Why is a proposed privately built student housing suddenly a no-no?

Posted September 8, 2012

If I were elected Mayor of Guelph, the first thing I would do is scrap that electronic voting system. I defy anyone, outside of council and staff, to figure out who voted for what when the nano-second vote result is revealed. Sure there has to be a record that the city clerk maintains but trying figure out the electronic result at the time the vote is held is nigh impossible … particularly on the televised council meetings.

This brings up a report about the impending meeting with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) regarding a proposal to build two hi-rise student residences at the corner of Stone Road and Gordon Street. The developer, Abode Varsity Living, has made two attempts to obtain agreement to proceed.

The first plan was submitted to city staff in 2010. A second proposal last December reduced the number of units. The city staff did not take a position on the proposal at that time and Abode turned to the OMB for an adjudicated decision.

Now the story gets murky.

The city and an activist group formed to oppose the proposal, to take part in the 15-day hearing. Known as the Mayfield Park Community Association, it is attempting to raise funds to defeat the proposal. Also the University of Guelph has expressed “concerns” about the project and will also be represented at the hearing.

In August, it is reported that city council voted unanimously to oppose the application. This was based on a staff recommendation that the project was too large and not compatible with the surrounding neighbourhood.

Those councillors who voted to turn this down should not have included councillors Leanne Piper, Lise Burcher and Maggie Laidlaw who are employees of the university. If they did vote, without revealing their ties to the university, that’s a conflict of interest.

At best, they should have recused themselves to maintain the credibility and integrity of council.

Here is a paraphrase of the conflict of interest law that applies in Ontario.

“The goal is to keep councillors from using their elected position to advance their private interests.”

What is hard to figure out is why the objection to the proposal? It’s to be built on the site of a former Best Western motel It is across the street from the Delta Inn complex. It’s across the road from the University and the company has an established track record of building affordable student housing.

On top of that, there are the complaints of nearby residents in areas zoned for single families, who are plagued with homes being converted to student apartments and rooms. This council refused to take action to stop this on the grounds the Civic Rights organization would object.

Please explain: Who is representing the interests of these long-suffering residents? They will not have a voice at the OMB hearing that starts September 10.

The OMB will undoubtedly consider these factors.

The underlying concern for citizens is the cavalier way these three councillors ignored their link to the university when supporting the city’s rejection of the proposal.

The irony is Coun. Leanne Piper’s job as manager of student residences puts her in a direct conflict of interest. That is if she continues to vote on any matter before council concerning her employer, the University of Guelph.

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19 Comments

Filed under Between the Lines

19 responses to “Why is a proposed privately built student housing suddenly a no-no?

  1. Jerry

    It would be interesting to find out if the councillors in question did voted or
    abstained.Is there any way you or somebody can find out and post the
    findings or is it one of those secret votes that were held at the cutten club?
    Or maybe a libel suit can be launched to see if a court of law can pass
    judgement on this just like the mayor Rob Ford story in Toronto.
    Maybe we can get them booted from office and change the make up of
    council.I mean a conflict of interest is a no no and either boot them from
    council or level a hefty fine.

    • Jerry: The city clerk will have a record of who voted on this matter. Because the Farbridge majority is slim, one can assume the troops were called out, especially the three associated with the university. Their position is shaky no matter which way you look at. There have been a number of issues concerning the University that have come before council. I cannot recall any lack of support of the University’s position or requests by the majority members of council, including the three employed by the university. That’s a direct conflict of interest.

  2. tonyt

    I to hate how the result of the votes are flashed on screen so quickly. The production is real low quality. I would like to see the yeas clearly down one side and the neas down the other. The way they do it now is poorly done unless you remember where everyones name is on the list and you can speed read.
    I use to remember the mercury use to have the important votes in the newspaper in large print(In the front part of section B, I could be wrong. This was around the time that Jim whitechurch was a councilor.). Not anymore. The votes are usually buried in the article. Probaly because they are all the same.

    As for conflict of interest; what are you going to do? Some one some where must have said it was ok. It probably cost us for that opinion.

    • tonyt; If some consulting lawyer approved the position of the three university employees that they can vote for any issue concerning the university, that’s a conflict under the Ontario Conflict of Interest Act. The thing that bugs me is the attitude that they don’t care and will vote anyway they want…that is, what they are told to do.

  3. geo

    Leanne Piper
    The Rob Ford of Guelph.

    • myzzie

      ford is the mayor of toronto. keep it local and intelligent…or move there and vote him out if you feel so strong about it…sheesh!

  4. Jeff Burke

    “It would not be good for the university,” Summerlee said. “It would be in direct competition with our own residences.”

  5. Jeff Burke

    Hope I am not taking Prof.Dr. Summerlee’s comments out of context… whether South Residence was designed by a firm that designs prisons ( a popular rumor) is not the point— it’s a signature example of a roundly discredited style known as Brutalism.. and the other rumor? Highest per capita suicide rate of Can Uni residences… and he doesn’t want competition? Understandable.

