Political Analyst and Observer, Bill Longworth's, Weekly "Eye on City Hall" Columns, as published in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada's Oshawa Central Newspaper

Monday, June 7, 2010

One for You and Two for Me!... Are some city politicians on the take?

“Eye on City Hall”

A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and unfiltered opinion
Bill Longworth, City Hall Reporter
June 7, 2010

While we undoubtedly have one or two city council members who are there to perform some ethical and valuable public service, we have others who are there to line their pockets with higher salaries than they’ve ever earned or could earn in the private sector, who play every ethical question so close to the line so as to seemingly erase the boundaries between right and wrong, and skim off every dollar in every way they can for their personal entitlements.

With the release of the recent Oliphant Inquiry commenting on the brown bags of cash former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney received from Airbus lobbyist Karl Heinz Shreiber, questions arise as to the honesty of elected officials everywhere and at every level. Mulroney, of course, stuffed the cash in a New York safety deposit box “forgetting” to declare it as income to Canada’s Income Tax authorities until it became public information.

Recently, Canada’s Federal Parliamentarians rebuffed Sheila Fraser, Canada’s Auditor General, from auditing the half billion dollars of expense money Canada’s 308 MP’s and 105 Senators burn through annually.

And recently, Oshawa City Council voted against public disclosure of their own expense records. What do they all want to hide? Is ethical public service less important to our elected officials than drowning their chops in the public trough? And isn't this secrecy contrary to the city's transparency policy?

To assure citizens that city politicians were acting in the city’s interest, City Council passed a by-law on October 14, 2008, putting in place a Council Charter as a guideline for the conduct of members of Council. It provides a single public statement of Council values, responsibilities and desired behaviour.

It stated, “Public service is a public trust, and as such, Council members hold positions of privilege. Every elected municipal official should be committed to the highest standards of ethical behavior and discharge their duties in a manner that recognizes, and is committed to, the well-being of the community."

The Charter Along with the transparency and accountability policy, we were told, will help ensure that the public interest is protected and Oshawa residents may have trust in the integrity and impartiality of their local government.” Good luck on this!

Council actions show that these are simply PR Documents which misrepresent the day-to-day values and actions of many of our politicians. These documents make it clear that the principles and values declared are operating guidelines only without any censure processes. Good thing for some of the politicians because some continue to operate in ways that most citizens would declare unethical, unfair, dishonest, and unprincipled.

Even though they were passed as bylaws…and you and I know that all bylaws have enforcement penalties---but not these bylaws, that have to do with council actions and behaviours.

In any case, we thought we’d look at some of their principles and just see how they’re working for the citizens of our city.

The charter says the key role of council is to “Act as the guardian of the public interest.” So we’d ask Mayor John Gray who trotted out this Council Charter with great fanfare how spending $46,000 of taxpayer money for the MBA’s was acting as a guardian of the public interest; how secretly spending $45,000 of taxpayer money on the Stephen Colbert Day (the Mayor’s $45,000 birthday party) was acting in the public interest; and we’d ask council how demolishing city arenas in older Oshawa and rebuilding north of Taunton was acting in the interest of the less mobile children in these older sections of Oshawa; and we’d ask council how needlessly demolishing our council chamber and “A’ wing of city hall and rebuilding at a cost exceeding $20 million is acting in the public interest. We’d ask the same question about the $40 Million GM Centre in downtown that loses $3 million annually was acting as a guardian of the public interest and about the $250,000 Cullen Gardens Miniatures purchase. We could go on asking this question about most of the city politician’s actions since this same gang has been on council.

The Charter’s first paragraph preamble says, “Municipal Council members hold positions of privilege. As leaders of the community, they are held to a higher standard of behavior and must discharge their duties in a manner that recognizes a fundamental commitment to the well-being of the community, and maintains and enhances public confidence and trust in the Corporation.

So Councillor Brian Nicholson attends Oshawa’s Committee of Adjustment, presided over by his spouse, Mrs. Kyle Nicholson, on behalf of one of his political donors in order to get development approvals through the Committee. What? Assisting his and his wife’s and his brother’s political donor to get development approvals!!! And this was for the selling a portion of Chopin Park initially assessed at over $180,000 for only $15000, with the city picking up all the standard developer costs of over $10,000 to allow the developer to build 24 apartment units? We haven’t established whether there was going to be a “sweetheart deal” with all of the lot levy developer charges but fortunately with the widespread media attention to this sell-off of our parkland, the deal did not get council approval.

It’s interesting that Nicholson went to bat for his political donor friend even though city planning officials had always recommended against approval. We don’t know what discount was proposed over the $408,000 the developer would have been expected to pay in development charges for the 24 units he was proposing. As former long time City and Regional Councillor, Bruce McArthur wrote, this guy was certainly one "lucky" developer to have a friend like Councillor Brian Nicholson.

So much for that “higher standard of behavior and discharging of duties in a manner that recognizes a fundamental commitment to the well-being of the community.

Nicholson's action raises serious concerns. Are politicians expediting development and selling their votes for political donations? This is an extremely serious question and an important reason to make corporate donations illegal and publicly fund election campaigns.

And what do you think about the ethics of a city politician representing a donor in front of his wife to get some development favour? Such favours are all at the expense of Oshawa taxpayers, of course.

The question of city political appointments for the spouses of politicians is very questionable and smells of nepotism, corruption, and profiteering. Nepotism and Cronyism are both defined as political corruption by wikopedia. All city hall actions should be squeaky clean and at arms lengths. Nicholson, no doubt, lobbied and voted for his wife to get that chairmanship of Oshawa’s Committee of Adjustment…but representing one of his political donors in front of his wife is reprehensible in all ways and stinks of rot. Former City and Regional Councillor and now Mayor Candidate, Cathy Clarke, lobbied and voted for her spouse Michael to get the City Harbour Commission Appointment.

