In 2018 Tom Vegh was elected as Newmarket’s Regional Councillor, serving on the Town council and on York Regional Council. 

Earlier this month, at a York Region committee meeting, Tom voted for a motion promoted by landowners and developers, to open up parts of the Greenbelt in Markham and Vaughan, to allow uses that would otherwise be prohibited. During the one-and-a-half-hour debate he said nothing.

Getting elected

Of course, it costs money to get elected and Tom borrowed $27,798.02 from CIBC and Scotiabank. He also raised $49,469.02 in contributions – much of it from developers and their facilitators.

There is nothing unlawful about this. But it’s not something I would do. I think it is inappropriate for developers to bankroll candidates running for election. The reasons are spelt out here by York University’s Professor Robert MacDermid.

Since the video was made in 2010 campaign finance rules have been tightened up but life continues much as before. 

Corporate donations banned

The key change, brought in for the last municipal election in 2018, prohibited corporations and trade unions from making campaign contributions. Instead only individual residents in Ontario can make campaign contributions and these are capped at $1,200 per candidate per person. The previous limit was $750.

Developers are still financing candidates but the money comes from them as individuals, not from the company.

Some candidates can raise huge sums of money but they can’t necessarily spend it. Election rules limit the amount which can be spent during a campaign. Campaign finance returns have to be filed and the information I rely on is in the public domain. If you know where to look.

In the race to become Newmarket’s Deputy Mayor and Regional Councillor Tom was well supported by developers – many with projects in and around Newmarket and across York Region.

Glenway developer backs Tom

Tom received $1,200 from Joanne Barnett from Marianneville/Kerbel. She wears a number of hats but I remember her most for her work at Glenway, redeveloping the old golf course which the company bought for a song (under $10M). Marianneville made millions.

She is also Vice President of Planning Operations at the Kerbel Group and VP of Marianneville Stonehaven Limited

Tom also received $1,200 from Toba Scott who works as a personal assistant at the Kerbel Group.

The main man, Jeff Kerbel, contributed $1,200.

And another $1,200 came from Renzo Fabbro from Andrin Homes which describes itself as

“a fully integrated real estate company that excels in the development, financing and construction of residential and commercial properties throughout southern Ontario”. 

Groundswell 

Then Tom received $1,200 from Kerigan Kelly, a Senior Planner at Groundswell Urban Planners. You see their signs everywhere in Newmarket. They lubricate the planning machinery. 

Their website tells us that when they were engaged by the owners of 212 Davis Drive to 

“obtain and expediate a Zoning By-law Amendment and Site Plan Approval they brought the client together with Regional and Municipal Staff and Politicians”.

That’s the kind of thing they do.

Jennifer Crainford, Lucila Sandoval and Heath Purtell-Sharp, all employed by Groundswell, each donated $1,200 to Tom. As individuals, of course.

Rose Corporation

Sam Reisman, Chief Executive of the Rose Corporation, who built 212 Davis Drive, gave Tom $1,200 as did the company’s President, Daniel Berholz.

Paul Bailey gave Tom $1,200. Bailey founded Bazil Developments Inc in 1984, a company described as a “sub-divider and developer”. Since then:

“Bazil has been involved in the construction of approximately 6,000 homes.”

Hashem Ghadaki gave $1,200. He founded the Times Group Corporation in 1985, when it began with custom-built homes in North York, Ontario. His partner at the Times Group Corporation, Saeid Aghaei, also donated $1,200.

Contributors can lobby - and they do

Some contributors to candidates’ campaigns actively lobby the Regional Council on the impact of its policies. (And they have every right to do this.)

Daniel Belli of the Trinistar Corporation gave Tom $1,200 in 2018. Three years earlier in 2015 he requested an opportunity to speak to York Regional Council members on their “Preferred Growth Scenario” report.

“Our concern relates to the impact of the expansion plan on our property known as Westlin Farms Inc., at 12,470 Weston Rd. in the Township of King.”

