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Ivor Tossell: From Saturday’s Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Oct. 16, 2009
An 80-year-old councillor with a robust set of lungs, Evelyn Buck has become the mayor’s implacable foe. THE GLOBE AND MAIL
The town’s mayor tried to bring decorum to her city and wound up facing rancour, resignations, and an irrepressible granny blogger
Perched on Yonge Street, about 40 kilometres north of Toronto, Aurora is perhaps best known for being home to the Stronach family, who rule over the auto-parts company Magna and whose daughter, Belinda, once represented the riding in Ottawa.
On first blush, this town of 50,000 seems decorous, right down to its gingerbready GO station. Locals have a habit of badging each other with labels like “20-year resident” or “50-year resident.” Adults sing along to Jerusalem at a concert in a local park, sometimes led by the mayor herself. In a nod to its Asian residents, the city has allowed them to remove numbers they deem unlucky from their addresses.
But behind this courtly setting is a political vortex of loathing and retribution, a sterling example of urban politics at their most dysfunctional: An integrity commissioner fired. Accusations of slander, conspiracy and harassment. Angry, anonymous ads popping up in the local newspaper. At the heart of this conflict is an 80-year-old politician, who one leading counterpart suggested should be checked for Mad Cow disease after she took to a combative form of blogging.
What on earth happened in Aurora?
The first thing to know about Aurora is that it’s not Vaughan.
Unlike that sprawling, scandal-plagued city – its image tarnished by questions over expenditures and conflicts of interest – everything in Aurora is smaller, prettier and more personal.
An election in 2006 brought changes to the clubby old ways. In a tight three-way race, Ms. Morris – then a town councillor – upset the incumbent, Tim Jones, who’d held the job for 12 years. A long-time backer of MP Stronach, Mr. Jones also had the endorsement of her auto magnate father, Frank.
Mayor Morris – Phyllis to most everyone – had made a name for herself during the campaign as an environmentalist. With a sing-song, Shropshire accent that vibrates with nervous energy, she took power with promises of decorum. “Many of us don’t see it as a blood-sport,” she says, “We see it as a public service.”
From the outside, at least, things seemed to be going well. The New York Times sent a writer up to report on Ms. Morris’s quest to legalize backyard laundry lines. (To this day, people keep sending clothes-pegs to her office.) She also brought in a code of conduct in 2007 that required councillors to “accurately and adequately communicate the attitudes and decisions of council, even if they disagree with the majority of council” and forbade them to publically disparage town staff.
Rancour ensued, the council splitting into pro- and anti-mayor groups with the mayor’s side holding a majority.
“The level of hostility and animosity has been present from the very first day,” says Alison Collins-Mrakas, one of the new councillors at odds with the mayor.
Closed-door council meetings were marked with “cursing and screaming” says Grace Marsh, another rookie councillor who found herself on the wrong side of the majority.
Some councillors also didn’t seem interested in staff advice they didn’t agree with. In one instance, they overruled the advice of their chief planner during a road-paving project, and spent tens of thousands of dollars improving the driveways of well-organized ratepayers. The town was upgrading the street from suburban to city standards, lowering the levels of the road and making for awkward access to driveways.
Bureaucrats would find their judgment being questioned in public council meetings. Ms. Marsh – herself a former town employee of 10 years – says she saw city staff being berated at closed-door meetings. Council members – though not the mayor herself – were “calling people stupid, [saying], ‘You’re an idiot, you don’t know how to do your job.’ I had staff members calling me in tears,” she says.
Since the council took office, all but two of the town’s top tier of public servants have retired, left for other municipalities or were terminated.
Ms. Morris denies the charges of discord. She says the staff turnover is on par with previous administrations.
“You can’t keep everyone forever, but you can make it [look] ugly if you want to.”
In June, 2008, Ms. Marsh resigned in disgust, and rather than have the town pay for another by-election, Ms. Morris led council to appoint a runner-up from the last election – who became a loyal ally. The decision divided council even further.
“I often feel that it’s difficult to have any constructive or rational debate,” says Ms. Collins-Mrakas, an academic by trade. “If you take a position, it’s all very personal.”
But it was the new council’s lone elder voice who really roiled the water.
Sitting on her back porch in one of Aurora’s twisty, low-slung 1950s suburbs, cradling her silver-tipped cane between her legs, Ms. Buck lets out a hoot. At 80, she’s been in politics longer than many constituents have been alive, even having been mayor herself in the mid-seventies.
“Politicians, by their nature, are congenial people. They want to be liked,” muses Ms. Buck in her thick Scottish accent, shaking her head. “This council is an aberration.”
