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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Spreading rumours

As a result of a recent run-in with our excellent health care system, I have been unable to attend meetings at city hall for a couple of weeks. Fortunately, the meeting agendas are all online and those who are able to attend have access to iPads, notebooks and smart phones that allow them to tweet and post their observations as council debates the issues of the day.

Livestreaming is even better. From the comfort of my recliner, thanks to Rogers TV, I was able to watch our councillors meeting with the Ontario ombudsman on Monday and again last night for the full council meeting. It's not as good as being there; you miss some of the interplay among participants and the gallery response, but it's the next best thing.

Too bad we can't have this for committee meetings as well. Council has talked about this for years but it has been slow going. It makes one wonder about political will.

It's all the more important because meeting minutes reflect only motions passed (or failed) and capture none of the debate. Votes are recorded only for council meetings; since committee recommendations are just that, recommendations and not decisions, only the outcome is noted and not the proponents.

That makes for a rather incomplete picture of council doings. And with all due respect to the clerk's office, it makes for pretty dry reading; not something that is likely to be a page turner.

The ombudsman, Andre Marin, himself noted that in his recommendations. He suggested all meetings of council, including closed meetings, should be taped. And, when Councillor Stephen Orser complained about some deprecatory statements in the ombudsman's report, Marin pointed out that he was trying to make the report more accessible by providing illustrations, liven things up a bit.

Orser ought to understand that. He likes to take the dramatic approach. Think Nazi posters and chickens in diapers courtesy of Orser.

Things certainly did get livened up a bit toward the end of Tuesday's council meeting. And, as usual, Orser was the one to liven it up, this time by bringing forward an emergent motion.

Emergent motions are used to deal with issues that need to be dealt with quickly, that can't wait to go through the normal procedures. Time is of the essence and the matter is important.

So what was the emergency?

According to the motion from Orser, seconded by Councillor Dale Henderson, it was the future of the the McCormick Property at 1156 Dundas St.

That property has been standing vacant since 2007, when Beta Brands pulled out and left the workers stranded and the property taxes unpaid. Those taxes currently stand at well in excess of half a million dollars and mounting. An attempt to cut losses via a tax sale was unsuccessful; nobody wants to assume responsibility for a piece of land not knowing what's in the ground. Dealing with the removal of contaminated soil can be expensive.

The city has a policy for dealing with situations like this. You do an Environmental Site Assessment (ESA) to see what you have. If phase 1 of the ESA doesn't reassure you that the site is clean, you go to a phase 2. That's more expensive; it involves drilling bore holes in a lot of places to see what's there. Even then, you may have a few surprises when you try to excavate the whole site, as we learned when redeveloping some property along York Street for a soccer field.

The fact that no one was willing to buy the property for back taxes should give one pause.

But not Stephen Orser. The property is in his ward and he wants something done with it. Now.

This is what he wanted council to endorse:

That the Civic Administration BE DIRECTED to expedite the Council approved procedures to be followed after a failed tax sale as it relates to the McCormick property known as 1156 Dundas Street and to communicate the urgency of this project to the consultants undertaking any work on behalf of the City of London with respect to this property.

Hurry, hurry, hurry.

I remembered that a few weeks earlier, Orser had contacted the local media that he had a potential investor in hand, a developer from Toronto who wanted to put up a senior's complex using a new building technology. Orser had said he would be “a bull in a china shop” to move this forward, and indeed he was.

But still, there is this pesky thing called a policy. You have to do the ESA's before you vest the property. And the ESA's and the remediation that the results demand can get very costly. You want to know what you are getting into. Even the most exciting redevelopment plans are subject to cost constraints.

But Orser had led the developer's agent to believe he could move things along quickly and he wanted to deliver. So that was the urgency.

Some on council weren't convinced that this is what emergent motions procedures were designed for. After all, staff had developed an area plan, the tax sale approach had been tried, an ESA was underway. Things were moving forward according to policy. Just what was the emergency?

Orser explained that he had talked to staff and suggested that it was staff who had told him to bring this motion to council although, in the staff comments that followed, that didn't seem to be the case.

One problem that Orser encountered was that he failed initially to ask for leave to put this motion on the floor, so the merits of the motion were being debated before the question was on the floor. Councillors Paul Hubert and Harold Usher both had questions. Hubert didn't see the need and Usher wondered why and how this was coming forward. The latter voted against allowing the question to be put on the floor, an unusual but not unknown response to a request for leave.

Nevertheless, leave was granted; as the first speaker Usher wanted to know if staff had been consulted or was this just a matter of developers with a couple of billion dollars negotiating with a councillor.

At this, there was an outburst from Orser across the room. This was not fair; he wanted an apology from “Harold” right now, he wasn't taking this. Usher was implying something here, and “he hasn't even read the tax policy,” Orser yelled. There was supportive laughter from Councillors Henderson and White.

