Ottawa·Analysis

Is developer-sponsored golf tourney a hazard for councillors, or par for the course?

A charity golf event is largely sponsored by Ottawa real estate development executives, and six city councillors — including the chair and the vice-chair of the planning committee, and the second-in-command of the city's planning department — attend the event. Anything wrong with that?

The 'Just Happy' — formerly Jan Harder — Golf Tournament was attended by 6 city councillors

Coun. Jan Harder makes no apologies for her involvement in a golf tournament that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Queensway-Carleton Hospital. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Here's the scenario: a charity golf event is largely sponsored and supported by Ottawa's development community, and six city councillors — including the chair and the vice-chair of the planning committee, and the second-in-command of the city's planning department — attend the event.

Is there anything wrong with that?

For those in attendance, not at all. And indeed, they're right that no city rules were explicitly broken at the tournament.

But if the response to past stories about the perception of a too-cozy relationship between developers and city hall is anything to go by, civic groups or individual residents not on the golf course would likely see it differently. 

That is, if they even knew about it.

'JH' now refers to Just Happy

The not-much-publicized golf event in question was held last Monday.

Formerly known as the Jan Harder Charity Golf Tournament, it used to be organized out of the Barrhaven councillor's office and involved asking developers for sponsorship money.

But that raised eyebrows in some corners after Harder became the vice-chair of the planning committee during the last term of council.

After all, the planning staff and committee make decisions that directly and financially impact developers.

So when Harder was named the chair of planning in late 2014, her office stopped running the tournament.

Since then, the renamed Just Happy Golf Tournament has been run by former councillor and planning chair Peter Hume and former Minto development chief Jack Stirling, who are now consultants.

Still, the event continues to be very much considered a Jan Harder affair. She doesn't golf, she says, and didn't elaborate on how she spends her time over the course of the event.

But she's there throughout, delivering welcoming comments at the start and speaking again in the evening.

One home builder referred to this year's event — which raised $72,000 for the Queensway-Carleton Hospital — as "Jan Harder's Just Happy Classic golf tournament."

The sponsors for this year's event included developers Tamarack, Tartan, Monarch, Richcraft, Glenview, Phoenix, Urbandale, Minto, Trinity and Mattamy and engineering consultant CIMA.

This is almost certainly not a complete list, but emails, a phone call and a text to Hume about how the tournament is organized went unanswered.

6 councillors attended

In addition to Harder, Coun. Tim Tierney, the vice-chair of the planning committee, and his spouse attended, as did councillors Diane Deans, Scott Moffatt, Allan Hubley and George Darouze.

Hubley — who is also on the planning committee — and Darouze ignored repeated requests for interviews on attending the tournament.

But the other councillors spoke openly to CBC and said much the same thing: it's a fun event that raises money for a good cause.

Naturally, developers get to know people at city hall through years of business dealing and sometimes friendly relationships ensue, they said.

Harder was the most adamant that there is nothing wrong with the event.

"We have raised more than $600,000 for the Queensway-Carleton Hospital," Harder said.

"I'm proud of that … I'm doing the same thing I've been doing all these years, but I'm not running it anymore and that should suffice."

Tierney said he golfed with Darouze and said he and his wife each donated $100, but didn't pay officially to register for the tournament.

Both Deans and Moffatt say they're paying their golfing fees through their office expenses. They golfed in a foursome with folks from Mattamy Homes. 

It so happens the Mattamy golfers had been at city hall a couple of weeks ago to talk to Moffatt about a project in his ward.

In other words, he ended up golfing with business people who are actively lobbying him.

All the councillors said no one talks about development applications or files because everyone is there to have a good time, which is very possibly true but also impossible to verify.

Senior planning manager also golfed

Other city hall figures at the tournament included John Moser, the recently retired planning boss.

More to the point, Lee Ann Snedden also attended. Earlier this month, Snedden was promoted as director of planning services, the second most senior position in the planning department.

According to an email from her boss, Steve Willis, the newly minted GM of planning, Snedden asked if she could attend in a "personal capacity" on a vacation day.

Like Moser, Snedden had also gone to the tournament in past years. She confirmed she paid for her registration and all food and drink personally.

So Willis gave her the go-ahead. He would not say who Snedden golfed with, saying the city's legal services advised him releasing other people's names "could be breach of privacy."

However, Willis appears to have had second thoughts. He wrote that in the future, he won't consider past practices when deciding whether staff can attend certain events. 

"I think it is very important that City planning staff be perceived to be impartial, even when our personal lives cross over into our professional world," Willis wrote.

Is this sort of event a problem?

It may be hard to see how helping raise money for a new mammography machine is a bad thing, and the fact is the development industry does sponsor a significant number of worthy causes in this city.

And it's probably impossible for councillors, and even city staff, to avoid all social contact with developers in the outside world.

But with the Just Happy event, it is not just a couple of developers who sponsor it: it's virtually all the big guns. And the councillor most identified with the event is the planning chair.

Given the convergence of city hall and development sector heavyweights, the event is bound to generate at least the perception of conflicts of interest.

Council's ethical code of conduct says councillors should avoid "conflicts of interest, both real and apparent." But the city's integrity commissioner only investigates specific events if a formal complaint is filed.

Although Integrity Commissioner Robert Marleau declined to comment on this specific tournament, he said that "public perception is an important part of the ethical behaviour." 

For city staff, the code of conduct is even more clear, stating it's possible "some outside activities can interfere with our ability to do our jobs or may undermine the neutrality of the City. It is our shared responsibility to prevent the situation where the perception of conflict of interest exists."

Tournament an invisible affair

One odd thing about the Just Happy Golf Tournament this year is how invisible it was.

There is nothing online — indeed, the marketing folks at the hospital wanted to promote the event, but weren't able to find anything to promote. But the event has been going on for years, so perhaps organizers don't need an online presence.

Yet politicians were also oddly quiet about this worthy fundraiser, with no one tweeting a word about it.

MPP Lisa MacLeod did tweet that she attended a fundraiser BBQ that day for the Queensway-Carleton Hospital, but refused to name the event, eventually tweeting: "What's your motivation here? Your interest? To shame politicians from attending community fundraisers?" 

It's difficult not to conclude that some politicians don't want the public to know about this worthy fundraiser. As Moffatt said, "I know there are optics with these sorts of events."

But if there's truly nothing amiss, shouldn't politicians be up front about attending?

In the end, it's up to residents to decide whether they think this sort of socializing is appropriate.

But they can't decide what they think about events like Just Happy if they don't know about them.

Next year's event is set for June 18.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this analysis stated MPP Lisa MacLeod deleted her tweets. She did not.
    Jun 26, 2017 12:49 PM ET

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.