may have called a majority of the economic prosperity committee together…to talk about economic prosperity business, the kind of conduct which is definitely forbidden under Ontario’s rules about governing transparently.

My concern is that the Ombudsman’s report didn’t entirely sink in for some members of Council under the microscope. Worse, when members like Councillor Orser announced they were “vindicated” by the findings of the Ombudsman’s report, they may have felt that they could have future meetings with impunity. None of this is to the good of public confidence in politics, shaky enough as it is. As Councillor Baechler has stated from this issue:

You can’t do business behind closed doors if you are to be an open, accountable, transparent government. Any time these things happen, there is always the chance the ombudsman will be called in. It doesn’t give the public confidence in their council, it makes them question the judgment of council as a whole.

So what can we do?

Some of the suggestions from this are pushing the provincial government to update the Municipal Act in a number of ways, as well as pushing Council to adopt oversight methods.

I fear that it may not be possible with a majority of this present council.

But next? I am excited by the prospect of what the 2014 election can bring. I hope that we will see many candidates that will run on an “ethics and accountability” platform, vowing to put into place a Council integrity commissioner, a lobby registry, and other methods of keeping Council business as public as possible.

How can this happen? It is up to all of us.

As we approach the 2014 election, and we see the field of candidates, make it an election priority. Speak to the candidates that interest you, become part of their campaign team, and tell them that this is something that matters deeply to you. I think we’ll find this is something that will resonate with many Londoners as well.

We’ve struggled as a city through many controversies, and I hear many Londoners say they feel powerless in the face of yet another poor decision that is reflecting badly on all of us. We must do everything we can to turn the tide and restore personal and overall public confidence in our City Hall. We can start now, but major shifts can happen in 2014 at the ballot box.