Caledon Council quietly commits to unpopular GTA West Highway; resident reports members to Ombudsman after public locked out of meeting

·13 min read

The men and women occupying seats on municipal councils around Ontario are vessels of local residents and members of the public. Their job is to govern local institutions to the best of their ability and reflect the priorities of those who elected them to serve.

The public is expected to be involved as deeply as possible in the decision making process.

In a hurriedly scheduled special council meeting held last week to discuss the growth of Caledon, councillors did the opposite.

Last Monday, the Town of Caledon Council blocked a member of the public from delegating at its meeting, arranged with only a few days' notice and no time for the public to get involved. The opaque council session included an unexpected in-camera portion of the meeting, further limiting public involvement on significant local matters.

The meeting was organized to discuss key planning decisions including the controversial GTA West Highway, which will define how northern Peel will develop and grow over the next 30 years.

The project has been a lightning rod for environmentalists, who have flooded council agendas with delegations and letters. The structure of Caledon’s special council meeting — and the decision from its councillors not to allow for delegations — actively blocked this advocacy from taking place.

The public was shut out.

“Today’s meeting is intended for council to receive an update on the Official Plan and provide input,” Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson said as he refused to allow local resident Jenni Le Forestier to delegate. “Staff are scheduling a public engagement session where the public will have the opportunity to provide input.”

Le Forestier, who was not allowed to make her case before she was booted out of the virtual meeting, says she has filed a complaint with the Ontario Ombudsman. She ran as a Green Party candidate for Dufferin-Caledon in the 2021 federal election.

“My understanding of the Municipal Act is that discussions of massive infrastructure projects like the GTAW 413 cannot be made in closed sessions,” she told The Pointer. “I also hoped to ask why Council was having a council meeting that excluded the public four days before the Region of Peel Planning and Growth Committee meeting where community members will be delegating ... and why they were holding a special council meeting four days before the Public’s deadline to complete the public survey.”

Thompson, acting as the meeting’s chair, told his councillors he did not think Le Forestier should be allowed to delegate. “Also, I do know we’ve said no to some others that expressed interest, so we’re not being transparent if we allow one person and not others,” he said Monday.

Thompson did not respond to questions from The Pointer asking how he knew other members of the public wanted to delegate. A vague response to questions about the meeting was sent by the Town’s corporate communications department, which attempted to answer for Thompson, an elected official who is not supposed to deflect questions to bureaucratic staff.

Thompson offered no evidence during the council meeting to back up his claims of other potential delegates. The Town confirmed Le Forestier was the only member of the public who requested to delegate.

Councillor Annette Groves was the only member to push for basic transparency and accessibility.

“I am extremely disappointed that Miss Le Forestier’s own council would not let her speak and express her own concerns especially when the growth plan for the area is so important to the future of Caledon,” Groves told The Pointer. “But I am grateful that the Region of Peel did allow her to speak and express her concerns (later in the week at Regional Council). Is Caledon Council afraid of something? Or are they trying to hide something? Where is the transparency?”

The Municipal Act says, “Members are expected to perform their duties of office with integrity and impartiality in a manner that will bear the closest scrutiny.”

“If it is a council meeting, was enough notice given to the public?” Groves said during the meeting. “Because that is my understanding in speaking with some members from the public, including Miss Le Forestier, that there wasn’t sufficient notice given to the public,” said Groves, whose motion to allow Le Forestier to speak failed to find even one supporter on council. “If they wish to speak, they should have the opportunity to speak, after all this is an important issue for the public and they should be afforded the opportunity,” she said.

Le Forestier was left frustrated and concerned over the conduct of local officials.

“The lack of transparency is cause for great concern for myself and my neighbours,” she said. “The Mayor and councils continued support for Highway 413 which will be built from blasting and mining the Niagara Escarpment shows, in my opinion, a lack of respect for residents of West Caledon and the headwaters, not to mention a disregard for the climate emergency.”

The special council meeting was originally arranged as a workshop for councillors to discuss key planning decisions. Caledon’s procedural bylaw (the rules that govern its meetings) does not specifically allow for council workshops, meaning a special meeting of council was convened instead. It is unclear why the discussion about Caledon’s future planning could not have been held during a Planning and Development Committee meeting or a standard council session.

Using a special council meeting, instead of adding the item to a standard council agenda, sidestepped the Town’s normal procedures and the obligation to offer reasonable notice to residents in advance so they can delegate on the issues to be dealt with.

The hasty meeting was even more confusing because the decision on Peel’s growth and planning trajectory will not be finalized until next summer.

“An additional or emergency meeting may be established … at the call of the Mayor, with appropriate notice of at least 48 hours prior to the date and time of the special meeting,” Caledon’s procedural bylaw says.

The Region of Peel is currently in the midst of a review of its broad development road map across the next three decades, designating undeveloped farmland to be transformed into housing or workplaces.

A decision by regional councillors in the spring to oppose the construction of the provincial 400-series corridor known as the GTA West Highway means Peel planning staff are revising recommendations to exclude any accommodation of the controversial transportation route being pushed by the Doug Ford PC government.

The vast majority of local Caledon councillors support the proposed highway corridor; it is a project that will trigger sprawling subdivisions, put more cars on the road and replicate outdated, suburban planning the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has directly linked as a major cause of the climate crisis.

According to Caledon staff, the town’s 81,000 residents will see a population increase of 270 percent to 300,000 by 2051, with many new arrivals being housed in greenfield developments. Brampton’s population will increase by 41 percent and Mississauga is set to welcome a population increase of 25 percent, according to the presentation prepared by the Town.

