Counterpoint to Paul Van Meerbergen’s “Inside London” Interview

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A little while ago London Ward 10 Councillor Paul Van Meerbergen was interviewed on Inside London regarding the Ontario Ombudsman’s investigation into the social gathering/illegal meeting at Billy T’s.

If you watch the interview (it’s only 5 minutes), you’ll see he dances around the topic a bit in order to once again point out all of his issues with the Ombudsman’s office. Why? He clearly has a bone to pick with how Mr. Marin does business, and that’s fine. I feel like Mr. Marin steps over the line occasionally as well, but overall he clearly takes his job very seriously and approaches it with a passion many would envy.

Coun. Van Meerbergen pointed out in the interview that this is the third time the Ombudsman has come to London in recent years. He’s right, but he must remember that this is at the behest of citizens inputting complaints and asking the Ombudsman to get involved.

He said he felt like the Councillors at Billy T’s were being told by “left-wing” councillors that if it’s a social gathering you shouldn’t need lawyers, and then said that the Councillors were wrongfully accused.

First, it was primarily members of the public who made the complaints. And many, many members of the public have also stated the same opinion regarding the need for lawyers; the only thing Coun. Van Meerbergen and the other Councillors involved could have been fined or jailed for was lying. Sadly it became clear that that is exactly what several Councillors did during the first round of interviews, which made it necessary for the Ombudsman’s team to come back for a second round of interviews and insist that Councillors testify under oath. We see that in the statements that came out of this where many conflicting answers were provided to the Ombudsman’s team about what was discussed, who was there, how the “gathering” came about, and so on.

Coun. Van Meerbergen clarifies that it’s not Mr. Marin who came to London to conduct the interviews, but his staff. Well no kidding. Does the Councillor really expect the Ombudsman himself to conduct all the interviews? There are thousands of complaints every year, hundreds a day recently solely regarding the investigation into Hydro One’s billing problems. Surely Mr. Marin can’t conduct the interviews himself.

Coun. Van Meerbergen seems to be flabbergasted the investigation took 8 months! 8 months! Of course sir, for a few reasons:

  • This is partially due to the inconsistencies provided during the first round of interviews, which led to a second set of interviews.
  • There are other complaints being investigated at any given time. Hundreds, perhaps thousands. They all require attention.
  • London City Council has taken years to make decisions regarding seemingly simple issues. And he takes issue with a proper investigation taking 8 months? Hmm…

Coun. Van Meerbergern felt this was a witch hunt. I assure you sure, there was no witch hunt. Just citizens of your city and the surrounding area wanting to ensure Councillors and the Mayor were acting in accordance with the law. Many of us are now on high alert given this council’s behaviour since taking office in 2011.

Coun. Van Meerbergen explains that the two lawyers hired (TWO!) helped write the municipal act, that they are experts, and that they found no meeting took place.

Interesting, because we can all find cases of murderers that are convicted of their crimes who had lawyers urge them to plead not guilty and then go to trial. Your lawyer is there to provide you with the best defence possible. Did London City Council expect to pay $97,000 for two lawyers who were going to tell you that you were wrong? Also, Prof. Andrew Sancton wasn’t there and didn’t conduct the interviews, so why you care about his opinion is beyond me.

Coun. Van Meerbergen then goes on to discuss the opportunity cost, and ask the rhetorical question about what cases didn’t get investigated. Unfortunately it sounds like he doesn’t know what the Ombudsman does. All cases that the Ombudsman’s Office determines warrants an investigation is, in fact, investigated based on the number of complaints and initial findings. The Billy T’s situation doesn’t cause other complaints to get thrown aside simply because it occurred.

So there you have it. Rebuttals and answers to Councillor Paul Van Meerbergen’s questions and issues with the Billy T’s investigation. If he doesn’t like it, perhaps he should ensure that he is beyond reproach while in office? It’s what many citizens expect from the representatives at Council anyway.

