Last week I was surprised to learn (agenda item 6) that the person who chairs the Town’s “Development Co-ordination Committee” - whose members include senior Town staff from planning, engineering and legal services - is an outside planning consultant in private practice here in Newmarket.
The development coordinator, Howard Friedman, operates at the interface between the Town and the so-called “development community”. He has been doing the job since 1998.
Mr Friedman’s contract with the Town is up for renewal but councillors, if they choose, can go out to tender or provide the service in-house.
Blurring the Boundaries
Regional Councillor John Taylor tells us Mr Friedman is an extremely reputable person who has been doing great work for the Town. I have no reason whatsoever to believe otherwise but it is a strange state of affairs when the person who co-ordinates the Town’s response to developers works with developers himself and is paid by them indirectly.
Conflict of Interest
These revelations were news to me but also, I suspect, to old hands like Dave Kerwin, a councillor since Confederation. He wondered aloud how Mr Friedman can be “our coordinator” when he is dealing with other developers. Isn’t there a conflict of interest? Apparently not.
The Town’s waffly Director of Planning, Rick Nethery tells Kerwin that if there is a conflict of interest Mr Friedman declares it, asks a staff member to take the chair and leaves.
This, of course, is as it should be but I cannot help wondering how many times Mr Friedman has declared such an interest since 1998. No-one asked. It could be he doesn’t do a lot of work with developers in Newmarket where he is based but spends his time in surrounding municipalities. In fact, I have no idea how many development coordination committees he chairs or how much time he spends coordinating things. The metrics were entirely absent from the discussion.
Long term contract
Mr Friedman runs what is essentially a one man business – HBR Planning Centre which operates out of 66 Prospect Street. Unusually these days, HBR does not seem to have a website. We are told HBR was first hired by the Town on an informal basis way back in 1998. Things were formalized in 2001 with a contract between HBR and the Town and this was updated in 2010. It expired at the end of last year. I do not know if the development coordinator position has ever gone out to tender.
Over the past five years, the Town has spent around $108,000 on the coordinator but this is reimbursed by the developers who are, by all accounts, very happy with the arrangement. Indeed, the development community consider it “best practice” in York Region.
Newmarket’s Mayor, retired bank manager, Tony Van Bynen, agrees. He particularly likes developers picking up the tab and not the Town and says this is a model that should be replicated elsewhere:
“I have had conversations with representatives of York Region BILD and the process that we use – the development coordination committee – gets high response, high accolades from the (development) industry and in fact they’ve recommended that with all the building going on in East Gwillimbury they consider something similar to that process is very effective. That was a new concept that Newmarket introduced and it has been very successful and is recognized as such by the industry. The good news is that we get to recover those costs.”
But what do the developers get out of this arrangement?
And, more generally, how many Town functions are contracted out to the private sector, at what cost, and for what reasons?
No slack in the organisation
The Director of Planning, Rick Nethery, is quick to say staff is overworked and there is no slack in the organisation. Of course, we’ve heard this one many times before. The Glenway file, for example, was handed to an outside consultant with disastrous results. Bob Shelton, the Chief Administrative Officer, thinks going out to private consultants helps the Town to handle the peaks and troughs of a variable workload.
It is certainly true that the consultancy sector across Ontario seems to be booming, taking on projects that used to be done in-house. Often we are told there is a lack of in-house capacity or expertise. Sometimes consultants are hired to provide cover, bringing “objectivity” to a tricky process (such as updating the Council’s Code of Conduct).
The Town’s Institutional Memory is contracted out to the private sector
Nethery tells us there is a lot of staff turnover and the new people hired by the Town cannot begin to match Mr Friedman with his long 18 year tenure in the job
“This allows (Mr Friedman’s) firm to provide valuable insight as to why certain decisions were made or why certain Town practices are in place as well as past issues that may have resulted in the current processes or practices… HBR has managed to ensure a balance between the Town’s best interests being protected while respecting the challenges that face developers.”
I find it astonishing that the Town’s institutional memory has been contracted out to a private consultant, no matter how good he may be at respecting the challenges facing developers – whatever that may mean.
Nethery struggles to give examples
We are told: “HBR’s problem solving approach has also earned the respect of the development community” but when Christina Bisanz asks him “to give examples of things they troubleshooted on our behalf that perhaps were exemplary” he is all at sea.
Nethery says he is at a loss to give a particular example. He says you’ve got to see the man in action to appreciate the full range of the qualities he brings to the job. He is skilled at looking for consensus between developers and the Town. And where there are conflicting views he looks for solutions and comes up with innovative recommendations.
“For example, maybe some suggestions around phasing or there may be some suggestions around particular language be included in a sub-division agreement that would address the concerns the Municipality has while still recognizing the demands being put on the developer.”
“You might see conflicting interests within the municipal requirements so engineering might have something that’s a bit at odds with public works or planning or to recreation and it is the development coordinator’s role to ensure that those things get worked out and ironed out before comments are forwarded to the developer.”
“I could probably give you lot better examples if I’d had a little bit more time to think about it. But certainly we have been very pleased with his performance.”
Why not do this work in-house?
Now Nethery tells Bisanz why the Town doesn’t hire someone to do this work. There is the problem of finding someone in-house with (a) the free time to take it on and (b) the skill set.
“If we were to be looking for, say, an internal person then we would have to determine is there somebody with some free time (which I think we know what the answer to that is) so it would mean we would have to come up with someone with a new assignment.
An in-house person would have to progress chase and be senior enough to issue instructions to the Town’s Directors who report to him.
"So that person has to be someone who can frankly rattle our cage if we haven’t responded in a timely way… (It) would have to be someone at a fairly senior level as opposed to someone who may be early on in their career. You know, giving direction to the Municipal Solicitor or someone else.”
Two for one
Councillors are told they needn’t go out to competitive tender if the technical expertise of the current provider is deemed to be unchallengeable and where continuity of service is a paramount consideration. There are other reasons too – where the work would not be done efficiently or in a timely manner. In fact, we learn that going out to tender could jeopardize the whole operation and
“for some period of time the development community would actually be paying for two consultants through the transition from HBR to another consultant.”
That sounds like a lot of hassle - which probably explains why Mr Friedman’s contract has been renewed for three years.