"Cowardice asks the question...is it safe? Expediency asks the question...is it politic? Vanity asks the question...is it popular? But conscience asks the question...is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because it is right." ~Dr. Martin Luther King

Sunday 15 July 2007

Round and Round The Mulberry Bush

Ten--thirty p.m. is council's hour of adjournment. It never happens. At the last meeting, seventeen of twenty-three agenda items were still to be to dealt with.at ten-thirty p.m. Two hours of the 3 1/2 hour meeting were taken up with requests for assistance which did not qualify under the town grant policy.

The situation was typical. Council meanders. There is little semblance of debate and few recognizable rules of order. The hour of adjournment passes and talk continues until close to midnight. An in-camera meeting often carries on after that before staff and council wind their weary way home in the wee small hours of the morning.

The early part of the last meeting was quite bizarre. The first delegate had to be assisted to the microphone. She explained she had been in an accident. She needed help to finance a Literary Festival in East Gwillimbury. She listed names of renowned authors who would be participating.. .. Never heard of any of them. It was not clear who would be benefiting. She assured Council she was a professional and we could be confident the affair would be well organized.

The request met none of the town's criteria for grants. It was refused. The delegate had to be assisted back up the stairs. On leaving the council chamber however, she suddenly became quite self-sufficient and firmly elbowed her way out of the Town Hall - but not before we had spent a considerable amount of time on a sympathetic hearing.

The second request was for free use of a facility that accommodates 200 people, to entertain thirty-two people for ten hours. The facility was already booked on the required date. The delegate wanted chairs, tables, kitchen and the Seniors' dishes . The program was a student exchange. Ten students were involved, two from Aurora. The cost of the request was $1 thousand dollars. The exchange was with the Town of Leksand - Aurora's twin in Sweden. The delegate needed an immediate decision.

The decision was no, but only after another lengthy hearing and staff were directed to find alternate space. The following day, in an e-mail, the delegate requested a letter to go to Sweden explaining why the accommodation was not being made available.

The third request was for a two thousand dollar contribution for a private playground in a Co-op. It was argued by council a Co-op is non-profit. It was granted.

We have several Co-ops in Aurora. They were all sponsored by community organisations. Mortgages were financed with a preferred rate of interest from the two senior levels of government. While they live there, residents have all the responsibilities and rights of ownership. They elect a board of management. They share regular maintenance chores to keep costs down. They must qualify by income to live there. If they do not meet their responsibilities, they are invited to leave. They are not people in need.

Other Co-ops provide and maintain their own playgrounds. The town provides and maintains public playgrounds. But in this instance, we dug our hands into the taxpayers pockets and helped to provide a private one. At the same time, for the the third year running, we cut a playground that needed to be replaced out of the budget to keep the tax increase down.

The town has a grant policy for a couple of very practical reasons. The first is to assure residents of equal treatment. The second is to take the decision out of the hands of politicians and provide futher assurance that money isn't being handed out because of having friends in high places.

It is not working. Hasn't for some time. When I came back on Council in 2004, it seemed to me council could easily be mistaken for a Charitable Foundation or a Philanthropic Organization. It almost seemed there was a competition to find places to distribute public funds.

Last term, we sent money to an outfit in Georgina that claimed to be saving Lake Simcoe. They forwarded their request by mail. We didn't even ask why they needed the money. We likely sent a cheque with a covering letter. For all we knew, they might have been planning a boozy executive night out on a boat on Lake Simcoe.

The same year, we dug into the pockets of Aurora taxpayers to "Save Lake Simcoe". The Lake Conservation Authority had a budget of $64 million dollars. Their mandate is the care and maintenance of Lake Simcoe.

When I was a member of the Ontario Social Assistance Review Board, I visited towns, cities, villages and homes all over the Province. Georgina was an occasional destination. Their building is a former seminary. The council chamber is the former chapel. Council sits on a dais that was the former altar.

In the reception area, there was a glass display case enclosing a fur clad fish. It had a brass plate identifying it as having been hooked in a Georgina Ice Fishing Derby. It was in a trophy case.

Whether it was an example of what was right or wrong with the Lake I do not know. It certainly rooted me to the spot momentarily.

Friday 13 July 2007

Hazy, Lazy Days of Summer

I read in the Toronto Star yesterday about the Ontario Municipal Board "endorsing" a plan for high rise clusters in the west end of Toronto. It is that kind of language that leads the general public to believe the OMB has a role to play in planning. Since they are not elected, it's easy for people to believe there is something not right about that. It also makes it easy for city politicians to shift blame on to the OMB for decisions they have previously made or didn't make when they should have.

The west end of Toronto, near the Lake and the CNE has many run-down former industrial properties. The city's plan has obviously designated the area for renewal. The Zoning Bylaw, which puts the teeth into an Official Plan, must permit multiple residential development.

I say "must" because no developer in his right mind would purchase sufficient property to build a cluster of high rise structures in downtown Toronto, if he didn't know for certain he could use the property for that purpose.

I don't have to be there to follow the story; the artsy crafty people have formed a community in the area because the old buildings have cheap rents. They have appealed to the politicians to save them from the big, bad developers. Councillors, perhaps knowingly, perhaps not, have leaped on their chargers to defend the righteous and downtrodden people of the arts and the crafts.

It is such a simple formula. Add a reporter or two, also looking for fame and fortune in slaying the dragon, and suddenly you have a completely distorted representation of the facts. Even those who know the truth of the matter stay quiet and keep heads down until the clamour subsides.

There is an indication now, the city, after two OMB hearings, is considering taking the matter to court and spending thousands more of taxpayer dollars for legal costs to argue that their own planning regulations should not be followed.

You may wonder, why does that story matter to us. Well, we came within a vote of it happening here just a few short weeks ago. The Separate School Board, after months of work with the town planning department to determine that the Wellington site for a new high school would be an appropriate purchase, did exactly that.

After more months and expense on architects and such, they received a date for a public planning meeting. At the planning meeting, even with no concerns expressed from the immediate neighbourhood, Councillor Stephen Granger moved the application be refused. Councillors McEachern,Gaertner and, it seemed the Mayor, supported the motion.

One more vote, and the matter would have had to go before the OMB. The Town would have been in the position of having to defend the refusal of a planning application which completely conforms to our plans. The planning department recommended in favour of it. Half of the council supported it. The application was being made by another elected public body. Vast sums would have been spent on legal costs, for no good purpoose whatsoever.

The substance of a good debate is when two rational sides of an argument can be made. When it is over, no matter the decision, everyone can feel they have given it their best shot. They can feel they have justified their place at the table.

When I am reclining on my backyard deck staring up into a canopy of maple leaves, I try to understand why four elected representatives would collectively arrive at that position on the Wellington Street Catholic High School.

For the life of me, I cannot fathom the logic.