Mike Rice, Vice President at Rice Group, gave Tom $1,200.

Working for a commercial developer

Michael Mendes gave Tom $1,000. In 2018 he was a member of East Gwillimbury Council’s Committee of Adjustment. The minutes show he

“declared an interest in item D.1 Consent Application B.14.18 submitted by Yonge and Green Lane South Developments Limited, for the property known as 180 Green Lane East Part of Lots 101 & 102, Concession 1 EYS, as he works for a commercial developer.” 

Silvio DeGasperis, the owner of TACC Construction Ltd, based in Vaughan, contributed $1,200 as did Carlo Baldassarra of the Greenpark Group.

His son, Mauro Baldassarra, also gave Tom $1,200. Mauro Baldassarra runs Starlane Homes which is:

“a dedicated home builder focused on quality craftsmanship, great locations and outstanding service. We offer a selection of townhomes, semi-detached and single detached homes in sought-after neighbourhoods to meet the needs of all our customers. Built on quality and trust, we invite you to find your dream home with Starlane.”

Money from Miller's Blair McArthur

Tom got $1,200 from the Miller Group’s Blair McArthur. Miller is a gigantic concern, deeply embedded in construction, paving and civil engineering.

Another $1,200 came from Gino Bellisario, Chief Financial Officer at Condor Properties & Country Wide Homes. And $1,200 from Lynn Vandervoort. Vice President, Ballantry Homes Inc.

There are others too. 

Developers often contribute to multiple candidates, supporting the local democratic process or hedging their bets, whichever way you want to look at it.

Others give huge amounts to charities.

Pulling their punches

But our municipal government is not a charity and developers should be kept at arm’s length.

If councillors accept money from developers they may feel under some kind of  obligation to repay their benefactors in kind if not in cash.

They may pull their punches.

Or they may remain silent. 

Like Tom.

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This Thursday (28 October 2021) York Regional Council will be asked to ratify a decision taken in Committee on 14 October 2021 that redesignates 1,400 acres of “protected countryside” in Markham and Vaughan to allow uses that would otherwise be prohibited in the Greenbelt.  (The "fingers" to be opened for development are shown in red on the map below.)

The developers’ proposal was backed by elected members in a 15-5 vote with Newmarket’s Mayor and Regional Councillor on opposite sides of the argument.

The Town’s Mayor, John Taylor, condemns the proposal – privately initiated by developers - which he claims would set a damaging precedent. 

But Newmarket’s Regional Councillor Tom Vegh takes a different tack, voting in favour of the developers’ proposal but for reasons he keeps to himself. Vegh says nothing throughout the one-and-a-half-hour-long debate.

Residential, commercial and industrial uses

York Region planning staff tells elected members the application to amend the York Region Official Plan 2010 would change the land use designation from Agricultural to Rural which:

“would allow for additional non-agricultural uses such as rural residential, commercial, or industrial uses rather than limiting the uses to complementary open spaces uses that meet the intent of the Provincial Greenbelt Plan, the 2010 York Region Official Plan and local Official Plans.” 

The staff says approval

“would have implications on the other Greenbelt lands currently recommended through the Region’s Municipal Comprehensive Review for redesignation from Agricultural Area, and potentially similar Greenbelt lands beyond York Region.” 

Follow the money

Taylor weighs in against the developers’ plans claiming they are in it for the money:

“If there (were) no financial gain or if all the financial gain related to the land that could be developed for housing could be put into a Community Trust then this amendment wouldn’t be being pursued.”

Taylor says the issue is best left to the Municipal Comprehensive Review which is due to report in six months, in April 2022.

Newmarket Today’s coverage is here.  

Vegh should explain

This Thursday (28 October) the Regional Council will be asked to endorse the Committee’s decision and instruct staff to prepare a bylaw giving effect to the developers’ proposal which had been received the day before.

Tom Vegh should tell us why he took the developers’ position – against the advice of his colleague, John Taylor, and the combined planning staffs of Markham, Vaughan and York Region and a host of other independent and impartial bodies.

