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Tomorrow, the issue surrounding a new development on Reservoir Hill will be before London City Council, perhaps for the last time. I imagine there will be a great deal of conversation, discussion and debate around the issue both inside and out of City Hall before Council takes its position.

Today, the London Free Press published this article on the issue, which includes answers members of Council gave to the question “Will you vote in favour of the Reservoir Hill highrise?”. Few of the members of Council that could be reached seemed to have a firm stance, with some remaining undecided or decided unless new information becomes available before Council meets.

The importance of the planning profession was heavily impressed on me when I was in school, and continues to be now. Planners are trained and hired to adhere both to planning guidelines and statues such as the Planning Act, as well as social and cultural analysts that gauge the optimal uses for land. Like politicians, they are in the public employ to best serve the needs of the community, and make choices devoid of personal consideration. Yet, I and my college classmates were repeatedly told that the planning process is highly political, and planning professionals can often effectively argue both sides of an issue. I’m reminded this by this development issue, where individuals both in support and against the development have said there is misinformation swirling around this issue. As I asked before, what is the truth?

The background documents are a good place to start. The crux of the argument seems to be, if a building larger than one of the buildings proposed by the developer is allowed under the 2001 OMB decision made by Rosenberg, and the decisions made by Council afterwards that stem from it.

The Rosenberg decision as written in the Feb.1, 2001 OMB report includes:

(i) Maximum one 12 storey apartment building located roughly in the middle of the two apartment buildings as set out in the existing proposed Site Plan and driveways to the site can be angled;

(ii) Maximum of 165 apartment units with a minimum of 215 underground parking spaces…

There’s no reference to the exact size of the building. However, Council repeatedly stated that since the 2001 decision, the applicant Ayerswood Development were to revise the plan to have one building the same size (not larger) as one of the buildings in the original application, as the applicant brought forward new proposals with larger buildings. This is reflected in this June 13, 2011 report to the Built and Natural Environment Committee by D.N. Stanlake, Director of Development Planning. From the report:

On November 15, 2004, Municipal Council Resolved:

That, on the recommendation of General Manager of Planning and Development, the following actions be taken with respect to the site plan approval application of Ayerswood Development Corp. relating to the property located at 940 Springbank Drive:

a) the applicant BE ADVISED to review their site plan to meet the requirements and intent of the OMB decision as follows:

i. the building be shifted to the west to a location that is “roughly the middle of the two apartment buildings” as set out in the site plan before the Board in 2000;
iii. the size of the building be revised to be the size of one of the buildings identified in the site plan which is before the OMB to be approved;

As well:

On June 15, 2009, Municipal Council resolved:

15. That the following actions be taken with respect to the site plan approval application of Ayerswood Development Corp. relating to the property located at 940 Springbank Drive.

(a) the Ontario Municipal Board BE ADVISED that the Municipal Council reiterates its position taken on November 15, 2004 with respect to this matter, in that:

(i) The developer has proposed to dedicate a two-acre parcel portion of its lands for parks purposes at a location that is supported by staff;

(ii) The proposed building has been shifted to the west to a location that is “roughly in the middle of the two apartment buildings” as set out in the site plan before the Board in 2000; and

The revised site plan does not meet the position adopted by City Council at its meeting held on November 15, 2004 with regard to the Ayerswood site plan appeal in that:

(i) The size of the building has not (emphasis mine) been reduced to the size of one of the buildings as shown on the 2000 site plan;

Again, planning/development is highly political, perhaps especially in London. I have heard a variety of perspectives on this issue, and some very disturbing allegations, including that city staff have unfairly tried to obstruct the process for this project being approved. It has been said to me that city staff had the recommendation process taken out of their hands last fall because they were blockading this project, though to what end wasn’t made clear.

I’ve heard the concern voiced by several people that council is the face of democracy, and the city staff are only hired to give advice. If the unelected city staff becomes the final voice of authority, we aren’t being properly represented. However, I feel there must be a fine balance. On the other hand, if city council refuse well-founded advice from city staff, they are effectively silencing the professionals we pay to lend their experience and expertise. They’re the ones well educated and experienced in a specific field and well informed on specific files, something city council members are unable to be with the myriad of issues they face in their role at council. Why shouldn’t we put a great deal of value in the work they do? As well, if city staff is completely disregarded, it won’t take long for them to feel undervalued and ultimately seek other opportunities, and create a toxic environment in city hall. This may already be happening.

Ultimately, the concern is that decisions are being made on this file for personal reasons by staff. I share that concern, though I see it from the opposite perspective; I am concerned that some may be making decisions for this project because of support they’ve received from members of the development business community.

