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Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.

OMG, OMB: An hour and a half in the life of a city council

City hall's a magical place where an hour and a half can disappear, as it did last week, in a procedural throw down over the word "reasonable."

Ottawa city hall

Metro file

Ottawa city hall

City hall's a magical place where an hour and a half can disappear, as it did last week, in a procedural throw down over the word (I kid you not) 'reasonable.' Somewhere amid the dueling motions and amendments, points of order and sideline huddles of councillors, reasonableness may have left the building.

All this over proposed reforms to the Ontario Municipal Board, the provincially-appointed body that can overrule decisions by elected councils, often in favour of developers and often putting councillors' and community groups' noses profoundly out of joint.

The province has asked for feedback on possible tweaks, including a provision that if the OMB found a council decision 'reasonable,' that would be enough to prevent its reversal.

Coun. Tobi Nussbaum, among the supporters of that change, explained it thus: “If 13 or more of us believe a certain outcome is in the interests of the residents of our city, someone who disagrees with us has two options. They can appeal it to the OMB. If it is not a reasonable decision it will be overturned. Alternatively, if it is reasonable, but an applicant or a group of residents doesn't like it, they can punish us at the ballot box. That's what democracy is all about.”

But where Nussbaum and his downtown-ward allies saw in the reasonableness clause greater respect for council decisions, opponents only saw opportunities for clever lawyers to drive up costs litigating its meaning.

“Even the stupid lawyers could cost us money,” quipped Coun. Rick Chiarelli.

The majority was keener on the province clarifying the current (vaguer, weaker) language that the OMB “have regard to” the decisions of municipal governments.

And if the OMB is sometimes a straitjacket, to some councillors that's because democracy can get crazy.  

“I want to remind council, sometimes we do stupid things,” Coun. Marianne Wilkinson said, “and the OMB is a protection for both municipalities and citizens.”

Several councillors made the point that when council loses OMB appeals, it's usually because they've gone against the advice of city staff.

A frequently cited example was the city's 2009 rejection of a massive 1,400-home development in Manotick. Developer Minto successfully appealed to the OMB. Staff warned council they were likely to lose and they went ahead anyway.

“We were listening to the public in Manotick, who thought that growth was way too fast, way too far, that they didn't have the infrastructure in place to support it and that it was going to change the characteristics of that village,” Coun. Diane Deans argued. “I think those were all reasonable arguments for this council to make.”

Maybe the reasonableness test would have given the city another leg to stand on in such a case, but there were other important factors at play, like the relative war chests of the parties. The city spent $637,000 losing that case. Minto spent over twice as much, $1.47 million, to win.

For all last week's argy-bargy, all council voted on was advice to the province, which will as usual make the actual decisions. As a statement that municipal governments are ready to run their own affairs like big boys and girls, this high-noise, low-stakes meeting could have been more persuasive.