A Great Column About a City Planner Moonlighting As a Developer


cityplannerIt’s exciting to read a column on a local government ethics matter that shows as deep understanding and as clear explanation as the column by Ottawa Citizen editorial board member Mohammed Adam that appeared yesterday. The column focuses on the problems that arise when a city planner is a small property developer on the side. Both the chair of the city’s planning committee and the city’s general manager of planning said that the city planner’s side business was fine because she made sure that everyone who needed to know about it was told. In other words, disclosure is a sufficient cure for this conflict situation.

Adam shows in his column how insufficient this cure is. He provides an example of a serious problem arising from such a conflict that officials often ignore. The planner was assigned to evaluate a rezoning application for a proposed condo building that happened to be close to her own redevelopment project. The community association that had filed the application said the planner’s involvement raised fears that, if they opposed the planner’s project, it might be held against them in the future. In other words, when a planning official is doing business in her own field, it can undermine the public interest of open debate about land use projects. And simply by wearing two hats, without having to say a word, she can give herself an advantage over other developers. The more she discloses her conflict, the more people will know not to speak out about her projects. Disclosure does absolutely nothing to cure this consequence of her conflict.

The other thing Adam understands, and explains clearly, is that an individual official’s conflict situation undermines trust not only in her, but also in the planning department and the local government (“that city hall is a special place where club members play by different rules”). The planning committee chair is quoted as saying, “I don’t see a conflict. It’s all about politics. [The community association's complaint] is a way to attack the credibility of the city’s planning department.” Adam wrote, “Indeed, the only person who undermined the credibility of the planning department and tarnishing its integrity was [the city planner] — not the community activists.”

One of the best things Adam does in his column is to look at how another Ottawa official handled another conflict situation, one not nearly as serious as this one. Here is the situation. When a council member discovered that his father worked for a developer, he disclosed this conflict situation and withdrew from participation in matters that involved the developer’s projects. He did this even though he had never been close to his father and did not stand to benefit from the projects. He did this because he appeared to be conflicted and may be seen as helping his father rather than acting in the public interest.

Believe it or not, this short column raises one more interesting issue. The city planner filed a zoning application under a different name. She said that she used another name to prevent her colleagues from being influenced by the fact that the application came from her. She was trying not to misuse her position by falsifying her application.

This raises yet another problem with having a conflict. Not only does one’s position affect how citizens will act with respect to one’s outside projects. One’s position also affects how one’s colleagues will act with respect to these projects. It’s good that the city planner recognized this. But falsifying one’s application (hiding one’s conflict) is no more a cure for this conflict situation than disclosing the conflict. She did both, and neither worked. That is because neither approach was the best way to deal responsibly with this conflict situation. The best way was not to develop properties, not to wear another hat.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics


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