I am neither pro- nor anti-development. What I hope to always be is standing in support of proper planning, I’m concerned that isn’t what is happening here, based on what I’ve read from the history of this application, as shown above. The applicant repeatedly comes back to the city with similar plans knowing the OMB stance, yet hoping Council will bend. It repeatedly failed to happen before previous councils, but it appears the applicant now has a receptive audience in at least some of the current council.

So, I am concerned about the amount of leverage the development community in London has at City Council. When members of Council have accepted campaign donations from groups that form delegations before City Council with a special interest, I’m concerned that decisions will be swayed not only by best information, but also personal interest. I would like to see greater transparency of election contributions (though all election 2010 campaign information is available here, there are ways of making this information more accessible). This is something I hope to explore further in future posts.

I believe this issue is an excellent gateway into discussion on other issues, including:

  • How much stock should be put into staff decisions? When/why is it appropriate to take control out of their hands?
  • Should campaign contributions be scrutenized more than they are now?
  • Should members of Council be recused from committee/council decisions concerning people/businesses/organizations that support them financially?

For the Reservoir Hill project, I hope informative and enlightened discussion/debate can happen tomorrow night, and that Council makes the right decision based on what is best for the community as well as what is correct according to best planning practice. I completely accept that a development is going to happen on that hill. I hope that what is built there fits with the spirit of the Rosenberg decision, to have one building of the original specified size. If the applicant had revised their design based on what the OMB said in 2000/2001 as well as follow-up by city council in 2004 (and again in 2009), and made a site plan with one building of the original size roughly between where the two had been proposed, this matter could have been settled several years ago.

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Last night, a public participation meeting with the Planning and Environment Committee (PEC) was held at City Hall regarding potential development on Reservoir Hill.

How it started pretty much set the tone for the evening. I arrived about 15 minutes to 7:00, only to find that the meeting was happening in committee rooms 1 & 2 although I’d been (incorrectly) under the impression the meeting was happening in the main council chambers. The rooms were already at capacity with 60 people, and with 10 or so people waiting in the hall and over 30 more people waiting downstairs in the lobby, many were displeased. After city staff had completed their presentation, several people in the room spoke up, demanding that the meeting be moved or postponed until everyone interested could be accommodated. Councillor Bryant moved to have the meeting adjourned to another date when adequate space would be available, but couldn’t find a seconder among councillors Polhill, Swan, White or Henderson.

The audience was told that the council chambers were under some kind of construction, but with complaints mounting security and staff left the meeting to see what could be done.

Eventually, the chambers were opened, with no sign of construction other than a kind cleaning lady that finished up her work early as the gallery was flooded and soon filled to capacity. Many grumbles about lack of citizen engagement were heard.

At almost 8:00, the meeting recommenced. The full agenda including the site design, studies performed on the site etc. is available here. Articles/blog posts about the event are available here, here and here.

The meeting began from the top with staff presenting the proposed plan, followed by a statement by Allan Patton, the lawyer representing the applicant Tony Gratt and Ayerswood Development Corp. Mr. Patton pointed out that “The acting executive director, PEEs (planning, environment and engineering services), is satisfied that all outstanding issues have been resolved. The proposed site plan and building conform to the zoning approved by the OMB.” He also made a jab at the audience, saying that the public (including those posting on facebook and writing blogs) erroneously state that the 2000 OMB decision must be adhered to, which he said is simply not the case.

The floor was then opened to the public. A variety of perspectives and issues were addressed, from questions about the OMB process and why Council had reversed course compared to previous councils between 2000 and 2010 (a question repeated by several speakers) to emotional appeals about the local ecology and the loss of park space for Londoners to enjoy. One speaker said they have zero sympathy for the developer, saying that Ayerswood purchased an open space in 1967 knowing it wasn’t likely to be green-lighted for development. One of the last speakers stood up to say that she isn’t pro- or anti-development, only wants to make sure that all homework and due diligence is done. The possibility of a land swap was also proposed by several citizens.

After the public input was closed, Mr. Patton was asked if there were any comments/questions from the gallery he wanted to respond to, he responded he had nothing to add, except that a historical plaque for the 1812 Battle of Reservoir Hill was put on the applicant’s property without his consent or permission.

It was time for the committee to weigh in, ask some of their own questions, get information from staff, and ultimately make a decision.

Councillor Swan commented that he had never supported this development, however, he was resigned to the fact that a building would be eventually built on Reservoir Hill. However, he was receptive to the idea proposed by the public of a land swap. Councillor Henderson also asked if there was a way everyone could leave the chambers happy, including having the developer approved for a smaller building that would still make him some money and not be tied up any further, or if he could get his large apartment on another site via a land swap. Councillor Baechler (who is not on the committee, but was one of several members of council witnessing the meeting) urged the committee not to approve the plan, stating that the city staff were against this decision but that this council didn’t listen to them. She asked the committee to return the application to staff, and stand behind the integrity of the planning process.

