Philip Mcleod

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For taxpayers, a $97,000 question

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?

None.

How much in fines would they have been forced to pay?

None.

How many days of council pay would they have been docked?

None.

What other penalty might have been imposed?

None.

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?

Yes.

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?

None.

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.

Comments   

# Conflict of InterestBarry Wells 2014-01-20 02:09
Should the seven council members who attended the pre-budget meeting at Billy T's have voted on their own indemnification by the City of London? It was a 10-4 vote.

Is it not a clear conflict of pecuniary interest under the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act?

The only remedy available to the electorate (other than voting them out of office next October) is a "Notice of Application" to the courts seeking a ruling from a judge ~ who has the authority to declare their seats vacant.
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# RE: For taxpayers, a $97,000 questionJeff 2014-01-20 02:23
Remember these names, London: Joe Fontana, Bud Polhill, Joe Swan, Stephen Orser, Dale Henderson, Paul Van Meerbergen, and Sandy White.

Do NOT reward any of them with a single vote in October. If this $97,148.31 legal bill is what finally gets them out of office, then it will turn out to be money well-spent.
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# RE: For taxpayers, a $97,000 questionKallie Miller 2014-01-20 03:34
If there is no other way to get back the almost $100,000, then we the taxpayers have to eat it. However, there is a silver lining. I think it is worth $100.000 to get rid of them in the next election. Now we have the proof of their dishonesty and stupidity we know that they need to be booted out.

The Billy T episode just confirmed what many citizens had either known or suspected—none of them have any integrity. I am thankful that they were caught. I do wonder what else they have done that is less than honest.

I think a great big billboard is in order next October to remind any citizen who might not have known or has forgotten what these shameless arrogant men and one woman did.

Is there no lawyer in London who will stand up pro bono for the taxpayers and file a Notice of Application and let a judge decide that these dishonest persons need to be gone? I understand that is all that can be done and that a lawyer needs to do it.
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# Marin Branded London as the second worst for complaintsLeila Paul 2014-01-20 06:22
Andre Marin took the opportunity to add insult to injury to London by stating in his year-end wrap up report that London citizens generated the second highest number of complaints against their city council.

So three cheers for Andre Marin and all those who managed to encourage 60 complaints to the Ombudsman who was busy online with another reporter and a blogger ensuring that as many complaints as possible were filed to Andre Marin. Only a few complaints is all that would have been needed for Marin's finger was on the trigger anyway to do another investigation that's useless to us but helps make him seem essential to our political health.

Those who cheerlead the high numbers of complaints contributed to Marin's report that highlights London as the second worst city in Ontario for bad city government. Shooting ourselves in the foot?
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# The Office of the Ombudsman...Think About It 2014-01-20 15:51
Quoting Leila Paul:
Andre Marin took the opportunity to add insult to injury to London by stating in his year-end wrap up report that London citizens generated the second highest number of complaints against their city council.

So three cheers for Andre Marin and all those who managed to encourage 60 complaints to the Ombudsman who was busy online with another reporter and a blogger ensuring that as many complaints as possible were filed to Andre Marin. Only a few complaints is all that would have been needed for Marin's finger was on the trigger anyway to do another investigation that's useless to us but helps make him seem essential to our political health.

Those who cheerlead the high numbers of complaints contributed to Marin's report that highlights London as the second worst city in Ontario for bad city government. Shooting ourselves in the foot?


The Office of the Ombudsman and any complaints would not even have to exist if it wasn't for the unethical conduct of skeevy politicians such as ours. Nice try.
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# Who wants to run to be the next target of Andre MarinLeila Paul 2014-01-20 06:32
Now that the precedent has been set, anyone who runs for council or mayor and gets elected had better ensure they've got a huge lobby and pools of votes to support them after they get elected, so they do not become the next target against whom a pile of complaints will be filed with the lone-ranger Andre Marin.

Which successful, competent, self-respecting person would want to endure that kind of ridicule as well as all the insults that are heaped on those who make public comments opposing abuses of process, like that of Andre Marin's abuse. And that's what it was! Marin knew he'd do nothing but write a verbose overture or chorus of his previous discordant renderings.

How much did Marin's redundant, toothless encore cost Ontario taxpayers for that portion of his Office's resources above and beyond the nearly $100K we're paying locally?
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# Pay it back!Very concerning 2014-01-20 13:53
Leila - that's sort of like being put in jail for stealing, and then asking "what did it cost for the police to catch me?".....
Not sure I'm following.
As elected officials it is embarrassing we even had complaints, even more that they were true....but to have your voters pay for it!?!?!
Sounds like criminal action will be required.
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# I did not say I favour what happenedLeila Paul 2014-01-20 20:57
Let me clarify what should be clear. I said at the time the best thing would be just let them do their time and then vote them out. Marin is self-serving and that investigation gave him material to use as proof that he's needed while it injured London to be named as second worst city for council complaints. There still could have been an investigation with only 3 complaints but we would not have ranked so high in regards to complaints about city council. Worse: Marin himself should NOT have participated in generating complaints to himself to investigate.

These councillors should be forced to repay taxpayers and be turfed out. And too few voters pay attention. The names on Twitter reveal a small group. It was almost like a performance in a small circle for that circle. The majority of London voters do not have time to be so absorbed in a Twitter campaign to generate complaints.
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# Lies, Lies, and London Councilobserver 2014-01-20 16:11
Since a number of the diners are two timers, they obviously are too dumb to be on council. They are liars and scoundrels to be sure. Some, like Polhill blow with the wind. Now concerned about taxes, years ago spending like a drunk for big projects and big budgets including the police. Why do Londoners keep electing these fools? What is the definition of stupidity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
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