BLOG #543: Six weeks ago when a London citizen asked questions about council abuse of the indemnification bylaw he was assured that had never happened. That was then; the story might be different now.
Friday, April 13, 2012 – London
Back in late February, Londoner Oliver Hobson appeared before city council’s finance and administrative services committee to ask about council members involved in the ombudsman’s case hiring lawyers.
“The city’s bylaw in current form is a license for councillors to take public money,” Mr. Hobson charged.
The case he was referring at the time was the ombudsman’s inquiry into the in camera meeting city council held during which it decided to oust Occupy London from Victoria Park. The bylaw in question is the Council Member Indemnification Bylaw passed in 1993.
But ironically a luncheon held just the week before, on Feb. 21, now has the ombudsman investigating yet another complaint about city council. This time it’s the Harmony Six – the mayor and five councillors who lunched together on budget day at Harmony Grand Buffet. Was this an illegal city council meeting and, if so, what business was discussed?
Mr. Hobson’s suggestion to the finance committee was to strip out a section of the indemnification bylaw which allows council members to hire a lawyer of their own choosing. He also recommended the bylaw introduce the possibility of recouping costs if council members lose in court.
In explaining how the bylaw works, city solicitor Jim Barber said an elected official is covered if “engaged in a civil, criminal or administrative case in the capacity of his being a member of council.” It wouldn’t matter whether his actions were aligned with council or not.
Councillor Joni Baechler took umbrage with that at the time, ultimately pushing through a motion to review the scope of the existing bylaw. In her view, “you could be as reckless as you want and it’s covered. I don’t think taxpayers would want that.”
Mayor Joe Fontana didn’t disagree with the review, but added this assurance: “This is not something that has been abused by members of this council or, as far as I know, by any council.”
Six weeks later, however, the mayor may want to take that statement back. This week, at the tail end of a very long council meeting, Councillor Dale Henderson, a member of the Harmony Six, introduced a motion that the indemnification bylaw “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.”
Mayor Fontana, along with the other members of the Harmony Six, voted yes and it was passed.
Based on what was originally given as the purpose of the Harmony gathering – just a casual little luncheon among friends who also happen to be council members – it would not appear to fall within the conditions of the bylaw. This week Councillor Henderson has changed his story; business was discussed, in particular the reduction of reserve funds for affordable housing for which he’d gotten an earful from constituents. If this is true, the meeting would be a contravention of the Municipal Act – illegal, in other words – and would not appear to fall within the conditions of the bylaw.
It would, however, certainly seem to fall within the category of abuse by members of this council.
Yesterday, on Steve Garrison’s London in The Morning show on CJBK, Councillor Henderson provided the year’s best rant on the subject of councillors being questioned by anybody about anything – calling the ombudsman’s inquiry tantamount to a police state and the provincial curbs on private council meetings a violation of his free speech.
There is so much incorrect and misinformed about Councillor Henderson’s argument that it’s pointless to attempt a rebuttal. That someone could get elected with such a tenuous grasp of the principles of open and accountable government is scary and it certainly gives impetus to the growing campaign for recall legislation.
Meantime, though, the Harmony Six are now free to lawyer up on our dime. What do you want to bet we picked up the tab for lunch too.