Category Archives: Municipal politics

A way forward for Orchestra London

OLlogoDiscussion of Orchestra London‘s financial woes has been robust on social media over the past few days, following reports that the organization no longer has the resources to pay its employees or proceed with planned concerts.

In response to my column in yesterday’s London Free Press, city resident and community activist Greg Fowler tweeted that, while it was a “great read,” it didn’t directly address the problems facing the orchestra. I tried responding in three bursts of 140 characters each, but here’s a slightly more detailed description of what I was thinking. My thoughts are rooted in my experience on the boards of other charities and educational institutions.

1. It’s become clear that, after more than a decade of failures on the governance and administrative side of the organization, Orchestra London’s current support structure is broken. While the artistic side of the orchestra has remained competent and even masterful, given the conditions under which its musicians have been forced to work, the administrative and managerial side has let the local community down. Even a financial monitor and a blue-ribbon panel of high-profile local businesspeople, co-opted in 2009 during the orchestra’s last major meltdown, seem to have been ineffective at either re-crafting the organization or garnering sufficient financial support from the community to sustain the orchestra’s longstanding business model.

2. The last time the orchestra’s board and consultants were so proactive in speaking publicly about the organization’s troubles, it was to assuage the sense that the organization was about to go over a financial cliff. At the time, Joe Swan, who would shortly become the orchestra’s executive director, spoke optimistically about future surpluses that would be used to chip away at the orchestra’s deficit, which was then just over $1 million. Last week, the orchestra came forward, publicly, again. Why now? I suspect it’s because the board and the ED have seen the latest audited financial figures — and they’re a nightmare. (Board president Joe O’Neill has not responded to my request for an interview.) It’s better to get out in front of a bad-news story, the theory goes (it didn’t work out so well for Jian Ghomeshi), rather than have it chase you.

3. The orchestra’s fiscal year ended on June 30, 2014. No audit has yet been released, though I can’t imagine that it hasn’t been completed. Big. Red. Flag. The most recent annual report available ends June 30, 2013.

4. So how to go forward? As I mentioned in my column, I personally recoil against the prospect of just letting Orchestra London die and file for bankruptcy, leaving its creditors holding the bag. It sends a signal of abandonment and a lack of civic will. I believe Londoners can and should do better than that. I’m no lawyer — and there are numerous legal hurdles here — but where there’s a will, there’s usually a way. And here’s what I’d like to see accomplished:

• London city council commit just enough money to pay the orchestra’s musicians and stagehands through the end of December. They are collateral damage here in a disaster that is administrative and fiduciary, not artistic.

• London city council might insist, as a condition of its assistance, that the current executive director resign immediately and that the current board of directors should resign upon completion of a strategic renewal process that would include:

a musical arts summit, to be convened sometime in the month of January 2015, specifically programmed to deal with Orchestra London’s future.

using the summit to explore new synergies between London’s performing musical groups, ensembles and events, including those that are amateur, academic and professional.

embarking on a one-time, three-month fundraising campaign, broadly based and widely communicated, to deal with the the orchestra’s existing debt and to act as the great reset in its viability as a significant part of the local arts community in the future.

electing a new board of directors, once the future strategic direction becomes clear. Once elected, the new orchestra board should rewrite its constitutional documents to give the orchestra’s musicians a greater presence and better oversight into the board’s deliberations and decisions. (One orchestra member told me recently that the players’ representatives on the board are too often excluded by in-camera sessions that keep the musicians in the dark about what is really going on at the board level. This is an important governance issue.)

engaging with citizens who would respond to a very different type of programming than that which has traditionally characterized the orchestra. A night of soundtrack songs from Disney’s princess movies? Why not. A concert of music from the Twilight films? Yes. Mashups between the orchestra and headliners from Sunfest and the Home County Folk Festival, either on the Victoria Park bandshell stage or Centennial Hall, adjacent to the park? Absolutely.

formulating partnerships between the orchestra and the community, both on the artistic and corporate sides, that haven’t yet been tried — or  envisaged.

Even with its current level of indebtedness, the life or death of Orchestra London is as much a matter of political will as it is of money. I don’t for a minute believe that Londoners don’t possess, within themselves, the creativity and leadership needed to get through these next few months. Orchestra London should be allowed to live — though in a vastly changed form.

Lastly, I greatly admire the orchestra’s players, who, through all of this turmoil, simply want to life spirits and contribute positively to the community with their talents and commitment. Yesterday, amid the financial gloom, concertmaster Joseph Lanza and oboist Jennifer Short dropped by the London Public Library branch in their own neighbourhood to play some seasonal music.  Here’s a sample:

Update (Dec. 15): London Free Press reporter Patrick Maloney is reporting tonight that the orchestra’s deficit for the 2013-14 season was about $330,000, putting the accumulated deficit at more than $1 million.

