is lost trust. Nothing is free.

And that reality is being played out in Parry Sound with council’s expedient, behind closed door review and off-agenda, approval of a new ‘age in place’ development. It’s worth explaining how council and staff have lost my confidence and trust.

Let’s start with some background. Apparently the town has accepted a proposal to develop a 40-60 unit residential complex that will be no higher than 4 stories. This complex will be located on a 4.5 acre plot of land owned by the town just north of Canadore College on Parry Sound Drive. It will be built by York Health Care Development Inc. who are paying $250,000 for the land. That’s all we have been given in terms of information. The minutes of the council meeting indicate the proposal is attached to the by-law so presumably anyone wanting to see the by-law would also be provided the proposal. More likely they wouldn’t.

There is little public information to be readily found about York Health Care Development Inc., just a phone number and address, (905) 707-8445, 7610 Yonge Street, Thornhill, ON, L4J 1V9. I couldn’t find any information on what projects they have been involved in and successfully completed.

In terms of the timeline for the RFP, the town originally planned to approve a direction to send out an RFP (Request for Proposal) to selected developers in May of 2012 but this was delayed because of issues related to an update to the West Parry Sound Health Centre’s Plan. It was postponed until the council meeting September 4, 2012. A review of council minutes from 2012 does not indicate the RFP direction was ever brought before council again and approved in an open session, certainly not at the September 4th meeting. So if it was reviewed and approved it must have been in a closed session of council. This seems a bit strange as the initial proposal to issue an RFP was originally discussed in an open council meeting. Perhaps it was at this point staff and council decided to pull things behind the curtain of closed sessions.

The next thing the public was told about the process came on January 15th when town council approved By-law 2013-6185 that states:

“Being a by-law to accept the proposal from York Health Care Development Inc. for the development/operation of a retirement residence per the attached, to declare property surplus, to waive the notice requirement per the Town’s Notice Policy and Property Disposal By-law (By-law #96-3845), to waive the requirement of an appraisal per the Property Disposal By-law (By-law #96-3845), and to identify a means of sale to M3 Developments Inc. (York Health Care Developments Inc), for the Town-owned property described as Part of Part 1, Plan 42R-18846, being those lands north of the flooded lands of Briggs Lake, excluding Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 of Plan 42R-19097, conditional on a rezoning of the front portion of the property from “Rural (RU)’ to a Special Provision holding zone that would allow a retirement residence in addition to the uses allowed in the “Highway Commercial (C3)” zone with a maximum height of 4-stories; the holding symbol to be removed upon the assumption of the unassumed road named College Drive.”

Bang that’s it, we’ve now approved a new development in town with absolutely no public input, or any information provided to the taxpayer about the developer, the terms and conditions of the deal, or general details of the proposed complex. Apparently the matter was discussed and agreed in the closed session of council on the 15th, followed by formal review and approval in the open session of council with no discussion of the proposal and its absolute or relative merits. Council did ask staff to provide some information on the proposal after it was approved in response to my ‘silent-movie’ dramatics in the audience. According to council rules the audience is not permitted to speak at council except during the deputation portion of the meeting, but we are not forbidden from playing charades and seeing if council can figure out whether there is a concern in the audience or someone is going into cardiac arrest. In my case it was the former.

Since then I’ve had a couple of discussions on the matter with staff. It has been a ‘soothing’ experience but no information has been provided beyond a town press release on Thursday or Friday. I’m not sure when it was released because I was unable to find it on the town’s website (don’t get me going on that), and I had to ask for a copy. The press release, which I have attached in a link, PR Retirement Residence, is interesting in it’s content. And it contributes to my erosion of trust.

One statement in the press release is worth look at a little more closely, at least as closely as the available information allows. It states at one point, “The Town has not granted any concessions to the developer for this project.”. This is an interesting statement and presumably relates to potential public concerns about being ‘sold-out’ to business. Looking at the by-law above we see that council has agreed to waive two by-laws that are applicable to the proposed development. There is also the agreement to rezone the property to permit not only residential but also “Highway Commercial” uses. And there is the agreed price of $250,000, including rezoning costs, for the 6.45 acres. That translates to $38,760 per acre. Not quite market rate from what I’ve seen the town has proposed, and been offered, for other properties. And of course council has waived the requirement to conduct an appraisal. No concessions? Read on.

If you walk up to a car dealership and express an interest in purchasing a new car and the salesperson says, “oh, we have a special deal today, every car purchased includes an extended warranty and floor mats”, is this a concession? Did you ask for the warranty or mats as a concession that he/she agreed to? Or did they make the offer above what you expected to sweeten the deal and get you to purchase today? The selling price of $250,000 seems a concession to me, as does the waiving of the requirements of the two by-laws. But the only way to find out is to read the original RFP, which I can’t find on the town’s website, where it states the town will waive the two by-laws regardless of the deal, and the property could be purchased for $250,000.

But concessions are really not a bad thing. They are part of doing business. Suggesting there were none erodes my trust in the whole process. But that really is only a small part of my worry and concern about the way council and staff has handled this.

My major concern surrounds the too quick ‘in camera’ review of the process. Why wasn’t the proposal reviewed in one session, possibly closed, and then placed on the next (in two weeks) meeting’s open agenda? This would have provided residents with the opportunity to review the proposal and ask questions. It should also have included access to staff’s report and recommendation on the proposal. There would have been a possibility for the public to comment in the deputation portion of the following meeting. But there was none of that, it was done in the dark of a closed council meeting, added to the open meeting agenda with no notice, and voted upon with absolutely no discussion. None, zippo, nada.

There has been more debate about the pennies per ton difference in the price the town is quoted for road salt. And how about the extended discussion about snow plowing responsibilities related to the lease for the CP Station? This was also handled through the RFP process, was put on the open council agenda, and the proposed lease included in the publicly available council package. What’s the difference? Many other RFPs have been put on the agenda and discussed in open council meetings.

The answer of course is expediency. Staff and council wanted this to be run through the process and approved because it would be good for the town. I suspect they did not want to waste time with public discussion, review and comment because they thought something might come up to delay or kill the deal. Well that doesn’t seem to reflect much confidence in the agreement they have approved. I’m sure of course it wasn’t the company who requested this behind closed door process because that would have been a concession by the town.

This probably is a good deal for the town and residents. But I find it hard to trust a council that works this way. I have been reminded by others of the behind the scenes arrangements that were made with big box developers at the south end of town that came with a large and unexpected cost. What about the drama in the Big Smoke where the mayor, council and staff permitted a very clear contravention of rules that was only addressed when a member of the public brought suit against the mayor? Who can we trust?

Or, this may be a dry run for hiding an even larger development that will put the town on the hook for perhaps ten to twenty million dollars. Parry Sound Hydro Corporation is looking at an investment in new power generating capacity that the town will need to co-sign for. At one point I thought Parry Sound Hydro was stonewalling on the matter but the considerable transparency at their annual meeting on the investment (meeting notes link) leads me to think that council may be responsible for the lack of communication with the town. When you start to lose trust you begin to be accused for actions that may or may not be true.

Stay tuned for updates. I have asked town staff for copies of the various documents related to the deal. If necessary I’ll file an official freedom of information request and share the details. This is a classic example of where the experts advise their clients who are involved in a controversy to ‘get ahead of the story’ and provide details before third parties put their own spin on the issue.

Trust is hard to gain, is easily lost, and even harder to regain. In this case it seems to all be for the sake of expediency. Unless of course it was part of agreed concessions.