The mayor interjected that it was unfair of Usher to suggest that this was driven by anything other than the ward councillor's interest in something he had been carrying on about for God knows how long.” He didn't call Orser to account for his outburst. He asked staff to respond to Usher's questions.

Mr. Zuidema, the new city manager, was circumspect. This was his first council meeting and he seemed to be exercising caution. The first phase of the ESA was underway; they really didn't want to commit to anything before they got the results. City engineer John Braam concurred. It would probably be done mid to late September and, with a property this longstanding, they would likely have to go to phase 2. But first there would be a report back to council. Neither mentioned whether they had been contacted by a developer or the councillor. It was probably a good choice.

Fontana was satisfied that there was nothing in the motion that suggested that they wouldn't be following the policy. He called the next speakers on the list, Councillors Joni Baechler and Nancy Branscombe. Neither of them saw the necessity of a motion, emergent or otherwise, that called for following policy. Baechler moved to refer this until the report came forward. Branscombe concurred. Everyone would like to see the property redeveloped but she didn't want to be stepping on any landmines along the way.

The mayor asked for staff's understanding of the motion. Was this normal process?

Braam declined to offer an opinion. He wasn't sufficiently conversant with tax policies to comment.

Then Orser took the floor. He was less overwrought than before. “I know I've been a little excited,” he conceded. “But Harold’s implying... that is just from outer space.” Harold, he continued, was implying that he (Orser) was getting a half million dollar bribe, that was how he read it, and “he won't apologize,” he said. “It's not fair, it's just not fair,” he complained.

I must say I was shocked. Where had that come from? Yes, he and Usher don't seem to get along well, and consistently calling the councillor by his first name is more a manifestation of disdain than respect. It wasn't the first time that the two had sparred.

Certainly, in my listening to the debate and in the subsequent replaying of the podcast, I couldn't discern any such allegations from Usher.

But Orser seemed to hear them.

He went on to say that someone wanted to put a factory there, someone else a senior's building, but he couldn't act as their agent. He wanted council to “release the staff” to move forward. It had to be done now.

And he got his way. In the votes that followed, Baechler's motion to refer lost on a tied vote, with Polhill, Swan, Orser, VanMeerbergen, Henderson, White and Fontana opposed. They were joined by Paul Hubert in the final motion supporting Orser's motion.

The whole episode raises some serious questions. Why did Orser bring forward an emergent motion that did not deal with an emergency? Why did the mayor chastise Usher and not rebuke Orser? Why did Orser think he was being accused of taking a bribe?

I served with Orser on council for four years. He was always somewhat volatile. His start on council was marred by an arrest and charge of assault which was withdrawn after problems with police testimony intervened. Later, there was a grease fire at his home when he fell asleep. He freely discussed personal domestic situations with other councillors and even constituents who barely knew him. He made indiscreet postings online and blamed female friends.

His votes were erratic. After being a strong supporter of not allowing bottled water to be sold at city venues, he did a sudden about face in his second term, saying he had met with the industry and he now saw it differently. He fought hard to get on planning committee and then complained bitterly about how long and boring the meetings were; much of his time was spent in the hallway on the phone. As we neared the 2010 election, he missed more and more time from meetings, although he was frequently in the hall fraternizing with the development applicants and ushering them into the committee venue. When I would ask him why he had missed a meeting, he would say that his re-election took precedence, he had a lot of signs to put up.

A few months ago, when I ran into him at city hall, he asked me if I had heard that someone had given him a car, an expensive kind of car.

I'm not a car enthusiast. I drive a 2000 Honda Civic because it is reliable although it needs a little work, like a new heating/cooling fan. So I paid scant attention to what kind of car this was, or who allegedly had given it to him. But he wanted me to know that he had bought it; he had gotten a really good deal. But rumours were going around that it was some kind of inappropriate gift, he said.

Why would I hear anything like that? And why would he want to spread rumours about himself?

He certainly seemed to have regrets the morning after the council meeting. In response to Andy Oudman about Phil McLeod's report on the meeting, he had little to say but had a warning that “these bloggers” will be held to account.

But what about “these councillors”? Who will hold them to account?


Anonymous said...

If Stephen wants respect he should start calling Harold "Councillor Usher" at Council meetings. Fontana started it when he started attending committee meetings, and Stephen seems to have just copied his big brother. perhaps the two of them will go into "business" together.

Inquiring minds said...

Questions that come to mind about Mr. Orser:

Is he crazy like a fox or just crazy?

Is he Charlie McCarthy to the Arva drummer's Edgar Bergen?

Does he just like to see his name in the paper?

Does he believe that any publicity is good publicity?

Which came first: the chicken or the egg, will the chickens ever come home to roost and do you have to crack a few eggs to make an omlette?

Slow Boat to China said...

THIS JUST IN: Mayor Joe wants to rename city hall's 12th-floor cafeteria "Sum-Ting-Wong-on-Dufferin" and load the menu with Chinese cuisine.