A recent ruling which allowed a quarry to move forward despite repeated denial by the local municipality sets a precedent that “… donors can override democracy and the courts,” says provincial Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.
“It’s a very disturbing precedent,” Lamont told the Co-operator. “It just seems to me that if people want to get their way, they just have to give lots of money to the PC party.
“They are presenting a false idea that steamrolling local councils is for the benefit of everyone, when it is not. Some things should not be for sale,” he said.
On September 17, the Municipal Board of Manitoba, a provincially appointed, quasi-judicial tribunal, handed down a decision which allowed Lilyfield Quarry Inc. to build an aggregate quarry in the RM of Rosser.
This marked the end of over 10 years of attempts by various companies to build a quarry at the site. The project faced strong opposition from residents, especially those who lived around the site. The RM repeatedly denied the project’s conditional use permit applications.
In 2017 quarry owner Colleen Munro took the RM to court over portions of the RM’s bylaws used to deny her application. Justice Deborah J. McCawley ruled in favour of the RM, court records show.
Munro appealed to the Municipal Board after amendments to the planning act in 2018 made it possible for aggregate quarry owners and large-scale livestock operation owners to appeal to the board if a municipality denies them a conditional use permit. Munro’s case is the first time this right to appeal has been used.
Lamont told the Co-operator that Rosser residents invited him to attend Municipal Board hearings and that he attended on July 27, the first of three days of hearings.
Residents had previously told the Co-operator they feared the board would be biased and “toe the party line.”
“It was only after we looked into it that we realized the extent to which, sort of entrenched with the PC party the applicants were,” Lamont said.
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Lamont alleged that Colleen Munro has donated thousands to the PC party, that two of three board members at the hearings are also PC party donors, and that Munro’s lawyer, Charles Chappell is a PC party donor.
Provincial election records and the National Post’s political donations database shows that all have donated to the provincial Conservatives. The National Post database shows Munro gave about $12,000 to the PCs between 2010 and 2019, and donated $1,500 to Minister of Infrastructure Ron Schuler’s 2019 campaign, according to provincial records.
The Manitoba Co-operator contacted Munro but she declined to comment.
Board members Rick Borotsik, a former PC MLA, and George Orle, a lawyer with ties to the PC party, both gave money to the PCs or PC candidates, election records and the database show, as did Charles Chappell.
Records show Orvel Currie, the RM’s lawyer, was also a PC donor.
The Manitoba Co-operator was not able to confirm the exact amounts Lamont alleged.
When he attended the hearings, the proceedings looked professional, said Lamont. He was concerned it was a “David versus Goliath” scenario, and that the RM had limited resources to hire consultants and fight the case.
Lamont said he was unaware the RM of Rosser had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to verify the facts Munro’s team presented, a point the RM admitted and the board acknowledged in its written decision.
Stamping out democracy?
NDP Leader Wab Kinew steered clear of accusing the board of bias, but said the precedent set by its decision is dangerous nonetheless.
“It threatens to stamp out the independence of local officials,” Kinew told the Co-operator on October 6. “The farther you get away from the actual location where an impact is going to be felt… I don’t think the decisions get better.”
In 2018 the NDP voted against Bill-19, which amended the Planning Act and made the appeal possible, as did the Liberals, provincial records show.
Kinew called the decision a “canary in the coal mine” for what communities across the province may face in the future. He drew attention to Bill-48, introduced in March, which would have increased developers’ rights of appeal to the Municipal Board.
The bill died on the vine when Premier Brian Pallister ended that session of legislature on October 1, but the October 7 speech from the throne indicated the bill would be brought back.
If it passes, elected local officials may see their powers trampled on, said Kinew.
Lamont also said the bill was a huge concern.
The province argued the Municipal Board did not overrule the RM of Rosser, said Blake Robert, a spokesperson for Minister of Municipal Relations Rochelle Squires.
“Had the independent Liberal caucus read a copy of this particular order, it would be aware that the appellants and the municipality came to a consent agreement on July 9,” Robert wrote in a statement on October 5. “The Municipal Board subsequently approved the appellants’ proposal subject to the conditions set out in the consent agreement between the municipality and the appellants.
In September, Rosser Reeve Francis Smee told the Co-operator the consent to conditions agreement, which comprised 16 pages of conditions by which the quarry must operate, was to “ensure the developer would be held to the established municipal standards should the Municipal Board decide to approve the application.”
“It was and is simply a safeguard for the community,” she added.
In the statement, Robert quibbles with Lamont’s wording, such as Lamont’s calling the board “newly created.” The board has existed for decades. Only this kind of appeal is new.
He did not address Lamont’s allegations that the board favoured PC party donors in its appointment and its decision.
Stacking the Municipal Board with party friends isn’t new or uncommon, said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
“It doesn’t mean that everything will be done according to the government’s wishes,” he said.
“You have to make the assumption that all or at least the majority of people on the Municipal Board are there to regulate in the public interest,” Thomas added. “But from the outside, looking at the connections that exist, you worry that there may be some favouritism there, and it’s impossible to prove.”
This tradition of patronage isn’t acceptable, Lamont said. Board members should be independent and well screened.
Kinew agreed that board members should be appointed based on qualifications. “That’s what I would be looking for as a leader,” he said.