Municipal councillors have either just been given the due they deserve, or they’ve lost their favorite scapegoat.
No matter how you look at it, the recent decision by the provincial government to replace the quasi-judicial Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) with a less powerful body called the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal puts more pressure on local councils to make the right calls on planning and zoning matters.
While the OMB process involved essentially a trial and appointed panels with wide latitude to interpret various elements of a dispute, the new tribunal will only overrule municipal decisions if they don’t match existing provincial policy or local plans.
The OMB was widely criticized for an overly pro-development approach – except of course by developers. Local councils, especially in rural areas, were often able to deflect criticism of their own handling of a situation by pointing to their relative helplessness in the face of a potential appeal to the all-powerful and urban-biased OMB.
Now, such land use planning appeals will be simply a matter of a paperwork review to ensure the rules were followed, without an attempt to consider broader implications of a project.
Is this a good idea? That depends how much faith you have in your local elected councils?
While councils do have access to professional planning staff and tend to follow their advice, the process sometimes does get political, which means decisions are made based on the prejudices of councillors, many of whom come to the job with only the most basic, if any, understanding of the process.
Not too long ago a now-former councillor pointed out, during a council meeting no less, that being a councillor was the only job he ever had that required no qualifications whatsoever. The comment gives one pause. While virtually all councillors have some useful and relevant experience, it’s not actually mandatory. Over a fairly lengthy career in journalism, I have encountered a few who appeared to get elected on little more than a sort of coffee shop populism.
In addition, due to numerous factors not necessarily enhancing qualifications, council members tend to be older citizens who are inclined to favour the status quo over new ideas.
Power to the people and all that, sure. But sometimes, a little oversight isn’t necessarily a bad thing.