The City of Peterborough quietly posted a link to the first phase of their new Official Plan (PDF) on March 30th. They provided an email address for citizen feedback and promised a “Community Forum” sometime in the next few months. No press release, no mention at Council, just a link to a document buried on a website on a Wednesday morning.
That is a curiously timid announcement for a plan that the City itself claims will “determine how our City grows and develops over the next 20 years.”
Thirty-five years since it last received a comprehensive update, and five years since public consultations were held on the subject, Peterborough’s new Official Plan will carry with it the force of law. If it envisions a sprawling housing development on the outskirts of the city, a casino on a wetland, or even something as outrageously wrong-headed as the Parkway bridge over Jackson Park, there is little anyone can do to prevent them. There may emerge a massive public outcry to protest the decision, but it will be up to the council of the day to rescind it.
Why would such a profoundly important and far-reaching document be shrouded in obscurity?
Once the Plan is in place, the onus will be on you to try and change it, and your hopes will depend solely on the discretion of the 11 people who vote on council.
So, why would such a profoundly important and far-reaching document be shrouded in obscurity?
My efforts to answer this question led me deep into the maze of our civic administration, to a web of closed-door meetings, overlapping associations, and unexamined assumptions about the role of government. There are many sincere, hardworking people in this city—inside and outside of City Hall—who work diligently in what they honestly believe is the public’s best interest. Unfortunately, such people are generally locked out of the decision-making process, and they are left with no option but to make the best of a bad situation.
Our current municipal government acts like a private corporation, issuing executive orders with little interest in any meaningful citizen engagement. Our city’s future is therefore being mapped out by a surprisingly small number of players, and some of them are driven by profit, not by good urban planning.
Recently a group called Campaign Fairness Ontario exposed the tight connection between the development industry and municipal governments across Ontario, but this should really come as no surprise: city councils make decisions that can turn a farmer’s field into a multi-million dollar asset. If you are in the land development industry, your first order of business is to establish good relations with the people you need to approve that deal.
In addition, the Municipal Elections Act stipulates that, unlike donations to provincial or federal politicians, donations to local politicians are not tax-deductible. A major incentive to donate is removed, and makes it much harder to raise funds for a municipal campaign. This tilts the playing field towards candidates with their own financial means or with an established network of wealthy friends.
On top of all that, the pay sucks: a councillor works a full-time job for part-time pay. With an annual salary of $27,000, most of them are the kind of people who can afford to make so little: retirees on a pension, corporate managers, or wealthy individuals who run their own business.
Because of this, most councillors and mayors are drawn from a relatively small pool of associates and friends—what many have labelled the “Old Boys Network”—although that term has little to do with age or gender, and everything to do with status: the status of participating on the inside of decision making at City Hall.
And in Peterborough, being an insider can very rewarding.
This cozy relationship was recently brought to light by Ann Farquharson, in a column in the Peterborough Examiner, in which she takes issue with several planning and zoning changes that directly benefitted elected officials. In particular, she highlighted decisions that increased the value of properties owned by Mayor Daryl Bennett and his council ally, Otonabee Ward Councillor Dan McWilliams.
If you think it’s inappropriate for a sitting councillor to profit from of a land deal when they have access to information unknown to the public, you may be discouraged to find out that such deals are perfectly legal.
The McWilliams property, bought a mere six months ago, is very close to the new proposed casino in the south end, on land near the intersection of the Parkway and Highway 115. Council voted to approve a casino several years ago, but the location was kept under wraps until the private owners were prepared to go public with their plans, which they did the day after McWilliams received a favourable vote on council.
I attended the Planning Committee meeting when that vote was taken, and if you think it’s inappropriate for a sitting councillor to profit from of a land deal when they have access to information unknown to the public, you may be discouraged to find out that such deals are perfectly legal.
When the time came to discuss the application, Councillor McWilliams simply declared a conflict of interest and left the council chamber. He went to an adjacent room and watched the proceedings on TV. One citizen, Sheila Nabigon-Howlett, stood up and questioned the ethics of the application, and wondered if there was any consideration of how the rezoning would increase the property’s value.
