To Mulock Drive for a presentation on Newmarket Hydro from Grant Thornton (GT) who are offering “strategic advice” on whether to (a) sell or (b) retain the hydro company in municipal ownership. There was also talk about the pluses and minuses of merging with another hydro outfit.

The Town owns 93% of Newmarket Tay Power with the municipality of Tay holding the remaining 7% stake. The Mayor tells us the review is all part of “due diligence”.

The presentation from Troy MacDonald is upbeat in a Bay Street kind of way. The utility has a “strong conservative balance sheet” and outperforms comparators. Service levels are better (fewer outages) and rates for residential customers are “significantly below” the industry average. Commercial and industrial rates are “slightly above”.


There is much self congratulatory back slapping.

Tom Vegh wants to know why our hydro company is so good.

Dave Kerwin, always lavish with praise, lays it on with a trowel. He points to the outstanding helmsman, Chief Executive, Paul Ferguson, who orders trees to be pruned back if there is any danger they may interfere with hydro lines. Such foresight is entirely missing in, say, Toronto.

The Mayor (who, depending on your point of view, either accepts or refuses $10,000 a year for sitting on the hydro board) wants to hear about the MAAD rules which, apparently, have something to do with mergers.  

MacDonald tells us we should “actively monitor and explore merger activity to seek opportunities to build greater scale and be positioned for consolidation”. No surprises there from someone who, presumably, makes a mountain of money from advising on mergers.

Seller’s Remorse

John Taylor astutely asks if work has been done on the consequences of mergers within the industry say over a ten year period. What is the risk? Is there ever “seller’s remorse”?

We are told it is important to get to a scale that protects from risk. But MacDonald can’t point to the studies that Taylor is after. I am sure they exist.

Christina Bisanz wants to know who we would merge with if we were so inclined. What would they bring to the party?

An inquisitive Joe Sponga wants to know what the right size is for a hydro company. He talks about Aurora selling out to Powerstream, before memorably adding: “the bigger the fish, the bigger the predator”. MacDonald’s answer is conveniently elastic. You are too big if you can’t do things in your local community you would otherwise have done.   

He makes one thing crystal clear. An outright sale would not make sense.

Spookily, I find myself thinking about Darryl Wolk.

Time to move on.

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From time to time, gazing out of the window in the early morning, I see garbage collectors throw my mountain of old newspapers into their truck before dumping the contents of my green bin on top. Whoa!

Isn’t all that stuff supposed to be separated?

I learn from last week’s York Region Committee of the Whole (May 14) that even the most sophisticated waste management systems sometimes struggle to cope. Erin Mahoney, the very impressive Commissioner of Environmental Services, tells Newmarket's John Taylor that some of the contents of the green bins go to landfill because of limited processing capacity. Oh dear!

The 2014 Annual Diversion Report tells us non-recyclable garbage accounts for 29% of the stuff put out at the curbside but, at the processing plant, this rises to 36% where the wheat is, as it were, sorted from the chaff.

For whatever reason, we often get it wrong and put garbage in with recyclables.

An energized John Taylor asks a series of probing questions while a few feet away, Tony Van Bynen gently snoozes. (Another entire meeting goes by without him opening his mouth once.) I learn that, last year, the City of Markham generated 282 kg of waste per capita compared with 352kg here in Newmarket and 385 kg in Georgina. Why the big difference asks Taylor?

Yard waste may be one explanation but, clearly, more work needs to be done to explain different behaviours across the Region. Hmmm.

Food for Thought

Taylor swallows hard and is now asking about the contents of the average green bin. 20% is diapers and pet waste. But an astonishing 34% is “avoidable” food waste. Uneaten leftovers and stuff past its sell-by-date.

Across Canada, a staggering $27 billion of food is thrown out every year.

Despite our best endeavours, material that should be recycled ends up in landfill. One of my environmentally conscious spies here in Town tells me a recent flyer had piqued his interest, informing him that newspaper plastic bags are no longer accepted as recycling.

He makes some enquiries and is informed by an impeccable source that

“not only are plastic newspaper bags now directed to the garbage (landfill) but all other forms of plastic packaging (water softener salt bags, fertilizer bags, produce bags, 15L single use water jugs and on and on. The gist of it appears to be that we recycle biodegradable materials that if put in the landfill would break down but we do not recycle tons of plastic that will be there a thousand years from now. Apparently they muck up the machines that handle recycling. Perhaps a few jobs as hand sorters would be in order to add to the dismal few hundred jobs created last year by Newmarket?”

The sting in the tail is, of course, gratuitous but I understand where he is coming from.

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Why is the Slessor site, opposite Upper Canada Mall, still a moonscape of dirt and debris years after Newmarket Council controversially gave planning approval for a mixed use, high density development?

Why is the 4.6 acre site taking so long to sell?

Probably because the site poses some major challenges that would test the brightest engineering and planning brains on the planet. Clearly, they have not been solved yet.