Twitter handles for London’s new council

After last night’s stunning election results in London, Ont., engaged citizens may wish to adjust their Twitter accounts. Here’s a list of councillors to follow, ward by ward:

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.48.18 AMMayor: Matt Brown, @Matt_Brown_
Ward 1: Michael van Holst, @mikevanholst
Ward 2: Bill Armstrong, —
Ward 3: Mohamed Salih, @mohamedMOSalih
Ward 4: Jesse Helmer, @jesse_helmer
Ward 5: Maureen Cassidy, @MaureenPCassidy
Ward 6: Phil Squire, @SquirePhil
Ward 7: Josh Morgan, @mrjoshmorgan
Ward 8: Paul Hubert, @phubert1961
Ward 9: Anna Hopkins, @AnnaHopkins11
Ward 10: Virginia Ridley, @virginia_ridley
Ward 11: Steven Turner, @st3v3turn3r
Ward 12: Harold Usher, @iamsensational
Ward 13: Tanya Park, @tanneramma
Ward 14: Jared Zaifman, @JaredZaifman

Update (Nov. 28, 6:38 p.m.): Thanks to marketing technologist Mike Wickett for his correction on Ward 11 councillor-elect Steven Turner’s handle, which I misspelled earlier today.

Newspaper companies and elections: a modest proposal

Back in the mid-2000s, as federal lawmakers and bureaucrats were working out the details and regulations for the National Do Not Call List, the Canadian newspaper industry was in a bit of a tizzy. Telemarketing, after all, lay at the heart of every newspaper company’s strategy to build circulation and wage daily warfare against subscriber “churn” (the rebuilding circulation with new customers as the subscriptions of other customers lapsed and weren’t renewed).

As a result, the Canadian Newspaper Association undertook a concerted lobbying effort for an exemption. They argued for it on the basis that a well-informed citizenry was essential to the functioning of a vibrant democracy. And that, by the time the ink was dry on the regulations in 2006, was enough to earn them an out, alongside charities, pollsters and other organizations, on the exemptions list. (Plus perhaps the adage, ringing in the ears of federal politicians, that one should “never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel” — an aphorism often attributed to Mark Twain.)

The time has arrived for a quid pro quo. Newspaper companies have argued, successfully, that they are an essential gear in the clockwork of a healthy democracy. They’ve been granted special licence by the federal government in acknowledgment of that function. Meanwhile, voter participation rates in Canada have been plummeting. Voter turnout during the last federal election on Oct. 14, 2008, was a mere 58.8 per cent — an historic low. In Ontario, the rate hit an all-time low on Oct. 10, 2007, when only 52.6 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. At the municipal level, the news has been even worse. While high-visibility municipal campaigns last fall in places such as Toronto garnered participation rates that edged over the 50-per-cent mark, many cities, such as London, Ont. — at 39.9 per cent — saw a positively miserable voter turnout.

So here’s a modest proposal: During the writ period for federal and provincial campaigns, as well as the final weeks of municipal elections (between the close of nominations and voting day), publishers of Canada’s daily newspapers should provide their full electronic editions, to readers who request them, free of charge.

I’m not referring here, of course, to the websites maintained by most newspaper companies which are already free and carry a sampling of that day’s editions. Instead, I’m referring to the more comprehensive electronic editions published by many of Canada’s dailies and distributed on platforms such as personal computers and iPads, via apps and software such as PressReader. Postmedia Network Inc. provides iPad apps for all of its major dailies; PressDisplay.com makes dozens of additional titles available to Canadians and other readers worldwide, usually via subscription to e-editions. Titles such as The Globe and Mail provide their products in discrete electronic formats (e.g. Globe2Go).

If newspapers are indeed part of the national conversation that informs citizens in a viable democracy, organizations such as the Canadian Newspaper Association, part of Newspapers Canada, should seize upon such an opportunity to demonstrate that fact. Federal legislators would be very much interested in seeing whether the faith they placed in these companies, through the NDNCL exemption, continues to be merited. And it should be the aim of such an experiment to see voter participation rise.

There would be an upside for newspaper companies, too. Additional electronic editions would impose only marginal added costs. Yet what greater treasure trove of potential subscribers might there be than the account information of hundreds of seven- or eight-week e-subscribers — readers who have already proven their interest in civic engagement and dialogue through media that portend the future of the news business?