Committee votes to ban councillors from brokering developer donations to wards

Ottawa's finance and corporate services committee met Tuesday at city hall. (Michel Aspirot/CBC - image credit)
Ottawa's finance and corporate services committee met Tuesday at city hall. (Michel Aspirot/CBC - image credit)

City councillors should not engage in discussions with developers over "voluntary contributions" to their wards, members of Ottawa's finance and corporate services committee decided Tuesday.

But the vote came with more heated debate, as several councillors argued the decision would unfairly tie their hands.

Staff came up with two options for councillors to consider: adopt a framework that establishes guardrails for these discussions, or expressly prohibit the practice.

Coun. Laura Dudas put forward a motion for the ban, successfully arguing that this would eliminate any "perceived" influence. She argued that developers may feel a donation is required to gain the councillor's support — and vote.

"We have heard from staff that my motion does not prohibit councillors from doing their role, which is to be advocates, stewards and the biggest cheerleaders for their communities," she said.

Innes ward Coun. Laura Dudas attends a committee meeting on Nov. 3, 2023.
Innes ward Coun. Laura Dudas attends a committee meeting on Nov. 3, 2023.

Coun. Laura Dudas argued that prohibiting councillors from facilitating or soliciting donations from developers for their wards will not stop them from doing their job. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"It will continue to allow us to be involved in every aspect that we need to be. What it will not allow us is to be at the table asking for cash to build a gazebo that we could then cut a ribbon at."

If council opts to support the ban, staff could still enable negotiations between developers and the community. Any such talks would likely be much more narrowly focused on the area directly surrounding a new development, however.

Donation that sparked debate withdrawn

The donation issue exploded around the council table in January, when councillors debated a motion from Capital Coun. Shawn Menard to accept a $300,000 donation from developer Groupe Katasa.

That discussion at times leaned toward insinuating that Menard's negotiations were tantamount to extortion. The integrity commissioner stopped short of making an official finding on the now-withdrawn donation, calling the question a policy matter.

Menard said on Tuesday that this has been a political "hit job," and that the committee's decision puts councillors "down a slippery slope."

Councillors debated a voluntary donation agreement negotiated by Capital Coun. Shawn Menard said on Jan. 24, 2024.
Councillors debated a voluntary donation agreement negotiated by Capital Coun. Shawn Menard said on Jan. 24, 2024.

Coun. Shawn Menard said this would take away the ability of councillors to properly represent the interests of their community. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Coun. Jeff Leiper, who unsuccessfully pushed his colleagues to keep the status quo, lamented that councillors are becoming "increasingly less important" in the decision-making process.

"This is a solution that is looking for a problem," said Leiper. "We don't have a plethora of city councillors who are successfully negotiating deals with developers to go over and above what the statute requires."

Councillors Cathy Curry, Glen Gower, George Darouze, Tim Tierney and Matt Luloff voted with Dudas and the mayor in favour of the ban. Councillors Riley Brockington and Rawlson King voted with Menard and Leiper against it.

Voluntary, or not?

Since this debate began, councillors have argued over whether it's possible to negotiate with developers while making it clear that any donation would be entirely voluntary.

Brockington argued 99 per cent of developers understand they don't have to make a donation, and said a short-sighted ban will lose communities "millions" in potential funding for traffic calming, affordable housing and more.

But Jason Burggraaf, executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association, told CBC that the situation can leave even the most experienced corporations with the wrong impression.

"I have been told of instances where people did feel that way, and some said yes and they went ahead. Others said no and didn't feel like they got much ramification from it," he said.

Discussing a donation with someone who has the power to vote against your proposed development naturally creates a power imbalance, he argued.

Dudas agreed, saying this decision allows councillors "to take the high ground."

Jason Burggraaf is the executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association.
Jason Burggraaf is the executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association.

Jason Burggraaf, executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association, said these negotiations create a perceived conflict of interest. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada)

Mayor calls ban a 'good solution'

Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, who has made his desire for a ban clear for months, said this was a healthy and respectful discussion among councillors at both ends of the spectrum.

"There are councillors who are trying to uphold the principle of their ability to be involved in advancing interests in their community, and then there are councillors who are trying to uphold the principle of avoiding conflicts of interest," he told CBC.

Asked if a compromise is possible, Sutcliffe said he's open to discussion but believes the ban is "a good solution."

"It doesn't stop members of the community from being involved in advocating for their needs. It doesn't stop companies from making contributions from negotiating with staff," he said. "It just removes councillors from being part of those discussions."

The committee approved a separate motion by King that would see staff further review a possible framework for councillor-negotiated donations and report back next fall.