Tuesday, June 28, 2011
For Ottawa's youngest city councillor, it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't kind of situatuion. For a group of residents he's supposed to represent, it's an 11th-hour "bombshell" that effectively leaves them without a voice at City Hall. And it couldn't have come at a worse time.
People living in the quiet corner of Lowertown they call 'The Wedge' have been battling Claridge Homes over this planned development on Bruyère Street, facing Bordeleau Park and the Rideau River. While the five-story condo complex is lower than the builder's original design, residents say it's still too dense, and just doesn't fit in. They'd been working with their councillor for six months, preparing for today's Planning Committee meeting, where councillors were to decide the fate of the site. Then last Thursday Fleury declared a conflict of interest, and informed them neither he nor his staff would be helping them on the file any longer.
It turns out Fleury's father works for Claridge. The councillor isn't entirely sure what his father does, but last he heard he was working as a quality control inspector. Fleury describes his relationship with his dad as "distant." His parents split when he was just eight, and he always lived with his mother. He sees his father rarely. The last time they spoke was at Christmas, and the conversation wasn't about Claridge Homes. Fleury says they've never discussed that subject.
Fleury says given the nature of that relationship it never really occurred to him he might have a conflict. It was only after a chance conversation with a more experienced colleague and advice from the city solicitor that he sought the opinion of his own lawyer. He's still awaiting the official word, but says he's recused himself from any and all matters involving Claridge "just to be safe."
In Rideau-Vanier, this is no small thing, and Claridge is no bit player. There are seven or eight major Claridge projects in the ward, either built, under construction, or, like the Bruyère property, in the planning stage. They include this one and this one. Fleury's declaration of conflict means he can't talk to residents (or by the same token, to the developer) about any of them. When issues involving Claridge Homes arise at committe or council, Fleury must leave the room.
Fleury points out he's not a member of Planning Committee anyway. While it's true he has no vote, councillors routinely sit in on committee meetings even when they're not voting members. There was an example of that today, when David Chernushenko spoke, questioned staff, and had another councillor introduce a motion on a new heritage conservation district in the Glebe. Other councillors generally respect that kind of intervention, and vote according to their colleagues' wishes (there have of course been exceptions to this rule). Fleury says his residents can appeal to other councillors for help. In fact Planning Committee chair Peter Hume and mayor Jim Watson are working behind the scenes to find Fleury a proxy. The committee's vice chair Jan Harder appears to be taking on that role, at least temporarily. But let's be honest. Councillors are busy enough putting out fires in their own wards to douse someone else's, and many of them said so today.
Conflict is of course all about appearance. Fleury -- or at least his advisors -- have now recognized that if he were ever to side with Claridge on an issue, someone could call him out. Better to eliminate that threat now. On the other hand, how real is the conflict? According to Ontario's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, "the pecuniary interest, direct or indirect, of a parent...shall, if known to the member, be deemed to be also the pecuniary interest of the member." But the Act doesn't apply when the relationship "is so remote or insignificant in its nature that it cannot reasonably be regarded as likely to influence the member." And the Act defines a parent as "a person who has demonstrated a settled intention to treat a child as a member of his or her family." Under these terms, it's difficult to see how the "distant" relationship Fleury describes constitutes a conflict.
For his constituents though, none of that matters now. They'll have to rely on whichever councillor will adopt them. They've been given a brief reprieve: They now have until mid-August to prepare their case, and recover the six months' of work they say they lost when their councillor cut them loose.