It may be obvious to say that 2016 hasn’t been a particularly banner year for London City Councillors. But it’s not just the affair scandal that rocked city hall that has been a problem – that’s just part of a months long pattern of poor leadership mixed with secrecy and questionable decision making.
If you look at the biggest issues that this council has faced this year, there have been transparency or openness questions surrounding each of them – some of those questions even coming from members of council or prominent people in the community.
The future of the Springbank Dam was debated at city hall and in the media and while the final result is yet to be determined, there have been questions raised about the process.
One councillor called the proposed EA plan “out of sequence“, others said the plan lacked transparency and a letter to the Mayor from First Nations leadership was leaked to the media – rather than being released publicly during a meeting. Add those issues to advice from various environmental experts that was dismissed by some members of council and it was clear there was a lack of direction and focus during an important discussion. If this were a one off, it’d be tough to call it a significant problem, but…
There are still questions about what led city staffers to change their recommendation from the hybrid LRT/BRT to full bus rapid transit. I’m not sure those questions have ever been properly addressed by the Mayor or city staffers. There were also questions surrounding whether other levels of government had concerns about the cost of the light rail plan. All of these unknowns have left rail advocates (rightfully) angered by how the process unfolded. Was the Mayor’s office (or the city manager’s office) hiding something from us during that debate?
While council eventually recommended a transit plan in May, I’d say the number of questions surrounding such a large discussion is sub-optimal and no matter which side of the debate you were on you should probably be able to acknowledge this issue was also handled poorly. In fact, some portions of the discussion almost didn’t even happen. It required a reversal in opinion from several members of council – including the Mayor – to allow a public meeting once the staff recommendation was changed.
Police budgeting negotiations have also proven to be a headache for council, with the issue perhaps heading for the Ontario Civilian Police Commission. Early this month, London Police Services Board member Paul Paolatto told AM980 there was a “lack of urgency” from the CAO’s office as the two sides look for a deal. He also presented an offer through the media that he had hoped would be discussed by council back in February. Somehow, that never happened.
The Police Services Board will bring the issue back to council at the end of August.
Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Poverty:
The Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Poverty was announced last September and the recommendations were eventually approved in the spring of 2016. The nice booklet that came along with those recommendations was created by Jeff Sage, a high level staffer on the Mayor’s campaign, who has seen a significant uptick in business from city hall since Matt Brown was elected.
The group has said they’d take a year to implement some of the recommendations – but at this point there’s been no movement on any of them other than allowing children to ride the bus for free. Some Londoners living in poverty may have expected more than that.
The biggest and most obvious issue is the affair between Mayor Matt Brown and former Deputy Mayor Maureen Cassidy. While this doesn’t directly involve any other member of council, the story has cast a negative light on the group not dissimilar to the one caused by the criminal charges against former Mayor Joe Fontana. There was much criticism surrounding the way discipline was handled by councillors and while some Londoners say it’s a personal matter, it’s quite clear there has been an impact on the city.
Ombudsman’s Office Investigations:
This week we found out there are two Ombudsman’s office investigations involving London City Council. One related to Integrity Commissioner Greg Stewart’s report on the Brown-Cassidy affair. The other involves the hiring of Stewart himself. That hiring process was originally a public RFP (request for proposal) but eventually turned into a targeted recruitment search – which meant the hiring could happen behind closed doors.
Did council inappropriately meet behind closed doors during the hiring process? I don’t know. We can let Ombudsman Paul Dube figure that out. But I do know that scrapping the public hiring process for a transparency watchdog and replacing it with a much more secretive one is at the very least quite ironic.
The common thread within each of those issues is lack of transparency (either within City Hall or with the public). What does that say about the leadership on council? What does that tell us about leadership within civic administration? That the post-Fontana “era of openness and transparency “at London City Hall never really existed.
This doesn’t mean every member of council is at fault – but a city council is like a sports team, you get judged on both group and individual results.
Some councillors – like Mohamed Salih and Phil Squire – have asked tough questions in meetings and spoken publicly about leadership concerns. We need more of that. There needs to be accountability at city hall otherwise we’ll keep running into issues like the ones from the first seven months of this year over and over again.
There are members of this council who are intelligent, passionate members of this community. Time for them to step up and fill a void – because London needs their help.