Council struggles with limited leverage (column)
London Community News
When push comes to shove, how far can city council go in telling the boards and commissions, which run its various operations, what to do?
In effect, that was what Councillor Dale Henderson wondered about during the budget debate last February as council battled to keep taxes down while boards and commissions fought for increases. “Why do we have the responsibility to pay, but no authority?”
Council does have authority. Wielding it is not always easy as was made apparent in three different contexts last week.
In the first case, while taxpayers provide the funds for the London Police Service, city council cannot tell the police chief what to do — a limitation set out very clearly in provincial statutes. Therefore, although council has passed a Nuisance Bylaw in hopes of controlling riotous behaviour in neighbourhoods such as Fleming Drive, it has no ability to tell police when or how to enforce it.
The police department, of course, isn’t exactly a business. That’s not quite as true of London Transit, the second case, which runs as a commission but on business principles. City taxpayers provide nearly 40 per cent of the public transportation company’s operating costs by way of subsidies; the remainder comes from passenger fares.
City council wants London Transit to remove buses from a section of Dundas Street to reduce congestion and noxious exhaust fumes to create a more pedestrian friendly environment. London Transit is balking, arguing the cost will be upwards of $750,000.
Council does have leverage here. Five years ago, the provincial Municipal Act was amended to give cities such as London broad powers to establish, dissolve and change local boards and commissions. So in 2009 council passed a bylaw which sets out how London Transit operates — which is as an agent of the city “to operate, repair, control and manage the local transportation system.”
However, the bylaw says London Transit “shall possess and may exercise all the powers, rights, authorities and privileges” with respect to the operation. That suggests significant autonomy. But here’s the kicker: If there is a difference of opinion, “the council may by resolution give the commission a directive.”
Council hasn’t done that yet; it has merely asked London Transit to scope out the costs and consider the idea. Council can also direct London Transit where to find the money.
The third case is trickier. London Hydro operates as a stand-alone business, fully incorporated, with the City of London as its sole shareholder. Its operational role is to buy power and distribute it to residential and commercial customers within the city’s boundaries.
Power rates are set by the province. London Hydro makes its money on what it charges for distribution.
This year London Hydro will give the city a $3 million dividend and pay an additional $4.5 million in interest on a $60 million loan from the city.
Several years ago London Hydro also paid a special dividend of $20 million and council hinted last week it might like more.
But the city’s power over London Hydro, while ultimately absolute, can only be applied indirectly through the company’s board of directors, which council appoints. They are bound to run London Hydro prudently, so council might not get its way anytime soon.
Philip McLeod, a longtime London journalist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.