Finally, it came to a vote to receive the report for final approval, with an amendment added by Councillor Swan, for city staff to approach the developer and see if a land swap might be possible…before the next Council session, on May 1.

The committee voted 4-1 supporting the site plan recommendation, with Councillor Bryant the only one opposing. Those that supported the site plan were Councillors Polhill, Henderson, White and Swan.

My confusion during and even after the meeting was, what was the truth? According to the applicant’s lawyer Mr. Patton, city staff had signed off that all requirements were met, and therefore there was nothing standing in the way of this project finally, finally going forward. On the other hand, members of the public as well as members of council including Councillor Baechler (who is not on the committee, but was 1 of several councillors witnessing the meeting) pointed out that the 2000 decision had been the threshold several councils before this had used to determine what was appropriate for the site (the full report is available here). They argued that what was appropriate hadn’t changed, council had, and advised the committee to vote against approving the site plan application.

So, what is the truth? Background provided by London blogger Philip McLeod is helpful.

He points out in his article that council stripped staff of their approval authority for this project after they showed reluctance to sanction the project. What seems crucial to this application being valid is if staff believes all of the criteria for the plan had been met. Mr. McLeod writes:

Recently…council ordered staff to wind up the process and get a recommendation before the planning committee and a public participation meeting. Caught between a rock and a hard place – council, after all, is now the approval authority on this project – staff caved and signed off. Their recommendation, if that is the right word for something that seems coerced, went to the committee and the public Tuesday night. The staff report is worded carefully: “Should council decide their conditions have been adequately addressed and they desire to proceed with final approval,” then it will be done.

He also points out:

Since then, there have been a series of tussles between the developer, the city and the OMB – the former seeking approval for larger and larger single apartment projects, the city saying no and the OMB ruling the proposals did not meet the spirit and intent of the initial ruling.

Former councils repeatedly said no to this project, as did the OMB. I can only conclude it is indeed Council that has changed.

My concern is due process, as well as a great deal of confusion, headache and heartache for all involved. As it was repeatedly pointed out last night, the applicant could have saved themselves a great deal of financial pain and stress if they had complied with the OMB rulings, but instead repeatedly came forward with plans with a much larger footprint than what was approved. It was also pointed out last night that green-lighting this type of plan sets a dangerous precedent, as it tells the development community in London that if you press long and loudly enough, you will eventually get your way, at least with the current PEC/council. As Londoners, we should be very concerned about a council that is willing to go over the heads of the trained, skilled and educated staff they have at their disposal.

Back in Feburary (on Monday the 26th) at the Planning and Environment Committee, a development by Ali Soufan’s York Developments was under examination (as covered by Gina Barber in this post). The development applied to put together and re-designate 6 different properties on the southwest corner of Southdale Road East and White Oaks Road. The proposal began as a grocery store, and staff recommended a change of use from auto-oriented commercial to a Neighbourhood Shopping Area. So far, so good.

But there’s a rub.

The applicant wasn’t content with this decision, as this application was based on speculation. He didn’t have a tenant for the property yet, so he wanted to leave his options open. He wanted the Neighbourhood Shopping Area but also leave the option open for an auto sales lot, as well. The applicant also wanted several special considerations.

This didn’t sit well with staff, and a lengthy debate insued. There was concern voiced by staff that any changes to the Official Plan would require public notification, and could be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The applicant said there were time constraints, and that they would need changes to be made by the end of the month (March). However, Council wasn’t meeting again until April 10 and nothing could be decided before that. The applicant asked if they could be granted a special provision. As Gina Barber observes:

And so without further ado, the applicant was granted the Neighbourhood Shopping Area with a special provision for an auto sales and service establishment. So what if it violated all the planning policies. No member of the public was there to object and even if they had been, they wouldn’t have understood what was happening.
 This last sentiment was spoken by the Mayor: “the average person can’t understand what we’re talking about”. No problem, citizens are disengaged and uninformed, Council can make any decisions they want without recourse.

More than one citizen begged to differ.

Because of this concern, after reviewing the application and the situation leading up to the special provisions made, I co-signed this letter of objection addressed to Council and added to the April 10, 2012 agenda. Councillor Judy Bryant stood up in Council to indicate that as a member of the PEC she had voted against the special provision, and didn’t believe the application should have been allowed to leave the committee in the state it was in. Gina again:

Council ultimately decided to circulate the modified request to the public. It would not have happened if the members of the public, three of whom were watching from the public gallery, had not sent that letter of objection. The decision was unanimous.

I am relieved that Council decided to circulate the modified request to the public. However, I’m concerned that the application got as far as it did in Council, and that it took a public letter of objection to overturn it.

