Well, it’s done now. On December 15, at the end of a marathon five-and-a-half-hour meeting, Peterborough City Council voted 6-to-5 to approve the sale of Peterborough Distribution Incorporated (PDI), our local electricity distributor, to Hydro One. The sale isn’t expected to be completed until early 2018, but our elected officials have spoken, and their decision is deeply unpopular with a huge portion of Peterborough’s population.
In the spring, I wrote that, while there may be some merit to Hydro One’s offer, there hadn’t yet been a strong political case made by our elected officials to sell. For all of the debate and public consultation over the last 11 months, that political case was never made. Instead, especially once there was an offer on the table, the process had a distinct flavour of “going through the motions” rather than any meaningful consultation and deliberation.
To recap, PDI is the corporation that owns and operates the wires and poles that deliver electricity in Peterborough, and is wholly owned by City of Peterborough Holdings Inc. (COPHI), which is turn owned by the City of Peterborough. PDI has been a reliable source of revenue for the City for the last few decades, but outrage about electricity rates in Ontario has led to talk that the Province will put pressure on local distributors to cut costs and lower delivery charges, which could make PDI less viable in the future—although, to date, it’s been only talk.
Many of the delegations made on December 15 called for the vote to be deferred, to allow for more meaningful public consultation.
In this climate of uncertainty, discussions between the City and Hydro One started, in private, in the summer of 2015, although the public didn’t learn them until last February. While the City brought on consultants, and held a public meeting in March, there was no actual offer on the table until October 28, less than seven weeks before Council voted to accept it.
In the lead up to the December 15 meeting, Council received three reports about the offer: one from Allan Seabrooke, the City’s Chief Administrative Officer, outlining the case for accepting it; a report from Navigant, providing more detailed analysis; and a report from C2C Strategies, analyzing the outcome of November’s public consultations.
As expected, C2C found that many citizens were mistrustful of both Hydro One and the City’s decision-making process. As such, C2C recommended that Council should avoid being seen to rush into a decision any more than they already were. Indeed, many of the delegations made on December 15 called for the vote to be deferred, to allow for more meaningful public consultation. All the same, just two weeks passed between receiving C2C’s report and Council’s final approval of the sale.
The final Council meeting was in many ways reflective of the process leading up to it. After hours of delegations, Councillors debated passionately, but offered little by way of new information or arguments. It was apparent early on in the evening that no delegation or argument from a Councillor could change the impending outcome.
Perhaps the biggest excitement came when Councillor Riel attempted to resurrect the idea of holding a referendum, to be held alongside the 2018 municipal election. Henry Clarke, who voted against the original referendum motion in August, supported the motion this time. However, after some procedural hijinks, Riel’s motion failed, as it lacked the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a previous decision.
Council also finally spoke with Michael Angemeer and Adrian Foster from Veridian Connections, the electricity distributor in a number of nearby communities including Ajax, Pickering, Belleville, and Clarington. Angemeer reached out to City Council in the spring, after talks with Hydro One were made public, but Veridian was never invited to make an offer.
The issue was supposed to be the long-term viability of PDI as an independent company, not whether the City of Peterborough needs $105 million.
Their delegation was a last-ditch effort to get Council to hear about a compelling alternative: while Veridian isn’t interested in acquiring PDI outright, Angemeer and Foster outlined the possibility of a merger between the two companies, where Peterborough would receive a smaller sum of money upfront, but retain a share in the company and representation on its board of directors.
An exchange between Angemeer and Councillor McWilliams during Veridian’s delegation was telling: when asked if Veridian could match Hydro One’s $105 million sum, Angemeer answered no—and that, if all City Council was interested in was money, they should accept Hydro One’s offer. The question shows how the pro-sale contingent on Council has moved the goalposts: the issue was supposed to be the long-term viability of PDI as an independent company, not whether the City of Peterborough needs $105 million.
At the end of debate, Mayor Bennett spoke briefly. After claiming that Council had indeed heard the massive public outcry against a sale, he reiterated the same things we heard since March: the deal has been carefully considered, there’s no point in negotiating with other parties like Veridian, and public concern doesn’t trump the case for selling made by Seabrooke and the COPHI board.
As is often Bennett’s style, these points were presented simply as statements of fact. Rather than present a political case for the sale, the message from City Hall has consistently been that we should just accept that there is one. This was enough to convince a majority of our Councillors, and for better or worse we now have to live with their decision—but it’s one made in the absence of any meaningful effort at consensus-building, either on Council or in the community.
If the public was distrustful of our elected officials before, it’s only all the worse now. One can only hope that, with the next municipal election less than two years away, our Council will eventually learn that trust and consensus are as much a part of political decision-making as are facts and figures.