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City council winning battles, but what of the war?

In hindsight, the fact city councillors decided to drop Ontario Ombudsman André Marin as their closed-door meeting investigator shouldn’t surprise anyone.

In hindsight, the fact city councillors decided to drop Ontario Ombudsman André Marin as their closed-door meeting investigator shouldn’t surprise anyone.

The relationship has been acidic for years, and for all the hate they summon on the blogs, each time this city council has been investigated for holding a meeting in camera, they have been cleared. (Editor's note, this opinion piece was written before Marin's report was released that found they violated the Municipal Act in June 2012).

Yes, they’re thin-skinned, and for all of their insistence they don’t mind scrutiny, they sure complain about it a lot. But they take pride in following the rules, and have a lot of trust — well earned — in City Clerk Caroline Hallsworth to advise them on exactly when they can meet privately and when they can’t.

Having said that, however, the most compelling aspect of covering this group is the prickly relationship they have with Marin, Auditor General Brian Bigger and Mayor Marianne Matichuk.

Their troubles with Marin are well documented, from 2009’s Elton John ticket scandal to 2012’s investigation of a closed-door meeting to discuss Bigger’s future.

His disastrous fence-mending visit in December saw him publicly embarrass city solicitor Jamie Canapini, and then take council on again during a media scrum. So they retaliated in the only way they could, by stripping Marin of his only weapon, the spotlight.

Which sets a disturbing precedent for Bigger. As with Marin, councillors think Bigger should keep his head down and his mouth shut. But that’s not Bigger’ style.

He has a reputation for being demanding and difficult, and many councillors believe he’s too cosy with the media. So they are eager to get rid of him, too.

Which brings us to Matichuk. After a brief period of apparent détente late last year, the mayor is more isolated than ever at city council. And she seems reluctant to take on her challengers.

She introduced a notice of motion Feb. 12 aimed at starting a discussion at council on what the city should ask from casino developers — and she was attacked for having the temerity to bring it up when she should have sent an email to all the councillors to tell them first.

Instead of returning fire, she meekly tried to defend herself and explained she meant no offence. A mayor really is a first among equals, and Matichuk’s inability to charm, convince or coerce this council has left her increasingly sidelined.

It’s not enough to say you want to do things as mayor, and then blame those mean councillors for not supporting your agenda. There are three or four councillors who oppose Matichuk no matter what she does. It’s up to her to build bridges with the others.

And despite what she and others apparently believe, it’s OK for councillors to talk with one another about city business without fear of an Ombudsman investigation. There are limits, of course, but the idea that a mayor or a councillor can’t call other councillors to seek support on an issue is ridiculous.

It’s the sort of unglamorous legwork that makes the difference between success and failure in politics. That, and engendering loyalty by going to events in the wards — church teas, carnivals and even funerals. A lot of work, yes, but not rocket science.

At Tom Davies, the tail is wagging the dog at a time when real leadership is sorely needed.

This council has two years left on its mandate. By the 2014 election, will people still be mad that Marin was fired? Will the mayor still be losing votes 12-1? Will Bigger still have a job?

And, most importantly, will a leader emerge whom people are willing to follow?