Brampton’s population will see the largest absolute growth (287,000 new residents versus Caledon’s 219,000) but it will largely be accommodated through intensification. Caledon will need to urbanize new areas regardless of how dense its growth turns out to be. As of June 8, there were 30 development applications across the town’s five wards proposing to convert approximately 1,066 hectares — about 2,000 football fields — of prime agricultural land.

It will also welcome massive new employment growth. How the town expands, and its transportation network, will play a key role in pushing particular kinds of employment.

Caledon is currently projected to increase its jobs in goods movement from 2,300 in 2021 to 15,350 by 2051, manufacturing jobs will jump from 800 to 16,190. Higher-paying jobs, which rely on effective mixed transportation infrastructure and dynamic urban places, are predicted to make up a smaller part of Caledon’s future. Office jobs will go from 1,500 this year to 10,300 in 2051 and healthcare, public administration and educational services will grow from 2,300 to 11,600.

In order to process this vital — and complicated information — councillors requested a workshop from staff. On September 21, they voted to arrange a public workshop, which, to the surprise of many who learned later, was not allowed, even though council had requested one. Instead, they were brought together in the form of a special council meeting, with hardly any public notice.

By making it a special council meeting, Caledon was also able to add an in-camera portion to its meeting. The closed-door discussion about key planning decisions further frustrated and limited public engagement.

“This Official Plan review is public; it’s not under litigation, it’s not under, as far as I know there is no litigation or pending litigation, so I don’t understand why we are discussing it in closed session,” Groves said during the council meeting, before being overruled by Thompson. “I don’t know why we have a lawyer involved, especially when this is just, at this point in time, it is all open session, public consultation.”

The Municipal Act and Caledon’s procedural bylaw are very specific about when councils can shut out the public. Situations include when a staff member is being discussed by name, a proposed or pending acquisition of land or labour relations. The reason cited by Caledon was a lawyer-client privilege, but it’s unclear why this would be the case when the growth issues being discussed did not appear to involve any privileged information.

“With respect to the Confidential Session item, the matter was relevant to the Official Plan discussion and staff felt it was important and timely for members of Council to receive advice from the Town’s Solicitor retained for various planning matters,” Town Clerk Laura Hall said. “Council is within its right to meet in Confidential Session to receive advice that is privileged.” She failed to explain why such advice to simply discuss the Official Plan, a public document that is supposed to be created with wide input from residents, would be privileged.

A provincial guide for municipalities to improve accountability and transparency explains why meetings must be handled openly. “Transparent decision-making processes may be seen as part of the foundation of good municipal governance,” the document says. “A key transparency rule for municipalities is the requirement that most municipal and local board meetings be open to the public.”

When the correspondence discussed in closed session was released at the end of the meeting, it remained unclear why councillors had locked the public out of the process. The item, referred to as “confidential correspondence”, was a general lobbying letter from the Town to the Region pushing for, among other things, planning to continue to revolve around the GTA West Highway. Aside from the fact it was written by a law firm (Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP), its contents do not appear to be sensitive or confidential.

The letter outlines a planning position for the Town which the public was not able to contribute to or even read until after it was passed, approved and sent to the Region. The Town is arguing through its lobbying effort that Peel Regional council’s stance on the 413 Highway, in opposition to the plan, contradicts key pieces of the provincial government’s growth plans.

It is unclear how the lobbying strategy was approved or if proper council authority to undertake such an effort was given. It’s also unclear how much Caledon taxpayers paid for the lobbying scheme which they were shut out of. Council members should have consulted their constituents prior to hatching an influence campaign on behalf of the residents who elected them as their representatives, only to see that representation completely cut them out of the process.

“Peel’s resolution expressing opposition to the GTA West Corridor fails to recognize that it is a Planned Corridor as that term is defined in the Provincial Policy Statement, 2020, and A Place to Grow which Peel is required to be consistent with, and conform to, respectively,” the letter states. “Making decisions under the Planning Act which ignores the GTA West Corridor and its potential implications from both a land needs and land use perspective is inappropriate and inconsistent with the Region’s obligations under that Act with respect to the Provincial Policy Statement and A Place to Grow.”

The meeting itself appears to have entrenched Caledon’s position on the proposed highway. The majority of Peel councillors oppose its construction, and even Caledon — under immense community pressure — backed a federal review of the route, which could see the GTA West Highway scrapped by the Liberal government.

Now, the rushed special council meeting could give staff and councillors some local authority to begin actively pushing for the route again.

“Staff will advocate for … the Region to plan for and protect the GTA West corridor (per the PPS), and identify a SABE [settlement area boundary expansion] option which includes the GTA West corridor,” one slide from the council meeting reads.

The confirmatory bylaw passed at the end of last week’s special meeting gives staff broad latitude to take action on items that were discussed during the October 4 meeting, including the protection of the GTA West Highway.

“The Mayor, the Clerk and all other proper officers of The Corporation of the Town of Caledon are authorized and directed to do all things necessary to give effect to the action of the Council,” the approved bylaw reads, stating that whatever was dealt with at the meeting can now be pushed by staff.

This could offer cover to council members such as Thompson and Councillor Jennifer Innis, the two main council lobbyists for the highway, who have both been accused of being in a conflict of interest because of lands their families own near the GTA West corridor (which would dramatically increase in value if the highway is built).

Instead of them being forced to press for the unpopular highway ahead of next year’s municipal election, what council approved at the hastily called meeting through its bylaw, now allows staff to do all the heavy lifting to push for the GTA West corridor, which experts and concerned residents like Le Forestier have pointed out would be an environmental disaster.

Caledon has now drawn a line in the sand: It is in direct opposition with the Region of Peel. The higher tier wants future planning based on smart growth, density and innovative transportation design, to address climate change. Caledon wants more sprawl, congested highways and the type of municipal planning that has created our current climate crisis.

Email: isaac.callan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @isaaccallan

Tel: 647 561-4879

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