We don’t pay Regional Councillors (or MPs and MPPs for that matter) to sit there and suck their thumbs and say nothing. Expressing an opinion on controversial issues is part of the job description. (Tony Van Bynen please take note)

1 November 2021

But if Vegh remains silent on 28 October we can look forward to the upcoming Newmarket Council meeting on 1 November 2021 when councillors will get an update on developments at York Regional Council, either from Taylor or Vegh.

I suppose the Mayor could pull rank and give the report back. 

Personally, I’d prefer to hear from Tom Vegh.

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The lawyer acting for the developers is Ira Kagan who acted for Marianneville in Glenway.

The Greenbelt is always under threat. Eternal vigilance is needed to protect it.

Update on 28 October 2021: Letter from the Greenbelt Foundation dated 27 October 2021, put before York Regional Council on 28 October 2021.

And one from the York Federation of Agriculture.

 

 

Zoom is everywhere.

Yet only a few years ago a majority of members of York Regional Council actively resisted allowing the cameras into their meetings. They feared the cameras.

Markham’s Mayor, Frank Scarpitti, didn’t think he was pretty enough. He said he would have to remember to get his hair done before meetings.

Not that there is much left to comb.

In 2017 Scarpitti thought presentations by staff using slides and graphics could be streamed but then the plug would be pulled, leaving the screen blank. He insisted audio was

“more than adequate”

No close-ups

When York Regional Council finally bit the bullet and agreed to cameras in the Council Chamber he said he didn’t want close-ups.

"I don't think we should be zooming in."

He warned that visuals could be used for political purposes.

I thought about that remark last week when Scarpitti was the lone vote against investigating a possible tax on empty properties in York Region.

He is shown holding up his red NO voting card.

Years ago he warned his colleagues on York Regional Council that images could be used against them:

"The material can be manipulated for political purposes!"

Yup. He was right on that one.

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Colin Powell, 84, who died on Monday (18 October), regretted the part he played in persuading so many people that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction. He said it was a blot on his record.  

Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council on 5 February 2003 paved the way for the invasion. (Photo: Powell making his case at the UN)

I wasn’t persuaded. 

On 18 March 2003, I was one of 139 Labour MPs in the UK House of Commons who voted against the war with Iraq. But there weren't enough of us.  

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, won the Commons vote with the help of the Conservative Opposition and got the war he wanted.

The British Foreign Secretary at the time, Jack Straw, like Colin Powell, later regretted the intelligence failures that led to war.

In his autobiography, Last Man Standing, Jack writes: 

“I have been asked a million times since the invasion whether, knowing then what I know now, I would have made the same decision. No, I wouldn’t. How could we have agreed to invade Iraq if we had known that there were no WMD there? But the question serves no purpose. We made a decision based on what we believed to be the case at the time.”

"I couldn't have done it without you."

He goes on:

“Tony thanked me immediately after the vote, adding, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”  This was gracious of him, as I told him, but it made my sense of responsibility all the greater because if I had argued publicly against the war, the UK would not have been involved. This is not conceit. It’s true.” 

Jack’s predecessor as Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, resigned from the Government over the Iraq war. Robin said that by the time of the Commons vote on 18 March 2003, Blair no longer believed there were WMDs in Iraq.

No Weapons of Mass Destruction

In his memoir, The Point of Departure, Robin recalls a conversation with Blair just days before the crucial Commons vote. 

“Tony did not try to argue me out of the view I expressed that Saddam did not have real weapons of mass destruction that were designed for strategic use against city populations and capable of being delivered with reliability over long distances. I had now expressed that view to both the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and to the Prime Minister and both had assented in it.” 

He goes on:

“I have no reason to doubt that Tony Blair believed in September (2002) that Saddam really had weapons of mass destruction ready for firing within forty-five minutes. What was clear from this conversation was that he did not believe it himself in March (2003).”   

