Windsor

London councillors asked to pass questions on General Dynamics deal to city staffer

Critics are questioning why London Mayor Matt Brown told fellow councillors to refer any media inquiries they received about a controversial business deal involving General Dynamics to a municipal staffer.

Councillors received email from mayor and city manager in January

London councillors received an email from the mayor and city manager in January, asking them to refer any questions about a controversial deal involving General Dynamics to a city staffer. (Mark Spowart/Canadian Press)

Critics are questioning why London Mayor Matt Brown told fellow councillors to refer any media inquiries they received about a controversial business deal involving General Dynamics to a municipal staffer.

The high-profile $15-billion deal involves light armoured vehicles that General Dynamics makes in London. The controversy lies in where its products are headed in the deal — Saudi Arabia, a country with a poor human rights record. The deal has been panned by Canadians in a poll and was even an election issue last fall

In January, city councillors in London received an email from the mayor and Art Zuidema, the city manager. It advised them that reporters might attempt to contact them for comment about the General Dynamics deal.

"Please refer any media inquiries to Rob Paynter who will respond with the statement on our behalf," Brown and Zuidema said in the email, which CBC Radio's Afternoon Drive has obtained a copy of.

Here is the full text of the email sent by London Mayor Matt Brown and City Manager Art Zuidema on Jan. 13, 2016:

Good evening

Please be advised that a reporter might be in touch with you asking for your opinion regarding the General Dynamics contract with Saudi Arabia.

The City's response to earlier media inquiries has come from the Mayor and has been only this:

"General Dynamics is a key contributor to London's economy and is the anchor to the defence industry cluster in Southwest Ontario."

Please refer any media inquiries to Rob Paynter who will respond with the statement on our behalf.

Matt and Art

Paynter is the city's director of communications. Brown and Zuidema were not available for comment on Thursday.

Andrew Sancton, a political science professor at Western University, said the email sent to councillors was "strange" and raises questions about why they would want to stay silent on an important issue for Londoners.

"It's not at all clear to me why individual councillors couldn't speak about this," Sancton said, when speaking to Afternoon Drive on Thursday.

Sancton said that while he can see councillors wanting to avoid wading into a controversy, he believes that they could still make comment on the deal.

"They could say: 'This is a very difficult issue. I will do my best to make the federal government aware of how important these jobs are, but we understand are that there are decisions that need to be made about Canada's foreign policy,'" said Sancton.

"Even if they just said that, it would be bringing the issue to Londoners, making it clear that people who we voted in are thinking about this. Of course, there might be other councillors who take different positions."

'A federal matter'

Coun. Jesse Helmer said Thursday that he did not believe the General Dynamics deal was part of council's purview, as it had not come before council.

"It's not a matter for local government. It's frankly a federal matter," Helmer told Afternoon Drive in an interview. "Councillors can have their individual opinions just like anybody else about whether they think it's a good idea or not, if they want to talk about it to the media or not."

But he defended the right of Brown to reach out to councillors about the deal.

"The mayor is free, similarly, I think, to make requests of his colleagues about a whole variety of issues, including this one," said Helmer.

Asked if any council members challenged the email, Helmer said one of his colleagues sought clarification on the message from the city officials after it was sent out.

Coun. Phil Squire, known as a council member who is unafraid to speak his mind, told Afternoon Drive he had no problem with the email when it was sent and said he'd forgotten about it until it came up in the media.

With files from the CBC's Bob Steele, Nathan Swinn and Afternoon Drive

now