LONDON, ONT. - The storm of controversy with Mayor Joe Fontana at its eye was upgraded Tuesday as some on his sharply-divided council tried to ask him to take a leave of absence the same day he was blasted in Parliament.
A move by two city councillors to put the leave idea to a vote was deep-sixed when council voted 8-6 against even discussing the motion to ask Fontana to consider stepping down during an RCMP investigation into federal payments for his son’s 2005 wedding reception.
Earlier Tuesday, Fontana -- an ex-Liberal MP and cabinet minister -- was blasted by Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Bailey in the House of Commons for hiding behind the poppy in brushing aside political calls to step down.
In the middle of a closely-watched meeting that exposed the sharp divide on council between Fontana supporters and other politicians, Fontana posted an apology on his website for invoking the poppy in answering a question about whether he would step aside.
It was another illustration of the chaos at city hall that’s built up with Fontana not providing details about the spending controversy, accusations that key council jobs have been locked by the mayor’s allies and, Tuesday, a rebuke by Ontario’s ombudsman for obstructing his investigations into secret council meetings that left politicians in the clear but still drew criticism.
Tuesday night, eight politicians -- Bud Polhill, Joe Swan, Dale Henderson, Denise Brown, Stephen Orser, Paul Van Meerbergen, Harold Usher and Fontana himself -- voted against considering the motion by councillors Nancy Branscombe and Paul Hubert calling on Fontana to step down.
Branscombe and Hubert say city business and its reputation are being affected by the Mountie investigation into federal payments of more than $20,000 for Fontana’s son’s wedding reception.
Councillors Branscombe, Hubert, Matt Brown, Bill Armstrong, Judy Bryant and Sandy White voted in favour of considering it.
White, traditionally a supporter of Fontana, and Usher, often an opponent, switched sides with each other for the vote.
“I think it is shameful,” Branscombe told reporters after the vote. “This is a serious issue. The allegations are serious and he has chosen to remain silent. Clearly this is a cloud hanging over us and it’s going to get more and more intense. This isn’t going to go away.”
Hours earlier, Fontana came under attack in the House of Commons for comments he made a day earlier to a Free Press reporter.
Asked whether he would heed the growing calls to remove himself from office, Fontana pointed to the poppy on his lapel and cited veterans’ sacrifices as a reason he would remain in his post, linking the poppy with “due process.”
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Bailey said the Conservative government condemned the comment by the former federal Liberal cabinet minister “in the strongest terms possible.
“Hiding behind our courageous veterans to avoid one’s own potential legal problems is reprehensible. It does not have a place in our country.”
Asked to comment on that broadside at council Tuesday, Fontana brushed by a reporter without making one,
But on his website, he posted the following: “Yesterday, in an interview situation I gestured to the poppy on my jacket and used it incorrectly as a symbol representing Canada.
“I should not have done this. The poppy is worn in reverence, respect and remembrance of those who have died in war and serving our country.
“I apologize for my action and to all who I may have offended.”
Fontana is encountering the most political turbulence he has encountered in 30 years of public life split between city hall and Parliament Hill.
Besides the motion asking him to temporarily step down, the embattled mayor also faces an online public petition urging him to stand down initiated earlier Tuesday that quickly drew several hundred signatures.