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Designed by Polly Ko

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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