Take the cavernous underground car park designed to accommodate more than 1,200 vehicles – as huge as the (surface) car park at Southlake Hospital. How to get vehicles in and out without clogging up Yonge Street in the process? Good question. It is one of the many imponderables.

Planning approval was granted in February 2013 for the giant development with all sorts of conditions attached. These “holds” were set to ensure the Town could be satisfied that the development as first conceived would actually work. Although the original proponents are selling, their retirement/ entertainment/ retail concept lives on with the zoning approval remaining in place. This explains why the land is worth a fortune.

Colliers, the Brokers charged with selling the site, tell us:

“Zoning is in place for a proposed four-phased mixed use development containing 600 residential units in three mid to high-rise condominium buildings, a 221-suite retirement building and a four-level commercial/retail component fronting on Yonge Street.”

The canny Slessors, with decades of experience in the auto trade, have drained millions out of the equity while they wait for a buyer to come along.

As an issue, Slessor Square dominated the early part of the last Council term. It got the green light from councillors terrified that the matter might go to the OMB and be taken out of their hands completely. Only a few months after approval, we learned a sale was on the cards.

With approval in principle safely tucked under the Slessors' belt, the “adult retirement living” project was put on hold and the site was put up for sale in May 2014.

In the world of planning, Slessor Square is all too typical. Councillors are told they must move at the speed of light or else the OMB will be called in. Approvals are then given for half-baked developments that, for one reason or another, fail to materialise.

We are left to contemplate empty, desolate sites while the landowners sell on and walk away, laden down with cash.

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The long awaited Glenway “Lessons Learned” meeting, penciled in for 23 June, could end up being a very damp squib.

The Commissioner for Development and Infrastructure Development, Peter Noehammer told Newmarket councillors last week that the format will be highly constrained with the aim of producing a “respectful dialogue” where any recommendations will be determined “as a group through consensus”.

This format begs a number of questions. How is this group going to be constituted? The Information Report that was posted on the Town’s website indicated that the facilitator, Glenn Pothier, would be inviting members of the Council

 “to meet individually with him to provide any initial thoughts on the subdivision’s processing through the Town and OMB”. 

The Report goes on:

“Glenn will also initiate contact (and make himself available for individual meetings) with key staff involved in the process, members of the Glenway Preservation Association, the developer, and the consultants hired by the Town throughout the entire process.”

Those absent from this list include former councillors Chris Emanuel and Maddie Di Muccio (who suggested a lessons learned meeting in the first place), the consultants engaged by the Glenway Preservation Association, and, crucially, members of the public living in Glenway or, indeed, elsewhere in Newmarket.

Glenway is a Town-wide issue

The GPA has said for years that Glenway is not solely a matter for those living in the neighbourhood – it is a Town-wide issue.

This being the case, surely anyone with a point of view who is interested in the Glenway issue should be part of the process. There is absolutely no reason for separating the sheep from the goats in this way. The whole point of the exercise is to determine what happened and why and to make sure – insofar as this is possible – that nothing like it can happen again. Of course, the passage of time takes its toll. Memories fade. There is no official transcript of what happened at the OMB. But, there is one constant; hundreds of people in Glenway and beyond are going to have their lives turned upside down for years to come.

Reviewing the agenda

It is against that background that Newmarket staff will be asking the facilitator “to review the proposed agenda for the Lessons Learned session”.  Councillors, too, should be asked to review and approve it.

So, what is required?

(1)  The Town should extend an open invitation to all those who have a view on what happened at Glenway to register for the Lessons Learned meeting.

(2)  The Town should ask people to submit questions to the Town’s Chief Administrative Officer, Bob Shelton, in advance. (This was floated as a possible way forward by Bob Shelton himself earlier this year.)

(3)  We should avoid ambushes at the Lessons Learned meeting. The meeting is not about scoring points. Insofar as possible, the facts of what happened and any corresponding explanations should be circulated in advance.

(4)  The Lessons Learned meeting should be streamed and taped.

The Lessons Learned meeting comes at a time when the future of the OMB is itself under scrutiny. Mayor Van Bynen made the reform of the OMB a key priority in his election platform and Glenway is, in many ways, an ideal case study. It is in his patch and happened on his watch and demonstrates how not to make major planning decisions. For these reasons the lessons learned process should be documented and the meeting taped.

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What was said on 4 May 2015

At the tail end of the agenda of the Committee of the Whole on 4 May 2015, Ward 7 councillor, Christina Bisanz, raised a series of questions about the proposed Glenway Lessons Learned meeting (which appeared under the umbrella item, “Outstanding Matters”). The exchanges are set out below.

Christina Bisanz:  “…What are some of the defined outcomes that we are hoping for? Obviously “lessons learned”, but we had talked about using this process, however it unfolds, to certainly help assess how we got to where we did but also to look at informing our position, or the development of a position, we may take as a Council, on OMB reform.”

