Details are emerging about the reasons behind Greater Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger's motion last month to replace the board members of the Greater Sudbury Development Corp.
While Bigger initially said the motion was an extension of his campaign promise to put more focus on economic development, Sudbury.com has learned from multiple sources the sudden move was driven over concerns the board was holding too many closed door meetings and were leaving council in the dark on important issues.
In one case, the board voted behind closed doors to apply for funding for a $3.5 million feasibility study for a major long-term project downtown that aims to remove the railway tracks and redevelop the land. The project is being driven by a developer proposing to build a convention centre downtown, and the plan assumes Sudbury Arena would remain downtown -- even though city council voted to relocate it to the controversial Kingsway Entertainment District.
The cost to move the tracks has been estimated to be between $500 million and $1 billion, when cleanup costs are included, and the study would look at the likelihood of convincing CP Rail to relocate their main rail yard in Toronto – which would free up valuable real estate -- to a new redeveloped railway site several kilometres outside of Azilda. That would free up downtown land in Sudbury for new developments.
One source said regardless of the merits of the proposal, it is a major change in direction, and one that all of city council should have been made aware of. When the federal or provincial government receives a funding application from the GSDC, it is treated as if it was from city council. But if councillors wanted to apply for funding for another project, for example, they could be in a situation where they would be told no because they have already received funding – for an initiative most of them knew nothing about.
In this case, money for the feasibility study was about to be approved by the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC) and the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario (FedNor), with the developer paying $2 million of the cost, and the two levels of government providing the remaining $1.5 million. That prompted the mayor to introduce his motion to replace the board, sources say.
Because the GSDC is a corporation, it has broad authority to decide when to hold in camera meetings. City council can only close a meeting to the public for specific reasons – for example, to discuss personnel matters, get legal advice or to sell land – and must publicly report on any decisions made during the meeting.
Corporations, however, are subject to much less scrutiny. For example, when news of Bigger's motion to replace the board became public, a consultant's report ordered by the GSDC was leaked to the media.
The report, by John T. Dinner, was authorized during an in camera meeting and was released in December 2018. The board members received it and discussed its recommendations in camera. It recommended city council have no role in the GSDC, and operate as a separate entity with far more independence.
“Why was that report discussed in camera?” a source told Sudbury.com. “Why did it have to be leaked? It was paid for by taxpayers. It doesn't contain secret information. But the first time most people heard about it was when it was leaked.”
Because board members are legally bound not to reveal what was discussed during closed door meetings, the source said they couldn't inform city council or anyone else about what was going on.
Bigger, Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti, Ward 5 Coun. Bob Kirwan and Ward 10 Coun. Fern Cormier represent council on the GSDC. The GSDC receives its annual budget of $1.6 million from city council, $1 million of which is earmarked for economic development opportunities.
While none of the GSDC board members would comment publicly for this story, off the record one said a big issue was the fact Bigger and others failed to attend board meetings where these issues were discussed. If the mayor had a problem with what they were doing, he should have been there, the source said.
Signoretti, a GSDC board member who strongly opposes the KED, said in an email that he couldn't comment.
“I do sit on the GSDC board and can’t speak to in-camera issues,” Signoretti said. “I have one caveat that your email contains misinformation concerning the subject at hand,” he added, without specifying what part is incorrect.
And a statement issued by the board in response to inquiries from Sudbury.com didn't dispute any of the information provided by sources. The full board statement can be found at the end of this story. At one point it references the KED, as did the Dinner report, which said the board was unhappy it was not consulted because it could have helped ease the controversy over the site selection.
“It is noteworthy that the GSDC board has not been involved in decisions about where to locate the arena and/or the Kingsway Entertainment Development (KED) nor has it been involved in decisions that would impact the merits of choosing one location over another,” the statement said. “It would not be appropriate for the GSDC to comment on matters involving the arena and KED while these matters are before the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal.”
Sudbury.com asked why the Dinner report was discussed in camera, and while not addressing the report specifically, the statement had this to say about the board's closed-door meetings:
“While most GSDC decisions are open to the public, the board, whose members include three council members and the mayor, has the option of discussing certain subject matters in camera. In camera sessions are not open to the public due to the sensitive nature of information shared.
“Although in camera discussions are held in private, decisions or motions are made public in the regular course of meetings. Meeting agendas are prepared for all GSDC meetings and are provided to the clerk of the City of Greater Sudbury.”
In an interview Wednesday, Bigger said the different closed-door meeting rules between council and the GSDC have created a breakdown in communication – and the Dinner report is a good example of that.
“It's now public that the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation met in secret (to discuss the report) with one of the recommendations evolving out of that report is removing all council oversight from those secret meetings,” Bigger said.
The changes he has in mind would ensure the elected representatives would be better informed about economic development decisions, he said. Since it's city council that has to answer to the public, Bigger said it only makes sense for them to know what's going on.
“I believe there's so much opportunity in our community and we need to be operating as effectively as possible,” he said. “Of course communication and the quality of that communication is key.”
When asked about comments about him rarely actually attending board meetings, Bigger didn't deny it, but had this to say:
“I would say that I've gone to the general board meetings,” he said. “We just changed chairs of the Greater Sudbury Development Corp. I met with the previous chair four times between January and the end of last month, and I've met with the current chair already, as well. So, you know, there are frequent meetings both with the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation board that I've attended, as well as (individual) meetings with their chairpersons.”
Bigger said his motion aims to close the communications gap that arises because city council and the GSDC operate under different guidelines for closed-door meetings.
“They're not following exactly the same rules as we would be obligated to ... and it actually causes a bit of a breakdown,” he said. “At this point in time, I'm sitting on the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation board, and three other members of council are on that board. But we are bound to our obligations to the GSDC board not to share information (discussed in camera).
“But city council has been elected as representatives for the city. We take an oath, we have fiduciary duties which makes us accountable for the financial condition of the city, for evaluating the risks that the city faces and also evaluating the opportunities that may come our way.”
He doesn't want to disband the GSDC, as some people have said, but Bigger said he wants to reform its structure to ensure councillors are kept informed and that the board and council are working toward the same goals.
“My role is to make sure council has all of this information so that they can make the best possible decisions in representing the citizens of the City of Greater Sudbury,” he said. “Again, it's a significant challenge when the councillors who sit on the board cannot brief the rest of council on information that impacts the decisions, the finances of the city, the strategies of the city.”
Bigger's motion to replace the GSDC board was deferred last month and now will be dealt with in September.
Statement from the GSDC Board:
“On behalf of the GSDC board, we are unable to comment on matters that are the subject of closed (in camera) sessions before the board.”
“The mandate of the GSDC is to facilitate, foster and and support economic development initiatives within the community. While many of these initiatives may involve existing businesses in the community, others involve new business development and diversification opportunities.”
“While most GSDC decisions are open to the public, the board, whose members include three council members and the mayor, has the option of discussing certain subject matters in camera. In camera sessions are not open to the public due to the sensitive nature of information shared. Although in camera discussions are held in private, decisions or motions are made publicly in the regular course of meetings.
Meeting agendas are prepared for all GSDC meetings and are provided to the clerk of the City of Greater Sudbury.”
“It is noteworthy that the GSDC board has not been involved in decisions about where to locate the arena and/or the Kingsway Entertainment Development (KED) nor has it been involved in decisions that would impact the merits of choosing one location over another. It would not be appropriate for the GSDC to comment on matters involving the arena and KED while these matters are before the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal.”
Andrée ZM. Lacroix, chair
Greater Sudbury Development Corp.