Is City Hall Corrupt? Benn

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Are Ottawa’s planning department, planning committee and city council corrupt?

With the recent spate of city planning decisions that flout the official, secondary and community development plans, Joe Spence, a now-retired Ottawa journalist, posed that question.

Is this a systemic failure? In a very simplistic way, databases can become corrupted when the software is no longer storing the actual data. The data inputs are correct, but the software that houses that data no longer functions as designed, and as a consequence the reports from the database cannot be relied on to make decisions.

The three aforementioned bodies have all made the decision to ignore the existing official, secondary and community development plans. Planning general manager Stephen Willis tried to explain this decision recently by stating that every plan is out of date and none of them are synchronized with each other (my summary of his long-winded monologue). So, the people in charge have acknowledged that the “operating system” is broken. Senior management has declared that since the plans no longer reflect the current thinking, no one needs to pay any attention to the plans. Sounds like Exhibit A in support of the hypothesis that the planning system has been corrupted.

One element of the various plans that the city has otherwise chosen to ignore is the requirement for public space. With the forest of high rises destined for LeBreton, for example, will come a population equivalent to a large suburban subdivision. Out in Barrhaven, Kanata, Stittsville and Orleans, developers are required to set aside a meaningful amount of space for parks and schools as part of their plan for a new subdivision. Is there enough room in LeBreton for the same amount of public space?

Will city council insist on the appropriate amount of land to be set aside, or will it accept cash in lieu?After all, every square foot of land that doesn’t have a high rise on it will cost the city a fortune in development fees and property taxes. If council is prepared to ignore the height and density elements of the official, secondary and community development plans, will it ignore other, inconvenient-to-the-development-industry elements as well? Based on what we have seen on 900 Albert Street, where the city accepted less than $1 million in lieu of additional public space, notwithstanding an expected 2,000 plus increase in local residents, we have Exhibit B in support of the hypothesis that the system has been corrupted.

Councillors are elected to represent the residents of their wards. The mayor is elected to represent the needs of the residents of the city as a whole. In this context the meaning of residents should include businesses, organizations, and their employees, not just individuals. Some of those businesses are property developers and the businesses that supply the materials and labour to that industry. The needs and wants of the residents are often at odds with each other. Some people want more roads, some want fewer. Some people want more bicycle lanes, others want fewer. The point is that councillors need to understand the various wants and needs of the residents of their wards, and of the city as a whole, and find a balance between competing demands.

The development industry wants to be allowed to build new higher, more-densely-populated structures. The more it can build, the more profitit can generate. The city runs a very lean budget. Let’s put aside the issue of whether two-per-cent is an appropriate amount for annual property-tax increases. The point is the city needs the one-time development fees and a never-ending subscription of property-tax revenue that come from new property developments. This is called an alignment of interests. At issue is whether that alignment is beneficial for everyone, or for a limited set of self-interest groups. Exhibit C to support the hypothesis that the planning system has been corrupted is now tabled.

Will existing residents will see the value of their homes, measured in enjoyment and selling price, eroded? In addition, will the existing infrastructure be sufficient to meet the incremental demands from the new residents? It isn’t limited to the incremental traffic load. Is the capacity of the water mains more than sufficient? What about the sewer mains, both sanitary and storm? Are the existing parks large enough to accommodate a larger population? What about the local schools? Are the development fees sufficient to fund the necessary expansion of the capacity of these various infrastructure elements? I have been told by Councillors Keith Egli and Rick Chiarelli that per-unit development fees must remain relatively low to keep the price of new housing units low. That is a concern of the property-development industry. Should that be a concern of council? Fewer per-unit development fees mean that more units have to be built in order to achieve the same funding requirement. Looks like another unhealthy alignment of interests. Exhibit D is now tabled.

In summary, we have an acknowledgement from the the planning GM that the most fundamental elements of his department are flawed and should no longer to be referred to as it relates to height and density limitations. We have an explicit decision to not require additional public space to be set aside by the developer of 900 Albert Street. We have an alignment of interests between a development industry’s voracious demand for higher and denser and a city equally voracious need for any source of funds it can lay its hands on. We have a council that has accepted without further question the position of the development industry that per-unit development fees must be kept low, which results in approvals for more units to generate the same volume of fees.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Bulldog jury, the prosecution submits that the Ottawa’s planning processes have been corrupted. Just as managers cannot rely on the reports that come out of a corrupted database to make decisions, the residents of Ottawa cannot rely on the decisions of the planning department to represent their needs.

The prosecution rests.

Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association executive for the better part of three decades.

 

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8 thoughts on “Is City Hall Corrupt? Benn

  1. The officials can say that the plans are out of date but I doubt that that has anything to do with the peoples’ wishes being out of date.

    The citizens have not, all of a sudden, decided that they need 65-storey apartments in their back yard. The citizens have not made the decisions here.

    The city needs funding and it can only get funds in a limited number of ways. An initial development fee gives a one time cash-cow influx that funds reserve funds that can now be spent one time (that’s where the $600,000 came from for the useless environmental study).