I am concerned that these actions are part of the broader pattern repeatedly addressed by Council members such as Branscombe and Baechler as “policy on the fly”. These concerns have come up several times recently, including during the deliberations over the development on Reservoir Hill, the development proposed by York Developments on Southdale Road, and the Mayor’s “eleventh hour” decision to cut contributions to affordable housing and focus on rent suppliments. On the last point, Gina writes:

He may have a point; perhaps a greater emphasis on rental supplements would be beneficial. But it doesn’t add to the housing stock, it doesn’t create jobs, and it doesn’t leverage private sector money. Nor does it meet many of the housing needs identified in the development of the council endorsed policy. People like Paul Hubert to tend become suspicious when there is a sudden change of direction without debate, without public consultation. And just why would it be better with less money? This, several councillors pointed out, was policy on the fly. It was disrespectful of council and the public. It wasn’t developed to meet the legitimate needs of the community but to achieve a zero tax increase.

However, the problem may run deeper than simply members of Committee/Council not properly informing themselves on the issues that come before them, and/or making it up as they go along. In several of the contentious planning issues I have now witnessed before PEC (and ultimately, Council), the developer in question has been Ali Soufan of York Developments. As Gina Barber points out, there may be method to the planning madness:

Soufan usually does well at planning committee. He’s a generous donor to political campaigns; he and his various businesses and family members had donated generously to the campaigns of a number of members of council including the Mayor, committee chair Bud Polhill, and committee member Sandy White. Those donations may not be the deciding factor in approving an application, but they do tend to help you get a warm reception.

Mayor Fontana certainly seems to offer Mr. Soufan and other developers a warm reception to City Hall, and to often see members of the public wishing to voice their complaints about developments happening in their neighbourhoods as meddlesome pests. “Why consult the neighbours? They’ll just cause problems” seemed to be the Mayor’s attitude at PEC Monday February 26. At the last PEC on Reservoir Hill leading up to tomorrow’s meeting, the committee and especially the mayor pressed to see the project finally move forward. Fontana pushed staff to get their information together, analyze and put together development agreement clauses for the public site plan meeting, to be ready April 24.

How quickly can we do it? This seems to be a recurring theme with Mayor Fontana. I’m concerned that this phrase, repeatedly often and loudly enough, will stifle and silence legitimate objections by the city’s staff. As citizens of London, we must participate in the public process, and hold our elected representatives accountable. I deeply hope to see our city grow and flourish, but not because we’ve cut corners and refused to do due diligence. If the public continues to be ignored and derided when they work to become part of the process and development companies are perceived as holding the reins of planning policy in this city, we will see what fragile participation is left crumble.

Despite, even perhaps because of this, I am excited to participate in civic engagement workshops, meet interested Londoners and encourage everyone to join me in learning more about our city hall, the people that shape our city on our behalf, and how we can make our voices heard. We all want a vibrant city, but it can only truly happen when all of London is interested and engaged in the process and give their input.

I’ve been accused of being part of a “special interest group” because I’m interested in city politics and try to stay connected at City Hall. I don’t want to bepart of a vocal minority, but part of a diverse group of many citizens learning, discussing and engaging with our city and those that shape it. I hope you’ll join me as new projects and initiatives happen across the city to help this happen (I’ll write more on this in a later post).

*Note: I relied heavily on posts by Gina Barber for my information, as it is difficult to find local media writings on planning issues outside of contentious/interesting cases like the Reservoir Hill debate. I usually try to use a more diverse selection of sources, but I found Gina’s many articles on planning-related issues at City Hall gave me a lot of material.

I moved to London in 2004 to study land planning theory, practice and technology at Fanshawe College, and have since worked to learn both about the planning profession generally as well as urban planning in the city of London. It didn’t take long for our class to hear about a pitched battle that was and continues to be fought over an area of London known as Reservoir Hill, dating back to the 1960s. Since then, I’ve been trying my best to learn more about planning issues happening in our city and to understand the policy and decisions that shape those issues. I write this now because the issue will be addressed tomorrow night in a public participation meeting (PPM) at City Hall, perhaps for the last time. I’ve been trying to catch myself up on the complex issue of the potential development on Reservoir Hill – the full staff report is available here.

I’ve drawn on several London news articles and posts by London’s excellent bloggers to fill myself in. Jo-Anne Bishop, Philip McLeod and Gina Barber wrote these great articles; there are also many local media articles, including this.

In 1999, a development proposal was sent to the city for a zoning change for the property from open space to high-density residential, along with an application for 2 12-storey apartment buildings, with 165 units each. Since then, this issue has bounced between Council, the OMB and the applicant Ayreswood Development Corp.; eventually the applicant was granted a partial victory in being granted the zoning change while having the application reduced to one 12-storey, 165 unit building instead of 2.

