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Hamilton staff, councillors’ closed meetings with developers “illegal”

In Governance
Mar 23rd, 2011
CATCH News March 23 2011
Regular unadvertised meetings that have been going on for nearly a decade between city staff, councillors and the Hamilton Halton Home Builders Association have been labelled “illegal” by Brad Clark. Several councillors and senior staff expressed enthusiasm about the quarterly gatherings before Clark slammed the practice as a “cosy relationship” that is not permitted by the Municipal Act.
“If the agenda was not published to the general public, if the meeting date was not published to the general public, it was an illegal closed door meeting – it’s that clear,” declared the Stoney Creek councillor and former provincial cabinet minister. “You may not like it, but that’s the way it is.”
That declaration came after Maria Pearson had told Monday’s planning committee meeting that “the whole board” who participate in the meetings wants more councillors to attend.
“It used to be in the past that the chair of planning committee sat on that committee for the year, and I have attended, even not being the chairman, in the last little while,” she explained. “And the comment coming back is that they would really like to have more than one designated representative from council on that committee.”
Her call was endorsed by planning chief Tim McCabe who said the meetings began in 2002 “as more of a working committee” to discuss city policy.
“We have a draft new sidewalk policy. Let’s work together, discuss it,” he said in describing an example of their content. “We always appreciated councillor Pearson’s attendance there, and I believe the chair and the vice-chair at one time were always fairly well in attendance, but we encourage more participation.”
New Waterdown councillor Judi Partridge said she’d “like to be part of that committee as well” and asked staff to provide her with the agendas and dates of the meetings. Terry Whitehead was also enthusiastic, noting his personal role in the establishment of the committee.
“I remember a number of years ago when I was chair of this particular committee that we initiated discussions directly with the Hamilton Halton Home Builders and staff,” he recalled. “I think what’s really important, very important, is that we all receive the dates and times that the meeting’s taking place so that if we can fit in our schedule we can attend and participate in that discussion.”
McCabe immediately promised to “send you all the agendas, meeting dates and the minutes from now on”. He confirmed Whitehead’s recollections.
“At one time the two chairs of public works and planning, and the two general managers met – had a breakfast meeting every couple of months,” he stated. “And that’s what really started the ball rolling in terms of the merger of some of, or the transfer of some of, the responsibilities to create the new growth management division, a lot of the duplication of environmental assessments and stuff, in terms of moving over.”
The next speaker was Clark who said that “if we have councillors sitting around a table with developers it becomes a committee of the council” and that councillors don’t the authority to do that. Pearson quickly jumped in to explain that participating councillors were just getting input from the Home Builders and that “there’s no vote or anything like that” taken at the meetings.
“We even had the conservation authority there, representatives of the Niagara Escarpment Commission, because there were issues in watersheds and different development issues and stuff like that,” she explained. “So everybody knows basically what’s going on and what issues are going to be, you know, hot button issues in the next little while or how can we address these.”
Clark contended that discussion “should be happening in an open session of the planning committee” and that none of what Pearson had listed “is worthy of sitting down privately with the Home Builders Association”. He argued developers are supposed to meet only with staff who then make a recommendation to council – at which time the developers can comment in a public meeting.
“If they want to present to committee, to elected officials, they come here and they present,” he declared. “Otherwise I guarantee you the public, if they knew that this was happening, they would just be – how can this be?”
Pearson appealed to McCabe to explain that “this is not looking at specific developments” but rather a forum to consider broader policy issues. McCabe agreed that “it helps develop policy” and recalled the committee had discussed some “heated issues on park dedication” where he recalled the media attending. And that brought Whitehead back into the discussion.
“I just heard clearly, and I understood this from day one, these are public open meetings, in the sense that they are not closed meetings, and anyone, including me, can attend. So there’s nothing happening behind closed doors,” he declared.
Clark reminded him that meetings aren’t public if the public isn’t notified about them. Brenda Johnson agreed.
“If you’re going to be doing this, whether creating policies or the start of creating policies, then you need to have this as an open and transparent process and that’s when you should be putting them on the website, putting them in the newspaper,” she stated. “That’s when it’s open and transparent, when everyone’s more than welcome to have it.”
Whitehead responded that he was “a little confused” and argued there were staff meetings that councillors are free to attend. “I’m not asking to be part of the committee, but if staff are having discussions with the homebuilders and I want to sit and observe and listen, I don’t see why that would be an issue,” he said.
Clark reminded him that he had previously said the meetings were open to the media and public.
“They’re not. They never have been,” he thundered. “So if councillors are going to be sitting around the table with stakeholders, like the Homebuilders Association, to look at developing new policy for parking in Glanbrook, then that has to be a public meeting.”
The debate ended with committee chair Robert Pasuta asking the clerk to provide more information on the rules governing council. The committee report to council does not mention the discussion.
The Hamilton Halton Home Builders Association is “comprised of builders, developers, trade contractors, service professionals and suppliers” to the residential construction industry. Their website says its role is to “advocate for members on issues that affect our industry, ensuring that the residential construction voice is heard” and advocate for consumers as well as promoting “accessible, affordable and available new home construction.”

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