Big Idea: Homeless Rehab Centre

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What this is:

This is an initiative to end homelessness in London, Ontario. Full stop. A just society does not allow its citizens to spend nights outside, cold, hungry, and lacking access to basic necessities (unless a citizen chooses to live this way). This is an initiative that we see us house the homeless, provide them the assistance they need to get back on their feet, and have them assume responsibility for their futures all at the same time. Support and empowerment hand-in-hand.

What this is not:

This is not an initiative designed to segregate London’s homeless population. Instead the basic premise is that they should not have to travel far to access the help they need to get back on their feet and become fully participating and contributing citizens in society.

The following is an draft sketch/plan using the former Regional Mental Health Care London (a.k.a. London Psychiatric Hospital/LPH) grounds as its basis. Empty public schools no longer required by the Thames Valley District School Board or London District Catholic School board should also be considered, especially for a pilot.

The Homeless Rehab Centre

  • All homeless looking for permanent shelter would find it at the Homeless Rehab Centre (HRC)
  • A permanent address would allow residents to receive mail, obtain an Ontario health card, obtain an Ontario driver’s license or Ontario photo card, etc.
  • One gender would be housed in what I’m calling the Northern Quad
  • The other gender would be housed in the Southern Quad
  • Central building would house:
    • Administration
    • Kitchen
    • Cafeteria
    • Social Workers (Developmental Service Works, Personal Service Works, Social Workers, etc.)
    • Security (minimal, purely for peacekeeping)
    • Training/Classrooms
  • East Building
    • Greenhouse
    • Agricultural Training
  • Medical Exam Building
    • Medical staff (Registered Nurses, Registered Nurse Practitioners, General Practitioner [family doctor])
    • Financial Advisor

Outdoor/Indoor Sports Needs

  • Horseshoe Pit
  • Basketball Court
  • Baseball Diamond
  • Gym Equipment (weights and cardiovascular machines)
  • Ball Hockey
  • Volleyball
  • Dodge Ball

The quads would be renovated so that each resident has their own micro-apartment based on the Freedom Room concept with a few small changes to add a TV and window with black-out blinds/curtains. More about the Freedom Room here.

Basic needs would be provided day one using Homes First’s Personal Needs Kit and Home Starter Kit as a template (minus the pots and pans).

The idea, as stated, is to house the homeless. While they live at the HRC they will be expected to pitch in by cooking meals (after a bit of training/lessons), cleaning, running activities, etc. I feel that self-accountability and responsibility has to be a part of this rehab initiative, as well as providing residents with elements of control over their daily activities.

Residents would be allowed to stay free while they are unemployed. After they have obtained employment, they would work with the on-site financial advisor to address past financial issues they still need to handle, and also determine how much rent they could now afford to pay towards the HRC. In this way the HRC would start building towards a self-sustainable funding model.

Eventually, once the person has a handle on their finances and a high enough gross income to afford more rent, they would be provided an additional 90 days at the HRC before being moved into more traditional affordable housing. Again this would provide a measure of self-accountability and responsibility, while still providing them with access to the HRC’s resources (social workers, health care, financial advisor, etc.) for another 6 months to 1 year.

I don’t yet have cost estimates put together because I have yet to gather some key metrics, including:

  • The number of homeless people in London
  • Number of staff that would be required
  • Average salaries for those staff

One way to help off-set some of these costs would be to ask existing organizations to either move to, or open satellite locations at, the HRC. Organizations like London Intercommunity Health Centre could lease space and provide health services, and/or a nurse practitioner-led clinic could do the same. A financial advisor could provide fee-for-service, volunteer their time, bank on commissions from investments and insurance sold to HRC residents, or even have their salary paid in full by a participating financial institution (Libro Credit Union? MainStreet Credit Union?). There would also be room for other services and stores to be located on the property, like a convenience store, ATM, vending machines, and so on. These would all be revenue generating.

