True cost of luncheon may be on election day (column)
London Community News
Unlike the Canadian system of guilty or not guilty, the Scottish Criminal Code offers a third choice: Not proven, as in “we have our suspicions, but the prosecution hasn’t convinced us.”
In rendering judgment on the case of the Harmony Six, Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin also conjures another option: Not smart.
Mr. Marin’s task was to decide whether a luncheon the mayor and five councillors had last Feb. 21 at the Harmony Grand Buffet just a couple of hours before the final budget vote constituted an improper closed meeting.
As you’ve undoubtedly read or heard by now Mr. Marin concluded, no it wasn’t improper.
But, he wrote in a lucid and rather entertaining decision released on the cusp of the long weekend:
“At a minimum, the decision on the part of six members of council to meet publicly for lunch in a local restaurant just before a critical and controversial vote on the budget was ill-conceived. The attendees do not appear to have given any thought to public perception or the potential for questions to arise around the fairness of the subsequent committee and council meetings.”
Ever since the luncheon, most members of the Harmony Six — besides the mayor they included Denise Brown, Dale Henderson, Stephen Orser, Bud Polhill and Paul Van Meerbergen — have treated this whole affair as a joke. Mr. Marin repeats Councillor Orser’s famous quote at the time: “I’ll have din-din with whoever I want.”
And, adds Mr. Marin, they “further inflamed the situation by labelling critics as politically motivated ‘sore losers’.” The six were even critical of the investigation by the ombudsman’s office itself, which Councillor Henderson at one point likened to a “police state.”
Let’s be clear: This was never about who was having din-din with whom. This was about the conduct of public officials who have taken a vow to uphold rules that pertain to their position. And one of them, very clearly, relates to when and how elected officials are to meet and to conduct themselves when they do.
Mr. Marin’s investigation concludes there was no discussion at the one-hour luncheon, during which the participants apparently came and left at different times, about the budget or how each would vote.
It should be stated, however, his sources for that conclusion are the six council members themselves. There were no corroborating witnesses.
Two hours after lunch, city council began a long and final deliberation on the 2012 budget, a key provision of which passed 8-7. The budget itself was approved 9-6. In both cases all six din-diners voted in favour. That included Councillor Henderson who had, according to media reports, expressed serious reservations just days previous.
“The controversy generated in this case demonstrates the need for members of council to be mindful of the fact that while in public office their conduct is subject to public scrutiny,” Mr. Marin wrote.
Whether the Harmony Six get this remains to be seen. So far there’s been no suggestion any of them agree with Mr. Marin’s finding that what they did on Feb. 21 was dumb — and maybe worse, deliberately stupid.
A sizeable cross-section of the public, however, clearly does get it — and the cheque for this little nose-thumbing luncheon might arrive at the ballot box in 2014.
Philip McLeod is a longtime London journalist who writes a regular blog on civic affairs. Email email@example.com.