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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."

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Old habits and new beginnings

Despite a desperate need by some, it seems that none of our city councillors used their Christmas money to avail themselves of tutoring services, nor had they made a resolution to do their homework. Even the lessons of the previous year seem to have been forgotten.

This became painfully apparent at the first meetings of the New Year. On Tuesday, despite the new schedule and a committee composition custom designed by the mayor, the Planning and Environment Committee bumbled along in an atmosphere of general disinterest interspersed with accents of mass confusion.

It was Bud Polhill’s third term as chair, a reward for trotting out the proposal that provided the Fontana 8 a majority on all but one standing committee, and all the chair positions. He arrived late, as did all the other committee members, apparently as a result of an in camera meeting of the Corporate Services Committee dealing with contract negotiations. While staff, public and media waited patiently, the committee members, Polhill, Henderson, White and Hubert, straggled in and proceedings got underway nearly a half hour late.

The first order of business was the selection of a vice-chairperson. Paul Hubert, new to this particular committee, had expressed some interest in this position. There's no extra pay but he had thought he could learn something from being in that position and, after all, he has chaired other committees in the past. He had asked Henderson to nominate him for the position but Henderson chose to nominate Sandy White who had served in the same position during the previous term. Nancy Branscombe, who probably would have been happy to nominate him, was out of town.

“You should have nominated yourself,” White taunted Hubert, loud enough for those of us in the gallery to hear. It was clear that the days for collegiality had not yet arrived.

The first item for decision came from a recommendation of the London Advisory committee on Heritage (LACH) that, despite staff support, Shmuel Farhi’s request to put up yet another large sign on an historic building, in this case the Labatt building at 451 Ridout Street North, be denied. It would cover up some architectural details. Polhill, White and Henderson, all beneficiaries of the applicant’s largesse during the last election, knew the outcome they wanted.

Getting there was another story. They decided to vote in favour of the recommendation which, as Hubert pointed out,  was to refuse the application. Eventually, after several attempts, they figured it out and London will see yet another Farhi sign on one of its buildings.

The next delegation came from the Agricultural Advisory Committee. The delegate noted that the committee had not been happy with the Southwest Area Plan (SWAP), its perspective being that the plan did not protect agricultural land or wetlands. However, it was too late to do anything, he noted, as the SWAP was pretty much a done deal.

This drew a question from White who rarely has anything to say about the reports before her. She had heard about some opposition to the plan by the community. Was it true, she wanted to know from city planner John Fleming, that SWAP was a done deal?

Fleming was taken aback. White herself had voted in favour of the plan after a heated discussion at council and some last minute gerrymandering by the mayor to extend the development corridor.

Of course there was opposition. There had been plenty at the public participation meetings and at the council meeting that followed. There were nineteen appeals of the plan to the Ontario Municipal Board, Fleming informed her. And, since council had voted in favour of the plan, including the last minute additions, the council process was complete. There could be some minor massaging on individual applications.

White was grasping at straws. She doesn’t like to think that anything is ever final; she votes with her fingers crossed. She had had a number of complaints, particularly about the lack of protection for the wetlands, and she wanted assurance that it was not too late to make everyone happy. She wanted a report back from staff. What it should contain was unclear.

“It won’t happen quickly,” Fleming pointed out. “There’s lots of work ahead of that.”

White didn’t mind. She just needed the illusion that nothing was yet decided. “That’s alI I wanted to know,” said White, cutting him off before he could list the numerous work items that took precedence over this bit of wishful thinking.

A report with no timelines.

Then came the planning applications. The committee seemed to have little interest in them. Indeed, for the most part the members seemed unclear about the nature of the applications. In the first case, the applicant wanted an opportunity to have the application referred back for some re-jigging and this was what staff too was recommending. The request flummoxed the committee. It was asked if it would like to have a presentation from staff, but no one said yes. Staff waited. No one knew what to do next.

Finally, Joni Baechler, who knows a thing or two about planning but had been rejected for committee membership, came forward since the proposal was for her ward. The application needed some more work. It didn’t reflect the applicant’s intention, she explained and the applicant agreed.

Problem solved. No one thanked her for her clarification.

Next was a site plan public meeting on a development that has had a lot of attention, the student highrise building across from Fanshawe College. It has been a long time in the making, the original application having been approved while I was still on Planning Committee three or four years ago.

Despite media build up about neighbourhood opposition to the building and references to Fleming Drive, only one member of the public was present to voice objections, not to the site plan, but to the proposal more generally, although she was concerned about outside seating area which she thought should be hidden behind the building rather than in front where planning staff believed it would animate the streetscape. There were also additional concerns about traffic tie ups and reduced parking spaces.

But it was White who voiced the concern that had been communicated to her in an email, that by putting in a student building, owners of the little single family detached dwellings in that neighbourhood wouldn’t be able to rent out their properties to students.

“That’s what the Near Campus Neighbourhoods Strategy that was adopted by council is all about,” Fleming pointed out, noting that these will be supervised buildings that can prevent, isolate and contain the problems experienced by adjacent communities like Fleming Drive.

Then Henderson chimed in. He liked the elevations shown in the site plan, but he thought the building exterior would benefit from having crown mouldings along the top.

And so it went. The mayor arrived partway through the meeting and had a good opportunity to view the results of his selection. There were few reports made by staff. Hubert, being new, said little, and White and Henderson, too much. The chair offered little in the way of explanations about the decisions made, and, until the mayor arrived, most of the committee seemed unsure of how and when to ask questions or vote.
Cartoon by Doug Rogers

On the upside, the meeting was over in a couple of hours. Even with a short, noncontroversial agenda, it was a far cry from the one a.m. meetings that characterized the previous term, and an even further cry from the planning committee meetings I experienced with Baechler at the helm, and Branscombe and Bryant by my side, asking penetrating questions.

We may have been Killer B's, but we did our homework and knew our crown moldings from our elbows.


Anonymous said...

Oh, how sad that we have to take another year of the same mayor and city council not knowing what they are doing. What did the people of London ever do to get this mess of bumbling bafoons.

Wishful said...

Don't blame me, I didn't vote for these clowns. I still can't figure out how White got a social work degree. Don't you have to hold information you have learned to be able to apply it to similar or the same situations? If she treats her case load like council discussions, her clients are in the same trouble as the city is.

Cheryl Marino said...

The best thing about watching Orser, Henderson and White perform at committee and council is all three provide valuable insights into how the mind of a 10-year-old works.

Deapairing taxpayer said...

What to say about this clueless crew?

Oh please, please, please,

Bring back the bees!

Vicki Van Linden said...

Last term we had David Winninger, Susan Eagle, Gina Barber, as well as currently serving Baechler, Bryant and Branscombe - smart people who did their homework. Tough fighters all, but respectful and always conducted themselves with appropriate decorum. Those were the days.

Why's woman said...

It may be me today, or maybe I need lunch ... but this column has really pushed me over into utterly depressed. I wonder how some of the councillors and the staff stand it. What hope they manage to maintain. Last week I heard Stephen Lewis on CBC; he noted that he is not an optimist but he maintains hope (a differentiation I can usually manage to wrap my mind around, but not always).

Oh, Gina, did you hear anything about a meeting Coun. Henderson was supposed to have about soup at Lorne Avenue School, and some other ideas that Metro reported he was going to bring forward to Council? There was some hint somewhere about a meeting ahead of council, but time and place wasn't set.

Lunch is probably a good idea.

Best regards!