All these connections sounds like Chicago politics in the day of iron fisted Mayor Richard J Daley.

The requirement of the City Charter in, “Ensuring the accountability and transparency of all decisions and operations of the municipality,” does not exist for this City Council. The city still precedes virtually every meeting of council with an in-camera session. And the Mayor personally dictated the $46,000 funding for his birthday party, the Stephen Colbert Day, and even city councillors could not get the cost for this until one filed a freedom of information request at a cost of $110. But the truly telling example of negating this principle was the Ward/General Vote Plebiscite and for which the Mayor said the city had no responsibility to inform the public of the question, its meaning, the difference it would make, etc. saying all this communication responsibility was that of concerned citizens themselves.

In respect of the Charter Principle, “Act as the guardian of the public interest," one need look no further than Councillor April Cullen having the gall to apply to use city tax money to fund her MBA degree tuitions, and when she is on her last courses, announces that she will not be running again, and takes an instructional job with Durham College, a job that she would be unqualified for without her taxpayer funded MBA. Her $100,000 political salary, I guess, was not enough for her to pay her own tuitions, despite the fact that many parents and their children go deep in debt to pay for their own education. Cullen justified the taxpayer cost as “only 48¢ per citizen over her four year term…as if she places costs above principles. Shame!

Usually when one has an employer funded tuition, one is required to work for a declared number of years to insure employer return on the investment. Pay back of the tuitions is now necessary as taxpayers are receiving no benefit from this expenditure. City council must vote to withhold Cullen’s tuition costs from the healthy retiring allowances she will receive. Of course, an ethical politician would direct that the tuitions would be withheld. We’ll keep an interested eye on how this develops.

And, of course, if city council was really interested in acting as a guardian of the public interest, they would have stopped approvals of these tuitions at the beginning. But politicians wouldn’t want to step on other politicians sense of entitlements, would they, for fear their own entitlements would be withheld.

We’d ask how the extension of health benefits to retiring and defeated politicians recently approved at the final hours of this council prior to the upcoming election is acting in the public interest, or is it, as is so much of council business, acting in the politician’s interest.

The Charter Principle, “Treat each other, City staff and members of the public with courtesy, understanding, trust and respect, at all times,” is a real laugher. To hear the bickering and the accusations and to witness the widespread council tension, conflict, and infighting is shameful although this is to be expected when all politicians are competitors for the same votes in the upcoming "General Vote" municipal elections. Council behavior seems to be more like a school yard brawl than adults working cohesively for the benefits of this city. And council members sometime extend this lack of respect and aggressiveness to citizens making presentations to council and its committees. With this negative and bullying behavior extended to each other and to private citizens, we have a dysfunctional and non-productive council…and Oshawa is the loser.

A key element of the City Charter is that politicians “Not use the influence of his or her public office for any purpose other than for the exercise of his or her official duties.” This Charter principle is obviously not important to Councillor Brian Nicholson. He has not only represented his political donors in front of the city’s Committee of Adjustment, he has used his political office to represent individuals, presumably at a fee, at other hearings. Apparently Nicholson presented his Regional and City Councillor business card at a Landlord and Tenant Board hearing in Toronto as his credential.

The city subsequently received a letter from Bryan Hackett, Hackett Simpson Tripodi LLP, Barristers & Solicitors, on behalf of Adel Kirloss, Landlord, inquiring as to whether Councillor Nicholson’s appearance before the Landlord and Tenant Board as an agent for the Tenant concerning a Landlord & Tenant matter (TST-01070-IN) with respect to 196 Spadina Road, Toronto was authorized by City Council.

It would be interesting to check to see whether city or regional council or committee meetings were scheduled on the day(s) of this hearing to establish whether Nicholson was putting his own financial interests ahead of his responsibility to voters.

Perhaps, the law office involved should have filed a complaint against Nicholson with the law society for acting as a "non-qualified" agent for a defendant in a pseudo-legal hearing.

Such complaints in the past have resulted in severe penalties for politicians which ultimately resulted in huge legal costs and the loss of their council seat.

Space limitations here prohibit me from further exploding the myth that the City Council Charter has on assuring positive values, ethics and behavior of city council members.

The Charter was only a PR Document designed to fool the gullible public about the true actions, attitudes, and motivations of many of our city council members.

While only some members of city council have been named in this article, more are guilty of serious transgressions. For example, all those who voted for the General Vote---Councillors Pidwerbecki, Kolodzie, Parkes, Sholdra, Marimpietri, Henry, and Mayor Gray were all voting out of their own self-interest and do not deserve your support in the upcoming Oct. 25, 2010 municipal elections. They put their own interests in getting re-elected until their death or retirement in front of the city's interest in having a representative, accountable, functional, and productive city government.

They designed a convoluted and difficult to understand plebiscite question and followed a strategy to limit public information and discussion in order to catch voters "cold" in the voting booth with a question they didn't understand, had not heard or considered, and worded in a convoluted way such that the "Yes" vote most voters would give, if they didn't understand the question, resulted in the change the politicians wanted.

This is vote fixing, a manipulation of the public, and an underhanded assault on this country's democratic principles.

City voters must throw out the incompetent and self-serving bums at the earliest opportunity if we are to get this city on track again.

City voters must elect a local government that works!

Be sure to follow Bill’s radio broadcasts, “Eye on City Hall”,
every Monday, 6-9 pm EST, on http://www.ocentral.com/thewave/

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