It all seems so long ago and far away — almost like it never happened. That first evening of December 2014, right around the supper hour.
You remember it too, right? I’m sure I wasn’t dreaming.
The eastern-most ballroom on the second floor of the London Convention Centre was packed with more than 700 people. The formal inauguration of London’s new city council had been moved there from its traditional setting at city hall, because incoming councillors and city staff expected a record turnout, as far as municipal inaugurations were concerned. And they got one.
The national anthem was sung with unbridled vigour. In extending the premier’s best wishes, an Ontario cabinet minister dubbed the incoming council “the young and the restless.” And within seconds of his swearing in, Ward 3’s Mo Salih snapped yet another of his trademark selfies, the bemused ballroom crowd as his background.
Each inaugural oath was met with applause and more than a few cheers.
Four former London mayors, all of them female, gathered around newly minted Mayor Matt Brown to mark the turning of a new chapter of civic history.
In the wake of the scandal that had enveloped former mayor Joe Fontana and thrown some shade-by-association over the remainder of his voting bloc, the evening felt like a turning of the page — a night when a city was reborn, with all the promise that hard work, optimism and a renewed sense of civic pride could bestow.
It wasn’t until later that many of us learned about a little impromptu huddle ahead of the ceremony, off to the side and out of view of the crowd, in which the incoming councillors had linked arms and pledged to work together for the benefit of their city.
And then reality set in.
The city’s orchestra declared bankruptcy. The London Plan, the new blueprint for a reimagined city and a result of the extensive ReThink London process, lumbered forward, but not without the expected objections from a bevy of developers and landowners.
A multi-year budgeting process was debated and adopted; the result, to date, being higher-than-inflation tax increases. London’s top bureaucrat departed following a thunderclap of controversy, leaving taxpayers on the hook for a rich payout. Springbank Dam, focus of more than a decade’s worth of investment, controversy and court battles, was eventually decommissioned, based on environmental evidence.
Strained voices joined debates over Back to the River, Dundas Place, Fanshawe College’s bid to acquire the historic Kingsmill’s building and how to push ahead with the decades-long quest to revitalize London’s downtown.
Most recently, complaints about a culture of harassment at city hall and one of its departments, in particular, came back to clock councillors’ craniums like a boomerang returning from a 20-year-long trajectory.
And then there’s the rapid transit plan. City council’s sudden pivot in the spring of 2016 from a light-rail system to a rapid-bus system — likely spurred by pragmatic considerations about how much money could be extracted from senior levels of government — left many voters confused and cynical. The result now is that the BRT plan is widely regarded as the transit equivalent of the proverbial elephant designed by committee.
It was barely a month later, in June 2016, that Matt Brown’s mayoralty itself imploded, thanks to the jarring revelation of an affair with another member of council. Although both of them carried on (rightly) with their civic duties in wake of the scandal in order to face voters’ judgments this year, the stain on Brown’s credibility and leadership was dark and indelible. His recent decision not to run again can be seen as a tacit acknowledgment of the erosion of his support base.
Leadership and transit, therefore, are likely to be the dominant issues of the coming municipal election campaign.
Does that mean that notions of a new start for the city, so palpable on Dec. 1, 2014, were no more than a fool’s apparition? A false hope?
I think not. Those visions weren’t fully realized, but the expectations were enormous when set against a time frame of a mere four years, and on the shoulders of so many novice councillors.
The set of weighty issues with which council has had to deal over the past four years — including The London Plan and its rapid transit system — has been as complex as those of any other council term in the city’s history. Their outcomes, taken together, will be transformational.
At Dundas Place, there are shovels in the ground. At the city’s centre, seedlings of growth are sprouting at nearly every turn. Most city councillors, though in their first terms, are rookies no longer and have proven themselves hard working, diligent and proud local politicians who are good listeners and are highly communicative.
And I prefer to think of the promise of 2014 as unaccomplished and in process, rather than naive, foolish or out of reach.
Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist.
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