$300,000 student housing legal battle

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

After a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, City of London taxpayers are footing a $300,000 bill because of a secret meeting city council held to block development of student housing.

According to court documents, in 2003 a group of townspeople who lived near Western on Richmond Street complained to city council about the increase in student housing in their area.

Around the same time, RSJ Holdings Inc. purchased a property on Richmond Street with the intention of demolishing it and putting up a four-plex for student tenants.

In Jan. 2004, council met privately twice to discuss issues surrounding student housing around Western. The second of these meetings resulted in a bylaw to freeze development in the area where RSJ Holdings’ property was located.

Immediately following the second private meeting, city council held an eight minute long public meeting where 32 bylaws were introduced and passed.

RSJ Holdings stated the city was legally obliged to hold all meetings publicly. Appeals passed back and forth through the courts.

The Supreme Court case ended the matter, stating the city had a right to hold private meetings, but the public must know what would be discussed at such meetings.

“When a municipal government improperly acts with secrecy, this undermines the democratic legitimacy of its decision,” the Supreme Court decision stated.

“The democratic legitimacy of municipal decisions does not spring solely from periodic elections, but also from a decision-making process that is transparent, accessible to the public and mandated by law.”

The city’s total legal costs currently amount to $328,000 including $100,000 paid to RSJ Holdings, Inc. The bill for George Rust-D’Eye’s legal services and the city’s total legal expenses was presented to the Board of Control yesterday.

City of London Controller Bud Polhill, who was involved with the private council meetings, believed the case was taken too far.

“We should have stopped after the second case,” Polhill said. “We would have saved at least $100,000.

“We got to the point where we spent so much time to defend what we’d done that we forgot who was paying the bill,” Polhill explained.

The true cost of the fiasco is also not known, Polhill added. “There’s still some fees that aren’t disclosed, such as what it cost the city itself in fees and time. I asked for those figures at the Board of Control meeting but couldn’t get a seconder.

“I guess nobody else cares what it costs.”

RSJ Holdings Inc. was unable to be reached for comment.

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