By Jason Menard
Maybe it was an off-hand comment. Maybe his intent differed from his execution. But whatever the motivation, a Mayor publicly disrespecting his or her constituents crosses the line – and every “average” Londoner deserves an apology from mayor Joe Fontana.
The alleged transgression came late on Monday night (Mar. 26) during a marathon council meeting. In discussing a measure that would potentially leave council open to a citizen-led Ontario Municipal Board challenge on the grounds of insufficient public notice.
Fontana’s alleged statement? “… the average person can’t understand what we’re talking about.”
If that comment doesn’t get your blood boiling, then I don’t know what will. We’ve become numb to our elected officials’ duplicity and half-truths – often passing it off as the price of politics. But this comment goes beyond that. It speaks to a comprehensive level of disdain for the very constituents who lent him their voices.
For a man who prides himself on playing the role of the everyman, using casual – if not coarse – speech, this statement smacks of elitism. It’s a supercilious comment that shows a complete disregard of the city’s voters.
Beyond that, it shows that the mayor has lost touch with the role of council. The mayor and our councillors are not our parents; they are our elected representatives who speak using our voices on the issues that we, as community members, care about. I’ve often supported the mayor’s Everyman voice, but this comment has made me wonder if the Everyman is more of a persona than a reality. Everyman wouldn’t insult everyone like that.
Fontana’s comment was first brought to our attention by council watchdog (and former Board of Control member) Gina Barber on her London Civic Watch blog. The gallery was thin; media had already rushed off to meet their pressing deadlines. So corroboration has been a challenge.
If the allegation is true, then there are two things the mayor must do to restore a modicum of respect to council. First, he must apologize.
And it has to be an honest, no-qualifications-provided apology. No prefacing it with, “While it was not my intention…” or “My comments were taken out of context, but…” A simple acknowledgement that in no way, shape, or form is stating that “the average person can’t understand what we’re talking about,” is an acceptable view to hold.
Secondly, there must be a commitment on the part of the mayor that public ignorance is not an excuse because it is the responsibility of the mayor, the City staff, and the councilors to educate the “average” citizen about the issues on the table.
I consider myself a pretty smart guy, but I know there’s a world of things I know nothing about. I also know that ignorance is temporary as I can learn. Part of that learning I can do on my own, through research; part of that learning can come from those who hold the information.
Sharing that information, educating the populace, and soliciting their thoughts and feedback – you know, the actual job of an elected representative – would have additional benefits. You’d have an electorate that feels engaged and empowered; you’d have a collection of voters that would no longer feel removed from the process; and you’d help to instill a sense of pride in the city that currently is in short supply.
Not every citizen will participate. The old adage states that you can lead a horse to water… when it comes to politics, you can force that horse’s head underwater and it still won’t take a sip. But at least you give everyone an opportunity to choose their level of engagement. And you’ll likely get some excellent feedback from a diverse and engaged segment of the city.
Despite what the mayor has allegedly said, the people of London aren’t dumb. It doesn’t take much to fix this problem. All it takes is a little respect.
So Mayor Fontana. I’m proud to be an Average Londoner. I’m proud to say I understand more about council and politics than you’re willing to give me credit for. And I’m proud to say I’m not alone.
The only thing I’m not proud of is your recent alleged behaviour. It’s time to swallow your pride and apologize to everyone you insinuated was too stupid to understand the intricacies of politics – especially without giving them the opportunity to get educated.
In the interim, we’ll be holding our noses high in the air. But unlike your supercilious gesture to hold yourself above the plebes of society, ours are held to avoid the stench that’s coming from City Hall – that stench of dirty politics that we hoped an Everyman would avoid.
In the end, maybe we are as dumb as you allegedly said – after all, we believed that things would change.