    It is the ongoing cost of running a city that is the killer. User fees are a new invention (new in my lifetime) that help but there is only a limited amount that the population will pay for garbage pick-up, sewer surcharges, etc. ( I still want to know how basic services became user-fee services)

    So what is a city to do? Easy solution is to sell the city off to the highest bidders – ie: developers.

    skoal,
    Chaz

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    1. Chaz:

      I think the city staffers and politicians from the appearance of recent events have already sold themselves.

      What worries me is does this sale go beyond development charges and campaign donations.

      My ethics aren’t for sale at any price. I’ve been doing this for too long to lose my reputation now. And I don’t need the money.

      What I’d like to know is what kind of money is changing hands to massively throw out zoning with such disregard for the public. As I said previously, I think I’ve been horribly naive or trusting in this regard.

      Anyway, I hope that whoever is selling their ethics down at city hall is getting a good price. I can’t imagine some of the democratic monstrosities that have gone on recently at Laurier Avenue have just been through good will.

      As it is, city hall has stopped representing the people of Ottawa. It disregards them at public consultations and now doesn’t give proper notice for consultation or doesn’t hold them at all.

      I think it is time for some of our new Tory MPPs to start holding an investigation into the corruption of ethics at Ottawa City Hall.

      Some prominent local figures need to approach Premier Doug Ford to launch an inquiry into the terrible recent goings-on at city hall.

      The public should start to demand it of the province because the city has gone rogue and won’t even listen to the public.

      cheers

      kgray

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  2. We could save some money by abolishing the planning department and putting the staff on the dole. City council too. It’s not as if they are actually doing anything these days but approving whatever the developers want.

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  3. Is the word “corrupt” is too provocative in the context of today’s article?

    Perhaps. Having said that, there is no question that a process that delivers a result that accepts a 65 storey building from a system that is designed to exclude all results greater than 30-storeys is not functioning as designed. In short, the process has been corrupted. It is providing results that any reasonable observer, knowing the acceptable parameters, would conclude as incorrect.

    What city staff and our elected officials appear to have failed to comprehend is that when they decide to continually operate a corrupted process their credibility has been compromised. Simply saying that the formula, the report that mines the database per my initial metaphor, is no longer applicable without proposing a new one is a failure to accept responsibility. Once someone’s credibility has been damaged and it is difficult if not impossible to regain.

    Here are some questions that every resident of Ottawa should be asking themselves and their elected representatives.

    1. At such time as the city gets around to creating a new set of parameters (official, secondary and community development plans), why should we believe that they will pay more attention to those plans than they do the current set?

    2. What other city processes have also been corrupted? Since the city has demonstrated its willingness to ignore in such a cavalier manner the planning parameters it created, are there other exceptions to known parameters that it is also ignoring, but we the public are not aware of? As an example, are bids from organizations that do not meet the stated criteria eliminated, or are staff accepting those bids. For some guidance on why I pose this question, take a look at Christie Blatchford’s revelations about Toronto’s fire safety inspection department. At a local level, has the business that was knowingly supplying sub-specification asphalt (dare I say fraudulently?) been excluded from bidding on any and all city contracts? What about related companies?

    3. Planning staff is initiating the process that circumvents the zoning rules, by approving rezoning applications that are outside the parameters prior to presenting those applications to the planning committee. Is the planning department acting on its own, forcing the hand of the elected officials, or are they acting on instructions from our elected officials? Rogue departments can survive and sometimes flourish in dysfunctional organizations. Organizations that are not dysfunctional would purge the department, sending the rogue leaders packing. The reason this matters is that if other city departments see that there are no consequences from going rogue … well then everything is suspect, which takes us back to the credibility issue.

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    1. Ron,
      I would add the Mooney’s Bay Park fiasco as a prime example of a dysfunctional system. I would add Mercedes trucks lined up in city hall parking lots as another example of a dysfunctional system.
      These two simple things along with the city manager singing praises about the mayor, along with some councillors getting info long before the rest, along with interest free loans, along with ….. all go to show that a virus has spread throughout the entire entity.

      I said it before – nothing happens in a vacuum. One error is related to the previous and hooked up to the next. When one thing stinks it can sometimes be a small misstep. When this many things stink it brings to mind a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet – “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” ; ‘cept this isn’t Denmark.

      sincerely,
      Chaz

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  4. The Mayor runs the city as he ran the three, count ’em, three ministries which he headed: consumer protection, health promotion and municipal affairs.

    The former city manager, Kent Kirkpatrick, was succeeded by his former deputy, Steve Kanelakos, who knows where the bodies are buried.

    It is exhausting to have to try to figure out not only what they might all be doing, to say nothing of trying to get one step ahead of them to stop it all.

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  5. Yes it is corrupt.

    They think citizens couldn’t possibly understand their complex decision making, but City Hall is in fact so far out of touch with reality. Maybe it will take someone like Doug Ford to stir the pot and put municipalities on notice.

    Is Ottawa the only municipality where developers run the planning department?

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