Controversial developer donations policy punted to working group

The contentious debate over whether to ban councillors from negotiating donations for their wards sparked confusion around the council table on Wednesday, as the city clerk struggled to answer a litany of questions on hypothetical no-go scenarios.

By the time the 90-minute discussion was over, many councillors complained about a lack of clarity surrounding the policy options on the table.

While Mayor Mark Sutcliffe has said multiple times that there was no need pause the plan to seek a consensus that he seems to consider far out of reach, full council opted to forego an immediate decision and send the debated staff report to a newly formed working group.

"I know there are a lot of strong feelings about this issue. I've always said ... my preference would be to ban voluntary contributions," Sutcliffe said after the meeting.

"I know some councillors said they saw this as a solution in search of a problem, but I don't see it that way. There is a perception that there's a risk here — the conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest — and we don't want the development process to be tainted."

But the policy, once it's in place, has the potential to reach beyond the development process and could bring unintended consequences.

Ban called the 'nuclear option'

The list of possible breaches was lengthy.

Many quizzed city clerk Caitlin Salter MacDonald, whose team has been put in charge of drafting the policy, angling for a better understanding of how the shift would change the ways councillors work.

Could a councillor still ask grocery stores to donate hot dogs to community events? (Yes, according to a different policy.)

What about suggesting a developer contribute the purchase of a play structure at a city park? (A definite no-no.)

And how about requesting help in the aftermath of a tornado? (Maybe, if a special emergency exemption is granted.)

"We've chosen a nuclear option, one that can tie our hands and prevent us from working on behalf of our communities," argued Coun. Laine Johnson. "It shifts us from actors to audience. We've reached this point in a hurry."

Bay Coun. Theresa Kavanagh, College Coun. Laine Johnson, and Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Sean Devine attend an Ottawa city council meeting on July 10, 2024.
College ward Coun. Laine Johnson, centre, told councillors the ban is a 'nuclear option' and encouraged them to work toward a consensus. (Nick Persaud/CBC)

Staff would negotiate deals

In cases where councillors are barred from acting themselves, they could connect community groups with staff who can liaise with developers on a requested "voluntary benefit" — a perfectly acceptable solution to many.

"I think this whole discussion is unnecessarily dramatic, really and truly," said Coun. Cathy Curry. "This is not going to change anything I've been doing, or anything I plan to do in the future."

The reality is not as simple as it may appear, however.

Planning staff, for instance, can only make requests under certain circumstances, dictated through statutes. If an overworked department simply does not have capacity to take up the cause, they will not follow through.

Central to this debate has been whether an inherent power dynamic exists between councillors and developers that removes the possibility of negotiating without a real or perceived conflict.

Coun. Ariel Troster noted that staff themselves hold significant sway.

"Staff report to committee about whether they support a particular development in the same way that we have the opportunity to vote a committee on whether we support a particular development," she said. "Their recommendations frankly form the basis of what we usually vote for. We usually agree."

Fears of 'a shadow regime'

The other point of contention was how those who breach the new policy will be held accountable.

Discussion started off with a motion deemed by its mover, Coun. Glen Gower, to be akin to a "technical amendment," which would have put the city clerk in charge of monitoring the policy and perhaps even weighing in on complaints.

Coun. Jeff Leiper vehemently disagreed, saying this is the work of the integrity commissioner, "full stop."

He passionately argued that having a paid bureaucrat who reports to the city manager in this position would be a grave mistake.

"It's a perversion of local governance," he said. "I don't anticipate that there's any ill will, mayor… but if this motion passes, we are creating a shadow regime."

Kitchisippi Coun. Jeff Leiper speaks with Ottawa City Clerk Caitlin Salter MacDonald during a council meeting on July 10, 2024.
Kitchisippi Coun. Jeff Leiper speaks with Ottawa'a city clerk Caitlin Salter MacDonald during a council meeting Wednesday. (Nick Persaud/CBC)

When asked about how the new policy would work, the integrity commissioner could only defer to the clerk. The auditor general similarly described the situation as a "grey area" that's not yet understood.

Political drama surrounds issue

Since this debate began early this year, the spotlight has most often been on the political sphere.

Accusations arose surrounding one specific voluntary contribution agreement, with councillors questioning how a now-withdrawn $300,000 donation to Capital ward was negotiated.

On the other side, councillors argued it's hypocritical to argue against negotiating added benefits for the community while accepting campaign donations from developers.

Neither situation is against current rules.

Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley Beacon speaks with Hill-Cyrville Coun. Tim Tierney during a debate on developer donations to wards on July 10, 2024.
Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley, left, suggested forming a working group to clarify how a new policy would work. (Nick Persaud/CBC)

Policy heads to working group

The divide seemed firm, but as councillors at Wednesday's meeting delved into the details of a new policy some wavered.

Coun. Allan Hubley was frustrated that a deferral vote — which was narrowly defeated — was voted on before it was clear how many questions remain unanswered.

He and others stepped away from their chairs to linger in pairs or small groups, discussing potential possibilities among themselves and with the mayor's top staff.

In the end, all agreed to create a working group to iron out specifics. It will be made up of councillors Hubley, Johnson and Laura Dudas, along with Sutcliffe or his designate.

While the mayor seems unwilling to budge on the ban, he told CBC he understands some councillors are concerned about the "language" and how a new policy might restrict their other activities.

"If there's an opportunity to provide more clarity about that by taking a few extra weeks, then I'm fine with that," he said.

The working group is set to report back to council by the end of September.