BLOG #710: Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin, called in to investigate the gathering of the Harmony Six over lunch scant hours before the final vote on London’s 2012 budget, concluded this wasn’t an improper closed meeting. The lunch, though, was thoughtless and ill-conceived.
Monday, Aug. 6, 2012 – London
Given the vilification he faced during his investigation, Andre Marin’s report into the infamous Harmony Six luncheon is even-handed and his conclusion remarkably restrained.
Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking his belief that the six council members, including the mayor, who ate together at Harmony Grand Buffet just two hours before the final budget debate were both stupid and ignorant.
They were stupid for assuming the public wouldn’t take critical notice and ignorant for not appreciating they were violating public trust. What we now know, of course, is that most of them don’t seem to give a damn either way.
Mr. Marin, for those who don’t know, is Ontario’s ombudsman. In 2008 the City of London appointed the ombudsman as its investigative arm in dealing with public complaints about inappropriate gatherings of public officials.
There is no cost to the city for this service. The office of the ombudsman is funded by the provincial government.
None of this seemed to have been known, or at least understood, by the six council members – Mayor Joe Fontana and councillors Denise Brown, Dale Henderson, Stephen Orser, Bud Polhill and Paul Van Meerbergen – who lunched together that noon hour on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012.
Nor did they seem to know, or at least understand, the rules governing how and when elected officials can get together, especially those around public notice – “the law requires public notice of meetings and that all meetings be open to the public, unless they fall within prescribed exceptions” – and they certainly did not appreciate how the public might see the gathering as totally inappropriate given the circumstances.
Their ignorance in the first part led to subsequent comments by Councillor Henderson that “a few people could get together and trigger an ombudsman investigation resulting in legal fees,” a process he characterized as “a police state.”
Their stupidity in the second part led to subsequent comments by Councillor Polhill that limits on what councillors can do together is “ridiculous” and by Councillor Orser that the three citizens who formally complained were “sore losers.”
In the end Mr. Marin decided the Harmony Six were not guilty of holding an improper closed meeting. In so judging, though, he made it pretty clear he hopes there is a further deliberation in the court of public opinion.
Here’s part of what he wrote in his judgment:
“I am 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.
“The open meeting requirements (of the Ontario Municipal Act) were never meant to prevent council members from associating with each other on a social basis. I recognize this and indeed see the need for councillors to network and liaise so they may be able to better foster an environment to conduct city business.
“However, whenever council members meet socially, there may well be temptation to stray from what was originally conceived as a social meeting. More and more, citizens follow closely the activities of municipal council. And they are prepared to scrutinize any meeting occurring outside the public spotlight. Indeed, in this case community eyebrows were raised by the appearance that council might have used the backdrop of a buffet lunch to do more than exchange pleasantries.
“At a minimum, the decision on the part of six members of council to meet publicly for lunch in a local restaurant just before a critical and controversial vote on the budget was ill-conceived. The attendees do not appear to have given any thought to public perception or the potential for questions to arise around the fairness of the subsequent council proceedings.”
There is a crude and graphic expression, familiar to many, that is loosely translated as being reamed out with a sharp object. The forgoing four paragraphs by Mr. Marin aptly illustrate the concept.
In fact his entire document should be required reading henceforth for anyone who aspires to an elected leadership position in this community.
NOTE TO READERS
With city council on a reduced schedule until September and City Hall thinned by summer holidays, The McLeod Report is on a reduced schedule until after Labour Day. The report will be published once a week, usually (but not always) on Monday – unless urgent issues dictate otherwise. You can also find a second print version of The Report Thursdays in London Community News.