By Sean Meyer/London Community News
A lunch by several members of council prior to the final approval of the city budget on Feb. 21 has generated discussions over the difference between a meeting and a friendly get-together.
Five councillors, including Bud Polhill, Stephen Orser, Dale Henderson, Paul Van Meerbergen, and Denise Brown, who were briefly joined by Mayor Joe Fontana, sat down for lunch prior to the meeting where the city budget was ultimately approved.
Several members of council said nothing inappropriate took place, while others question the optics of the get-together whether the members talked budget or not.
Polhill, Ward 1 councillor, who provided the names, stressed that not all members of the group were even present at any one time during the lunch.
He doesn’t believe the public shouldn’t be concerned by the lunch, as there was no quorum. Polhill said he was concerned people were using the lunch for political reasons.
The mayor also said it would be nice to be able to have an informal get-together without it being considered a meeting under the Municipal Act. To be considered an official meeting of council or a committee there must be a quorum, which in the simplest terms, would take half the members plus one.
“There was a luncheon, I happened to pop in, I was invited, stayed 20 or 30 minutes, listened to some of their concerns,” said Fontana who called a Municipal Act rule that limits what councillors can do together, “ridiculous.”
Brown, the Ward 11 councillor, said unlike assumptions being made by some members of the public, budget issues were not being discussed. The group, Brown said, got together for lunch ahead of what they knew was going to be a long meeting. The budget meeting itself ended up running more than seven hours.
Brown also said if the group was attempting to meet in secret, they wouldn’t have chosen a public restaurant.
“We didn’t have a meeting whatsoever; we had a lunch. We went to a public place so it would not be seen as a meeting,” Brown said. “If we wanted to, I am pretty sure any of us could have come up with spot for a private meeting.”
Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler, who wasn’t one of the members taking part in the lunch, said she was “absolutely” concerned about such a get-together. Baechler said it is one thing for members to have discussions for clarification about an issue, but quite another to have collective talks outside of an official meeting.
“Members of council are equal participants at the council table,” Baechler said. “When you start pulling aside a select group it is seen to be backdoor deals and private deals. So yes, I have a big problem with it.”
Baechler said councillors having been warned against trying to hold such meetings when a quorum of council or committee is achieved.
“It is very clear it is a quorum of council or committees or boards and commissions. We have been warned a number of times and it is not acceptable from my perspective,” Baechler said. “Everything we do is supposed to be done in public unless it is for legal, financial or personnel matters.”
Like Baechler, Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe is concerned about the lunch. For Branscombe, the optics of the lunch aren’t good, particular in light of how the budget meeting worked out. Having been on the losing end of several 8-7 votes that night, Branscombe said she understands how the public could see the lunch as inappropriate.
“In my view, and obviously I have no proof, I am sure they weren’t meeting to shoot the breeze an hour before the budget meeting,” Branscombe said. “Obviously we can’t prove anything, but it is very interesting how every vote was 8-7. It leads one to believe that some things were discussed and settled long before we got to the meeting.”
Polhill chalks up criticism about the meeting to petulance by those that didn’t get their way on budget night. “It is being used as an excuse because their particular suggestions failed. Tough, that’s what happens.”
Ward 14 Councillor Sandy White said she didn’t attend the lunch, but that she had heard about it. White, who has often questioned how members of council treat each other around the horseshoe, said she believes it could actually be a good thing.
“If they were just having lunch, I think it is great they were getting along. It sounds like they were just having lunch and relaxing.”