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Jeffrey Simpson

Strike a blow for democracy: Scrap the OMB Add to ...

The same issue confronted two large Canadian cities, Calgary and Ottawa, but produced different results. It's the same split that might confront any Ontario city and one elsewhere in Canada.

In Calgary and Ottawa, city council wanted to limit urban sprawl to promote intensification. Calgary's council, after a spirited debate, voted to pass the new urban limits, and that was the end of it. Ottawa's council, after an equally spirited debate, voted to pass new urban limits, but that wasn't the end of it.

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Why? Because Ontario, uniquely in Canada, has a powerful appeal body called the Ontario Municipal Board. Developers hustle to it all the time, as do, occasionally, citizens groups, to modify or overturn decisions of democratically elected councils.

Just now, for example, the OMB is about to hear an appeal from a developer in Hamilton for a huge condo tower in a residential neighbourhood, despite the fact that city council unanimously turned down the project. In Ottawa, council voted against a sprawl development for as many as 1,400 homes in the town of Manotick, yet the OMB allowed it. City planning staff had okayed the deal, but council overruled them, which is what happens in a democracy all the time.

Other provinces have institutions that, on paper, sound like the OMB. None, however, has its scope or powers. Some of them, as in Manitoba and Alberta, deal mainly with assessment appeals. Others that do deal with planning lack the OMB's almost imperious powers. (B.C. has no such institution.)

The Ontario Railway and Municipal Board, precursor of the OMB, dates to 1897. It was designed to prevent municipalities from giving away land too cheaply to railways and to safeguard municipal borrowing. The thinking for decades thereafter - and apparently today - suggests that municipalities can't run their own affairs and need to be watched over by a creation of the provincial government.

We're a long way from those days. Today, the OMB is the favoured method by which developers do end runs around council decisions they don't like. In an age when municipalities have planning staffs, it's an affront to suggest they need to have their actions overseen by a nanny. Moreover, we live in a democracy. If people don't like a councillor or mayor, they can oust them at the next election.

The OMB has spawned a huge industry of lawyers and consultants whose services are required by those who use the appeal. They presumably would lobby strenuously against its elimination or any dilution of its powers. Developers would scream about their inability to circumvent or overturn democratic decisions. So, in fairness, might "not in my backyard" community groups.

They might argue that scrapping the OMB would produce a flood of appeals to the courts. But if city councils were required by law, as they're not, to give everyone a fair hearing, most appeals would be dismissed, provided councils followed the law.

Then, again, some councillors might secretly like the OMB, since they can take a position in public knowing and/or hoping that the OMB will change a council decision. Politicians, after all, have been known to duck tough issues in hopes the courts will do the work.

The OMB stands as an affront to democracy and municipal government, evidence for which is the fact that no other provincial government has such a powerful body. It's also a time-churning bureaucracy that adds big costs to planning.

A few years ago, the Ontario government changed legislation requiring the OMB to "take account" of councils' decisions. That was the weakest possible wording and, as such, doesn't count for much with the board's 27 members, each paid about $100,000 a year. In the Manotick case, the city of Ottawa advanced the "take account" argument to no avail.

Ontario, hugely in deficit, could strike a blow for municipal government and democracy, and save itself money, by scrapping the OMB anachronism. Or, at the very least, by watering down its powers.

 

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