The Chair of York Region, Bill Fisch, pocketed a useful $207,000 last year.

But, curiously, he wasn’t elected by the people he serves.

Does it matter? Should we care?

Fisch was indirectly elected by members of the regional council thirteen years ago and he has been cemented into the top job ever since.

Last night I heard from a trio of people who want to see the Regional Chair stand for election and campaign for votes – just like other politicians.

The meeting organised by the York Region Social Planning Council gave a platform to Reza Moridi, the MPP for Richmond Hill, who has introduced a Private Member’s Bill at Queen’s Park calling for the Regional Chair to be an elected position.

How should we rate the Bill’s chances?

I put the question to Moridi himself and got a shrug of the shoulders and a knowing smile.

So I wouldn’t bet on the Bill becoming law.

Still, it gives the issue an airing.

It is not the first time there have been moves to bring a dose of democracy to some of Ontario’s regional councils. In 2010, the former Liberal Cabinet Minister, David Caplan, introduced a similar Bill that went nowhere.

Ben Earle, a community development guru from Durham, tells us it took him a while to realise just how influential the Regional Chair is in shaping the politics of the area.

This theme is taken up by Robert MacDermid from York University – always good value for money -  who paints a picture of a political colossus, wielding immense power, often behind the scenes.

Fisch presides over council meetings and, in large part, sets the agenda.

He votes in the event of a tie.

He has the power to break the deadlock “at the very moment when the council is most divided”.

The chair can vote ex officio in Committee meetings and can move motions advancing his view.

And, when other councillors are narrowly focussed on their own patch, the Chair takes an expansive region wide view. He ends up with a leadership role on key strategic issues facing the region.

Professor MacDermid tells us that the Regional Chair, like him or loathe him (it’s nothing personal) is the public face of York region yet he never has to stand in front of the voters and tell them what he believes in. And what he wants to do.

For me, this is the key point.

An election for the Regional Chair would force the voters and politicians to confront the huge infrastructure and transport issues that are currently neglected, forgotten or, even worse, swept under the carpet.

York Region is one of the fastest growing places in North America but one facing immense challenges.

Our roads are heading for gridlock. Our transit system is a creaking. Infrastructure is buckling under the pressure. And the region’s income gap grows wider by the year.

But where is the debate? Where are the different points of view?

MacDermid tells us that, over the years, without anyone really noticing, powers that ordinary citizens used to exercise have gone.

Annual elections are a folk memory. Councillors’ terms have been extended. The opportunities for people to have an input have progressively disappeared.

I learn that Toronto City Hall is only there because people voted in a referendum for a new civic building.

How quaint! Asking the voters if they want a new City Hall.

It gets me thinking about what we can do to reclaim some of the powers that have been lost – or misplaced – over the years.

Seems to me electing Bill Fisch - or not - would be a good place to start.

I've had this email from Anna O"Rourke who leads for the Slessor Square Residents' Group:

Hi Everyone

I just wanted to give you a quick update. We met with Regional Councillor John Taylor and Ward 4 Councillor Tom Hempen to get an update on this application. 

-Town of Newmarket expects to have the staff report for council towards the end of October at the earliest

-Planning has hired a third party urban planner, Planning Alliance and are waiting for their report

-The Slessor Group has not responded to our request for lower denisty. They also have not ammended their original application from 26 and 29 stories.

-We inquired about the digging that has been done on the site and have been told it is soil remediation and that the Slessor group has not started building.

-We have asked Councillor Hempen to make inquiries regarding the FSI (Floor Space Index) for each tower as we have not had a response to this as well from the Slessor group. They are using the comparison to the Yonge/George condo which has already been approved and has an FSI over 10. They are claiming an FSI of less than 4, but are using a calculation that includes the two lower level buildings which of course brings the FSI down.

- We have also asked Coucillor Hempen to make inquires regarding a 5pm traffic study as the one already conducted was done in the morning.

We have been assured that there will be a further public meeting(s) in the fall. We will get back to you in September with another update, unless there is something else to report sooner.

Have a safe, happy summer.
Regards
Anna O'Rourke

More than two months have elapsed since Slessor Square's developers announced, with a great fanfare, that the controversial project was being “re-imagined” to address widespread concerns about the height of the towers.

