Baseball legend Yogi Berra is famously attributed to the quote, “It's déjà vu all over again.”
There are members of the public, and city council, getting that same feeling after Mayor Joe Fontana has once again been accused of holding a private meeting prior to a vote on final approval of the city budget.
“We didn’t discuss budget, we didn’t discuss city matters formally. This wasn’t a secret meeting,” Fontana said of his Saturday (Feb. 23) lunch. “This was a social luncheon I was attending in a public place. That is all it was.”
It was only a year ago, prior to final passage of the most controversial budget in recent city history, Fontana and several members of council met for a private lunch. That lunch would lead to an investigation by Ontario Ombudsman André Marin.
Marin’s report would clear Fontana, along with councillors Bud Polhill, Stephen Orser, Dale Henderson, Paul Van Meerbergen and Denise Brown, of any wrongdoing. However, Marin did caution that the public perception of such a meeting wasn’t good for public confidence in their council.
This time around, Fontana said his lunch with councillors Orser, Henderson and Joe Swan, was something he arranged as nothing more than “efficient use” of his time. Fontana said he invited Orser because the councillor wanted to talk about the McCormick’s property, while he extended invitations to Henderson and Swan because they wanted to discuss prosperity issues.
At that point, Fontana said, councillors Bud Polhill, Paul Van Meerberen and Sandy White coincidentally strolled into the restaurant during the 45-50 minute lunch.
“The fact a couple of others managed to come in there was a surprise to me; I didn’t invited them,” said Fontana. “We started off with four, then all of the sudden it was five or six, and so they put us in the back room.”
Orser spoke briefly with local media prior to the Civic Works Committee meeting on Monday (Feb. 25). The Ward 4 councillor said he would make a statement but wouldn't answer further questions.
“For the record, I’ve participated in no secret meeting with a quorum of council. I will have dinner with whoever I want, round two,” Orser said.
In alluding to famous comments he made a year ago about having “din din” with whomever he wanted to, Orser was clearly expressing frustration that his — or the mayor’s — meal plans would be considered newsworthy.
One council member who clearly disagrees with Orser’s perception is Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler. Baechler, among the most vocal of last year’s lunch at the Harmony Grand Buffet, said she was concerned about not only the perception of the meeting, but the fact several members of council would apparently disregard Marin’s warning.
“I think the most important thing for the public is transparent, open government, which means you do all your business in public, except for those small exceptions,” Baechler said. “And when you are meeting with a quorum of a committee or council, discussing city business, you are doing the business of the government behind closed doors.”
Baechler said she has heard “this isn’t the first time” the group has met and that no matter what the topic of conversation, it would still be an unwise decision in light of the Ombudsman’s report.
“I think André Marin fired a salvo across the bow of council, saying you are walking a very fine line that is very problematic around the rules of the Municipal Act,” Baechler said. “Do you value integrity and process? Are you open and accountable? If you are inclined to do business behind closed doors, that is the epitome of the old boys’ club. We have to be open and progressive and seven of us don’t seem to be getting the invitation to the party.”
Fontana said he didn’t feel the lunch would be an issue for the Obudsman to get involved in as he often meets with members of council either on the phone, in his office, or out at a public establishment.
“This was not a meeting, it wasn’t planned; I was going for a lunch break. There was no agenda. I was just going for a hamburger,” Fontana said.
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