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Councillors welcome 'windfall' after developer's $300K 'voluntary contribution' to ward

Katasa Group's offices in Gatineau, Que. The developer has several current projects in Ottawa's Capital ward including a 22-storey tower at Bronson and Carling avenues. (Yasmine Mehdi/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Katasa Group's offices in Gatineau, Que. The developer has several current projects in Ottawa's Capital ward including a 22-storey tower at Bronson and Carling avenues. (Yasmine Mehdi/Radio-Canada - image credit)

A developer is handing over $300,000 for traffic calming and affordable housing in one central Ottawa ward, a gift that prompted some city councillors to wonder whether they too can draw from a "jackpot" of private sector largesse to benefit their communities.

Capital Coun. Shawn Menard negotiated the agreement with Katasa Group, a developer with multiple projects in his ward including a 22-storey tower at Bronson and Carling avenues.

Menard first brought the deal to council's planning and housing committee in November and encountered widespread confusion over whether such an agreement is allowed under the code of conduct for city councillors.

Some councillors said they had seen similar proposals rejected. Beacon Hill-Cyrville Coun. Tim Tierney said such a deal, if solicited by a councillor, sounded "very extortative," a phrase that triggered an indignant response from Menard.

"That is not at all what's happening here," he said. "This is a voluntary contribution."

It's a win for Capital ward, it's a win for our residents, and this is the sort of thing that we're elected to do. - Coun. Shawn Menard

This week, the city's top lawyer and council's integrity commissioner released a joint memo that confirmed Menard is correct.

"A contribution agreement between the City and a developer, entered into voluntarily, is within the City's legal power," the memo said.

It noted that Menard's deal was reached after Katasa's project had secured approval, which, according to the memo, was not conditional on the $300,000 payment.

The integrity commissioner called the question purely a policy matter. She recommended that councillors should stress "the voluntary nature" of such payments in their talks with developers.

Contribution about 'community goodwill'

Menard said the road safety money will be used for traffic-calming infrastructure such as speed humps and road narrowing. He called the traffic near Katasa's project at Bronson and Carling "terrible."

The affordable housing money could help fund a project on a city parking lot near Bank and Chamberlain streets, he added.

Capital Coun. Shawn Menard in early 2024.
Capital Coun. Shawn Menard in early 2024.

Capital Coun. Shawn Menard called the $300,000 from Katasa Group 'a voluntary contribution.' (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Asked why Katasa would simply hand over money with no strings attached, Menard said the funds will help create a more walkable neighbourhood with a better quality of life for people living in the new buildings.

"It's community goodwill," he said. "That's completely something we should be doing, building community goodwill and enhancing quality of life."

Tierney seemed won over after hearing an initial legal opinion on the matter, calling the contribution "a windfall" for the city and "like a jackpot."

Councillors seek more guidance

The memo backing up Menard's position won still more support on Wednesday when the planning and housing committee voted to recommend the agreement to council for final approval.

"I applaud colleagues who have come into agreements like what we have before us," said River Coun. Riley Brockington.

"The needs are infinite, our own budgets are finite and if we can achieve investments like what we have before us, that's a win."

Councillors still want more clarity. Somerset Coun. Ariel Troster asked staff to come back with guidelines about exactly what is permissible.

"There's no formal policies in place to govern whether or not a voluntary contribution can be made to something that the councillor considers important," said committee chair Coun. Jeff Leiper.

Menard agreed that better guidelines are needed. He said it's important to ensure the deals "aren't tied to any particular application" and remain strictly at the discretion of the developer.

"These are things that are benefiting our community," he said. "It's a win for Capital ward, it's a win for our residents, and this is the sort of thing that we're elected to do."

Katasa Group did not respond to a request for comment.