The concerns about the site are threefold (the two latter decisions being the major considerations shaping the development debate). The site is historical (it is the site of a War of 1812 skirmish as well as having historical significance for nearby events like the “Victoria” disaster), it is currently open space as part of the Springbank Park system and therefore a change to high-density would be a major zoning change with significant impact on the neigbourhood); thirdly, (from the Free Press article) “[s]tability of the soil has been a concern for the property, which lies at the western edge of the Ingersoll Moraine, a glacial relic that consists mainly of rock and debris.”

The design for the single 12-storey has been revised a number of times; the neighbourhood has been less than pleased as the single building has swelled to 43% larger than the agreed-upon single building footprint, remaining 12 storeys and 165 units, but creating a much larger footprint than originally agreed upon because the building will be mostly comprised of two- and three-bedroom units. Tomorrow, the issue will be back before Council in a PPM. If Council believes that enough research has been done, the plan may move ahead, even if city staff continues to have doubts. And doubts they have. Philip McLeod writes:

The city’s planning staff continues to be against the proposal. “In our opinion this is not an appropriate use and intensity of development for Reservoir Hill,” says planning director John Fleming.

There are concerns that Council will approve of the plan, despite these concerns. As Jo-Anne has observed:

In just nine short months, members of the Council have dramatically changed the approach they have previously taken with respect to this site plan application, and has given itself the authority to approve the application without the support of City Staff, and against previous OMB recommendations. This current Council is looking now at approving the same application it had previously rejected in June of 2009. Why, and how can they do that? These are questions many in the community have.

These are the concerns I share as well. I understand the plight the Mayor is in to produce the jobs he promised in his election campaign; however, we must make sure that this doesn’t happen by sacrificing due diligence. I hope this will not be the scenario we will see play out Tuesday night.

Finally, as Philip McLeod has said, “Now council has told all concerned — developer and planners — to get everything together for April 24 at what may be the last battle.” I will be there to witness the meeting; I hope it won’t be a last hurrah for the concerned members of the community.

This is a continuation of my post from yesterday.

Since I wrote about the events surrounding the Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin’s investigation of 6 members of City Council surrounding the lunch at the Harmony Buffet and the agreement made Tuesday on an 8-6 vote to grant legal counsel on the taxpayer’s dollar for the investigation, several things have developed.

First, it has come to light that Councillor Swan submitted this letter, dated March 26 2012, to the Finance and Administration Committee, titled Re: Complaints to the Ombudsman Office.

The letter outlines the fact that Council has been/is the subject of multiple investigations by the Ombudsman’s office, and comments that the citizens must still be able to make complaints while Council has the right to fair representation. Councillor Swan requests that City staff report to Council on several points he outlines; among the options he wants covered is the ability to retain legal counsel and the ability for Council members to recuse themselves from an Ombudsman investigation. My impression from this is, he’s confusing an Ombudsman investigation with a legal investigation, something the Ombudsman is seeking to clear up (more on this below). He concludes that review of the complaints process is warranted, and if the “complaint process gets immersed in frivolous complaints” the ability for Council to properly do their job may be in jeopardy. This to me is similar to comments Councillor Orser has made speculating that the Ombudsman’s office has become a “retaliatory weapon” for those that don’t agree with decisions made by the 6 that were at the lunch, and Councillor Henderson’s “sore losers” comment. These kinds of comments are disrespectful to the Ontario Ombudsman and the office he holds, by insinuating he takes on investigations lightly/would allow his office to become a political weapon, especially when the entire point of his office is to have investigations performed by a disinterested third party.

Secondly, 4 members of Council including the mayor have been interviewed by London radio CJBK on the buffet event (and other topics). These comments were made by Councillor Henderson, who was at the lunch:

This is major for London, and London’s got to be happy with the present Council because we’re doing more democracy than there is in the federal and provincial governments right now, they can all get together at their caucus meetings and talk about anything without the Free Press there, and they can come back to government and pass laws, provincial can do it on the party system, provincially and federally we can do it as a caucus meeting, and we’re not allowed to as city councillors, can’t have coffee with three different people, at lunch after a meeting and even talk about Council, and that’s crazy!

Talking about complaints to the Ombudsman, Councillor Henderson says:

…They can call up the Ombudsman, the Ombudsman now can trigger a whole bunch of lawyers and come down, take me to court without a lawyer, for heaven’s sake, but if I don’t want to see him, he can subpoena me to go in, and this is a police state…

These comments were made by Councillor Hubert (who wasn’t at the lunch, and voted against taxpayers cover the legal counsel):

…Tell the truth. You do not need a lawyer to tell the truth. If there is nothing inappropriate about the lunch and the conversation that happened there, just answer the questions, clearly, and fairly and accurately, and truthfully…That was not a City of London luncheon, and that not to be doing City business, henceforth, why should the City, and hence Londoners, be on the hook to pay for the legal counsel emanating out of their private decisions? When we meet as Counsel and we make a decision, and someone comes after us or sues us or alleges wrongdoing, then it’s appropriate because we’re acting as Council, not as individuals but as Council, duly elected, then it’s appropriate for the indemnification by-law to be used for legal assistance.