Commissioner Noehammer: “We intend to retain the services of Glenn Pothier as a facilitator for that session. He looks like he is available in mid June to conduct that session. We will finalise a date and as part of this session he will be undertaking some interviews with various stakeholders before the session including members of council, members of staff, members of the GPA (Glenway Preservation Association) just to get a broader sense of perspective.  And our discussions with Glenn to date have been very positive in the terms, in the sense, that he has a good understanding what the outcome should be, meaning not only to facilitate a discussion and a respectful dialogue of the various issues by phase of the application leading right up to the OMB decision, but also to come to a consensus as to what the next steps (are) or what to do with the information.”

“And that will be determined as a group through consensus. So I got a very good sense from Glenn - he is very experienced in that regard - and he will lead a very respectful discussion, dialogue, on the whole process with an outcome and as a Group determine what the next steps should be.”

Christina Bisanz: “So, at this point, I’d like to share this with the GPA to advise them this is coming and that there will be an opportunity directly for members of the Executive to provide input.”

Mayor Tony Van Bynen: “If I may, there is one other item we should give thought to and that is feedback on OMB reform and what the timelines are for input relative to that. I was under the impression that might be the end of May and I don’t know whether or not our planning staff are putting together a position paper.”

“I know they will be looking for some information from the Region as well and I think the sooner we have that so we can individually if we wish provide some additional input into that process as well… do we know where that would be at Mr Noehammer?”

Commissioner Noehammer: “Yes Mr Mayor. Staff are bringing forward that comprehensive review of the four Provincial documents for the May 25th meeting of the Committee of the Whole. You are quite right. It does only leave a very short time between when comments have to go back to the Province. But such is the way that this process has panned out in terms of the short time frame that stakeholders have been given.”

“The Region is also going to be reporting through Regional Council on the same matter and so, within a very short time frame, the Regional and Newmarket Councils will have the benefit of staff reports reviewing those documents.”

Mayor Tony Van Bynen: “That’s relative to Places to Grow, Oak Ridges Morraine and the Green Belt. But is there not a separate evaluation of the effectiveness of the Ontario Municipal Board?”

“I’ve kind of lost track of that. I am just wondering, not now, but if you can zip around an email what the timelines are if there’s some prep time that’s needed. I know there are people who want to provide input on OMB reform.”

Commissioner Noehammer: “Certainly I can follow up with that Mr Mayor.”

(These exchanges can be viewed on the video of the Committee of the Whole on 4 May 2015 starting at 3.32)

One way or another electricity is going to play a big part in Ontario politics over the next four years.

The Liberal Government at Queen’s Park is ready to part-privatise Hydro One to help fund the huge spending on transit infrastructure. And York Region is now looking at the future of electricity supply over the next twenty years as demand is projected to increase dramatically.

Here in Newmarket, we are living with the terrible mistake of not burying the hydro lines in Davis Drive even as it is being endlessly dug up, filled in and dug up again. For all the millions spent, Davis Drive will, unfortunately, retain the frontier town look with heavy cables hanging from unsightly hydro poles. The cost of burying hydro in the future will run to tens of millions of dollars.

We get our electricity from Newmarket-Tay Power Distribution, the company that was formed in 2006 with the merger of Newmarket Hydro and Tay Hydro. It is wholly owned by both municipalities.

You can see the presentation Paul Ferguson, the President of Newmarket Hydro Holdings, gave to the Town’s councillors back in February 2015 here. It is at the top of the agenda.

Directors’ Remuneration

The presentation is curiously silent of the question of directors’ remuneration which, from time to time, is a subject for comment in the blogosphere and twitterverse.

Does Tony Van Bynen, for example, accept remuneration for sitting on the Hydro Board even though he is there only by virtue of his position as Mayor of Newmarket? Sitting on the Hydro Board goes with the day job, so to speak.

Directors of Newmarket-Tay Power Distribution Ltd receive an annual retainer of $8,000 plus a per diem of $200 for attending Board of Director or Board Committee meetings. I am told that on average there are six Board and four Committee meetings per year bringing the annual remuneration to $10,000 for a full record of attendance.

Van Bynen waives the extra cash

I suspect Van Bynen waives the $10,000. He would not have made such a song and dance about the Toronto Star’s assessment of his alleged earnings if he was trousering on the side another $10,000.

It is though surprising that a former banker of 30 years standing, a man who lives and breathes figures,  originally claimed he was getting $151,000 – not $182,000 but by the time the Star published its correction his remuneration had drifted up to $159,856.

Unearthing old By-Laws

The authority for the directors’ remuneration can be traced back to a Newmarket by-law in 2000 but getting hold of this is not a straight forward matter. I am also told the remuneration has not been adjusted since that date. This commendable self denial comes at a price. The Bank of Canada inflation calculator tells me that $10,000 in 2000 is worth a $13,322 today.

For the future, surely, the remuneration of the Hydro Board’s directors should be reported to Newmarket councillors every year as a matter of course. It shouldn't be this difficult finding out who gets what.

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