The voters likely won’t forget who Councillor Fletcher works for

Published on Saturday, Mar. 06, 2010 12:00AM EST Last updated on Saturday, Mar. 06, 2010 10:45AM EST

As evidence of the almost magnificent degree of dysfunction attained by the city government in Toronto, you can’t do much better than revisit the notorious Paula Fletcher shrieking match last week.

Ms. Fletcher is a city councillor for the Toronto-Danforth ward in the east end. She was one of a few councillors present at a budget committee meeting this week, one of two special meetings where the public had been specifically invited to make deputations.

As with all 44 councillors, she earns $99,153.50 a year, with the usual budget for staff (about $205,557 for three full-time positions) and an additional office budget of $53,100. A review of her expenses reveals that like many of her colleagues, Ms. Fletcher rarely reaches into her own pocket – she has regular lunches with the “women’s caucus,” for instance, which means some of her female colleagues on council and which one or another of the attendees usually bills back to the city. Much of the support she gives to local community groups comes from the public purse, not her own.

This is how incumbent councillors have such a whopping advantage: Once elected, they use their office budgets to buy ads for themselves in local rags and tickets for locally run golf tournaments and to sponsor local soccer teams and the like. Thus their names are everywhere: They use the public’s money to buy back the public.

In any case, unusually, for this particular meeting, citizens also had been encouraged to come out and be heard by John Tory, a former mayoralty candidate who in January announced that he wouldn’t be trying again in the coming municipal election and who now works as an on-air host for Newstalk 1010 (the same radio station on which I appear twice a day). That day, Mr. Tory had done his show from the rotunda at City Hall.

During the course of that meeting, a well-dressed man with an agreeable manner named John Smith stood up to politely question the coming property tax hike of 4 per cent and the imposition of new user fees contained in the $9-billion budget.

Ms. Fletcher went to town on him.

First, she turned the tables entirely and instead of speaking to his remarks, began peppering Mr. Smith with questions – did he or did he not support cuts to arts funding (bravely, he said he did), daycare subsidies (he started to explain that it was a long time since his kids were that young but was interrupted by Ms. Fletcher) and breakfast programs in the schools (Mr. Smith said, sensibly, that he was involved in helping such a program, but that he didn’t view this as “being that something that should be [solely] funded by my taxes”).

Previous speakers (but of course) had come to City Hall to beg for more money for these very programs (their views were in alignment with City Hall’s, so they were treated delicately), so Ms. Fletcher’s questions to Mr. Smith were what Mr. Tory correctly called later “trick questions,” raised by a politician who had both facts and figures at her fingertips and a sympathetic audience at hand.

In other words, Ms. Fletcher was trying to make Mr. Smith look like an ill-informed, anti-progressive right-winger (the kiss of death at City Hall and more generally in downtown Toronto).

But she didn’t stop there. She was not content with hectoring Mr. Smith, belittling him, or interrupting him.

Instead, her voice rising, furiously jabbing the air with her pencil, Ms. Fletcher proceeded to shout hysterically at him, suggested he was a John Tory plant (he was not; the two had never even met), and, when someone yelled from the gallery that she should be fired, yelled, “Oh, come and run against me! Come on down, baby!”

It was an absolutely astonishing spectacle, and so revealing.

Like all too many of her colleagues, Ms. Fletcher has forgotten who works for whom. She in fact is employed at the pleasure of Mr. Smith et al. Elected for the first time only seven years ago, she is nonetheless as contemptuous as any old ward-heeler of those who pay her salary and whose money she spends.

Her behaviour was so loutish that it shocked even some of her colleagues, well-accustomed to being treated like dirt by one another and to shows of rudeness to the citizenry.

Ms. Fletcher later issued, through budget chair Shelley Carroll, whose feeble efforts at attempting to control her colleague the night before had failed miserably, a classic of the modern apology – that is, “if my tone put anyone off”, “if my tone was argumentative,” if she offended anyone, she regretted it. There was no acknowledgment that her tone put off everyone who heard it, that her tone was craven and entitled as well as argumentative, and that she offended every taxpayer in the city.

Unbelievably, Mr. Tory had the grace to allow her to come on his show (thereby yet again revealing why he would have been such a good mayor and why Ms. Fletcher is such a lousy councillor), where she said that she had “lost it” and displayed “bad manners” with Mr. Smith.

She then decided the matter was over, or as she told a Toronto Sun reporter, “And that is that.” You see? Not only does she get to berate a taxpayer, not only does she issue a pathetic apology to paper over her egregious conduct, but also she gets to decide when the discussion is over.

The next municipal election is Oct. 25. Ms. Fletcher is, tragically, already registered as a candidate. How lovely it would be if the voters reminded the harpy that it ain’t over until they say it is.


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