BLOG #641: City council pretty much did what they were expected to do last night, but that doesn’t explain why it took 7.5 hours to do so. In fact, nothing seems to explain why it took 7.5 hours.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012 – London
On the one hand you could say city council last night ran according to predictions. On the other hand that wouldn’t come nearly close to explaining why it took 7.5 hours to complete the public portion of the agenda before the members disappeared beyond locked doors for their ‘in camera’ deliberations.
If you’re keeping score:
-- The 3.1 per cent salary increase for the mayor and councillors was approved, with no debate.
-- A $1,000 limit on individual expenses for gifts and souvenirs was approved. An attempt by Councillor Stephen Orser to get the vehicle expenses increased to $2,500 was defeated.
-- The $4.6 million budget surplus from last year was chunked into reserves with $1 million of that added to the affordable housing reserve – in effect cancelling out a very unpopular decision in February to reduce contributions to this fund by $1 million.
-- Nighttime street parking downtown will remain free, although along Richmond St. north of Dufferin there will continue to be a charge. As well, daytime parking rates will increase July 1 to $1.50 an hour, up 25 cents.
-- The only unpredictable event – although in a way what happened was entirely predictable – was the fixed minimum rate for water and sewer. This has been referred back to committee “for more study,” without any particular direction from council as to what should be studied more.
The bottom line on the water and sewer debate is that a majority of council members either don’t understand how the current costing model for water and sewer works and what’s wrong with it; or don’t want to bite the bullet and put these utilities on a fully-costed business footing; or believe in Santa Claus. For a few it could be all three.
At any rate, there will be many more debates on this subject before there is a consensus. Mayor Joe Fontana, quite accurately, calls this process “death by a thousand cuts.”
So why did it take so long to accomplish so little? A very good question. The best answer lies in the replay of council’s deliberations which you could catch on Rogers Cable 13 starting at 7:30 this morning.
But here are a couple of observations from your weary scribe a couple hours after midnight.
First, too many members of council either don’t read their agendas or don’t understand what they read. This observation has been made before, but it was never truer than during the debate over parking rates.
There were two minor complications here. The first was council had passed during the budget debate in February – a point that most seemed not to remember – both the overall rate increase and the nighttime charge downtown. The rule is a decided matter can only be debated again during a calendar year if two-thirds vote in favour of a ‘reconsideration’. The overall rate increase didn’t get the two-thirds so it remained the law; nighttime parking fees did.
The second complication was that civic works committee, which first debated the issue, had recommended no increase in nighttime charges, failing to appreciate the matter had already been decided.
Last night everyone seemed to have a different version of what was being voted on, and most of them had it wrong. Even Councillor Joni Baechler, who at one point tweeted, “I want to say, who’s on first and what’s on second,” nevertheless explained it incorrectly during the debate. At another point Councillor Paul Hubert very carefully detailed the motion, only to be told he had it backwards. And these are among the brightest on council.
So it was not anyone’s finest hour. And, in the end, they were left with a $95,000 hole in the budget.
Second, council members quite often don’t listen to each other and sometimes don’t appear to listen to themselves. The mayor, for example, got all uppity about questions on letting a contract that dug into the merits of the expenditure itself. “We should be vigilant sure,” he admonished, “but to suggest we shouldn’t stick to our commitments is foolhardy.”
Mr. Fontana, of course, has been all over trying to break commitments made by the previous council.
And it is routine now for council members to repeat arguments made by others, sometimes immediately thereafter. Or to ask questions that have just been answered.
Third, council is getting more and more bogged down in minutia. This could be because we now seem to have committees for everything but the outhouse, to quote a politician from my days as a rookie reporter out west.
On last night’s agenda there were perhaps two things of strategic importance – water and sewer rates certainly, which got a decent airing although only at the periphery of the issue; and funding economic development, which really didn’t get aired at all. Total elapsed time for these two subjects was less than two hours.
The dinner break was 45 minutes. Which leaves about 4.75 hours more or less unaccounted for.