    • Jeff Burke: University of Guelph President Summerlee does not want the private enterprise student housing project across the road. And paraphrasing, that it would not be good for the university (because) it would be competition for our own residences. Hmmm, so it’s okay to off load students to nearby single family residential areas when homes have been retrofitted to accommodate several students. So it’s okay for three members of council employed by the university to vote against a legitimate, much needed project. I sure hope that Dr. Summerlee doesn’t take that competition argument before the Ontario Municipal Board hearing on the subject. It has nothing to do with building height or land use. It has everything to do with patent obstruction and protectionism. Doesn’t the University have enough land to build student residences than spending money to stop legitimate free enterprise?

  6. geo

    Wouldn’t a privately run residence lower the University’s costs? I can’t believe the residences on campus make money or even break even but I don’t have the numbers.
    If somebody does then please post them.

    • geo: Good question. I have contended for some time that the University, the largest employer in Guelph, has artfully exploited its lands along Stone Road for commercial purposes. Nothing wrong with that but don’t stick your nose into a private enterprise project that the University deems as competition.

  7. Glen N. Tolhurst

    It would appear that the councilors in question are graduates of the Rob Ford school of conflict of interest.

  8. Paul

    An interesting point:-
    The residences built on Chancellor’s way were build by a private developer and the Developer LEASES the land from the University. So is it reasonable to assume thast the University is interested in the land so they could lease it to a developer (the same one?) and get revenue without doing anything to earn it? Of course with 3 Councillors and the Mayor with ties to the University, all they need is 3 more sheep – Hofland, Wettsteam and Findlay with Dennis in reserve.
    After all the University has been very lax in building residences on campus and they also shut down most of their on Campus pubs so that the little darlings were forced to shift therir weekend “pukeramas/craparama” to the so-called entertainment district, The downtown bars have a sweet deal – the taxpayers pay for six day a week street cleaning and policing and the Merchants get to pay for the damages to their store property. Good deal for the University who avoids the problem including the odd death due to over-indulgence, and the basr owners who probably make a bundle

    • Paul: Somehow, the university in the past seven years has built a group of teaching buildings including labs and lecture areas. Little on campus student housing has been contracted – some 5,000 beds chiefly used by first year students. But there are some 20,000 undergraduates. Where do they go? They seek housing off campus that limits the university’s liability. Same goes for closing the on-campus pubs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. It’s a liability issue. So as long as there is a solid grip on the majority of this council, the university will control such off-campus services as housing, transit and student drinking. The taxpayers pay the price. Hopefully a new, more enlightened and reform-minded council will change this situation. It can only happen at that level, but not until January 2015.

  9. I must say, I find the Rob Ford references in this thread very interesting. Who knew that the residents of Guelph had such intimate knowledge of the Toronto political scene? I was born in Toronto and in my 38 years of living there, ten mayors held office. Most of them, except perhaps for Crombie and Eggleton, were useless.

    Admittedly, Ford makes it pretty easy for all of us to jump on the anti-Rob bandwagon. Yes, he is classless and lacking in most of the attributes our society deems socially acceptable, but what of his accomplishments?

    In less than two years under Ford:

    *Toronto is spending less money since the megacity was formed in 1998.
    *The city delivered on tax-saving deals with its unionized workers and put an end to “jobs for life”. This was done without a garbage strike – Lastman and Miller couldn’t make a deal even with a strike.
    *Garbage collection west of Yonge has been privatized.
    *Property taxes have risen an average of 1.25% per annum (in three years living in Guelph, my taxes are up nearly 15%)
    *There is a budget surplus – granted mostly due to Miller’s tax grabbing – however, Ford is using it to pay off streetcars bought on credit by Miller.
    *The TTC has been declared an essential service.
    *Councillors had there budgets cut and agreed to a pay freeze last year.

    Maybe Rob doesn’t ride a bike to work or carry a broom around with him, but it appears to me that he has delivered on most of the things Torontonians asked him to do. Miller, by comparison, opposed building a bridge to the island airport – an airport that is extremely conveniently located for business travelers and will soon be booking 200 flights a day. Miller also increased city hall spending by 43% over seven years and increased the city’s debt by $1B in six years … all in spite of introducing several new hands into the pockets of his constituents – e.g. vehicle registration tax, land transfer tax …

    I’m pretty sure that if Ford were the mayor of Guelph, he would not object to a private builder putting up student housing at Gordon & Stone. He would welcome the developer’s fees and tax revenue that would come from such a project and he would likely acknowledge the concerns of his constituents regarding student rowdiness in their otherwise quiet neighbourhoods.

    So maybe it’s wrong that his staff, who likely work 70 hours a week for about $45k per year, like to help him out with his football program for 6 or 7 of those hours. Maybe it’s wrong that Rob prefers to honor his family tradition of going up north on the same weekend as the gay pride parade … but really people, it’s time people started being familiar with the facts and focusing on his effectiveness in the job before jumping on the bandwagon.

    • Jay Morrison: Well put. Let’s hope Guelph’s next mayor and council will adopt a more sober and responsible attitude toward city governance. I’m getting tire of seeing money down the drain to establish Guelph as Canada’s garbage tinsel town.

  10. Gerry – I hate typos – can you change “there” to “their” in my last point on Ford’s accomplishments? Thanks!

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