Time for the Ombudsman?
In case you missed it, and you probably did, it was an interesting meeting of Town Council Tuesday night. Council meetings are normally held on Mondays but because of the long weekend it was moved to the following day. Cogeco, who usually carries live coverage of Council, aired Bingo instead and recorded the Council proceedings for airing later in the week.
For openers, Council managed to spend $191,000 that was not included in the 2017 budget. Of that, $143,000 was approved for an additional overrun in costs to extend the Hunter’s Bay Trail. The remaining $48,000 was for a large promotional sign for the Algonquin Theatre.
But that was not the main event. That honour goes to a decision by Council to negotiate a deal with a group of entrepreneurs to lease the Waterloo Building. Here is the background as I understand it.
Waterloo Building then
In 2015 the Town of Huntsville negotiated a new lease with the University of Waterloo. Since the University was using only part of the Waterloo Building, the Town issued a request for proposals (RFP) for the remainder of the building. There was a single response from a group of businessmen who identify themselves as ‘Accelerate Muskoka’. Broadly speaking, this proposal envisioned converting the Waterloo Building into an environmental centre for companies involved in innovative projects related to the environment. The proposal was conditional on Accelerate Muskoka obtaining an ‘anchor client’. At the time it was rumored that this would be a section of the Ministry of Natural Resources currently located at the Frost Centre in Dorset, but this was not confirmed. Accelerate Muskoka proposed to pay only token rent to the Town but did undertake to pay operating costs, leaving the Town with capital and debenture costs. At the time, the Town took no action on this proposal and in fact, Council did not actually see the written proposal until April of this year.
Waterloo building now
Fast forward to 2017. In March of this year Accelerate Muskoka appeared before Council. In a verbal presentation, they “updated” and changed their original 2015 submission and while they proposed some additional financial benefits to the Town, these were not significant. Meanwhile the landscape in relation to the Waterloo Building had changed. The University of Waterloo has served notice that they would end their relationship with the Town as of the end of June. Although there remain some other interim leases, it is now be possible to deal with the disposition of the entire building.
Subsequent to the presentation by Accelerate Muskoka in March, it was recommended by Town staff, that Council issue a new RFP for the Waterloo Building and at their General Committee meeting in April, council members voted to do just that. For the uninitiated, General Committee is a meeting at which all councillors are present and entitled to vote. It is a consolidation of former Standing Committees, such as Finance and Public Works. Motions passed at General Committee still need to be formally ratified at a Meeting of Council, but since the same people are involved, generally the results remain the same. Consequently, the decision at General Committee to issue an RFP for the Waterloo Building needed to be confirmed by Council at their Regular meeting on May 23.
What happened at Council
So now we arrive at last Tuesday’s Council meeting and so does Accelerate Muskoka. Once again, they make a presentation to Council. It sounds exciting. They want to create “an Innovation Hub and raise seed money for companies involved in the development of water and climate change technologies.” They offer no rent to the Town but rather ask for a long-term lease in return for a 10 per cent share of any profit that may come from the company’s proposed “Clean Tech Seed Fund”. They offer few details about how much of this is conceptual and how much is real. Their clear intent was to be the sole proponent for the Waterloo Building and to stop the issuance of the RFP that was approved at General Committee. They were asking for preferential treatment and they got it.
Wait a minute
Mayor Scott Aitchison was strongly in favour of tabling (setting aside) the motion to issue an RFP for the Waterloo Building and negotiating a deal with Accelerate Muskoka. There was a heated discussion at Council. Some councillors pointed out that since it was public knowledge that a recommendation had been made to re-issue an RFP other proponents were now expressing an interest. The Mayor himself acknowledged that he had met with a number of different groups that are interested in the building and that some of them had great ideas. But he did not share the details and one wonders why.
He did not tell Council that he had met with principals in a company called Suruvata, who operate Residential Wellness and Research Centres. Their proposal would include market value rent on a long-term lease and provide employment for 100 people. The Mayor encouraged their initiative and informed them of the pending RFP. There is also at least one other potential proposal out there from a Huntsville businessman with a background in International Education Exchange.
Why, why, why
Why then is it so important to move ahead with negotiating a deal with Accelerate Muskoka without seeing what else is out there? Why are they being given special status? In terms of the original RFP in 2015, surely the fact that neither the Town nor Accelerate Muskoka took any action on that for more than a year renders that entire exercise null and void. And if that doesn’t do it, the fact that Accelerate Muskoka has changed its proposal since it was originally submitted, should.
Taxpayers have a right to know that Council made the best decision possible when it comes to the disposition of the Waterloo Building. Council has a right and indeed an obligation to have as much information as possible before making a final decision on this matter. At the end of the day, Accelerate Muskoka may indeed have the best proposal for the Waterloo Building but there is no reason why it should not be tested against other submissions.
In the final Instance, last Tuesday, Council voted to table the recommendation to issue a RFP for the Waterloo Building and to negotiate a deal directly with Accelerate Muskoka. It was a five to four vote with the Mayor and Councillors Armour, Fitzgerald, Schumacher and Wiebe voting for, and Councillors Alcock, Stone, Terziano and Thompson, voting against.
The vote is a mistake and it should be reversed. It smacks of special consideration. There is no reason why Council should not have a full range of options for the Waterloo Building before they make a decision on its disposition. Taxpayers also need to know they are getting the best bang for their buck.
I seriously question whether Council has acted fairly and properly in this matter. The Province has recently granted the Ontario Ombudsman a mandate to investigate complaints of improper behaviour by municipalities. Perhaps this is a good one for him to start with.
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