It’s not staff, it’s Council. A short Rice Road recap.

By JIM PITT
SPECIAL TO THE VOICE

On November 18, 1973, then President Richard Nixon appeared on national television to address whether or not he was in contravention of the law. He famously stated, “People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook.” In October 2006, our present Mayor was first elected. He was elected largely on the promise of selling the recently purchased land at the corner of Rice Road and Highway 20, now known as East Fonthill. These 32 acres had been purchased by the previous council for $3,586,925, or $112,091 per acre, in 2005. The original intent was to build a new arena with a park and outdoor playing fields surrounding it.

The land valuation was based on—wait for it—an “extraordinary assumption” in the appraisal. (Man, this phrase just keeps rearing its misleading head these days, eh?)

When he was first in office, our present Mayor seemed to find it mildly shocking that such fiction should be used to value a piece of land.

“This purchase was based on a December 2004 appraisal that stated its valuation was based on ‘Extraordinary Assumptions,’” he wrote, helpfully pointing out a specific fiction: “For example, the appraisal assumed that the site accessed full water and sewer servicing. Residents of Rice Road will remember that the Region did not officially connect water and sewers until more than two years later in fall 2007.”

What a difference a decade makes. From extraordinary assumption critic to connoisseur. In the deja-vu-all-over-again department, you can’t make this stuff up.

The party line (back then): previous council were taken for a ride, the land was overpriced, the land had to be sold. In May 2008, a year and some change into his first term, our present Mayor voted to sell the land. He was rather adamant on the point. He voted to sell, he said, “because we need to provide you value for your money.”

Warming to his theme, he continued, “Did you know that by the end of [2008], the Town will have paid $493,000 in principal and more than $700,000 in interest for that property? That’s $1.2 million and not one more kid played hockey or soccer or baseball or figure-skated!”

The exclamation point certainly drives home the finger-wag. This is not a Mayor who would ever risk the good name of his town by overspending on land, let alone overseeing financial transactions such as to draw Regional Council scrutiny and calls for a forensic audit of its books.

Two months later, in July 2008, the Mayor reiterated his goal of selling the land. In August of 2009, the land had to have its designation changed from a business park to mixed use. In October 2010, the land still couldn’t be sold because of the interference of major landowners in the area. In 2011, the East Fonthill Secondary plan was released, outlining development for the Town-owned land and adjoining land. In October 2012, this became the official plan. In December 2012, residents were told development was coming in 2014. Except for the twin arenas separated by a lobby, i.e., the Community Centre, it largely has not.

Last March, the Town purchased 3.8 acres of land from a major developer for $3,600,000, or $928,000 per acre. This is an increase of 728% from the price paid per acre 11 years earlier. Ironically, these recently purchased 3.8 acres cost roughly the same as the entire 32 acres purchased in 2005 by the previous mayor and council. The appraisal to justify the 2016 price also made use of an “extraordinary assumption”—a similar fiction that the land was serviced fully, with individual lots, ready for builders to start building on. The land was actually unserviced, and isolated in the middle of the development. Employing our own extraordinary assumption, it’s so remote that there were (and are) tumbleweeds skittering across it.

Almost exactly a month ago, on June 29, a local developer appeared before Regional Council to voice his concerns regarding the East Fonthill development and the new arenas. The Mayor tried to stop him from speaking but was overruled by the Chair. The developer laid out his case in a calm and ordered fashion. In a subsequent interview with the Voice he stated, “This is either the stupidest process I’ve ever seen someone go through or the most corrupted process I’ve ever seen someone go through.” He also expressed praise for the Town staff he dealt with, specifically citing Ms. Wiens and Ms. Hanna, who has since left, and said he could understand why some staff have been departing. He made no mention of Town staff being the problem—indeed, he stated, “The Mayor interferes and certain councils interfere, but the Mayor—no one can do anything without the nod of the Mayor.”

In a Welland Tribune article two weeks ago, it was reported that CAO Ottaway had been directed to put together an “Action Plan” in response to the above allegations. Councillors Rybiak and Accursi both commented to the Tribune after their closed-door strategy meeting. Councillor Rybiak said, “To the extent to which it (the allegations) is critical of the town, it’s equally critical of its staff and is without basis, without justification.” He also said, ”And we sure as hell want our staff to understand that we as a council are completely supportive of them.” Councillor Accursi said, “Our staff are trying to do a good job.”

When questioned about the land value paid out by the Town, Rybiak said property values are what they are, “and it’s good news that they’re worth that much, including [the developer’s].” The complete truth is that the developer who took his concerns to Regional Council stated that he had bought land in the same area in November 2016, eight months after the Town’s purchase. He said he paid $160,000 per acre, or 480% less than what the Town paid.

Council is solely responsible for all policy made by the Town.

When Council makes a decision, it lays the foundation for a new bylaw. The bylaw can then be passed by Council, sent back for more study, or rejected as unsuitable after all. Ultimately, the decision rests with our elected officials.

Town staff provides pertinent information only. The buck stops at Council chambers’ door.

Although I am opposed to the number of overpaid staff employed by the Town, I have sympathy for the position they seem to have been placed in under the present Council. I would think that more defections may be in the future for some Town staff. In many cases, the grass probably really is greener on the other side of that Thorold/Wainfleet/Welland/Lincoln fence.

Town Council was set to have released its “Action Plan” to address these Regional allegations just as the Voice went to press.

We look forward to learning which allegation made by the developer is the correct one—namely, did the Council and Mayor follow a stupid process, or a corrupted process. Either way this process has become an embarrassment to residents, and has created anxiety over Town finances and future tax bills.

By the end of the Watergate investigation, 40 government officials had resigned or were jailed, including the Attorney General. Finally, Richard Nixon himself resigned on August 9, 1974 to avoid impeachment, which was imminent. It seems he was a crook after all.

Alas, we do not have the provisions that would allow for a recall vote or the impeachment of the Mayor and Council if any illegalities come to light (and no evidence thus far suggests anything beyond questionable decision-making).

Even the Mayor of Thunder Bay, charged last week with extortion and obstructing justice, is staying put in his job for the foreseeable future.

We have little choice but to wait things out, and hope that no more damage will be done to our town between now and election day in October 2018. But let’s not hold our breath. Even an “extraordinary assumption” would make that bet one for suckers only.

About the Author

The Voice of Pelham
Pelham's independent news source from the heart of Niagara.