BLOG #642: The so-called city council Harmony Six, who had lunch together the day the budget was decided but who insist it wasn’t a city council meeting, now want citizens to pick up the tab for the lawyers they’ve decided they need before they talk to the Ombudsman.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
By now you probably know all about the Harmony Six, the five guys and one gal from city council who got together one Tuesday noon hour in late February for a Chinese smorgasbord just hours before the final vote on London’s 2012 operating and capital budgets.
If you believe what we’ve since been told, this was nothing more than a gathering of friends at Harmony House restaurant, the kind of thing you might do on the golf course in summer. Oh there might have been a little bitty discussion about city council issues, including the looming budget. But really, that wasn’t the purpose, no siree. This was absolutely not a council meeting, official or otherwise.
Mayor Joe Fontana came late and left early, he says; can’t remember whose idea it was for lunch. Nor can the councillors who lingered after the mayor left, including Bud Polhill (Ward 1), Stephen Orser (Ward 4), Dale Henderson (Ward 9), Paul Van Meerbergen (Ward 10) and Denise Brown (Ward 11). Joe Swan (Ward 3) was invited too, he says, although doesn’t recall by whom, but he was too busy and didn’t make it.
Later that day, Feb. 21, the Harmony Six did join their council colleagues at 300 Dufferin St. for the budget debate. And it’s true, they did not vote as a bloc on all issues. Councillor Van Meerbergen, for example, voted to close wading pools; the others did not. Councillors Henderson and Van Meerbergen voted, along with Joni Baechler and Nancy Branscombe, to cut $500,000 more from the police budget; the others did not.
But on the key votes – and there were two in particular that redirected $2.5 million intended for reserves into reducing taxes – the Harmony Six voted as one, along with Councillor Swan and Sandy White (Ward 14).
The vote to cut reserves for affordable housing by $1 million was especially interesting. Councillor Henderson stood with his amigos, in favour at the committee stage. When a community uproar began he told the media he would switch sides on the final vote. But after the chicken balls and red sauce he changed his mind again and voted in favour.
(As an aside, this week Councillor Henderson said he caught all sorts of flak from voters about that as he joined the other side in moving $1 million from the 2011 surplus back to the affordable housing reserve fund. He’s nothing if not inconsistent).
Anyway, a few citizens got to wondering about the line one could draw from Harmony’s buffet tables to the semi-circle at City Hall and complained to the Ontario Ombudsman. After due consideration that worthy agreed to investigate whether the luncheon was a breach of rules governing gatherings of council members.
The Ombudsman’s office has now formally asked to meet with each of the Harmony Six as well as Councillor Swan.
Shortly before 2 o’clock Wednesday morning, just before city council finally adjourned and when only a few media stragglers were still there, Councillor Henderson rose to make this motion: “That Bylaw A-5 entitled ‘Indemnification and Defence of Members of Council Against Liability Incurred While Acting on Behalf of the Municipality’ apply to the members of council who will be interviewed by the Ombudsman of Ontario with respect to the investigation of the gathering held on Feb. 21, 2012.”
In other words, he wants to lawyer up when he talks to the Ombudsman and he wants us to pay for it. I short, he wants Legal Aid for the Harmony Six.
And you know what, the other five members – the mayor, Bud, Steve, Paul and Denise – voted with him. So did Councillor Swan and Bill Armstrong (Ward 2). It passed 8-6.
Now you and me, fellow citizens of the Forest City, are on the hook for the legal bills of the Harmony Six, plus Councillor Swan, for a meeting that – if you believe what they said – actually wasn’t on behalf of the municipality.
Oh wait a minute, now maybe it was. In which case the Harmony Six would have, certainly should have, known it was crossing the line.
So the Harmony Six now has the audacity to bill us for a meeting either that wasn’t city business and shouldn’t be eligible for Legal Aid, or was a city meeting contrary to the rules they should have known about and they are all guilty of stupidity at the least.
Give me a break!
For the record, the Ombudsman has no power in this matter beyond writing a report that says what the Harmony Six did over lunch was wrong or it wasn’t. No one goes to jail, loses his or her seat, gets his or her knuckles rapped or has to stand in the corner. They should, but they don.t. In thousands of interviews the Ombudsman’s office has conducted, no one has ever asked for – or needed – a lawyer until now.
Unhappily the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction over the ethical and moral issues this arrogance raises. So it’s up to us, people.