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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."

Monday, September 9, 2013

The amendment: "Marginally better"

Despite the fact that the gallery was full of citizens anxious to learn the fate of Patch 10102, the mayor decided that, after more than an hour and a half of debate on the unsuccessful referral motion put forward by Joni Baechler, now would be a good time for the council to indulge in some refreshments. After all, they had been at it since 4 p.m. And it was now nearly eight o'clock.

Several councillors demurred at the suggestion. After all, they pointed out, the people in the gallery had also been waiting for the past four hours and there would be no refreshments for them. But mayor Fontana was adamant. He was more concerned about the health of his colleagues which he seemed to fear would suffer greatly should they go another 30 minutes without caloric sustenance. That the folks in the gallery, not having access to any food at city hall, would have to leave and probably not return did not appear to concern him unduly. There was this amendment from Matt Brown and Paul Hubert. They could introduce it now and then chew on it for a half hour or so over dinner.

Baechler was furious, and no wonder. At the previous meeting, Matt Brown and Hubert had both been strongly supportive of deferring a decision until more information became available, particularly the reports from the regulatory agencies. She had had every reason to believe that they shared her concern about following the appropriate planning processes and getting in all the reports before making a decision on an application. And here they were, cooking up a way to subvert those very processes, encouraging other councillors to vote against her deferral motion on the strength of some amendment that hadn't been on the table.

But now they were heading off to dinner to think about a motion that she hadn't even seen, the motion that, apparently, had played a significant role in the defeat of her deferral.

“Time and time again some people said they were voting against the deferral because of the [proposed] amendments,” she pointed out.

But who knew what those amendments were? She certainly didn't, since she didn't have a copy, but some people had copies and other people didn't. What kind of process was that?

It turned out that the clerk, too, had copies. She began to distribute them although it would seem that not everyone was in need of them.

When they returned, Matt Brown took the floor. The site had an extensive and complicated history, he noted, but he didn't really have time to go into that. He just wanted to get on with the amendments.

There's no doubt that the councillors had been lobbied hard, by the public, the proponent and friends, and each other. The fact that only some councillors had been privy to the proposed amendments prior to the meeting was proof of that.

As for the amendments, they provided for certain specific holding provisions before any cutting or building could take place, including getting the all clear from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority and specified a compensation of 6 to 1 for the natural heritage feature to be removed.

Brown realized that the final product was “far from perfect” but he felt they had come a long way. It was a reasonable compromise, he believed.

Hubert was quick to second the motion. Apparently he was not one of those who had been kept in the dark about Matt Brown's intentions. But if it indeed was “far from perfect”, why was it not used as a fallback position in the event that Baechler's deferral, which would have respected the legitimate processes, failed? Why hold out for second best?

He was, as he put it, trying to move the development forward while respecting the regulatory agencies.

Really. What kind of respect is it that makes a decision before getting the input from the legally constituted authorities? Making decisions on matters of planning is the job of council once it has heard all the assessments from the agencies it is to consult. It is the last step in the process, not the intermediary one.

The mayor was jubilant. “The environment wins, jobs win, economic prosperity wins,” he gloated. “Nothing takes place until the holding provisions are met.”

Baechler had been trying to digest what had been going on. She was prepared to vote for the amendment, she said, because it was “marginally better” than what the committee had proposed. But make no mistake, a woodland was being taken off the map. And she wouldn't vote for the main motion.

“We know it is significant,” she said. And the policy was clear. "There can't be any alteration. No doubt about it.”

She was willing, she continued, to take whatever criticisms come her way, but, in all her years on council, she had never wavered on the matter of the planning process and the rules said no development. Adherence to the policies was the hallmark of due diligence. The rules were there to protect a declining resource. The public had been very clear about its interest in protecting a woodland, but how does the public connect to a holding provision?

She wasn't opposed to development, but it had to coexist with the environment. This was not a win for the environment.