The radio conversations and Councillor Swan’s letter are good indications of the confusion swirling around the Ombudsman’s report, the need for legal counsel, and indeed the purpose of the Ombudsman and his office. For the second day in a row, the Ombudsman has posted to Twitter in response to comments made by Londoners/Council, including a Twitter conversation I was having with another citizen. The Ombudsman posted:

I think it’s time for me to go meet w London city council./Will b writing to London city council to b invited to present on OO and to slay some of the misconceptions floating around.

He later posted: “We’ve received good cooperation in our closed mtg investig. in #LondonON.”

Posters on Twitter (including myself) asked if this means he’ll be personally in town for discussions with City Council, (as I understand it, so far members of his staff are performing the interviews) and asked him if he could join us for lunch/dinner while he’s here. His reply was an enthusiastic “I’m in!”, so hoping that we will be able to sit down with him and discuss everything swirling around this issue, as well as hear his presentation to City Council.

Since I posted this, Ombudsman Marin published this message on his website, sharing a letter  submitted to London City Council asking for the opportunity to meet with Council at an upcoming meeting to answer any questions and clear up any concerns Council members may have concerning his office’s closed meeting investigations.

April 18: The Ombudsman has posted on Twitter that he’ll be before London City Council 4pm Monday June 24 to discuss the Sunshine Law.

This post continues my thoughts on the Ontario Ombudsman’s office and the 2 investigations he’s opened in London in the past 6 months, as written here and here.

Late Tuesday night/early Tuesday morning, a vote was held on whether city/taxpayer funds will be used to cover legal fees incurred during the Ontario Ombudsman’s investigation of certain members of Council for their pre-budget lunch at the Harmony Grand Buffett. It’s covered by am980 and the Free Press here and here and by Philip McLeod (@philipmcleod) here.

Shortly after the am980 article was posted onto Twitter, the Ombudsman (@Ont_Ombudsman) himself responded. In a series of Tweets, he said:

Why would anyone need to be accompanied by a lawyer in the first place is baffling/We investigate 18,000 complaints abt the prov gov’t. Can’t remember a case where an official brought in a lawyer to the interview/Our municipal investigs of closed mtgs leads to recommendations only. That’s the worst case scenario. No criminal or civil liability./ Oh and another thing. As a rule, lawyers r not allowed at interviews in any event.

The public reaction to the news has been varied.

Some believe that council members should be allowed legal counsel, possibly without understanding that it isn’t a criminal/legal investigation. Others point to this fact that it is an investigation without “teeth” as a reason to question the process, and still others question why this kind of investigation is happening in the 21st century with so many others means of communicating outside public scrutiny. Councillor Henderson (one of the members of the lunch meeting, and the member of council that put forward the motion that legal council would be paid by the city) has even suggested the complaints to the Ombudsman were made by “sore losers” after key budget votes didn’t go their way.

I continue to question the appropriateness of the meeting. As I stated in earlier posts, there seems to be confusion over whether city/budget business was discussed at the meeting – Councillor D. Brown has said that it was only a friendly meeting between colleagues, while Councillor Henderson said that they did discuss the budget, including the contentious cut to the contribution to the affordable housing reserve fund. As well, Philip McLeod points out in his article a catch-22 seems to now be before us, as the group that were at the lunch (plus ward 3 councillor Swan and my councillor for ward 2, Bill Armstrong) feel legal counsel paid by taxpayers should be provided, despite the fact that those at the lunch did nothing wrong. So, are they innocent, or are we paying for their defense of a meeting they knew shouldn’t have happened? Councillor Joni Baechler voiced similar thoughts:

I would say taxpayers should be outraged they would be paying for councillors to hire a lawyer over a private luncheon they had that wasn’t sanctioned by council. And why would they feel they need a lawyer unless there was city business being discussed?

So, where do I stand? I firmly believe in the office’s mandate of accountability, transparency and ethical behavior – the question is, are these objectives best being served by the current system? I’m not under any illusions that members of council have other methods of meeting/conversing including in e-mails not available to the public, so does 6 of them meeting together before a budget really matter?

Absolutely.

