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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The best interests of the relationship

Should London provide more sewage capacity to Arva? Will it benefit the relationship? With whom? Will we know more in two months? Can council make a decision?

I have been going over the tapes from Monday evening’s council meeting in hopes that I can get some clarification on what happened there. The tapes I am referring to weren’t made at the meeting, but from the Roger’s TV broadcast after I returned home.

I have tried to get a verbatim record of the proceedings but it’s not easy.

The debate was over whether or not London should amend its agreement with Middlesex Centre to expand the amount of sewage we will allow Arva to put into our system.

The 11 year old original agreement was made to deal with an environmental problem that was resulting in raw sewage going into the Medway Creek. In a spirit of neighbourliness, London agreed to allow Arva to use our system to accommodate its existing community, the growing needs of the high school, and some very minor growth to accommodate its residents.

There were other options for Arva, including building its own sewage treatment plant, but this was considered to be the “preferred option” for Arva. The 20 year agreement ensured that Arva paid the city for the servicing, charging the cost back to its own citizens.

Now Middlesex Centre wants to increase the allowable sewage in order to accommodate a developer who wants to turn his farmland into a residential subdivision with 180 units. Watching the proceedings closely from the public gallery were the developer, his cousin and his agent who had been a very busy person in the preceding weeks lobbying the members of council.

Last fall, this same request had been made to council. We turned it down with little debate, only a motion to receive the report along with a letter from the London Development Institute opposing the request since to accede would directly cut into their business and the city’s assessment growth.

The new council, however, wants more information despite the very complete background reports that were provided, along with written pleas from several residents of Arva not to do this. They don’t want the development. At a public participation meeting on the proposed development two years ago, 70 of them turned up to oppose it. Several had even hired a lawyer to represent them.

Whether or not all members of council had read the report was difficult to say. Certainly most of the questions that were asked were already answered in those reports and councillors had an extra week in which to read them. So they should have been ready.

Why did they need more time?

My guess is that for some this was their first experience of being lobbied by a professional which can be quite flattering and unnerving for a newbie. Somebody wants your vote. Others, however, are old hats and either can’t be lobbied or don’t have to be.

As well, there is the issue of neighbourliness. A neighbouring mayor is asking for this. It doesn’t really cost you anything, they’ll pay. But then, the real neighbours, the residents of Arva, are saying please don’t do it. Who is your neighbour?

And then there are those who see this as an opportunity for leverage.

Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson wanted to know if the city has “any negotiations with the township for building things or sewage plants or anything we would want their cooperation on?” When told “no”, he exclaimed, “Well I can think of some!" He then proceeded to move that “we direct our administration to negotiate amendments and growth plans and additional city benefits and come back with a wish list of sewage plants or zoning issues, transportation or whatever we might use as a bargaining chip.”

Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe was acting chair because the mayor had a conflict since he lives in Arva. She asked for clarification. She was not the only one who was confused about what was being proposed. Eventually it was determined that Henderson’s motion would be an amendment to a motion supporting the agreement (I think).

Ward 13 Councillor Judy Bryant said she would not support the motion since it was not in the best interests of the city and against the stated wishes of Arva residents.

Her comments were followed by Ward 14 Councillor Sandy White who, although she had supported expanding the capacity at committee, now was concerned that London was getting a bad deal. She wanted included in the list of matters to pursue with the county such items as annexation and a ring road.

The growing list of demands and the general tone and direction of the debate clearly concerned Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler, especially when annexation and ring roads were thrown into the mix. “Do you want to set a bomb off?” she asked. “I am taking a pragmatic approach. We absolutely need assessment growth”, pointing out that council has a fiduciary responsibility to London’s taxpayers and saying that she couldn’t imagine that Londoners would support extending services to Arva so that its residents could have “the suite of things what we provide on the backs of the taxpayer” without them contributing to our tax base.

Eventually, Ward 8 Councillor Paul Hubert, seconded by Ward 7 Councillor Matt Brown, referred the motion to staff to bring back a report dealing with the issues raised. Ward 3 Councillor Swan wanted included in that report some further information on the impact that the expansion of the high school has had on the available capacity, the growth containment plans  for Arva, and whether increasing sewage capacity is the environmentally best solution for the area in the long run.

Henderson, however, was not about to be distracted from the entrepreneurial opportunities he envisioned. “This is a watershed moment,” he declared. “We have a ball in play; now, let’s see what the game is... I can think of a bunch of things, 5 or 6 different things..the Southwest sewage treatment plant ...that we can use as a bargaining chip...’What have you got and what do we want?’”

When Ward 1 Councillor Bud Polhill proposed to add yet another item to the wish list on the amendment in the event that the referral failed and Henderson’s amendment was back on the table. I have listened to the tape several times and simply can’t make it out.

Whatever it was, Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Fielding could not hold back any longer. “This is a straight policy issue”, he said. “This kind of trading is not in your best interests.” He acknowledged that council can decide if it wants to get into the business of being a regional sewage servicing provider and there may be some business reasons for doing that, but he warned that saying "I’ll do this if you’ll do that, is not in the interests of the relationship.”

The referral won the day being supported by Councillors Brown,  Hubert, Henderson, Paul Van Meerbergen, Denise Brown, Polhill, Swan and Orser.

Opposed to the referral (and the original recommendation and its amendments had it come to a vote) were: Baechler, Branscombe, Harold Usher, Bryant, White and Bill Armstrong.

We can expect to go through this again in a couple of months.


Anonymous said...

I watched these proceedings on Channel 13 and it seemed to me that a great deal of the confusion was caused by Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson.

My question is, since the Mayor had to abstain from the debate and vote on the issue because he lives in Arva, why did Mr. Henderson not have to abstain as well? He lives in Komoka which may soon be looking for a deal similar to the one Arva wants.

On this issue, isn't Mr. Henderson in a clear fiduciary conflict of interest position with his divided loyalties to London and Komoka?

Surely this lies at the root of the confusion he sewed like a noxious weed.

In future discussions on this matter, Mr. Henderson's most valuable contribution will be golden silence.

anon one

Gina Barber said...

Although Komoka was mentioned a couple of times, staff clarified that Komoka does have its own sewage treatment plant.