The greenhouse I envision on the east side of the property, along with additional tilled land, would help offset food costs. Any crops grown could either be used on-site, or could instead be sold at a local farmers market, generating additional revenue and providing HRC residents with hands-on retail/sales experience that could, hopefully, lead to employment later.

The types of skills that could be taught at HRC are numerous, and anything that can be taught should be. It would be possible to teach computer operation, cooking, agricultural, retail, business, and so on.

I have a list of people to contact to get additional feedback from on what would be needed, how this could be funded, and whether or not it’s doable. So far the feedback I’ve received is that this is worth pursuing, so I’m putting this out there now in order to see what type of traction it can attain. I’m happy to work with existing groups that are currently putting something similar together, and will continue to edit this as I put more time and effort into it.

Questions I need to get answered at this point:

  • How would land/a building be acquired?
  • What sort of capital costs would be incurred?
  • What sort of operating costs would be incurred?
  • Can the HRC be made monetarily self-sustainable?

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! Please leave a comment below if you have any questions, comments, or anything else to add.

Closed Meeting Investigations in Middlesex Centre

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It recently came to my attention, after reviewing the Ontario Ombudsman’s website, that Middlesex Centre was not using the Ombudsman, or even the Association of Municipalities of Ontario’s Local Authority Services, to provide closed meeting investigation services. Instead, based on the Ombudsman’s list, this service was contracted out to a gentlemen named John Maddox. I don’t know Mr. Maddox, but I wanted to find out more details around the service he provided and how much he had been paid to do so.

I went to Middlesex Centre’s website to try and gather this information, only to find that there were not any itemized budget lines referencing Mr. Maddox or closed meeting investigations. So I found what I thought to be the names of the best people to contact and sent off an email!

January 9, 2014

Hello Ms. Smibert and Mr. Watterton,

I’m contacting you as a resident of Kilworth in regards to Middlesex Centre’s agreement with John Maddox. It is my understanding that Mr. Maddox is Middlesex Centre’s closed-meeting investigator, and perhaps provides other services as well since Middlesex Centre has opted out of using the Ontario Ombudsman for this service.

What I would like to know is:

  • How long has the contract been in place with Mr. Maddox?
  • How large is the retainer paid to Mr. Maddox each year, if applicable?
  • How many hours of service has Mr. Maddox billed Middlesex Centre for since he was awarded the contract?
  • Overall, how much money has been paid to Mr. Maddox from Middlesex Centre, and over what time period?

I’m very eager to hear the answers to the questions above, and expect full disclosure as a citizen and taxpayer of the municipality.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.

Derek E. Silva

January 9, 2014

Good morning Mr. Silva

In response to your email regarding Mr. John Maddox, I can provide the following information:

We have had an agreement for Closed Meeting Investigator Services with JGM Consulting (John Maddox) since January 1, 2012.

The municipality pays a yearly retainer of $ 1000.00 to JGM Consulting. The Municipality has not required the services of JGM Consulting; therefore nothing has been paid to him with the exception of the yearly retainer.

JGM Consulting has been paid $ 2000.00 for the period from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2013.

I trust this information is helpful. All the best for the new year.

Stephanie Troyer-Boyd
Clerk

January 9, 2014

Hello Councillor DeViet and Mayor Edmondson,

Based on the dates provided by Ms. Troyer-Boyd, it would appear as though this contract was awarded to JGM Consulting while both of you were in office. I would like to know the following:

  • Why did Middlesex Centre award this contract to JGM Consulting?
  • Why is Middlesex Centre not taking advantage of the services currently provided by the Ombudsman?
  • What rationale was used to pay for a separate closed-meeting investigator in favour of the Ombudsman, which would not cost the municipality anything?

Given that every dollar spent has an impact on property taxes, and Councillor DeViet’s recent revelation that our Public Works Dept. has put off purchasing a new truck for two years now (at least partially) for this very reason, I would like to think the municipality would be looking to cut what costs it can, especially one that doesn’t impact services provided to the citizens of Middlesex Centre. For this reason I’m asking the questions above, and would like to see the municipality ultimately opt back in to using the Ombudsman to provide closed-meeting investigation services.