And this business of 6:1 compensation; how could that possibly work? It would mean that, to replace the 4.2 hectares of woodland would require the city locate and purchase, at the developer's expense, 25 hectares of developable land containing significant woodland. But the city currently pays a developer $247,000 per hectare for open space just to build a stormwater management pond. That would mean that PenEquity would have to pony up over $6 million in compensation! How likely was that?

Joe Swan had seemed not to have heard that figure. As far as he was concerned, the 6:1 was the minimum, just the starting point. Staff could just bargain the ratio up from there! It was an unusual understanding of the bargaining process, to say the least. Imagine staff saying to PenEquity “Council has approved a 6:1 ratio but we think you can do better than that. How would you like to cough up another million or two?” 

Let's hope he isn't the one to negotiate a Performing Arts Centre deal!

Polhill liked Brown's amendment. It was what they had intended when the planning committee he chairs had put forward its motion.

“It covers off what we were thinking of at committee,” he explained. “The committee just thought it would happen.”

There was little doubt that Matt Brown's amendments would pass, just as Baechler's motion had lost. The deal had been struck well before the meeting had begun.

“Let's vote,” the mayor said, impatient to move on now that victory was assured.

But Baechler didn't leave the council empty-handed. She demanded, and got, support for a motion to have staff initiate an official plan amendment to protect the five remaining Unevaluated Vegetation Patches, unevaluated largely because the property owners wouldn't allow anyone on the premises to evaluate them.

Polhill was annoyed. What to do about the vegetation patches should be debated at his committee for a recommendation, he felt. They shouldn't do this at council. They shouldn't do policy on the fly. What about the process?

It was a precious moment.


Anonymous said...

Every time I read of the way certain council members act, I wonder if we could ask certain other council members to conduct a year or two long fillibuster so that certain members who would put up parking lots everywhere could be defeated at the polls.

anonymous said...

Once again the democratic process is being subverted. I was sitting in the gallery that evening infuriated with some Councilors joking around, disregarding remarks made by Joni Baechler's proposal. It made me wonder what Councilors were discussing when I watched them on their much needed break talking with the Mayor or with certain people in the gallery. It reinforced my belief that the decision was already made and debate and due process was irrelevant. I sat next to a group of young men holding signs that said "jobs" and a young mother holding up a sign "Save the Environment..." I wanted to take one of the green bands that the environment supporters were wearing on their arms and wrap it around the "jobs" sign. It doesn't have to be about jobs vs. environment. Somehow I don't think it would have made a difference. Again, the decision was already made. It took me back to May 1, 2012 when this Council voted in favour of approving a site plan on Reservoir Hill. That footprint had a larger footprint then was recommended by the OMB. The last word that I heard on the Reservoir Hill issue was from Councilor Polhill, chairing the Report. He said "the community let their guard down". The community never let their guard down. I would like to remind all Londoners to continue and never let their guard down. Anna Hopkins

Chris McDonald said...

Is there not a way to fire these money grubbing, environment hating goofs before they destroy the entire city?

So they have to do a 6 to 1 replacement. How exactly does one replace a THRIVING wetland?

Gary Brown said...

Tonight on Toe to Toe. Gary Brown and Bud Pohill debate PenEquity and the large issue of whether or not Big Box store developments are Good for London.
Rogers TV 9:00

Anonymous said...

It is not a 6 to 1 replacement. It is to find the city purchase of another existing woodland. Still a net loss for the environment.

Anonymous said...

from what I have seen at Planning Committee, no thinking goes on there (despite what Polhill said according to Gina). He is the second biggest goofus on council.

Anonymous said...

This is getting more haphazard and confusing all the time.

But I have yet to see anyone make the argument that the proposed development is a horrible business proposition in the first place.

Maybe property horse trading is what Penequity had in mind all along.

Anonymous said...

Clarifying what I said directly above...

"But I have yet to see anyone make the argument that the proposed development is a horrible business proposition in the first place."

Because it IS a horrible business proposition. Any stores there are bound for immediate or long term failure.