The answer was no—there was no consideration of ethics or whether the councillor stood to profit from the decision. The only concern of the Planning Committee is whether the application fits the criterion of “appropriate land use,” as defined by the Official Plan.
The Plan had spoken, all other considerations were dismissed, and the application was approved by unanimous vote. Councillor McWilliams re-entered the chamber a richer man.
Later that week, I went to City Hall to interview staff members. Allan Seabrooke, the City’s Chief Administrative Officer, was gracious and forthcoming and gave me an hour of his time. He walked me through the legislative framework of the Plan and acknowledged that it does by design contain overlapping, or even contradictory, aspirations.
“The final arbiters of the Plan are City Council. They decide what priorities come to the forefront.”
I also ventured to the basement of City Hall to speak with the author of the Plan, Ken Hetherington. He has worked for the city Planning Department for 25 years. With a BA and MA in Urban Planning, he has worked his way up the ladder and is now the lead manager on the new project.
He has drawn on that experience to draft the Plan, as well as the numerous studies and planning documents that have emerged over the years. He also taps into a community of other planners around the province, who regularly consult and share best practices with each other.
Hetherington told me that a decision was made to keep the writing of the Plan in-house, that they felt the project would be more accountable if it were developed by individuals who lived here, who knew this place. However, that decision has led to a delayed process.
“Would I like to spend the whole day working on the Official Plan? Sure. But instead I’ll be fielding questions about the casino for the rest of the week,” Hetherington acknowledges.
The Planning Department acts as a conduit from the development industry to City Council. They work out the nuts and bolts of an application and make a recommendation to the politicians.
The sheer volume of applications that they receive makes it difficult to plan the city with any organizing coherence (there have been close to 200 amendments since the last Official Plan was written). And there is a big difference between writing an Official Plan, which must be subject to Provincial approval, and an amendment to the Plan, which needs only a majority vote on Council.
Council can thus pick and choose projects that it prefers without anything more than a hollow gesture towards the Province’s Planning Act. Their decisions are not subject to any further scrutiny, unless a citizen comes forward and is willing to spend the time and money to oppose it.
One such citizen is environmental lawyer and Trent professor Ian Attridge, who spent a year launching an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, arguing that a sprawling proposed suburb on Lily Lake Road violated provincial regulations. He was successful, to a degree, forcing the City to amend some of the most egregious aspects of the development, but the project—with a population more than twice the size of Lakefield—is still going forward.
His experience demonstrates that even those with expertise in these issues can only accomplish so much when City Council chooses to design our city on an ad hoc basis.
Terry Guiel, Executive Director of the Downtown Business Improvement Area, is a veteran of these battles. He has taken the City to task several times for approving zoning changes that are in violation of City’s own stated objectives (as outlined in the 2009 Central Area Master Plan (PDF)—one of the many strategy documents that are supposed to inform the design of our new Official Plan).
Guiel cites decisions regarding the Peterborough Health Unit, the Kawartha Credit Union, and, most recently, the zoning approval of a Mastermind toy store on Lansdowne St. as examples of City Council ignoring its own studies.
“Why do we constantly have to remind the city to follow its own Plan?” asks Guiel.
At the root of this problem is the easy allure of ‘greenfield development’—the building of subdivisions on the rural edges of the city. Such projects provide quick development fees to the City’s balance sheet and they are easy to build and highly profitable. However, roads, pipes, and transit to sprawling suburbs cost a lot to maintain over the long term. In cities like Brampton and Mississauga, they have simply run out of greenfield areas and now face a budget crisis. Without the constant injection of the new development fees, they are having trouble paying the bills on all their previous projects.
The risk to our city is similar—as we grow outwards we run the risk of creating an onerous tax burden for future generations.
But how can our elected officials get away with such recklessness? Part of the responsibility falls to the public, for voting based on the casual assumption that a successful businessperson makes for a successful politician. That leads to a rather narrow set of like-minded candidates that see profit margins as the sole measure of good city planning.
