Friday, April 28, 2006

Contempt for the taxpayers of London

According to the London Free Press, a long and costly battle that began over one politically-contrived zoning bylaw and devolved into one over what can be debated behind closed doors in council will be accepted as a case by the Supreme Court of Canada. Legal bills for outside lawyers stemming from an Ontario Court of Appeals action that the city lost in November last year have already taxpayers about $220,000 and the city will be represented before the Supreme Court by George Rust D'Eye, the $545 per hour Toronto lawyer who unsuccessfuly argued the city's case to overturn the OMB's ward division order. So what is at stake for London taxpayers?

From November 30:

In January 2004, city council met behind closed doors to discuss a hastily contrived bylaw preventing development along Richmond Street between Huron and Grosvenor streets, a four block stretch, in response to RSJ Holdings Inc's plans to build a four-plex rental unit at the corner of Richmond and Cheapside, prompting complaints by local residents. The purpose of zoning bylaws, rightly or wrongly, is the general management of land use, not the targeting of specific projects for promotion or prevention. Not failing to recognize the litigious potential of an arbitrary decision to subvert this legal purpose for political reasons, council received its staff land use report in a secret session.
When they later resumed in public, there was no debate about the freeze. The bylaw, along with 31 others, passed in eight minutes.
As it was later discovered, a vote on the bylaw had already taken place behind closed doors according to affidavits signed by Coun. Roger Caranci and Controller Bud Polhill, a potential violation of provincial law.
Those circumstances led the appeal court to reject the city claim it had met in-camera to get advice from the city solicitor about potential litigation. Even if the developer was certain to go to court, that didn't justify shielding a report about land use rather than litigation.
From today's Free Press:
"When do we stop the insanity?" Coun. Roger Caranci said. "We're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to limit public access."

Though there is a cost to proceeding, there's a risk to giving up, an issue Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco plans to raise when council meets Monday.

"What's the cost if we don't do it?" she said.
Why don't you tell us, Ms. Mayor: what is the cost to us?
The mayor and others who support the appeal say a ruling is needed to undo a decision by a lower court that's left council unable to get answers to some questions that used to be provided behind closed doors.

[…] Now, when council members ask staff a question behind doors, city solicitor Jim Barber sometimes intervenes and says the answer can only come in public session.

[…] But DeCicco and Controller Russ Monteith say the change could lead to council making decisions without all necessary information, a result that could put the city at risk.
DeCicco and council should be less reticent about getting information in public. Otherwise, the exercise is contrived to shield the public from either damaging staff reports or potentially litigous behaviour on the part of council. When decisions that affect the public using public resources can only be made without public access to the information, then those are decisions that should not be made in the first place. What principles is council invoking in this case? According to DeCicco, the answer is the right of council to decide public issues in secrecy and the right of taxpayers to be gouged for council's misguided decisions.