Packed council chambers as LRT issue gets public airing

Councillors will talk about a legal opinion saying two thirds of them need to reconsider LRT to vote for a referendum.

Meeting will be legal opinions, referendums, and trying to lose that pesky motion to accept $1 billion

This rendering shows what LRT could look like in west Hamilton. (Metrolinx/City of Hamilton)

More than two dozen LRT supporters and opponents are speaking out on the $1 billion project at a packed city hall council chamber Tuesday.

Council is holding a special meeting of its general issues committee devoted solely to LRT. And those presentations are just part of the input councillors are getting, as petitions and letters from more than 1,000 citizens are also being put on the table.

Councillors were told that Metrolinx and the city have already spent as much as $70 million on Hamilton's LRT project.

This is according to Paul Johnson, the city's LRT project head, in a presentation to city councillors on Tuesday.

On mobile? Watch the live blog here.

He also said LRT will be designed, built and operated through a private-public partnership.

Some councillors are skeptical or against LRT.  But a new legal opinion, made public Tuesday indicates opponents won't be able to easily derail the project. The opinion undercuts the push for a referendum and means a proposed vote "affirming" the project can't be used to demonstrate the opposite. 

To reverse earlier decisions moving forward on LRT, said municipal lawyer George Rust D'Eye, two thirds of city councillors would have to vote to revisit the issue.

The most relevant votes, Rust D'Eye said, include an August 2015 vote to establish a joint LRT office, and a vote earlier this year to sign a memorandum of agreement.

Councillors will discuss the legal opinion Tuesday. Coun. Sam Merulla is also expected to withdraw his motion asking council to reaffirm its acceptance of the $1 billion project. 

Tuesday's meeting will provide a broad update on the project so far, including dealing with questions about phasing of construction, economic benefits and property expropriations. 

Among the questions that will be discussed:

Is this the end of the referendum?

Chad Collins, Ward 5 councillor, was going to push for one. But as councillors will hear Tuesday, it's probably too late.

Rust D'Eye, a municipal lawyer and Hamilton's integrity commissioner, gave councillors a confidential report earlier this month saying two thirds of city council would have to vote to reconsider the subject.

Why? Because since the term started in 2014, city council has voted to move ahead with LRT — most notably by approving a memorandum of agreement with Metrolinx in April. To reopen a decision, two thirds of city council has to agree. And at least six of 16 council members are staunchly pro-LRT.

Rust D'Eye is expected to be at Tuesday's meeting, and will likely be grilled about his opinion. But for now, Collins says he'll drop the issue. On Tuesday, councillors can — and likely will — waive the solicitor-client privilege that keeps Rust D'Eye's opinion under wraps and discuss it publicly.

Will council "affirm" its support for the project?

If council does kill the project, it won't be the way people have thought for months that it could happen. Merulla brought a motion forward earlier this year to "reaffirm" acceptance of the $1 billion project, but for months it has looked like he might have trouble winning that vote. That was tabled until Tuesday – and was, in fact, the original purpose of the meeting.

Now Merulla will move to withdraw the motion Tuesday, saying it's redundant. Even councillors skeptical of LRT have said they'll vote for that. Although one — Coun. Donna Skelly of Ward 7 — says she'll fight it.

"I'd like to see it go forward," she said earlier this month. "This is what has triggered all this discussion."

Do opponents have any tools left to fight it?

It appears so. There are still many votes to go over the coming months. In the spring, for example, city council will vote on an updated environmental assessment.

"I don't feel this issue is going to be settled until the (construction) contract is actually granted," Sam Merulla, Ward 4 councillor, said recently. "That is going to be the point of no return."

What do people really think?

The meeting will also include feedback. A lot of it.

All 1,016 written submissions received so far will come to the committee Tuesday. That includes people for and against the project. So far, the agenda shows 20 presenters including : Carol Lazich of Gilbert's Big and Tall, Milena Balta, lawyer Craig Burley, Mary Aduckiewicz of Denninger's.

LRT: The basics

Hamilton city council first approved an eventual LRT route from McMaster University to Eastgate Square in 2013 via its Rapid Ready Report. And it asked the province for the money to build it.​

Last year, Premier Kathleen Wynne complied, committing $1 billion for Metrolinx to build the system with input from the city. The announced route, though, was from McMaster University to the Queenston traffic circle, with a spur line running down James Street North to the West Harbour GO station.

Since then, Metrolinx and the city have been working on the project. Most recently, they held public information sessions around Hamilton on the project.

On Tuesday, city staff will discuss issues such as real estate acquisition and how the fare will be harmonized with the rest of local and regional transit, among other details.

CBC Hamilton reporter Samantha Craggs will tweet live from the meeting. Follow her in the window above or at @SamCraggsCBC.


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