It’s all about accountability. I completely understand that there are means at Council’s disposal to behave in an opaque manner, including discussing business via e-mail. In no way do I want to discourage discussion between council members, or see the Ombudsman’s office used for personal reasons. My hope is that council will take larger steps to meet openly and collectively, and be more aware of the responsibility every member has to represent their constituents and meet/discuss/debate with every member of the council. My hope is that we will see much more openness, from every member.

Is this investigation reasonable? If nothing else, the fact that the Ombudsman is investigating this event speaks for itself, though some believe that the decision was made frivolously. As I wrote in a previous post:

I am also convinced that the Ombudsman doesn’t enter an investigation lightly. In both this now-concluded investigation as well as the one that has just been launched, an initial probe was performed to decide if further inquiry was needed. We have this service in place to investigate events where there is reasonable doubt as to the transparency of Council.

Because of this, and because his office operates as a disinterested third party, I think the Ombudsman should be able to investigate other levels of the public sector outside of City Council.

On Sunday April 8, the Toronto Star published an opinion piece by Mr. Marin on his office’s responsibilities, and how, unlike the ombudsman in many other provinces, he isn’t responsible for complaints made about hospitals, and must therefore turn them away; in the fiscal year that just ended, his office turned away 375 complaints. As noted previously, the Ombudsman’s website has a chart showing his office’s responsibilities as they compare to those in other provinces. In my view, Mr. Marin makes a convincing argument for greater oversight into the public sector of Ontario, especially as such a move may be cost-neutral based on how efficiently the Ombudsman’s office operates, as well as the fact such a move may help him identify inefficiencies/shortcomings in our public system and help it run more smoothly, with greater citizen satisfaction.

In the end…yes, it’s a citizen engagement issue. Philip McLeod concludes his article with this:

For the record, the Ombudsman has no power in this matter beyond writing a report that says what the Harmony Six did over lunch was wrong or it wasn’t. No one goes to jail, loses his or her seat, gets his or her knuckles rapped or has to stand in the corner. They should, but they don’t. In thousands of interviews the Ombudsman’s office has conducted, no one has ever asked for – or needed – a lawyer until now.

Unhappily the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction over the ethical and moral issues this arrogance raises. So it’s up to us, people.

So, so true! In the end, the Ombudsman can only make observations and recommendations. It is ultimately up to us, the electorate, to pay close attention to the actions of our city council, voice our opinions and hold them accountable. This is something I continue to work on, and look forward to the continued challenge of learning about our municipal process and everything happening in our city. This is our home, I want to work to make it the best place it can possibly be. This means getting out into our community and participating in all the great things happening here, and keeping an eye on the people we’ve elected to work in our best interest. I’m excited to be involved, and hope that might see you out in our city too.

The public participation meeting concerning the Fleming Drive riot was held last night at the London Convention Centre, held by the Public Safety Committee. The media that were there estimate roughly 150 Londoners were present, from a wide range of interests – members of the Fanshawe College Student Union, neighbourhood committees in the Fanshawe and UWO neighbourhoods, as well as citizens concerned about the legality of the proposed by-law.

In all, 9 members of Council were present. The 5 members of the committee (Councillors D. Brown, Armstrong, Bryant, Hubert and Polhill) were present, as well as Councillors Branscombe, M. Brown, Henderson and Swan; Fanshawe College is in Councillor Joe Swan’s ward, it was on his suggestion the meeting was initiated.

The full agenda included items added by the public are available here. As well, articles on the event are available here, here, here and here.

The overarching theme that I collected from the meeting was a concern those responsible for the riot will be properly punished, asking how we ensure another event like this doesn’t occur, and concern that the proposed by-law as written might lead to abuse of police power and loss of civil liberties. To the last point, I was given a list of questions to try to address by another concerned citizen, Andrew Culver (@eh_c), as he was at the Civil Works Committee meeting at City Hall, to ensure that police wouldn’t overstep their powers and that citizens wouldn’t lose their civil rights because of this by-law.

Police Chief Duncan spoke to these latter concerns immediately, anticipating they would be a major reason for Londoners to attend the meeting. From the Free Press article:

“‘We need an opportunity to go into an area and quell things,” he said, noting the law would allow police to go onto private property. Only he and his top staff — and the city’s top bylaw officer — could declare a public nuisance and move onto private property.”

However, some members of the public, including Fanshawe Student Union (FSU) President Veronica Barahona spoke to voice concerns that the wording of the by-law is too vague, the reaction too immediate, and urged further discussion and research.

This concern was echoed by others, eventually by members of the Committee. Councillor Paul Hubert stated that he believes there needs to be more time to discuss the by-law, and questioned if the by-law as it stands could be challenged legally. Councillor Judy Bryant voiced similar concerns, saying that their legal advisors are excellent, but thinks there should be a peer review of the by-law by a lawyer that is an expert in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to ensure that they weren’t overstepping legal or Charter boundaries by enacting this by-law as it stands. As well, she suggested the by-law be circulated to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association so they have an opportunity to weigh in.

