Vol. 21 No. 8 • February 26 - March 4, 2015 In Our 20th Year Serving Greater Hamilton

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by View
March 30 - April 5, 2006
Hamilton politics has been described as a blood sport. It also tends to be zero–sum. One side wins, the other side loses, and the wounds of battle never seem to heal. Our energies are sucked into these conflicts, instead of consensus–building processes that would produce reasonable compromises. The classic example is the Red Hill Expressway battle which went on for decades, and continues today with the city’s lawsuit against more than 60 federal employees and several former cabinet ministers including Sheila Copps. They are accused of conspiring to harm Hamilton through holding an environmental assessment—a legal process whose precise purpose is scientifically–based consensus of how best to deal with controversial projects. Started 35 years ago, it is one of the most successful public policies of the 20th century and has been adopted by over 200 governments. But in Hamilton, environmental assessment is a conspiracy, a weapon in our local civil wars. The expressway itself has long been beyond stopping and is scheduled to open next year. The main opposition group, Friends of Red Hill Valley, has turned its energies to organizing a nature– writing contest for kids, and holding an annual lecture on urban sustainability. But some people keep picking at the scab, like linking the expressway conflict to Joanna Chapman’s attempt to clean up election financing in Hamilton. The facts about the very serious problems with Mayor Di Ianni’s campaign donations are overwhelming. They’ve been confirmed by at least five independent reviews by Chapman, the Taylor Leibow accounting firm hired by Di Ianni, Justice Timothy Culver in the Ontario Court of Justice, the auditor hired by the city in reports and by the outside lawyer who advised the council to lay charges against the mayor this month. In any case, these independent examinations convinced councillors to vote 13–one to lay charges against their mayor—an unprecedented decision in Ontario. But the mayor, elements of the media, and others are determined to paint this as a Red Hill revenge plot. One wonders how the opponents of the expressway could have lost the valley when they can now so easily recruit auditors, lawyers and judges and even the mayor’s staff, to do their bidding. Presumably they have already corralled whatever court officials are to be involved in Di Ianni’s trial, thus sealing the mayor’s fate. But Hamilton isn’t satisfied with merely continuing to resurrect past disputes, linking them through conspiracy to new debates. It also appears unable to learn anything from this incredibly destructive experience. Instead it appears doomed to repeat it. Take the aerotropolis, a grand plan to revive the city’s economy through the creation of a 3,100 acre business park on farmland around Mount Hope’s “international” airport. Not surprisingly, some people think it’s a wonderful idea, and some think it’s crazy. And of course some people have decided these differences are just another sub–plot in the perpetual Red Hill debate. God knows that Hamilton’s economy has been badly beaten up over the last quarter century. The de–industrialization process that has swept Canada has left us with contaminated brownfields, a massive loss of higher–paying jobs and the highest poverty rate in Ontario. So there’s fertile ground here for an economic development plan, but differing views on how that might be achieved. Of course, the intensity of the local crisis also provides fertile ground for desperation and the attraction of potential white elephants, a danger that could lead us into a much deeper hole. A wise man once said: “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging.” In a similar vein, Albert Einstein suggested that “the kind of thinking that got you into a mess is unlikely to be the kind of thinking that will get you out.” Someone may want to apply this wisdom to the aerotropolis idea, but that’s another debate. I’d like to suggest that a big part of the digging that got us into this mess is the Hamilton attitude that we don’t need to have a full public discussion and arrive at a community consensus on crucial decisions like this. Yet all signs indicate that’s where we are heading. Despite the fact that the aerotropolis is supposed to provide nearly all the new jobs in Hamilton for the next 30 years (i.e. all our eggs are being put in this one basket), City officials seem hell bent on making sure there’s no real community debate, much less a consensus decision–making process. Look at what’s happened so far. As required by its own rules, the City consulted with the public about the principles to guide its 30–year plan. But then an independent City– commissioned review found the aerotropolis violates seven of the nine principles. In response, council voted to make the aerotropolis an automatic part of all six options being considered for the 30–year plan. Why let facts stand in the way? Then it decided to plunge ahead with implementation before the options were even presented to the public. In April of last year, council asked their staff for an implementation plan. That called for the 3,100 acre urban boundary expansion in Mount Hope, even though staff could not even estimate how much it would cost to service those lands. The report went to the planning committee on June 7 without any formal notice from the City to the hundreds of homeowners living on those lands. Instead, residents found out a few days before the meeting when two councillors had second thoughts about the flawed consultation process. Over 200 people showed up at the June 7 morning meeting, and the vast majority of the 30 speakers denounced the expansion plan. The committee voted to accept it. A few days later, council came within inches of applying its stamp of approval, despite a letter from the provincial government warning them that they were proceeding against provincial rules. That was dismissed as the opinion of a “single bureaucrat,” but at the last minute council agreed to hold one public meeting in the affected area. That took place at a special planning committee meeting on June 28 where over 400 people expressed their opposition. The committee ignored them, and council voted nine–six the following night to finalize the decision. An appeal by both the province and a group of citizens calling themselves Hamiltonians for Progressive Development (HPD) gave the city a second chance to seek consensus. HPD held a press conference in August to explain its commitment to positive planning for Hamilton, and to release a letter to council about its concerns over the aerotropolis. Both the mayor and the chair of the planning committee said they’d respond to the letter. They didn’t. A month later, HPD re–delivered the letter, handing out copies to each councillor at the September 28 council meeting. No response. In mid–October they mailed it to council through the City clerk. That got it on the agenda of the October 26 meeting where staff advised against answering the letter. Instead, a resolution was adopted that Mayor DiIanni and three councillors would meet with HPD. That didn’t happen either. The group wrote to council earlier this month. In response the mayor told the media that he had met with the group in October. In a letter to the Spectator, the group said the meeting hadn’t occurred despite the mayor’s comments, and Di Ianni seems to have abandoned his claim. Now there’s been yet another formal promise from council to respond to HPD. Meanwhile, the 30–year plan is expected to be finalized by the end of April. A parallel saga has played out in the same period over a report on the implications of peak oil for the aerotropolis. Many experts believe air travel will be hard hit by dramatically higher fuel prices. At the urging of a few councillors, the City decided last June to commission a report. Richard Gilbert, a highly regarded transportation and sustainability expert, delivered the report in October. It still hasn’t been released. Councillor Braden asked about it in mid–November and was put off. He raised it again in mid– January and was told that staff had sent back comments to Gilbert. But that didn’t actually happen until late January. A second draft was supposed to arrive by the end of February. It hasn’t been released. Braden asked again at the March 22 council meeting and was told that more staff comments are being prepared. He asked for a commitment that the 30–year plan won’t be finalized before councillors have a chance to review the peak oil study. The message seems pretty clear. Someone has decided the aerotropolis is going ahead. Citizens and councillors who have other views are frozen out. This is how decisions are made here. If you want to change it, you’ll have to launch another civil war, and another, and another. V [ DON MCLEAN]
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