Mayor Tony Van Bynen has many fine qualities but leading from the front is not one of them.
He is a process and procedure man above all.
He is good at chairing meetings. I marvel at the exaggerated civility he deploys when dealing with his bête noire, Maddie Di Muccio. He loathes her but (mostly) does not let it show. To most people (and I include myself) he comes across as agreeable and avuncular.
But, in Newmarket Council’s many closed session meetings from which the public is barred, there may be another Van Bynen I don’t recognise. A Van Bynen with a vision for the Town, with firm views and a sense of urgency, giving clear direction to staff. But I doubt it.
Glenway: a key example
Take Glenway as the premier, gold plated example of Van Bynen’s modus operandi.
Glenway isn’t yesterday’s story. It is part of a continuing drama that is still playing out and it tells us volumes about Van Bynen’s approach.
Glenway isn’t a marginal or trivial issue of little consequence. I don't live in Glenway - nowhere near - but I imagine myself in the position of the many who do. Hundreds of Glenway people are going to see their lives turned upside down next year when the bull dozers and dumper trucks start appearing in the middle of their hitherto quiet residential neighbourhood. Property values will be hit. The quality of life will be dramatically impacted.
And the person most directly responsible for this tragedy is the Mayor, Tony Van Bynen.
In 2011, we learned the Town’s Planning Department allegedly couldn’t cope with the workload of the secondary plan. An outside planning consultant, Ruth Victor, was hired to handle the Glenway file - with disastrous consequences.
She sided with the developer, Marianneville, arguing there were no planning reasons why the former golf course could not be developed. She was hired to give a her professional opinion. But her recommendation to allow development became a de facto decision.
By the time councillors belatedly decided to back the Glenway residents (25 November 2013) and with the OMB Hearing looming, the die was cast.
Town paid consultant planner sides with developer
Victor, paid by taxpayers’ dollars, was summoned to the OMB Hearing by the developer, Marianneville, and became their star witness. The developer’s lawyer, Ira Kagan, told the adjudicator on 27 March 2014 that he was tempted just to call one witness, Ruth Victor, so compelling was her testimony.
“If I was really bold I would not have called another witness but I was scared not to.”
Kagan told the adjudicator that Victor had told him that Town planning staff “shared her opinions”. This, of course, was never tested because planning staff boycotted the Hearing.
The hands-off Mayor
Which brings me back to the Mayor.
When did the Mayor first learn that Ruth Victor was minded to write a report backing the developer, Marianneville?
What did he do about it? Did he have a view? Did he try to give her a steer? What discussions did he have with the Director of Planning, Rick Nethery, to decide the best way forward? Did he discuss the implications with other council members?
Was Van Bynen content to let Ruth Victor, in effect, determine the Town’s policy on Glenway?
The blunt truth is yes.
Van Bynen is famously hands-off leaving the professional staff to do the spade work, and call the shots. As a retired banker of 30 years standing, he is fixated on process and procedure. He follows the rules. And we know he contracts out to the professional staff key policy decisions that should be his and those of elected officials.
And he parrots, uncritically, the scripts written by others.
The Clock Tower on Main Street South
Hundreds of hours of Newmarket planning staff time (paid for by the taxpayers) have been devoted to Bob Forrest’s notorious condo project which, had it been allowed to proceed, would have wrecked the Town’s priceless historic downtown. (And it is not absolutely settled yet.)
Did Van Bynen have a view on how the historic downtown should be protected from developers determined to destroy it? If so, we didn’t hear him.
It was clear early on that Forrest’s project could only proceed if Town-owned land was made available to the developer. The Town had an absolute veto on this monstrous project. Did Van Bynen ever ask councillors if they wanted to sell Town-owned land to a developer whose project was inimical to their own Historic Conservation District policy? Or was he simply content to let things play out over many, many months?
In April 2013 I urged the Mayor to bring in a By Law immediately to protect the downtown from predatory developers. I was told this was something for the 2014 budget. It was only after a huge public outcry that Van Bynen was persuaded to act with some rare urgency.
In truth, Van Bynen enjoys being on the bridge but is not overly concerned about the ship’s destination. He is a man who lets things drift.
Lack of Transparency
Transparency and openness are recurring themes in this year's Municipal election.
Many of Van Bynen’s critics point to Newmarket’s debilitating culture of secrecy. A keen readiness to go behind closed doors to discuss matters that should be debated out in the open.
Plainly, there are legitimate reasons for going behind closed doors and to pretend otherwise, as the paranoid Maddie Di Muccio does, would be absurd. But in-camera meetings should not be used at the drop of a hat to shield the Council or any of its members from embarrassment or legitimate scrutiny and criticism or to protect fragile reputations.
I shall return to this.