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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

“Stay tuned for more surprises you will not understand...”

These are the words of Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson in an email to local journalist Phil McLeod and copied to his council colleagues.

He was commenting on McLeod’s blog about what happened at the council meeting with respect to the York Development proposal for Sunningdale and Richmond. He thought that McLeod’s portrayal was biased in favour of Councillor Nancy Branscombe. “What a bad and inaccurate account as Nancy's penn man again!” he wrote.

I’m not sure what that means, but then, it’s often difficult to make sense of Henderson’s utterances. He is not the most articulate councillor that ward 9 has ever elected.

However, he didn’t allow his lack of oratorical skills to get in the way of holding forth shortly after the item was placed on the floor.

Surprisingly, it was Councillor Harold Usher who made the first move. I had been wondering how he would deal with it, since he had been among those who had resisted earlier attempts by the developer to subvert the community plan that had taken three years to achieve. But that was before he had received the nod from Voice of London Jim Chapman and his developer friends. It had brought him unanticipated developer donations for his last campaign, including one from the applicant before him.

Just to refresh our memories, the development in question is a small parcel of land on the north east corner of Richmond and Sunningdale.  The established residential community directly to the south had, together with the landowners and developers, agreed to a community plan to allow medium density residential development. It was a compromise that no one had challenged to the Ontario Municipal Board until the developer, Ali Soufan, wanted to turn it into a commercial with a drugstore a few years ago. He lost his appeal and then came back with a proposal for a highrise and, when that didn’t fly, a highrise behind a townhouse. Anything but medium density. He had been back and forth several times, with new ideas, each time forcing the community to rise up in defence of its plan.

At its last meeting, the Planning and Environment Committee had recommended some townhouses and a highrise after lopping off a storey or two. This was the recommendation that Usher was addressing.

A good crowd, maybe 60 or 70 people, had assembled in the gallery. Most of them were from the affected community, but the developer and some of his associates were there as well. They were all beginning to look very familiar; we had been through this several times before.

Usher had a suggestion. Why not refer the whole thing back to staff to work with the developer to see if they could agree on something a little closer to the community plan? Something in the medium density range with maybe some bonusing (i.e. greater density) if the developer put up a building of high quality design. Maybe four storeys, possibly going up to six for good urban design.

That’s what you do when you don’t want to make a decision, refer it back to staff. That’s what had happened several times before with this development. It saves the developer from having to pay new application fees while still tying up staff time. And a bonus for good design? Would he put up a badly designed building unless he was given an incentive? And bonusing means more units and increased density. How does that square with medium density?

“What’s closer to the plan is the plan”, I muttered. “Why not just stick to that?”

But, just like the citizens around me in the gallery, my opinion didn’t count for much. 

Henderson was on his feet. “This is a great time in London,” he proclaimed.

It wasn’t easy to decipher what followed. He wanted people to know that things were being done differently, that this council wanted the input from the community, start to engage neighbourhoods. They weren’t about to accept decisions from two, or five or ten years ago. Everything isn’t black and white; he wanted to look at shades of grey. But the developer was putting $80M into this development and it was only 50 feet away from the high density designation. He wanted to grow the city, engage the community, strengthen neighbourhoods and see if we could “do a deal that makes everybody happy.”

“Expensive condos, that’s what we want,” he concluded. He was willing to wait a bit to have that happen, say a month.

That couldn’t happen in a month, he was told by executive director of planning, John Fleming. There were discussions to be held, designs to be drawn, the community had to be notified and another report written. It would all take two or three months.

Joni Baechler was furious with Henderson. “How many times do we have to do this?” she wanted to know. Start to engage neighbourhoods? Council had had years of public engagement. All of the players—community, developers, planning staff—had been involved for three years. They had reached an amicable compromise adopted unanimously by the council of the day. No one had appealed the 2003 decision. And when the current developer finally took it to the OMB in 2009, the board’s decision had been clear. It hadn’t want to subvert what had taken years of community involvement to develop.

“The plan is the right plan,” Baechler continued, holding up a bound copy of the community plan. She was fed up with last minute changes.

“I don’t take umbrage with the applicant. He’s doing what he has to do,” she conceded. “I take umbrage with this council. This is not public process. These good people pay their taxes to live in this city.  What do the citizens get in return? What is in it for them?”

It was a good question. Here was Henderson, who pays property taxes in another jurisdiction, not London, presuming to tell residents since the 1993 annexation that he wouldn’t respect the compromise that they had struck with the city.

And it wasn’t just Sunningdale, Baechler pointed out. There was talk in every neighbourhood right now that there was no point in being involved in the planning process. Council wasn’t listening.
Her passionate defense of the community was greeted with heartfelt applause from the gallery. It was not an easy act to follow.

But a couple of others weighed in.  Paul Hubert pointed out that lopping off a few storeys here and there was not exactly a good business plan for the developer, and last minute meetings a few hours before council was not a way to do planning. There was no document or report before council. There should be a new application. “I have difficulty with the way we're doing business.”

Joe Swan had his own concerns. He had represented this area for years in the 1990’s. He had not supported the committee’s recommendation. Now he objected to the fact that the referral didn’t give a direction, and make it consistent with the community plan. “I think we should follow the community plan,” he urged. “Another horse-trading exercise, I’m not interested in that.”

Previously, he had insisted that the developer should make a new application. Obviously, he had given up on that.