However, the developers told us that density – the number of people living and working in Slessor Square - was to remain the same.

Do the developers take us all for fools? 

The amended proposals still represent a massive and unacceptable over-development of a very tight site in a highly visible strategic location. 

Newmarket ward 6 councillor, Maddie di Muccio, hailed the developer’s re-think as a “terrific win” for local people.

But until we know all the details, talk of a “terrific win” is over-the-top nonsense.

The developers have not formally submitted the “re-imagined” proposals to the Town. No new studies have been handed over to the Town’s planners,

And we are still in the dark about the traffic consequences of the monster development.

As soon as things stir, details will be posted on shrinkslessorsquare.ca

Maybe Ward 6 councillor, the mercurial Maddie Di Muccio, will tell Newmarket Council this evening why she believes two Slessor Square towers at 16 storeys, but with no change in density, represents “a terrific win” for those residents who opposed the development as originally conceived.

In her blog, she writes:

 “…the developers for Slessor Square have kindly changed their proposal and eliminated the 30 storeys (sic) to accommodate those residents who were upset at the height; reducing it to two 16 storey towers while still keeping the number of units the same (the base will be fatter).”

“Although the Regional Councillor has continued to voice other concerns about the project, I believe this is a terrific win for those residents who opposed it.”

So far as I am aware, we still do not have the updated traffic study for the Slessor development which proposed a gargantuan four level underground car park for over 1200 vehicles.

And we still don’t have a viewshed analysis.

I’m not even sure the revised proposals – announced in April - have been formally submitted to the Town. 

Probably not.

In fact, the whole Slessor Square project has gone eerily quiet.

It is a sure sign the developers are up to something.

A report by Newmarket’s Planning staff “outlining the processes” for bringing in a height cap for new developments in Newmarket will be considered tomorrow (Monday 11 June) by the Committee of the Whole.

You can read item 10 (Planning Processes to Regulate the Height of Multi-Storey Buildings) and the related report, item 11, here.

The report on regulating height takes 13 pages to recommend no change to the current practice which allows developers to propose and get permission for monster buildings, busting the existing “soft” 8 storey height cap.

They get the green light if they can persuade gullible councillors that their developments will not create “an unacceptable level of traffic”, will be “compatible with the surrounding development” and will, generally speaking, fit in with the objectives of the Official Plan.

At the moment, Councillors are wrestling with three zoning by law amendment applications, including Sleesor Square, that go above the soft cap. (It is soft because it is breached so frequently.)

The planners say the Secondary Plan for Newmarket’s Urban Centre, now underway, will look at height and density and it would mean additional work for staff – and a duplication of effort – if they were to embark on a separate, costly and uncertain parallel process for capping building heights.

I am left wondering why the planning process needs to be of such Byzantine complexity. Why does it have to be so complicated?

Why can’t the Council simply say that the soft cap it already has (8 storeys) will be rigorously enforced and any departures from it that are proposed by developers would be put under the most forensic scrutiny, including public consultation.

If it so wished, the Council could require developers to carry out any number of additional studies to assess potential negative impacts on neighbourhoods.

And when the Council says new developments should be environmentally friendly, it should mean it and not just pay lip service to the concept.

At a meeting in February, when  Slessor Square’s self-styled “assertively green” project manager, Bob Forrest, was asked if the proposed complex would use shower water (so-called grey water) to flush the toilets, he confessed:

“It is so hard to make that stuff work!”

Developers, by their very nature, will always try to maximise their returns by squeezing as much as they can into the sites they own. Unless they are watched like hawks, they will do their best to cut corners.

They will always talk up their green credentials.

If councillors go along with the staff recommendation tomorrow (as they are generally programmed to do) they’ve got to be prepared to face down the developers if need be.

For months, the pot has been boiling furiously on Slessor Square and other giant developments that will change the face of Newmarket forever.

But, astonishingly, I am still completely in the dark on where some Newmarket councillors stand on the key issues of height and density.

Are they in favour of a mandatory height cap that would (a) guide developers and (b) introduce some certainty into a notoriously pliable planning process?

If so, what would they like to see?

Maybe we shall find out tomorrow.

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