Thank you, and I look forward to your responses!

Derek E. Silva

January 15, 2014

Hi Derek…It took a little investigating to get all the facts around your questions.

First …the main reason that both the County of Middlesex and Middlesex Centre chose not to go with the Ombudsman at that time was perhaps the fear of having the Province do an investigation if one was required. One has to remember that this was a new initiative at the time, and one that probably had the effect on making Councils more aware of the legislation around the rules and regulations around closed meetings in the Municipal Act, and the implications of not following them. That being said, the Government permitted other options beyond the offer of the Ombudsman who seemed to be overkill for a small municipality. Thus both the County and Middlesex centre along with many other communities chose an alternative.

Second… you received the information as to the choice we made and the cost from our clerk. The County, on the other hand, chose to go with a lawyer who was also engaged by several other municipalities. Although I can not speak for everyone, from my perspective it seemed more practical to deal with someone closer to the community than to have to travel back and forth to Toronto, knowing that the rules that we have to follow are the same, and I always have a suspicion that free is not always free if it precipitates legal fees that would not normally be required. It should be pointed out that all three people are quite well qualified to do the job.

Finally…Now that we are more aware of what the experience has been across the province, we can, as you have suggested, take a look at other more cost effective options, and that will be looked at in the very near future.

Thanks very much for both the questions and the suggestion. If you wish to speak further on the matter please don’t hesitate to call.

Al

I finally got around to sending a thank you note to Mayor Edmondson (who is running for re-election) and Councillor DeViet earlier this morning! I’m looking forward to what happens next on this issue.

January 27, 2014

Good morning Mayor Edmondson and Councillor DeViet,

Thank you very much for responding to my questions. I appreciate the time you took to get the background information and send it to me. I will, however, disagree with you on the premise that “free is not always free” in this situation. As we have seen spelled out with the recent trouble in London, the Ombudsman has no authority to impose fines or sanctions on elected officials except in cases where they were found to be lying. The City of London Councillors currently embroiled in a war of words with the Ombudsman are, in my opinion, willingly blind to the poor decisions they have made two years in a row now regarding closed meetings.

Regardless, I’m happy to hear Middlesex Centre will look at other options soon. Given that the Ombudsman’s office investigates 20,000 complaints a year (and the majority are resolved within two weeks), I’m sure it is more than capable of taking on a municipality that hasn’t had any complaints (that I know of) in the last two years.

Thanks again,

Derek E. Silva

Though I searched Middlesex Centre’s website for “closed meetings” and “John Maddox” a few weeks ago and didn’t spot anything, I finally found this page today which provides links to the procedure and complaint forms in case you ever need it.

LED Roadway Lights in London

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On October 30, 2013 I inquired with the City of London’s Roadway Lighting & Traffic Control division regarding recent, and upcoming, implementation of LED roadway lights around the City. I’m absolutely for LED lights thanks to the lower operating costs, and initiatives elsewhere involving the mass replacement of older roadway light technology in Los Angeles, CA and New York City, NY. 

October 30, 2013

Hi there,

I see here that the City has already begun deploying LED street lights in some areas. I have a few questions:

  • What is the capital cost of an HPS street light vs. an LED street light?
  • What are the lifetime costs of an HPS street light vs. an LED street light?
  • Are there plans to do a complete switchover to LED street lights like Los Angeles is doing, and New York City is about to embark on?
    • If so, what sorts of cost savings does the City expect once the transformation is complete? And how much will the switchover cost initially?
    • If not, why not?

I had yet to receive a response on Monday, so I reached out again. I received a response tout suite!

January 6, 2014

Mr. Silva,

First let me apologize for the delay in responding to your e-mail. I thought I responded but obviously that was not the case.

