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The lights went out, but they did shine at times

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The lights went out, but they did shine at times

RANDY RICHMOND, Free Press Reporter   2004-01-01 04:20:43  

The year flickered. The lights went on; the lights went out.

In London, every patch of good times was matched by bad, with a lot of grey areas in between.

The lights went out -- for a few hundred thousand residents in August, for local Tories, for the local beef market and for a historic dance hall.

There were even darker days, from the beginning of the year with the Jan. 20 killing of a 10-week-old to the Nov. 3 shooting of a teenage mom. City police investigated seven homicides and overall in the region, police investigated the deaths of six babies, with four leading to murder charges.

But the lights did shine at times -- on a new and more-popular-than-ever Storybook Gardens, on the John Labatt Centre's first full year in operation and the city's attempts to hold two hockey championship tournaments there, and on Bright's Grove's Mike Weir, who won the Masters, one of professional golf's most prestigious events.

As usual at city hall, the lights were neither totally bright nor totally off. Two people hired to save managers from their own bad decisions quit. All but one incumbent running for re-election won, but their victories weren't so black and white.

And now the personal attacks that marred the last three years have surfaced again.

It can make one yearn for the good old days of August, when city leaders and residents worked together in the face of a crisis.

Just after 4:10 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 14, lights everywhere went out, traffic immediately came to a crawl on London streets, cellphones stopped working, computers crashed and office workers poured into downtown streets.

News spread via the old-fashioned way, word of mouth. The blackout wasn't just downtown London, it was all of London. It wasn't just London, Toronto was hit, too. It wasn't just Toronto, it was everywhere . . . well everywhere that mattered.

Emergency services went full out to rescue people trapped in elevators and make sure the city was safe. City leaders set up a war room on the second floor of the police station. Premier Ernie Eves called a state of emergency.

After the initial confusion, many Londoners turned the blackout into a party. Downtown bars fired up grills and poured cold beer for patrons.

In residential areas, neighbours walked from house to house by candlelight, visiting. On one Westmount street, neighbours and their children watched a movie under the stars on a television hooked up to a car battery.

For awhile, every theory under the sun -- the only source of light for many the next day -- was explored. Terrorists and Ontario's fragile electrical system were first blamed, but it turned out to be a combination of factors, starting in Ohio's electrical grid.

For a few weeks, London and the rest of the province were forced to practise energy conservation. Lights were dimmed and air conditioners set at higher temperatures.

By summer's end, life was back to normal. Ontario residents were back to using as much power as they like.

The blackout did have some fallout. Opposition MPPs attacked Eves over Ontario's inability to handle the surges from Ohio that wrecked our system. He fended off those charges, but only a few weeks, later, faced a bigger beef.

In the height of barbecue season, we learned our meat wasn't as safe as we thought. Federal inspectors shut down sales of beef products at dozens of retailers on Aug. 24 in the midst of a criminal probe of Aylmer Meat Packers Inc.

It took months for the media to smoke out all the details about practices at the meat plant and the shortfalls in safety inspections of meat products across the province.

Allegations, centring on the processing of deadstock, have yet be proven or defended in court.

The allegations against Eves, centring on a lack of control over meat inspection, were tried in the court of public opinion. The verdict: guilty. Eves went down to defeat in the Oct. 2 election.

It was almost destiny that the final nail in the Tory coffin was hammered in Southwestern Ontario -- the Walkerton tainted-water disaster in 2000 and the shooting of native protester Dudley George in Ipperwash plagued the Tories for the past years.

And local Tories paid the price. Before the provincial election, they held seven of 10 area seats. After the election, they held one.

Many Londoners expected the same sort of change in the municipal election. The excesses of mismanagement in 2001 and 2002 gave city hall a whopping hangover in 2003.

In March, only eight months after his much-heralded arrival as the saviour of city hall, city manager George Duncan quit.

Duncan said his family wanted to return to British Columbia. The city's unions didn't buy into a vision union leaders said didn't include them. Others suspected Duncan didn't have the experience or heart to wrestle all the competing interests at city hall.

In the midst of the Duncan fallout, the human rights specialist hired to root harassment from city hall tendered her resignation.

Catherine Burr came on board in July 2002 with high hopes from councillors interested in cleaning up what one report called a "culture of harassment" at city hall. But in April, she resigned, saying senior managers had tried to block her work.

Burr said senior managers told her not to produce written reports and pressured her for names of complainants.

Over the next six months, the city spent $85,000 hiring lawyers to handle anti-harassment complaints -- more than Burr made in a year. But the issue wouldn't disappear.

Covent Garden Market manager David Hall resigned in September, a month after his assistant, Karin Hanwell, left her position, citing harassment and a "poisonous'' work environment.

In the middle of the Nov. 10 municipal election campaign, a London man filed a human rights complaint against the city of London, alleging a former city hall manager pressured him for sex in exchange for a business licence.

On the election trail, mayoral candidate Vaughan Minor vowed to call an inquiry to root out harassment at city hall -- sparking fierce debate between him and Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco.

With a healthy city economy and a personal approach, DeCicco won re-election handily. Although she oversaw -- or didn't, in the view of some --the human resources mess at city hall, DeCicco was the boss for a string of big projects.

One of those projects opened in 2003. The $7 million, new- look Storybook Gardens opened June 28 to the shouts of 15,000 people. The raves continued into the winter, when a new skating loop opened.

The string of capital project successes, from the John Labatt Centre to the new Central Library, may have helped 11 of 12 ward incumbents win re-election, too.

But it may have been math rather than magnetism that got some candidates in -- high interest in the election inspired many people to run in each ward, splitting the vote.

Many expected sparks to fly between DeCicco and former mayor and now new deputy mayor Tom Gosnell. But as the year ended, the two seemed to be settling into compatible roles -- Gosnell cooking the steak and DeCicco adding the sizzle.

DeCicco jumped aboard Tourism London's bid for the 2006 world junior hockey championships. That certainly helped Londoners buy tickets by the thousands.

Gosnell questioned the possibility the city would be on the hook for unlimited millions if the tourney didn't work out as expected.

By the time council unanimously OK'd the bid, DeCicco and Gosnell praised not only the business plan, but council's desire to ask questions.

However, even as council patted itself on the back over the hockey bid, it was taking a kicking from Londoners over the end of a city institution.

To the anger and frustration of thousands, the 68-year-old Wonderland Gardens was being wrested from the family that built and operated it.

The city may keep the place, or parts of the place, going.

Whatever happens, for many Londoners, something special will end Jan. 1 when Jones has to close the doors and for one last time, turn out the lights.

Copyright © The London Free Press 2001,2002,2003

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