Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin is blasting Mayor Joe Fontana and six councillors for holding what he calls an improper closed meeting.
At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon Marin said “It seems to be these councillors have had a hard time understanding the concept of open governments…There’s no doubt that this is a message for other municipalities out there that you don’t get a free card to get out of jail. We don’t just buy any story you want to tell us.”
The long-awaited report was released Tuesday morning and Marin calls the informal meeting at Billy T’s Tap and Grill back in February "a clear violation” of the Municipal Act.
“This case is a cautionary tale…underscoring the risks of so-called social gatherings that are really a shield for clandestine meetings to further city business away from public scrutiny,” Marin wrote.
The ombudsman made three recommendations for the city:
- Adopt a policy or guidelines to ensure council is educated on open meeting requirements.
- Refrain from using the pretext of social gatherings to conduct city business behind closed doors.
- Council members need to be vigilant in adhering to their individual and collective obligations to ensure compliance with the Municipal Act.
Bud Polhill, Joe Swan, Stephen Orser, Dale Henderson, Paul Van Meerbergen and Sandy White were the councillors in attendance at Billy T’s. Each of them and the mayor was interviewed twice by the investigators.
In his report Marin wrote that council members “insisted the gathering was purely social, unplanned and occurred by chance,” but the sworn accounts were “confusing and at times conflicted with each other.”
He added at his press conference that the evidence clearly points to a deliberate attempt “to conduct business under the guise of a social gathering.”
At a special council meeting Tuesday afternoon, there was repeated rejection of Marin’s findings by those implicated.
Swan said “The ombudsman has twisted the meaning of the word meeting.”
Orser said “It wasn't a meeting, you can spin doctor it all you want, at the end of the day why would you go to a public restaurant to hold a secret meeting?”
Fontana added “His conclusions are wrong. This was not a meeting of the IEPC or any other committee or council.”
But those who did not attend the lunch at Billy T’s expressed concern about the impact the actions of their colleagues could have on the reputation of those at city hall.
Councillor Paul Huber says “It attacks the trust the public have, not in one particular councillor, but in council as a whole. An ounce of humility on the part of those who participated would really go a long way to that.”
Not the first investigation for London
The meeting at Billy T’s is not the first time the ombudsman has investigated a lunch gathering of London’s council.
A lunch meeting in February 2012 involving five of the same council members; Fontana, Henderson, Orser, Polhill and Van Meerbergen, as well as Councillor Denise Brown, also sparked complaints and an investigation.
At the time, the ombudsman found the lunch did not constitute a violation of the open meeting requirements of the Municipal Act.
However, he did warn that “Lunch in a social restaurant just before a critical and controversial vote on the budget was ill-conceived.”
Speaking on Tuesday Marin says the five seem to have learned nothing from the investigation that was triggered the first time.
With a few days following the meeting at Billy T’s the ombudsman received 60 complaints, the most they’ve ever received about a closed meeting.