But is running a city like a business such a good idea? Maximizing profit is very different from creating a community.
Mayor Bennett’s business success is central to his brand. He leveraged a family taxi business, Capitol Taxi, into a multi-million dollar transportation company, Liftlock Group, and built a portfolio of land holdings in and around the city. He is admired and respected for his business acumen. Running a company is what he knows best, so he sees political office through that filter, as the CEO of Peterborough.
But is running a city like a business such a good idea? Maximizing profit is very different from creating a community. It encourages practices that push the limits of the legal code, and, instead of seeking consensus, it determines a path and then aggressively campaigns for it. This style of governance has little time for citizen input; indeed, it can actively discourage it.
I conducted approximately twelve hours of interviews in preparation for this article and the three words I most often heard were “off the record.” It became clear that people in Peterborough are afraid to speak out, because running a city like a business is a cutthroat endeavour.
80% of our elected councillors ignored a request to comment on a document that is supposed to shape our city for the next generation.
A mayor may only get one vote on council, but they have other ways to exercise their will. Chief among them is the power to appoint chairs and influence the selection of memberships for various committees and advisory boards—the very entities that frequently “recommend” the wishes of the mayor’s office.
Those councillors that are agreeable to voting his way, Bennett will appoint to high-profile committees, ones that look good on the résumé come election time. Citizens can also apply to sit on these committees, but if you have disagreed with the City in the past—for example, if you have advocated against building the Parkway or the casino—your chances are slim.
Your dissent will have disqualified you from offering an opinion. Opposition is a bad career move.
I sent written requests to all ten city councillors to solicit their opinion about the new Official Plan. I wanted to know if they felt that it matched their constituents’ vision for the future of the city. Of those ten councillors, two responded.
80% of our elected councillors ignored a request to comment on a document that is supposed to shape our city for the next generation. Did the question stump them, or have they just become accustomed to shying away from statements that might run them afoul of the power brokers at City Hall?
Whatever the reasons, it is a terrible way to run a local government.
The two councillors that did comment were Monaghan Ward Councillor Henry Clarke and Town Ward representative Diane Therrien. Both chose their words carefully, and were quick to highlight where they agreed with the Plan. Ms. Therrien did note, however, that there could have been “better consultation with constituents.”
The mayor disagrees. When asked whether he felt that the new Plan would accurately reflect the vision of the city’s residents, he replied with a terse, one-word answer: “Yes.” When asked how a consultation process that occurred five years ago could accommodate new issues like the Parkway or casino, he responded that the Parkway had been thoroughly discussed with city residents, that all discussions about its existence were done.
As for the casino, he said nothing, but the following day it was announced as a fait accompli. The Chair of Planning, Councillor Lesley Parnell, said any further discussion about its merit was off the table, that the only issue still up for public consultation is whether or not the casino counts as “appropriate land use,” as defined by the Official Plan.
And that’s how this obscure document affects you. Once written, it becomes a convenient tool for Council to shut down any discussion beyond the technical language of zoning and land use. And if they want to contravene the Plan, even to benefit their wealthy associates, they just need to get six votes to amend it.
The fact is, we live in a city where insider influence happens in plain sight, yet few bear witness to it. Maybe we have become accustomed to it; maybe it feels normal to us. And since Peterborough has no Ethics Code for its municipal politicians, there is no official recourse—except for the Ontario Municipal Board, the courts, or gathering placards and organizing in protest.
And doesn’t that look like the Peterborough we live in today? An imperious local government that sees itself as our bosses, and a frustrated public that can do little else but protest and circulate petitions. It’s a dysfunctional, broken relationship that will have unfortunate consequences down the road.
We seem unable to have a sincere conversation about how the city should grow over the next generation. The writing of an Official Plan should generate that kind of dialogue. An opportunity for that discussion will arise when the Plan is presented to the public later this month, but any change in the trajectory of the city will require citizens to show up.
Until the public becomes seriously engaged with civic affairs—until they demand that they be heard at public forums and at the ballot box—it will be business as usual at City Hall.