Ombudsman Ontario

Ombudsman Ontario

October 22, 2013 13:00 ET

Ombudsman Finds London Council Members Met Illegally: Billy T's Gathering a "Betrayal of Public Trust"

LONDON, ONTARIO--(Marketwired - Oct. 22, 2013) - Ontario Ombudsman André Marin's latest investigation into closed meetings of London city council has found that a gathering by the mayor and six city councillors in the back room of a local eatery was in "clear violation" of the law.

"Backroom, backdoor, closed-door meetings – organized by and participated in by elected officials – are inimical to the democratic process," Mr. Marin says in his report, In the Back Room, released today in London. "This case is a cautionary tale for municipal governments, underscoring the risks of so-called social gatherings that are really a shield for clandestine meetings to further city business away from public scrutiny."

The Ombudsman's Office received 60 complaints – the most ever for a single closed meeting case – after the seven council members met on Saturday, February 23 at Billy T's Tap and Grill: Mayor Joe Fontana and Councillors Dale Henderson, Stephen Orser, Bud Polhill, Joe Swan, Paul Van Meerbergen, and Sandy White. Although all insisted otherwise, the Ombudsman found this "was not a social gathering or happenstance coming together of council members for a friendly lunch. It was a betrayal of public trust, and diminished the credibility of the council participants in the eyes of London citizens, other council colleagues and all Ontarians."

The investigation involved two rounds of interviews in which witnesses were under oath, an examination of the premises where the meeting took place, and extensive review of evidence, including councillors' cell phone records. Based on all of this, "I do not accept the explanations that it was mere chance or accident that brought seven members of London council – all well-publicized members of the 'Fontana Eight' – together in a backroom gathering at Billy T's on February 23, 2013, just five days before a key budget vote," Mr. Marin says in the report.

"The available evidence… indicates that this innocent explanation also defies common sense and lacks credibility – especially given that upon arrival at Billy T's, all seven chose to congregate behind a closed door in the back room. This was a literal backroom, backdoor, closed-door meeting of seven council members."

Ontario's Municipal Act requires all meetings of municipal councils, committees and local boards to be held in public, with narrow exceptions. Informal gatherings of council members can be illegal meetings if the participants "come together for the purpose of exercising the power or authority of the council or the committee or for the purpose of doing the groundwork necessary to exercise that power," Mr. Marin says.

The group at Billy T's represented a legal quorum of four of the six standing committees of London council. Although various topics were discussed during the lunch and all participants denied discussing city business, the Ombudsman found evidence that members of the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee "engaged in conduct that - at minimum - laid the groundwork for council members to exercise their power and authority," with regard to a $25,000 Trillium Foundation grant. "This is precisely the sort of mischief the open meeting requirements of the Municipal Act seek to prevent," he says.

The Ombudsman stressed that it is not illegal for councillors to have social gatherings or discussions outside of public meetings. "It is a healthy thing in a democracy for government officials to share information informally before making policy decisions," he says in the report. "What does threaten the heart of democracy is when a quorum of council or a standing committee improperly gathers outside of council chambers, to the exclusion of the public ear and eye."

This is not the first time the Ombudsman has investigated complaints about London council members meeting at a restaurant. Almost exactly a year prior to the Billy T's incident, five of the same council members met at the Harmony Grand Buffet restaurant before a final budget vote. In that case, the Ombudsman found there was insufficient evidence to prove the lunch was an illegal meeting, but he warned it was ill-advised because it aroused public suspicion.

"It is of great concern that these seven council members appear to have learned nothing from last year's investigation involving a similar set of facts," he says in today's report.

The seven council members were represented by a Toronto law firm and given a chance to respond to the Ombudsman's findings. Among other things, the lawyers disagreed with the Ombudsman's definition of an illegal meeting. Their full response is appended to the report.

There are no legal consequences for violations of the Municipal Act, but the Ombudsman is empowered to make recommendations. In this case, he recommends that the City of London adopt written guidelines on the open meeting requirements, and that council members be educated on them and refrain from "using the pretext of social gatherings to conduct city business behind closed doors."

The Ombudsman investigates public complaints about closed meetings in 191 of Ontario's 444 municipalities (the rest have appointed other investigators). He will release his second annual report on his municipal closed meeting investigations later this fall.

For full report and video of the Ombudsman's news conference, go to www.ombudsman.on.ca

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