Don't mess with Durham
by John Barber
The Globe and Mail
Sep. 16, 2006
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Linda Gasser, an organic beef farmer aspiring to municipal
office in Clarington -- an urban-frontier amalgamation of
what used to be the few small towns and many farms and forests
of Clarke and Darlington townships -- prepared meticulously
for the presentation she made this week to Durham Region council,
the body she hopes to join Nov. 13.
Standing at a lectern facing an oval-shaped parliament of
stiff and comically sober incumbents, she offered a detailed,
thoughtful critique of the region's latest retrograde attempt
to prepare supposedly protected land for more of the same
sprawl that is threatening to ruin the last of its old towns,
farms and forests.
Despite six years of review, she said, the new official plan
currently before council is a mess. "I lay responsibility
for this official plan mess at the feet of the chair of planning
committee, and [Durham Region] Chairman [Roger] Anderson."
At that, the oval went electric. Oshawa Mayor John Gray,
chairing the meeting at the time, began shouting at Ms. Gasser.
"You can't lay allegations here!" he bellowed, while
fellow councillors rose to decry the monstrous offence in
tones equally aggrieved and indignant. "Don't lay allegations!"
he bellowed again and again.
"It's not an allegation," Ms. Gasser, shaken by
the sudden uproar, replied quietly. "It's an opinion."
Mr. Anderson, the usual chairman of such gatherings, is more
sophisticated than ludicrous Mayor Gray is in his mistreatment
of constituents, preferring facetious mockery to clumsy intimidation.
Thus, he contrived to mispronounce the perfectly phonetic
name of one meek citizen he faced down, Terry Nuspl of Pickering,
half a dozen times before she was able to begin her plea to
preserve the farms and forests.
Chairman Anderson was all charm and jocularity as he insulted
his constituent by mangling her name every way he could think
of. Then he turned the proceedings over to attack-dog Gerri
Lynn O'Connor, mayor of Uxbridge.
Mayor O'Connor mercilessly berated Ms. Nuspl for not knowing
the precise name of the particular instrument that Durham
had invented to punch holes in the Greater Toronto greenbelt
-- and whether it is an attachment, schedule or appendix to
the official plan.
The rules of procedure allow councillors to question citizens
who come to speak in the chamber. But Mayor O'Connor made
no pretense of asking questions as she viciously laid into
the quaking citizen for not knowing the difference between
an attachment and an appendix. After uttering one insincere,
ineffective protest on behalf of the rules, Chairman Anderson
just let her rip.
"It's a tried-and-true tactic in Durham," candidate
Gasser reflected after the ugly meeting ended. "I try
to be prepared for it but it still takes me aback."
Two themes dominate her doorstep discussions with voters
during the current campaign, according to Ms. Gasser. One
is strong support for the provincial greenbelt and new provincial
policies restricting the sprawl so beloved of Durham council.
"They see that it is really important to maintain the
rural character of this region, this municipality in particular,"
Ms. Gasser said. "I hear a lot about that."
The other theme is disgust at self-serving politicians who
abuse their constituents. "People don't really want to
be shouted down at town hall," she said. "They are
looking for politicians who treat them fairly."
In truth the two issues -- the greenbelt and political thuggery
-- are perfect reflections of one another, both potent proofs
of how isolated and unaccountable local politics has become
in Durham, bastard child of the 905. Still scandalously dependent
on the development industry to finance their campaigns, incumbents
can afford to ignore public opinion while they serve vested
interests. The reason? Hardly anybody bothers to vote.
The few citizens who do step up dare not mention in council
what they all know to be obvious. Oh, how the politicians
howl, how prickly and pompous they become when some meek voter
dares to notice their slavish dependence on developer dollars.
Like contrary opinions, the plain truth about local politics
has no place in the perfect echo chamber of Durham council.
Consider the case of Clarington Mayor John Mutton, a notorious
shouter who is campaigning for re-election while facing criminal
assault charges. Mayor Mutton raised more than $40,000 to
contest the 2003 election, of which individual constituents
-- four in total -- contributed $1,600. The rest came from
corporations, the vast majority of whom were developers and
contractors from everywhere except Clarington.
Are the results of the official-plan debate any surprise
in such circumstances? Of course not. Even though Durham planners
say that the region already has enough designated urban land
to accommodate another 25 years of sprawl, council voted to
prepare another 15,000 acres for development -- lands specifically
protected by provincial law as agricultural forever. Cowed
slightly by mounting opposition that even they can't fail
to notice, the Durhams courageously delayed their attempt
to punch holes in the actual greenbelt until after the election.
Despite some "dumb political acrobatics," the result
is clear, according to Ajax Mayor Steve Parish, the only council
member who refuses corporate contributions. "They basically
are still committed to the private interests that support
them," he said. "This was really the triumph of
private interests over the public interest."
Chairman Anderson blames his council's increasing notoriety
on meddlesome Toronto newspapers. I hope he's right about
the effect of the novel scrutiny, but nothing will change
unless Durham voters start to meddle themselves.
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