ENTRY #960: The consequences of the meeting by the mayor and six councillors, allegedly coincidentally, at Billy T’s Tap and Grill on Feb. 23, 2013, just days before the final budget debate, would have been zero. So why did they need a lawyer?
Monday, Jan. 20, 2014 - London
If Ontario’s Ombudsman, acting in his capacity as London’s closed meeting investigator, had found the mayor and six councillors guilty of holding an illegal meeting at Billy T’s last February – which in part he did – how many months in jail would they have served?
How much in fines would they have been forced to pay?
How many days of council pay would they have been docked?
What other penalty might have been imposed?
So in other words, the consequences of their meeting, allegedly coincidentally, at Billy T’s Tap and Grill on Feb. 23, 2013, just days before the final budget debate, would have been zero. Is that correct?
So why did they need a lawyer?
Well that, fellow taxpayers, is the $97,148.31 question.
Joe Fontana, Bud Polhill, Joe Swan, Stephen Orser, Dale Henderson, Paul Van Meerbergen and Sandy White sought council permission to hire a lawyer to give them advice on their testimony to investigators from the Ombudsman’s office after a second interview was requested.
Investigators apparently believed, based on the fact seven people came up with about eight different stories for why they all happened to be at Billy T’s that fateful Saturday almost a year ago, that someone was lying.
What is the penalty for lying to the Ombudsman, acting in his capacity of closed meeting investigator?
There should be a penalty, of course. And for repeat offenders, which most of this gang were, it should be significant.
But there is no penalty now.
The only thing the Ombudsman can do is write a report, even a snarky one if he choses – as Andre Marin did. The report must be presented to the council and available to the public, which it was
In part, Mr. Marin wrote: “The seven participants claim the gathering was not planned or intended to be a council or committee meeting directed at furthering city business. They maintain that coming together was a coincidence and the lunch was purely social. The available evidence, however, indicates that this innocent explanation also defies common sense and lacks credibility – especially given that upon arrival at Billy T’s, all seven chose to congregate behind a closed door in the back room. This was a literal backroom, backdoor, closed-door meeting of seven council members.
“The explanations provided by the council members are permeated with implausibility and lack credibility. It is both disappointing and deeply concerning that although they were in public at Billy T’s, they made deliberate and calculated attempts (individually and in concert) to conceal their behaviour from the public.”
Later in his report he added: “I conclude that an illegal closed meeting occurred on Feb. 23, 2013, in violation of the Municipal Act, 2001.
“This case is a cautionary tale for municipal governments, underscoring the risks of so-called social gatherings that are really a shield for clandestine meetings to further city business away from public scrutiny. The Feb. 23 backroom lunch at Billy T’s Tap and Grill was not a social gathering or happenstance coming together of council members for a friendly lunch. It was a betrayal of public trust, and diminished the credibility of the council participants in the eyes of London citizens, other council colleagues and all Ontarians.
“The City of London and council should take steps to ensure that the danger of illegal informal meetings is minimized through adopting a clear policy and procedures to discourage this conduct.”
That’s it. Total punishment, a few wordy paragraphs. Talk about a slap in the face with a wet noodle.
Well that noodle cost London taxpayers $97,148.31 – money wasted by a mayor and six councillors who somehow saw themselves above the law.
For that Mayor Fontana and Councillors Polhill, Swan, Orser, Henderson, Van Meerbergen and White should be ashamed. Each of them voted for zero tax increases in 2011 and 2012, claiming taxpayers simply couldn’t afford to pay more. Councillors Polhill, Henderson and Van Meerbergen wanted zero again in 2013.
In fact, beyond being ashamed they should be booted from office. The Ombudsman can’t do that, he can’t even recommend that, or even hint at it.
The voters could, though. Something to remember come Oct. 27.
By the way, Councillor Orser’s child-like apology on CTV London Friday doesn’t get him off the hook. This isn’t a case where you don’t ask for permission, you ask for forgiveness. Councillor Orser had been through this a year earlier. He knew the rules. He was a two-timer.
Instead of apologizing, little smirk at the end notwithstanding, he should have offered his resignation.
And to twist a phrase Councillor Orser is fond of tossing out during council meetings, he was factually incorrect to claim – as he did to CTV London – that council forced him to take the lawyer. Not so; council simply approved a request that lawyers could be used if the seven felt it necessary.
That is council policy. It should be reviewed.