Councillors and London’s mayor, who have been summoned for a second round of interviews by the Ontario ombudsman over a February lunch meeting, are considering legal representation.
The ombudsman was called in to investigate after receiving 60 complaints following a lunch meeting at Billy T’s Tap and Grill involving Mayor Joe Fontana and six other members of city council.
There were allegations that the lunch constituted an illegal strategy session where city business was discussed, though everyone in attendance has denied the allegations.
Now Fontana and councillors Bud Polhill, Dale Henderson, Paul Van Meerbergen and Sandy White are considering using taxpayer-funded lawyers for the follow-up testimony.
Fontana said “We are just seeking indemnity provisions, whether or not we use them or not will come later.”
The by-law that covers this states in part that “The Corporation shall indemnify a member of the council…in respect to any civil, criminal or administrative action…by reason of being or having been a member of the Council.”
But while they have the right to ask for a lawyer, whether they should is another issue, Councillor Joni Baechler said Tuesday.
“No they shouldn’t have access to a lawyer in a sense that this is something they all told us they were doing privately, it was simply meeting over burgers and they weren’t discussing city business…If you were not discussing city business then why on earth would taxpayers pay for your lawyer.”
She believes the rules on indemnification should cover councillors, but only when it’s in regard to their work as a member of council.
Local lawyer John Judson of Lerners Law Firm says while there are provisions that could bring a fine or jail time for failing to testify or giving false or misleading information, those are the only real consequences.
"I'm always amused at people who think they need legal counsel if the only reason they need legal counsel is fear that they will not tell the truth. The easiest way to deal with that is to always tell the truth."
Ultimately, even if the ombudsman does find that the meeting violated the Municipal Act there are actually few, if any, consequences for individual councillors.
If a business or person felt they were negatively impacted by the meeting, they could also only go after the city itself for restitution, not individual councillors.
The next round of interviews regarding the meeting are expected on June 19th.
Investigation prompts discussion of role of ombudsman
Several frustrated city councillors are now openly discussing firing the outspoken Andre Marin as the closed meeting investigator for London.
Councillor Stephen Orser is calling for the Ontario Ombudsman to be fired, “I want him to render his decision and then I will make that move. I don't want to do it as a retaliatory thing, I want to do it after he's done.”
Orser says he doesn’t want to interfere with the current investigation into the gathering at Billy T's, so he'll wait formally move to replace the ombudsman.
Councillor Bud Polhill agrees with considering a new direction, “I think it’s time to look at it and see what other options are out there. I think we already have a list of options.”
Firing the ombudsman, who is paid by the province, would require the city to begin a process to hire its own closed-meeting watchdog, likely a local investigator contracted and paid by the city.
And while it would come with a cost, a local option could be more responsive than the busy ombudsman.
Polhill also considers Marin’s Twitter use inappropriate, an issue that Sudbury’s council also raised when it chose to replace the ombudsman in February.