Canada made the right call

Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, Jean Chrétien, made the right call in keeping Canada out of it all.

He never believed the intelligence the United States claimed to have that Iraq had amassed weapons of mass destruction.

The Iraq War was a terrible mistake. 

Tragically, we are still living with the consequences.

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The Report of the Iraq Inquiry was published in 2016. The summary of its findings is here. The US invasion of Iraq started on 20 March 2003.

Markham's Mayor, the bald baritone, Frank Scarpitti, surprised many last week when he was the sole vote against a proposal to develop a feasibility study which could result in a vacant homes tax for York Region. 

Scarpitti, one of the highest paid Mayors in Canada, tells his colleagues on York Region’s Committee of the Whole that a Vacant Property Tax would infringe property rights and could be the thin end of the wedge.

“I mean what is next? If someone owns a cottage in York region and it is sitting empty half the year are we going to start taxing that because it could be used during the winter months to potentially house someone?”

“If someone's an empty nester, a single widow in a single family home, are we going to start saying that's way too much space for someone and they should be taxed because they're not fully (occupying it)?” 

His colleagues guffaw when he says this.

He tells them not to laugh.

A Tax to Support Affordable Housing

The staff report recommends that revenues from a Vacant Homes Tax, net of costs, should be earmarked to support affordable housing initiatives. Sounds OK to me.

The report estimates that a 1% - 2% Region-wide Tax could generate between $15M - $90M in gross revenues in the first year although the tax take would be expected to decline in future years as owners sell or rent out their properties rather than keep them empty.

York Region is crying out for more affordable housing.

The Region’s 2020 housing affordability analysis says only 8% of new housing is affordable. The report tells us: 

“Housing costs should not exceed 30% of gross income to be affordable. York Region has the highest proportion of households in the GTHA spending over 30% and over 50% of their income on housing costs. One of the key factors impacting housing affordability is that increases to housing prices have far outpaced increases to average incomes. Since 2007 average resale home prices in York Region have increased by over 150% whereas average family income has increased by less than 20%.”  

Newmarket is a hotspot

We know that Newmarket is one of the country’s housing hotspots. In 2016 a report in Macleans magazine told us a staggering 20.6% of home sales in Newmarket were purchased as investment properties. It’s old data but I’m pretty sure things haven’t changed that much. Investors from China and from all over the world see Canada as a safe berth for their money. Canada is a stable democracy governed by the rule of law. Why not use property as a store of wealth even if it is kept empty? Frank thinks that's OK.

The one saving grace in Frank’s absurd little speech is his call for development approvals to lapse if they are not acted on:

“I think development approvals should only last for so long. If someone's gonna sit on a draft plan and not build anything for 10 years unless there's some really extraordinary circumstances, they should maybe lose their right, or at least defer their right to build, and let someone else go ahead.”

Development approvals must be acted upon

Why hasn’t he pushed for this before now? He is influential. He hogs the limelight. He has something to say about everything. He is a big beast in the municipal jungle. What is he going to do about it? I’ve been pressing for this for years, with Newmarket examples, but no politician has picked up the ball and run with it.

My advice to Frank is simple enough. Drop your opposition to the Vacant Homes Tax and make the lapsing of development approvals your top priority.

If you do this you may begin to justify your wildly inflated and extravagant salary. 

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Update on 18 October 2021: In my comments on development approvals I unfairly lumped all politicians together when I wrote that "no politician has picked up the ball and run with it". John Taylor reminds me that he had York Region's 2016 submission to the OMB Review include the concept of a sunset clause for planning approvals. On 5 July 2017 he suggested I follow up with Chris Ballard who was, at that time, MPP for Newmarket-Aurora. He says:

"I may not have run with it as fully as you would have hoped but I did ‘pick it up’ at the very least."

Update on 19 October 2021: from Newmarket Today: York Region taking a closer look at tax on vacant properties.

Below: Frank Scarpitti is the only vote against studying the phenomenon of vacant homes and how they might be taxed.