Yesterday (Monday 29 April) I wander down to the Council Chambers to hear Regional Councillor and Deputy Mayor Tom Vegh tells us how he going to deliver on his election promise of a new library and seniors’ centre at Hollingsworth Arena.
“… the Briarwood Development Group has expressed an interest in purchasing the arena property to facilitate the comprehensive re-development of the subject properties.”
The Town is in the curious position of being a putative partner with Briarwood but as the planning authority it must maintain the pretence of being at arms-length.
Now councillors are asked to give a “preliminary opinion” on whether the Briarwood proposal fits with the planning vision for the area which the planners have been working on for years since the Sandro Sementilli fiasco. They say this “preliminary opinion” is needed because the Town owns a big chunk of land at Hollingsworth Arena:
“This preliminary opinion and accompanying information will assist Council in making an informed decision regarding this potential sale.”
Poor old Tom. He is being hung out to dry.
We are told the preliminary opinion should not be taken as approval for any planning application that may subsequently be submitted by Briarwood. Perish the thought! No. No. No. The Town will be giving Briarwood a nod and a wink but that’s as far as it goes. All the proper planning processes will be followed in the usual way.
Now we are on to the Hollingsworth agenda item and the Mayor, John Taylor, looks around and invites colleagues to have their say:
“Any comments or thoughts to share with Council?”
Timid Tom looks vacantly at the screen in front of him while Victor Woodhouse dives in:
“So in accepting this report there is a fair amount of information here including a couple of options, one with regards to the Hollingsworth property itself. Actually both of the options involve the sale of (land). A very small portion of the land (in the first option) and the second option involves the sale of the lands entirely. And you are bringing this forward to Council? We don’t have all the information. Are we just to receive the report at this point?”
The Mayor, John Taylor, tells Victor:
“…I always try to provide some context for people who are in attendance who wonder what we are talking about. The other thing to keep in mind is a companion report to this in our in-camera agenda that will talk to the financial or contractual nature if we were to sell any portion or all of the Hollingsworth property (and) what would that look like.”
“These planning negotiations are always done in confidence to make sure we protect the best interests of the taxpayer and residents in terms of what we would get or what we would pay for a land transfer. That will all though be shared in due course whatever the decision is (and) if there is a contract to move forward.”
“I mention that because Council is not privy yet at this point to this information. This will be the first glance coming up in the in-camera session. I think what Councillor Woodhouse is alluding to is (that) it is a little hard to move forward without all the information.”
Now the ward councillor, Jane Twinney, pitches in:
“I want to speak (about) the in-camera position. This is the first time (we) are taking a look at this decision. It is important for us and for the community and I think we need to get some more information before we can even consider what options if any and where we are going to go. But we need to look at the financial part of it because it is hard to make a decision when you don’t know what you are talking about dollar-wise.”
“I want to make sure that the residents understand that the reason for going in camera. It is the fact that if you are selling your home… you are not going to discuss that (the asking price) in front of the buyer… but I do want to ensure that we are going to be disclosing all that information in public session. That’s important to the residents… I am going to be asking that any decision be deferred to the next Committee of the Whole but I do think that we need first to get this information today and start (thinking) about it… It is important we land in the right place.”
Slithering and silent
At this point Tom slithers under the table. Staying out of sight. Taylor continues:
“I just want to clarify… in term of the in-camera information being shared with the public etc. I just wanna make sure we don’t create expectations. Ultimately that’s Council’s decision but I assume that if we were to decide to sell a portion or all of the land (the information) would eventually be shared through our processes here. However, if we were not to do so that would not necessarily be shared because of future transactions or you don’t want to disclose what you might or might not have (accepted). I just wanted to clarify that.
He invites the Commissioner of Corporate Services (and former Town Solicitor) Esther Armchuk to comment. She confirms that when title changes the public is told. (It is in the Land Registry which is a public document.) If there is no sale she says no information is released:
“to protect negotiations and legal discussions… to ensure that we are negotiating in the best interests of the Town and trying to obtain the best value that we can.”
Unfortunately, because decisions on the possible sale or acquisition of land are kept under lock and key forever (citing client-solicitor privilege) major blunders or simple errors of judgement escape public scrutiny. For me, a classic example must be the Town’s decision in 2008 not to buy the Glenway lands for public open space – and perhaps for other uses. There was a preremptory twenty-minute discussion and no written report. We unearthed that little nugget years later after the die was cast. Anyway…
Now the Mayor is wrapping up and asks yet again if there are any other questions or comments from any other members of Council. Nope. Tom’s face is blank.
Later…. after the in-camera session the Committee reconvenes in public. Jane Twinney wants local residents to be informed of the upcoming Committee of the Whole meeting on Hollingsworth on 21 May 2018 at 12.30pm at 395 Mulock Drive when decisions will, presumably, be made.
The in-camera session may have been terrific entertainment with Tom forensically analysing the Briarwood proposals and arguing his case for a new library and seniors’ centre on the Hollingsworth site. Who knows? But on the evidence so far I rather doubt it.
Instead Tom has been treating us to a tantalising dance of the seven veils.
Leaving us to wonder what, if anything, he is going to reveal and when.
Now there’s a thought.
But perhaps not.
Newmarket Today covered the story here.
You can read the Council's Sale of Land policy here.