But that’s when the horse-trading began. Maybe an amendment. Add a condition that any agreement should come within the context of medium density. Of course, if you offer a bonus, medium density is compromised.

Nancy Branscombe wasn’t satisfied. Although she didn’t say so, she smelled a rat. She wanted an amendment to the amendment “within the context of the community plan.” Why didn’t it happen in the first place?

“This discussion made us look like idiots,” she complained. It was an understatement, but the mayor asked her to retract.

“It makes us look foolish,” she amended. “ What can we do to make everyone happy? FOLLOW THE PLAN!” 

Public trust was being eroded, she continued. “How many times do they have to come out to defend their neighbourhoods?”

Councillors were doing policy making on the fly. They were accepting things contrary to the community interests. “Have a good look at how we are doing business in this community,” she pleaded. “Nobody trusts us; people are becoming more and more nervous.”

With the new amendment, Henderson availed himself of another chance to speak. A few boos greeted his remarks.

This grandstanding was all fine and good, but “before tonight we had eight votes for what was going on here,” he pointed out. “If you don’t pass this (the referral), the other (original) plan will pass.” It clearly was a threat.  

“What meeting was that?” several people called out, but he continued, undaunted. “People are coming to London. Builders are coming here because they can talk to us. We are moving ahead.” He suggested that they should hurry and pass this because “Chap might have left town.” Since the “chap” was sitting at the back of the gallery, the citizens there burst into laughter.

His remarks were followed by Baechler’s.

“You sit down and cool off a little,” she said, recognizing the vehemence with which her earlier words had been uttered, “but then it rises right back up.” She was shocked that there would be eight locked in votes. She had thought they would listen to the discussion. It was not about grandstanding, it was about standing by the community plan, “our contract with the public.”

It was time to call the vote.

The first motion was to accept “in the context of the community plan” as part of the referral. Denise Brown, Paul VanMeerbergen, Henderson and Usher opposed that. Usher was miffed that his referral was being amended.

Then came the amendment that specified medium density. Only Henderson opposed that.

Finally, they dealt with the entire motion to refer the plan back to staff to work with the applicant. Only Baechler, Branscombe and Bryant opposed that. According to Henderson’s email, that was “the only poison from the 3 dissenters that almost hurt this Ward!” I doubt he would get much applause from the ward constituents for that.

But Swan was livid. How dare they vote against the referral when they had gotten the amendments they wanted?

He must have forgotten how passionately he had spoken only a few weeks earlier that the applicant should re-apply if he had a different proposal to put forward.

How many times should the public have to come out to deal with the same matter? Why couldn’t council simply honour the agreed upon community plan?

According to Henderson’s email, it’s time for change. 

“Too bad,” he wrote, “but London will have to wait the see the full result  that the business majority was in charge of this correct  development.”

Too bad indeed.


Interested Party said...

Thank heavens there are no vacant lots in my neighbourhood, or who knows what might be built there. Certainly this council would not provide any protection from whatever offensive ideas a developer comes up with.

Thank heavens as well for Beachler and Branscombe. They make noble efforts to maintain some integrity on this sorry council.

Let's create a requirement that any elected representative in our city must actually live within our city; not just own property here. Let's actually do a background check to verify those running for office are not just using some relative's address, but verify that they actually reside in London.

True, this would not prevent all of these miserable decisions, but at least they would not feel so offensive. Henderson and Fontana have no real stake in these neighbourhoods or our city. They seem to be working on behalf of some groups, but now us.

Who is Henderson serving? Where did he get all that money for his campaign? Wasn't his campaign the most costly in London? Who are his donors? I could hazard a guess.

I am still waiting for him to bring in some investors for his first-class idea of making London a manufacturing hub for 'Gun-Powder-free cigarettes.'

With a great economic mind like his working for us, we should be the richest city in Canada.

Jan said...

Gina, it really is becoming terrifying: you just don't know what they're going to decide to do next if someone with $$$ comes along. My humble home in this city is my "big" investment and I don't want that wiped out with the stroke of a pen at a developper's whim. I am very glad that I don't live in that area, but it seems that the same thing could be coming to a neighbourhood near you! I think that all councillors should have to LIVE in the ward they represent!

Kimble Ainsworth said...

For some time now, whenever Councillor Henderson rises at city council to share his latest inspired brain wave, everyone rolls their eyes, tapping their fingers waiting for him to finish and sit down so they can get on with the meeting.

As often as not he's not even on the right agenda item.

Henderson clearly needs a refresher course at "councillor finishing school."

Frank Green said...

Et tu, Harold?

Anonymous said...

Henderson is a failed business man. We should be very cautious of accepting anything that comes out of his mouth related to what is good business for the city.

All councillors should get a little learning by reading: Elaine, why don't you learn a BTW, I don't want to live in Moncton.


Anonymous said...

Except for Joni B. and Nancy B. council seems to be behaving like the confrontation on Flemming Dr. only with a thin social veneer. But legally how do we change the rules so people from other jurasdictions cannot run for council or Mayor? And who was it that said "We get the government we deserve."? We need to raise the standards, not lower them, or no one will bother to run let alone vote. E.W.

Anonymous said...

Now we know part of what occupy fights against. This sort of two faced back talking make deals with the wealthy and forget that anyone else has an opinion. Tragic really :(