Good to Know

Democracy Questioned: 150 Attend Democracy Caledon Meeting

A few of the residents, seated
Written by Dan O’Reilly

All photos credit: Dan O’Reilly

Judging by the at-capacity audience and the pointed questions and opinions expressed at a recent citizens’ forum, there is considerable concern and rising anger among Caledon residents about where democracy and sound planning is headed in the town.

Approximately 150 people attended the April 17th forum at the St. James Anglican Church Hall in Caledon East. The event was organized and promoted in just three weeks by Democracy Caledon, a newly formed citizens’ group.

Its purpose was to create awareness and generate public action following the announcement by Mayor Annette Groves that she is using the Strong Mayor Powers, granted to her by the provincial government, to advance the rezoning of 12 planning development applications. The 12 collectively total approximately 35,000 housing units.

The advanced applications will be the subject of a Town of Caledon April 25th public information meeting and then come up for potential approval just days later on April 30th. Using Strong Mayor Powers, this can be passed provided more than one third of Council votes in favour.  The mayor is also able to vote.

Moderated by Dave Meslin, a community organizer and author, the event featured three keynote speakers. They included Caledon environmentalist Debbe Crandall and Caledon writer Nicola Ross, both of whom helped create Democracy Caledon, and Victor Doyle. Doyle is a professional planner who has been called “the architect of the Greenbelt” for his role in the creation of the Greenbelt Plan.

Debbe Crandall at mic

Caledon environmentalist Debbe Crandall warned, “that this thing called Strong Mayor Powers has dramatically put the public on the sidelines of land use decision-making.”

“We organized this citizens’ forum because we are worried about the direction that the Town is going in. In the past, Caledon has prided itself on having a healthy and engaged citizen participation and open dialogue with our elected representatives and staff,” said Crandall.

But something has changed, said the speaker, who attributed that change, in part, to provincial government policies, notably those relating to land use planning and environmental protection.

“There’s no question of the impact that Doug Ford’s government has had on our well-being.”

“From the indiscriminate use of MZOs (Ministerial Zoning Orders) to shut down third party involvement and curtail critical oversight, limiting the mandate of conservation authorities and holding them to a very narrow definition of watershed management, and now through this thing called Strong Mayor Powers, has dramatically put the public on the sidelines of land use decision-making,” said Crandall.

Focusing on those policies and their direct impact on the town, she warned that: “Moving forward under this new regulation called Strong Mayor Powers, Mayor Groves has set in motion a very dangerous precedent, that if unchallenged will set the tone for future decisions.”

Town staff wasn’t directed to draft these bylaws. Nor were they directed to write detailed reports on the implications of fast-tracking zoning to permit 35,000 houses on the Region’s capacity to deliver water and waste-water servicing, or on the Town’s road, school, and recreation systems, she pointed out.

Nicola Ross at mic

Caledon writer Nicola Ross said that under, Strong Mayor Powers, executive authority is conveyed on mayors who can make unilateral decisions with just over one-third support of council. “It’s not democratic.”

A more democratic “compromise and concession with a fifty per cent one plus one vote” system has long determined municipal decisions, policies and procedures, said Ross.

Under the Strong Mayor Powers, enacted by the province, executive authority is conveyed on mayors who can make unilateral decisions with just over one-third support of council. “It’s not democratic.”

As part of a synopsis of democratic fundamentals, Ross reminded the audience that Canada has benefited from “175 years of continuous democracy. That is something we have to be conscious of.”

“Democracy is messy, but if we understand it, it works.”

An abridged easy-to-understand overview of the planning process in Ontario and why that process shouldn’t be short-circuited was provided by Doyle.

Provincial legislation sets out the ground rules for land use planning in Ontario. Regional and lower-tier municipal official plans have to conform to that legislation. Official plans, in turn, are comprised of a series of in-depth secondary plans for different communities and/or geographic areas with a municipality, he explained.

“I don’t understand how we can move forward with the rezoning,” said Doyle, explaining the necessary secondary plans need to be in place first.

Victor Doyle at mic

Professional planner Victor Doyle provided a summary of the planning process in Caledon.

Emphasizing that Caledon has agreed to the province’s housing pledge of 13,000 homes by 2031, he questioned the need for the rezoning. “What is the urgency?”

Doyle closed his segment by saying that he doesn’t believe in Strong Mayor Powers. “There is a risk to democracy.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by several audience members when the meeting was opened up to a question-and-answer period. Some of the comments were in the form of direct questions to Mayor Groves, who was in the audience.

“Will you relinquish your Strong Mayor Powers to allow other councillors to make democratic decisions?” asked former Ward 5 Caledon Councillor Rob Mezzapelli. The mayor did not reply.

At another point, an audience participant walked up to the front of the room and asked: “Will you give up your Strong Mayor Powers?” The mayor’s terse, one-word response was: ‘No’.

The event was promoted as an opportunity to receive community input and, under the ground rules established by Democracy Caledon, speakers were to be given no more than two minutes to speak. In response, however, to persistent demands by a couple of attendees, the moderator invited the mayor to speak, but that she would have to abide by a five-minute timeline.

Using her five minutes, the mayor defended her use of Strong Mayor Powers and the Town’s planning policies and procedures. Although Caledon has agreed to the province’s housing pledge of 13,000 homes by 2031, it is expected to grow to a population of 300,000 by 2051, she said.

All 12 developments will be subjected to all planning oversights. “It (the developments) are not a done deal.”

The mayor also slammed as ‘misleading information’ in social media that the advanced rezoning amounted to an MZO.

But that wasn’t the view of one-time council candidate Cheryl Connors. When the meeting was handed back to the audience, Connors slammed the rezoning as “MZO on crack.”

While there was considerable focus on the rezoning and Strong Mayor Powers, some of the participants also took issue with the very nature of the developments. Phil Pothen, land use and program manager for the non-profit advocacy organization Environmental Defence, took aim at what he suggested would be sprawl development.

The attendees also heard from a woman who urged them to become more involved in Town issues and, “not just when it’s in your backyard. If one third of you would show up next week (at the April 25th information meeting) I would appreciate it.”

Editor’s note: Some residents are encouraging the Town to hold the April 25th public meeting at a larger venue such as the Caledon East Community Complex rather than Town Hall to accommodate the expected numbers of concerned citizens attending. There is no word on that effort at time of publishing.

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About the author

Dan O’Reilly

Dan O’Reilly is a freelance writer specializing in design and construction, the environment, and historical preservation. He is also a regular contributor to the Daily Commercial News and Ontario Home Builder, the official magazine of the Ontario Home Builders Association.

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