Mayor needs more friends on council (column)
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Nov 01, 2012  |  Vote 0    0

Mayor needs more friends on council (column)

Our London

The difficulties London’s mayor seems to be having accounting for how he pays his bills has gone viral across Canada, but it is far from being the most troubling problem with numbers the city faces in trying to attract investment. The biggest issue is eight-seven — the two numbers that represent the narrowly divided city council on virtually every important subject from budgets to planning principles. That’s the view of a City Hall insider who wishes to remain anonymous, given the unsettled political climate. Council’s inability to strongly endorse any idea will make potential major investors wary, the insider says. “Who wants to invest in something new in London when the council could change its mind tomorrow? One vote is all it would take?” And that’s true. Almost from the very beginning the eight vote combination of the mayor and Bud Polhill, Joe Swan, Stephen Orser, Dale Henderson, Paul Van Meerbergen, Denise Brown and Sandy White has been the deciding factor. The first 8-7 vote, recorded on Dec. 20, 2010, came during a heated debate — ultimately the first of several — on whether some sort of levy should be applied to the tax rate to create an economic development fund. In that case a study, rather than an action to impose the levy, won the day. Ironically Mayor Fontana was on the losing side of that vote, one of few that didn’t follow what became the normal voting pattern. Occasionally Councillor Swan has been the swing vote, as he was the very first time the mayor’s coalition voted as a unit. That was also on Dec. 20, the issue was hiring an outside an outside auditor. The mayor was again on the losing side, but only because Councillor Swan voted yes instead of no. That hasn’t happened very often since as the mayor has piled up a string of narrow victories with Councillor Swan’s help. But a single absence can change the voting dynamic, as has happened more than once, which makes endorsement of any proposal fragile. The 2012 budget was the best example. After months of debate and ultimately some financial finagling, a second year of no tax increase was approved by the typical 8-7 vote — the first time in decades the decision had been so close. In many respects the outcome that night in late February reflected views in the community, but it hasn’t made any more palatable some of fallout from the budget. And that is exactly the point. Over the next five years council is considering spending upwards of $100 million on various economic projects. To make any of them worthwhile investments, the city will also need partnerships with other levels of government and the business sector. Optimistically there’s hope for a leverage rate of four or five dollars for every dollar the city contributes. But if the council isn’t united, or nearly so, around the choices made from a long list of potential projects — and particular if the deciding votes are all 8-7 — how eager will outsiders be to get involved with only two years to the next election that could turn everything over? The City Hall observer argues this is Mayor Fontana’s biggest challenge for the remainder of his term — to find more ‘friends’ on council to ensure broader community support for their decisions. Philip McLeod is a longtime London journalist who writes a regular blog on civic affairs. He can be reached at phil@philipmcleod.ca.

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