First elected in 1967, she’s known for having encyclopedic knowledge of the town and the lungs to vent it. She’s known for being ornery, having once whacked a fellow councillor, a newspaper proprietor, over the head with a rolled-up copy of his own publication. (All was soon forgiven, though Phyllis Morris was appalled.) And more recently, she’s famous for bringing city hall into a legal morass.
From the get-go, a member of the mayor’s faction expressed dislike of Ms. Buck – her polarizing style and her cantankerous approach. One was an e-mail from a mayor’s ally sent to the council that advocated that Ms. Buck be checked for Mad Cow disease. In another email, the same councillor called Ms. Buck a “jack ass” – followed by eleven exclamation marks.
In the meantime, Ms. Buck felt she was being shut out of discussions, constantly interrupted, her motions largely ignored.
“I said,” she recalls, “if they won’t give me a role, I’ll create a new role for myself.”
So, in the spring of 2007, she started a blog.
Entitled “Our Town and Its Business,” with a picture of a smiling Ms. Buck in the margin, it was at first more opaque than incendiary, full of writing that alludes slyly to incidents and avoids naming names. (Still, she hadn’t gotten six months in before calling her own nephew “abysmally bloody ignorant.”) One of Ms. Buck’s postings in November, 2007, which attacked council for the road upgrades, especially raised hackles.
“Do I take exception to mine and my neighbours’ tax money being spent that way? Damn right, I do,” she wrote. “Had I voted for that, I would have been in breach of trust to the people who elected me. Malfeasance is the term used in the Oath of Office.”
Ms. Buck also used the old media, filling countless column-inches of local newspapers with critical commentary. (Among her many topics: How much money was the town spending on outside lawyers?) “It was always my primary role anyway to keep people informed of what the issues were and what my position was,” she says. “I don’t believe in being shy or backward about telling people what I think. A lot of people like you to tell them what they think.”
It was enough to drive the majority on the council to distraction. And it put Ms. Buck’s candour at odds with the mayor’s desire for civility.
“What is difficult is if council has made a decision, and it’s time to move on then. The vote is over. You move on,” says the mayor.
Over the past summer, a nasty dispute erupted about how some remarks a citizen made before council were recorded in the meeting minutes. This led Ms. Buck to muse online about how the minutes could be “doctored.”
Having instituted a code of conduct and hired an integrity commissioner – respected ethicist David Nitkin – Ms. Morris handed him the first and last case he’d see: a formal complaint against Ms. Buck, broadly accusing her of maligning staff in public.
Exactly what that case was remains a mystery; the full complaint has never been released, nor has exactly what Ms. Buck is said to have said. A posting on the town website accused Ms. Buck of breaching the code of conduct in several places, including “unfounded and completely unmerited public criticism of staff” on her blog. A legal opinion was attached, though exactly which blog posts were thought to be troublesome, and why, were never specified.
Mr. Nitkin was not impressed by the complaint. He declined to be interviewed for this story, citing contractual obligations, but in a report he sent back to council, he slammed the complaint as “inappropriate in that the way in which it was crafted, politicized and communicated may be, and may be seen to be, wholly political.”
The next day, the mayor’s faction of council met in camera and voted to dismiss him. The remaining three councillors, sensing trouble from the e-mails flying around, stayed away. Within days, a senior bureaucrat in charge of keeping the town in line with provincial laws – who had joined the town six months earlier – abruptly retired.
“It’s unfortunate that Aurora would find itself – with all the good that’s going on in this town – even remotely being questioned for the simple fact that we’re trying to raise the bar of decorum and accountability,” says Ms. Morris.
The dismissal of Mr. Nitkin exacerbated the tension, bringing unfavourable media attention.
An anonymous blog, called Aurora Citizen, has become a hotbed of anger. Widely suspected to be run by a former councillor, perhaps with political ambitions of his or her own, its posts attract dozens of heated, nameless comments. Ms. Morris also finds herself facing a series of increasingly hostile ads that an anonymous group, calling itself the Aurora Coalition, has been printing in a local newspaper owned by a former councillor. One of them presented a statement of the town’s legal fees, tallying up hundreds of thousands spent on legal opinions, many relating to the code of conduct and Ms. Buck’s blog.
Ms. Buck has announced her intention to sue the mayor and most of council for libel, stemming from the affair. (Ms. Marsh is helping her set up a fund, and says she’s already accumulated thousands of dollars in donations.) Still, she will likely face a new integrity commissioner, and a new attempt to censure her.
Elections, which once brought hope for change to the city, are coming in 2010. Will the mayor run again?
“I hope to retain that commitment without having that light taken away. I have to believe that it’s the right thing to do. I have to believe it. I do believe it. As long as I have that commitment burning in me, I’ll continue to put myself up for office.”
Ms. Buck also sounded determined. “Oh yeah,” she said. “Unless I’m dead.”
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