Many members of the community that came to the meeting spoke of how to tighten rules and hold students accountable, from stronger codes of conduct for the students of Fanshawe and Western, to stronger penalties to landlords that run houses “like a business” without respect or consideration for those that live with the consequences. When the Committee weighed in, Councillor Polhill floated the idea that the community, not the schools, should be allowed to determine the academic penalty (i.e. expulsion) of those responsible. Still wrapping my mind around that one, but it went over well with those in attendance.

Finally, Philip McLeod shares citizen’s concerns expressed last night that this event wasn’t a very successful attempt at citizen engagement. He says:

Sooner or later – and sooner would be so much better – city council just has to get its collective heads around the concept of citizen engagement. It is so much, much more than simply holding a so-called ‘public participation meeting’, and the fact that after all this time we’re still explaining this to some of our elected officials is beyond annoying.

He notes (as others did last night when they came to the mic to speak) that the meeting was posted on the city’s website March 24, with the actual proposed nuisance by-law posted March 28, with written submissions for the agenda due to the City Clerk by Friday March 30 at 4:30pm. So if a member of the public wanted to make a submission for circulation, they would have to interpret the very complex by-law, form a written response and submit it, in 2 days.

It reminds me of the Vogon planning process in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series”. We humans are told our planet is about to be destroyed by the decree of the Hyperspace Planning Council to make way for an interstellar superhighway. The announcement goes as follows:

As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.

As you can imagine, uncomprehending terror ensues. In response:

There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.

Has a slightly familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? Though the process to make a statement/complaint didn’t involve going to another planet, the time constraint of 2 days does make it very difficult to accommodate. To be fair, Council did have to walk a tightrope of having the public meet and discuss in a timely fashion while making sure the public is adequately given time for input. This process still leaves much to be desired, but I’m glad that there will be more opportunity to connect with the committee as they continue to mull this proposed by-law.

In the end, the by-law decision was deferred to the next time the Committee would meet. Originally it would have been June, but they will schedule a meeting in May to address this issue. Some members of the public seemed anxious to see it passed before the end of this school year, but with that only a couple weeks away, I’m glad to hear that they will continue to seek legal and public council. Chief Duncan noted that Project L.E.A.R.N. would continue in the campus neighbourhoods at the end of the school year as usual.

As a former resident in the Fanshawe College neighbourhood and a Fanshawe alumnus, I was frustrated that there wasn’t representation at the meeting by college staff. As noted earlier, FSU President Barahona spoke, but she could only do so as an advocate for Fanshawe students and not to the by-law itself as it is outside her jurisdiction. Fanshawe College president Dr. Howard Rundle submitted item c) to the added agenda saying the College supports the by-law and will continue to work with the community in shaping policy, but he nor anyone else from the college management spoke last night.

This concerned me, as I heard a great deal of prejudice against the college and those that attend it, and ignorance of how it operates and how it could possibly operate. I spoke last night to discuss my time as a Fanshawe student and to tell the community that I have graduated, work in the city, purchased a house in Ward 2 and intend to put down roots here, and echoed the statements of others that more should be done by all parties to connect the students with their community. A citizen speaking after me said that we can talk about solutions like community gardens (something I think would be a good way to get the students invested and involved in their neighbourhood), but dismissing it and other suggestions out of hand, said this situation is entirely Fanshawe’s fault and we need to see them take the blame and atone, to loud applause. Another citizen suggested Fanshawe purchase the entire Fleming neighbourhood, and that every student should be guaranteed a spot in residence, also to loud applause. These are assertions Dr. Rundle spoke to at the Fanshawe press meeting after St. Patrick’s Day, and I have since written about here. I feel that although he has already addressed them, without someone speaking on the college’s behalf last night, the conversation was unfortunately one-sided.

I continue to believe we need to find creative solutions to this unfortunate and pervasive problem. I am not convinced the by-law as written is the best way to go, though it will definitely be popular with the citizens that live in and close to student neighbourhoods. I am relieved by the statement by the police chief that the by-law would only be used with explicit clearance from him or his office, but some of the wording is still troublingly vague. However, if another riot were to happen without this or a similar by-law in place and the police assert it could have been ended less painfully by invoking the by-law, the public pressure to see it enacted immediately will only be that much louder.

I hope to continue to learn about this process and what more can be done to work towards solving the root causes of this issue, not just react when another riotous event breaks out. Please contact me if you want to hear more, and contact the committee and/or your local councillor to voice your opinion or ask for further clarification. We need public participation and engagement from all sides of every debate to have a thriving discussion, please add your voice.