Councillor fighting for access to LRT land deals

Councillor fighting for access to LRT land deals

An Ottawa city councillor is going to extraordinary lengths to gain access to information about expropriations and land deals that has been kept secret from the public and most council members.

Complicating matters is the fact that it was councillors themselves who demanded the information be kept under wraps.

The agreements between the city and landowners with property along the first phase of the Confederation light rail line have been kept sealed since 2012, when council voted unanimously to keep the information private until all the deals are settled. 

Coun. Rick Chiarelli, who originally voted to keep the details private, is now filing a formal request for the records through the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA).

Chiarelli's request comes after he and several of his council colleagues spent more than a year asking for additional oversight over the land acquisition and expropriation process.

"I think the public has a right to know how their tax dollars are spent on purchasing this land," Chiarelli said. "But if it can't go public then the public's representatives should know."

Mayor, certain councillors privy

Not all members of council have been kept in the dark. The mayor and councillors whose wards saw major land deals were consulted about them.

A handful of staff from the city's corporate real estate department are privy to the deals with landowners, along with some staff from the city's LRT office. The city also hired an external law firm to consult on all the expropriation agreements.   

Chiarelli, who has been a city councillor since 1988, said he's never had to use access to information law to attain data he feels he needs to do his job as an elected official.

It's very unusual for city staff to have information they're not allowed to share with all council members.

Councillors approved a similar motion last year to keep the acquisition and expropriation agreements for the second phase of the Confederation Line private, but that time Chiarelli, Coun. Diane Deans and Coun. Catherine McKenney voted against it.

Council oversight

"It is quite surprising to me," said Conner Harris, a lawyer who specializes in land expropriation in Ontario.

He said he's never heard of a councillor being barred from viewing agreements, especially since such oversight is a key function of council. He's also never heard for a council voting to hide the deals from themselves. 

"I should think that entire process is subject to council oversight."

Deans asked for details about the land deals to at least be released to the city's auditor general for review, but her motion failed.

Chiarelli said he expected all councillors would have seen the land deals by now, with construction scheduled to finish in eight months.

He said he wants to see how the process worked before the city starts to purchase land for the second phase of the project.

Still time for claims

But some landowners still have time to make claims against the city for damages or disruption caused by expropriation and LRT construction.

The reason council agreed to keep the land deals private in the first place was to protect the city's negotiating position while it acquired all the land it needed for the project. Council doesn't want landowners to have an unfair leg up based on deals the city struck with neighbouring properties.

However experts tell CBC the amounts offered in expropriations are based on many factors, and neighbouring land value is just one.

Keeping the details from the public is still smart, Harris said, since it keeps landowners from trying to claim more than they're entitled to. Overambitious claims would slow down construction and rack up legal fees for the city, he said. 

That doesn't mean councillors shouldn't have access, though.

"They're the ones governing the city at the end of the day, so the responsibility and authority ultimately lies with them," Harris said.

City staff will present the completed land acquisition and expropriation agreements to the city's finance and economic development committee once they're all complete. 

The city has 60 days to respond to Chiarelli's MFIPPA request. If he's denied, he said he'll appeal to the province's information and privacy commissioner.

Click here to see the motion council passed in 2012 to keep the information private.