Where does one begin to describe the council meeting held on Tuesday?
Mayor's Poetry City Challenge by London’s first Poet Laureate, Penn Kemp. It went downhill rapidly from there; the rest of the meeting and its various debates and rants were anything but poetry.
Certainly not poetic, if somewhat entertaining, was Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen’s description of a portion of Southdale Road scheduled for widening as “a constipated hellpath.” The laxative will consist of expropriating property in that area and the city needed the green light to proceed with negotiations. It was among the least contentious items on the agenda for the evening.
Then came the letter of objection from some members of the public to the way in which the Planning and Environment Committee had dealt with a last minute switch in a development application, trying to get around the public consultation requirements. Normally, communications pertaining to a specific agenda item are referred for consideration with the item when it comes before the council.
Not this time, though. The mayor suggested the letter be "noted and filed", which is code for disregarded. That was amended to “received”. When Judy Bryant indicated that she wanted to discuss the contents, she was told she could ask to have it included when the item came forward.
And she did.
It turned out that this communication had a significantly sobering effect on the committee and the council. Although previously the committee members had decided that consulting the public was not necessary since “the average person doesn’t understand what we’re talking about”, other council members wanted clarification about the process. What was had the public been told originally? How had the proposal changed? What are the provincial requirements for notification?
Planning executive director John Fleming pointed out that the applicant had wanted to add automotive sales to a previously circulated request for a neighbourhood shopping area. The two uses don’t go together and, if you’re going to allow him to go ahead despite staff's recommendation to the contrary, you’re going to have to ensure that the public has a chance to weigh in.
There followed a lengthy debate on the legal status, the delays involved, and the best way to proceed. A lot of committee work was being done by council that should have been done by the committee in the first place.
Not happy with all of this was Councillor Joe Swan. He had missed the committee meeting and so had not had a chance to deal with the issue. But he doesn’t like last minute surprises, and it seems that was what the committee had been given.
“Applicants have a responsibility to have a complete application,” he pointed out. “It sends out a bad message to the development community if they’re allowed to just change applications and avoid fees.” It should not be the responsibility of staff to second guess what the applicants might want. He wasn’t particularly sympathetic to the concern about a delay. It was up to the applicant to state what he wanted.
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.
It is a sign of a weak committee when its recommendations are frequently challenged. Part of this is due, no doubt, to a council that is sharply divided on matters of development. The current committee is composed almost entirely of members who are weak on matters of process and legislation but strong on pleasing applicants. They had met until the wee small hours of the morning a few weeks earlier to come up with these recommendations. They believe every approval will bring untold jobs and tax revenues to the city, and rules just get in the way of economic development. They pay scant attention to the professionals they have hired to advise them. The public is an obstacle to circumvent.
There are those on council, however, who understand the process and the principles. They also want development, but they want to ensure that it will function within the community and for the community. They see themselves as building a sustainable city, not as advocates for developers. When faced with a proposal that doesn’t fit the bill, they are likely to challenge and oppose, to raise questions that the committee didn’t think to ask and to introduce legislative and procedural barriers that the committee ignored.
It makes for a very long meeting when every recommendation is subject to protracted debate and discussion. And with the proliferation of committees, many of them with a very weak composition, the problem escalates. Throw in a few personal attacks, a chair that tolerates and participates in interruptions and cross-debates, and soon you have a meeting that lasts well past midnight.
Such was the case on Tuesday. It took two hours before the first committee had finished its report, with another six or seven to go.
I didn’t stay; I had another meeting which managed to conclude its monthly business amicably and professionally in two hours and fifteen minutes.
I didn’t return to city hall although there were still several hours of entertainment available. Instead, I went home and turned on Rogers TV.
It was as if I had never left. Enough material for many more blogs.