Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

A regular commentary on civic affairs in London, Canada by journalist Philip McLeod.

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Rookies run the show now

LATEST REPORT #1,119: One of city council’s long-standing policies has been to protect its turf from nearby poachers, but last week that changed in the interests of regionalism. Councillors newly elected last October made it happen, signalling they are in charge of council’s direction now.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015 – London Ontario

That this new city council would eventually repudiate some principle protected so fiercely by the last one is hardly news – the previous group actually seemed to delight in such things.

That in doing so it would split along its rookie axis, well that is worth a second look – especially since, along the way, the advice of the mayor and two of the civic administration’s senior officials was discarded.

The issue on the table last week was a recommendation from council’s planning and environment committee that London appeal a decision by Middlesex County that approved creation of a large industrial development reserve right on our eastern border.

Creeping urbanization of the communities on London’s periphery has long been of concern. The argument is people who buy new houses in Arva, Ilderton, Kilworth or Komoka get to enjoy all the benefits of the big city without paying any of the costs. Out there in the nearby boonies, taxes are lower as a result.

Now the township of Thames Centre along our eastern boundary has gone a step farther. It took a bunch of small industrial parcels scattered throughout the township out of its industrial reserve, and instead added a large parcel of 120 hectares. It just happens to be located along the 401, the so-called NAFTA highway to markets in the United States.

You can read the justification for the appeal by the planning staff here, advice to council that was approved by John Fleming, city planning director, and supported by Art Zuidema, city manager.

Their report called the move “a matter of municipal concern” for London. Among other points, it notes the Thames Centre land “is not located adjacent to any identified settlement areas,” contrary to provincial policies that “new development should be directed to areas of full municipal servicing.”

Planning committee agreed, but narrowly, that London should appeal the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board. In the past, such recommendations to council would have been routinely approved, perhaps accompanied by some self-serving lecturing to our rural cousins.

When city council met last week, however, things were different.

“I don’t understand why this is bad,” said Michael Van Holst (Ward 1). “If the (Thames Centre) land was filled up with industry, it would mean more jobs for Londoners. So why does this matter to us?”

Phil Squire (Ward 6) wanted to know, if what Thames Centre proposes goes against provincial policies, “why we are the body that has to be involved in this fight?”

But it was Jared Zaifman, who represents Ward 14 adjacent to the new industrial lands, who raised the issue that really turned the discussion. “We set a vision as a council to be a strong regional partner. It doesn’t help that to be a heavy hand. If there is a planning issue, then the people who are in charge of that – the province – should appeal.”

“We’re not in a position to be any kind of regional planning police,” chimed in Josh Morgan (Ward 7). “We should drop this in the interest of being good regional neighbours,” added Jesse Helmer (Ward 4).

Tanya Park (Ward 13), got folksy: “When I look over my neighbour’s fence, there is a lot I would say and a lot I wouldn’t. We should work together to increase jobs in the region.”

Finally that stirred Mayor Matt Brown to get involved, something he seldom does in council debates. In this case, though, under attack were long-standing council policies that he had endorsed in his first term on council as the representative for Ward 7.

“There are times when we do have to have difficult conservations with our neighbours,” he said, calling it a fundamental issue for council. “We have spent a lot of time on how we grow as a community. We want to grow inward and upward, respecting the difference between rural and urban areas. So the bottom line is we’ve made a commitment to respect the provincial policy statement. Do we want to pass the buck? If we don’t agree this is good land use planning it is incumbent upon us to speak up.”

In the end though, the vote went other way, 9–5 against the appeal. With the exception of Maureen Cassidy (Ward 5) and Stephen Turner (Ward 10), all the rookies voted no. Councillor Turner was on vacation. 

Councillor Cassidy, one of the two deputy mayors, channeled her mentor, former long-time councillor Joni Baechler. “I don’t believe jobs in another jurisdiction filled by Londoners is the same as jobs in the city of London. We’ve spent many millions on industrial land to secure development. This OMB appeal is intended to protect our investment.”

Mayor Brown, Deputy Mayor Paul Hubert (Ward 8), Bill Armstrong (Ward 2), Harold Usher (Ward 12) agreed with her.

But setting a new course for council, one in the opposite direction of that advocated by the mayor, the deputies, the city manager and the chief planner, were the rookies: Van Holst, Helmer, Squire, Morgan, Park, Zaifman, Mo Salih (Ward 3) and Anna Hopkins (Ward 9).

It’s not clear yet how much we should read into what happened last week. But clearly there has been a change of direction.

For starters, while Mayor Brown is council’s official leader by law, if he ever was he no longer is council’s actual leader. A mere eight months into their mandate, the rookies run the show now.