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When Developers meet individual Councillors in private… What happens?

Newmarket councillors have had private one-to-one meetings with the Clock Tower developer but what was on the agenda? We need to know.

Did Bob Forrest or his side-kick, Chris Bobyk, try to find out from councillors what height would be acceptable for their brutal new development in the Town’s heritage conservation district whose three storey height cap is entrenched in a By-law? Would five, six or seven storeys work for you, councillor? Did they discuss the tenure – owner occupied or rental? And what about car parking standards? Could these be tweaked?

In a democracy such as ours, people have every right to lobby their elected officials. But – if it is happening – it shouldn’t be done furtively or in secret.

No one-to-one meetings. It’s garbage

Last December, when the Council was discussing the process for awarding the garbage collection contract for the Northern Six municipalities, councillors made it very clear they didn’t want to be individually lobbied by those seeking the contract. They queued up to proclaim the virtues of transparency.

Regional Councillor John Taylor led the charge. He doesn’t like the idea of one-to-one meetings with any of the bidders, local or otherwise. Even our secretive Mayor, Tony Van Bynen, agreed with Taylor “out of an abundance of caution and a desire for transparency”

So why doesn’t this thinking extend to one-to-one meetings with developers?

In Australia, many municipalities have public registers detailing contact between developers and councillors. In the Town of Vincent, for example, its register lists email, face-to-face, or phone contact between councillors and developers. In the UK it is not unusual for municipalities to publish notes of contacts between councillors and developers.

In every case, the aim is to remove suspicion of bias and make the whole process as transparent as possible.

Lobbying

Here in Ontario, under the Municipal Act, municipalities have the option of establishing a public register of lobbyists. “Lobbying” includes seeking planning approvals. The Register for the City of Toronto says this:

 “Public office holders and the public should be able to know who is attempting to influence City Government.”

Newmarket’s recently approved Code of Conduct ignores lobbying activity. A covering report from the Deputy Town Clerk says “there is no jurisdiction to mandate lobbyists with the Code”. However, it is perfectly open to the Town to establish a Lobbyist Register. Councillors simply decided, for their own reasons, not to.

The Deputy Town Clerk, Lisa Lyons, told councillors on 25 February 2016 (agenda item 4):

“The Municipal Act 2001 allows municipalities to pass a lobbying bylaw setting out definitions of lobbying and lobbyists and to provide for a lobbyist registry framework and appointment of a lobbyist registrar responsible for registration functions, education and enforcement. Many public institutions have adopted related policies or practices which support similar lobbying rules or guidelines envisioned in the lobbying legislation.”

“Currently, Council has put in place measures which respond to lobbying large dollar value procurement of goods and services. This was recently implemented for the Northern Six Waste Collection Contract RFP and these measures will continue to be considered as required.”

Accountability and Transparency

David Nitkin of Ethicscan, the outside consultant brought in to help the Town shape its new Code of Conduct, strongly pushed councillors to establish a Standing Committee on Accountability and Transparency (scroll to bottom and open Draft Code). At a Council Workshop last October he was very keen on the idea, saying it was used elsewhere "to very great power and effect". He said councillors could join with representatives of the media and members of the public and, perhaps, staff to look at issues on a regular basis. Councillors made no comment.

Nitkin’s proposal was subsequently formally rejected. The staff report on the Code of Conduct says this on Accountability and Transparency:

 “Not included in Code — alternate option recommended. Policies and practices related to accountability and transparency are brought forward to Council as a whole through Committee of the Whole and Council with an opportunity for public input. Council direction would be required to consider such a Committee.”

It is perfectly obvious from the debate on the garbage collection contract that Newmarket councillors understand the perils of one-to-one lobbying.

So I hope the Mayor and all councillors will tell the rest of us about any one-to-one contact they have had with Bob Forrest or Chris Bobyk as well as any meetings where Town staff were not present.

Time to let us all into the secret.

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