The capital cost of HPS vs. LED varies depending on the product and other factors. These are some LED products that appear to be relatively cheap; however, based on a review of the product the long term cost would be very high. The LED street light projects that we have accepted for use on City streets are approximately 3 times the cost of HPS fixtures. We are currently reviewing some new products that claim to offer the same lighting levels but at a better price; however, we have not completed our review. Even though LED products have been around for a long time their use in street lights is still relatively new and as this market matures the cost and reliability of LED street lights will improve.

A recent review of a LED street light retrofit program calculated the payback in energy savings and maintenance savings would be approximately 13 year. This is one of the reasons why we have not entered into a retrofit program yet. That being said, we are in discussion with LED street light vendors which may lower the retrofit cost to a level that would be financially feasible. I know other municipalities, such as Los Angeles, have undertaken a retrofit program but their hydro costs and federal funding opportunities are very different from London which makes these projects more viable.

Shane Maguire, P. Eng.
Division Manager
Roadway Lighting & Traffic Control

So, no definite costs, but some answers regardless. It would be nice to see some initiatives from OPG to reduce the need for power generation, and therefore decreasing operating costs overall. Los Angeles is looking save $7M a year on electricity costs alone after switching to LED. Hopefully the City’s discussions with LED street light vendors yield some positive results and make a wholesale switch more feasible soon.

A Response to London Chamber CEO Gerry Macartney

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Yesterday, London Chamber of Commerce CEO Gerry Macartney decided to publicly weigh in on the controversy surrounding the PenEquity development on Wellington Rd S and Dingman Dr, just south of the 401. I have written extensively about the topic, and while I appreciate Mr. Macartney’s point of view on the subject as CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, I feel he’s off-base on several topics he addressed (not to mention he clearly hasn’t seen very many, if any, of the well written citizen blogs about the issue).

The PenEquity development is not a watershed moment for London. To believe that new retail development in London, or any city for that matter, is a “watershed moment” does the term “watershed” a great disservice. It’s certainly a high profile one given the tensions surrounding the issue, and the proposed location, but not a watershed moment.

I’ll agree that Sysco Canada choosing Woodstock over London for their distribution warehouse was a bit disappointing, but if I recall correctly there was very little discussion, if any, about Sysco in the media until after Sysco had chosen Woodstock. Was London ever in the running? Maybe not. I’ll give Mr. Macartney the benefit of the doubt in him having more “insider info” than I do, but Sysco never seemed to be on the radar until after we found out London wasn’t chosen for the location.

As for the Sun Life Industrial Park – please Mr. Macartney, give me a break. That was not going to be a boon of any sort to the local economy. It was a highly speculative venture that may or may not have panned out for Sun Life, and the potential tenants. Given the glut of empty warehouse and manufacturing space in the city, mostly on the east and south ends, I don’t see how Sun Life’s industrial park would have been filled in the middle of a recession. Sun Life pulled out because they saw the writing on the wall, and likely decided they could put all of their old paperwork elsewhere for the time being. If you’re going to bring up an issue like this one, let’s look at where the economy was going just as Sun Life decided to nix the entire proposal near the end of 2009.

Of course the City, and the rest of the County around it, will accept deals that cost money, don’t produce only 6 figure incomes, and impact the environment somehow. Have you not seen all of the new high-rise apartment buildings pop up downtown, near Oxford and Wonderland, and at Adelaide and Kipps? Lots of infill and brownfield development, which is much easier for the City to service and re-purposes existing land (as laid out in ReThink London – have you read that?). That’s smart development, if I do say so myself. There have also been several large industrial parks pop up on the east end near the airport, further south on Veterans Memorial Parkway, and of course we have the much-maligned SWAP moving forward somehow (though being ferociously challenged by many of the very developers that will eventually build there). Do yourself a favour and don’t make things are so full of shades of grey into a black and white issue. You’re doing yourself, and the Chamber, a great disservice.

As for the integrity of the woodland and “small pond” on the property, I would urge you to read the “Environmental & Parks Planning Section” of this document (starting on page 10) that went before council on June 25. You will note that, though a thorough assessment had not yet been done before this date, what PenEquity terms an “unevaluated vegetation patch” is of much greater importance than previously believed. In fact, that woodlot is helping to prevent the erosion of the very land PenEquity wants to build on. That sounds important, doesn’t it? As for the “small pond” created by run-off, I would argue that it’s a semi-natural pond now, and removing it could have disastrous consequences for any properties around it. Where do you suppose that water will go if that body of water is filled in and built on? Water doesn’t just disappear, you know? Given how that body of water was created, I would argue it’s actually serving a fairly significant purpose in preventing the flooding of the surrounding land. But neither you, nor I, are environmental experts.

To consider retail a “Gateway” is, dare I say, “old school” thinking. I fear you may not be keeping up with consumer trends. And to use Saks Fifth Avenue as an example of the type of shopping people will do at this new development, again, shows your state of mind. Saks Fifth Avenue is a very high end store that, in all reality, likely won’t do very well in London. And if it does, it will almost certainly be the death knell of similarly targeted local businesses that you don’t seem to care much about (Fisher & Co. and Channer’s come to mind). I am well aware that the City of London’s citizens need new jobs, but the funny thing is that a Saks Fifth Avenue, gas station, new cinema, etc. won’t be generating the types of jobs that keep Fisher & Co., Channer’s, or a Saks in business. Game development companies do, web development firms, manufacturing jobs, and other professional jobs do. I think you missed the “retail follows jobs” argument someone made recently, but it feels you’re thinking the other way around.

A lot of retail does move around, and the City already has plenty of empty properties ready for the filling by the very businesses you’re hoping PenEquity will bring to London. If you haven’t yet, take a look at this non-exhaustive list of under-developed retail properties I identified in June. As Chamber CEO, I would like to think you would be better off advocating for the family that owns London Mall to sell it to PenEquity, and entice PenEquity to snatch up that high visibility parcel of land, and turn it into something special.

Let’s look at some recent failings, in fact. Rona, Westmount Mall (which has been undergoing a hard fought renaissance for several years now, but still requires a great deal more tenants and traffic), and Citi Plaza has been going through a major redevelopment as well into a more office-friendly space, as well as the library relocating there, and only recently does it look to be viable for the future. Without the library, what would Citi Plaza look like? I wonder.

I’ll end this in talking about transit. Sir, what planet are you on? The LTC’s current service to the area is deplorable at best, running only during the morning and evening rush hours. If you’re hoping the LTC will get teenagers to and from PenEquity’s development, you’re either banking on their parents driving them to/from jobs there, or the LTC expanding its service out to (at least) 11pm to account for late cinema showings. Good. Luck. The LTC barely has the funding to continue operating its existing routes, and is woefully underfunded by the City compared to many other transit systems. The LTC does very well given how it’s funded now. So where does this extra funding come from? It won’t instantly come from ridership, which already bears quite a bit of the brunt. Indeed, if you think the LTC is going to start servicing the area, then be prepared to champion the cause for the City to expand funding, and increase everyone’s taxes and/or usage fees. Somehow I doubt you’ll be jumping on that bandwagon.

In all reality, very few of us are calling for the outright rejection of PenEquity’s proposal. What concerns me is the lack of foresight for the existing natural properties the land possesses, and the effect removing the trees and body of water will have on that very property, and properties surrounding it. Costco has also brought up issues with the traffic study conducted by BA Group (on behalf of PenEquity). But hey, no big deal, right? It’s not like ignoring environmental issues as ever caused us (“us” as in “humanity”) trouble before. Oh, wait…

I left out some of your points because I don’t have hard numbers to counter them. We don’t need the next Mayo Clinic or Microsoft to locate here. It sounds like you’re also missing the boat on the fact that small businesses account for more job growth in this country, as in the United States, than medium or large enterprises do. Well done, sir. Well done, indeed.