Council war spills into Nanaimo’s business community as mayor’s foes target builder

Builder who supported mayor in previous campaign denied fair hearing on simple application as chaos breaks out at meeting.
Infighting on Nanaimo City Council spilled into the business community this week when a local developer who donated to Mayor Bill McKay’s campaign in the last election was denied a fair hearing on a development permit.

Gur Minhas, owner of Satgur General Contracting, had his delegation to council interrupted and unfairly restricted by councillors who oppose the mayor. At one point, stubborn heckling from the public gallery by a supporter of the anti-mayor camp disrupted the meeting for 16 minutes.

At the heart of the fracas was a question of whether Mr. Minhas, who declined to comment for this article, was allowed to present new information in support of his application, which the mayor had returned for reconsideration amid strong opposition from his council adversaries.

Making up rules as they go

Experts on local government procedure told News Nanaimo that new information is permitted in reconsideration hearings. In fact, new information is often the very reason why councils reconsider their decisions.

“Without this (new information)  I am not sure there would be much point to reconsidering a matter because council would essentially be reconsidering exactly the same thing they considered the first time around,” said Catherine Lee, a local governance analyst with the provincial Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, which advises municipalities on legislation.

Councillor Gord Fuller
Gord Fuller: ‘No new information, that’s the way it is.’

However, at Monday night’s meeting — without citing an authority for their position — Councillors Bill Bestwick and Gord Fuller took the peculiar view that no new information could be presented.

Supporting them in that position were city manager Tracy Samra and acting legislative services manager Sheila Gurrie, as well as two members of the public who are well known supporters of the anti-mayor camp, Tim McGrath and Kevin Storrie.

When Mr. Minhas’ representative, consultant planner Keith Brown, approached the podium to present his client’s case, Councillor Fuller interjected and declared that Brown could not present any information that was not presented when Mr. Minhas first came to council on May 2.

“We’re not looking at any new information. This is simply the information we got in the original report. So no new information is to come forward that is not in that report, and that’s the way it is,” said Councillor Fuller, adding as he motioned to the delegation at the podium, “so have at it, and I hope you don’t have any new information.”

Challenged by Mayor McKay to cite a source for his position, Councillor Fuller replied: “I don’t know, the same place you got it from.”

Interrupted and heckled

When he finally started his presentation to council, Mr. Brown was interrupted barely two minutes in by Councillor Bestwick, who wanted to know if the information he was seeing had been presented at the original hearing. After being assured that it was, Brown was allowed to continue.

Nanaimo councillor Bill Bestwick
Bill Bestwick: Interrupted delegation to check if information was old.

But about three minutes later, Mr. Brown was interrupted again, this time by shouts of “point of order” from audience member McGrath, who has had run-ins with the mayor at several prior meetings, but who other councillors and the city manager seem to appease.

McGrath refused to obey the Mayor’s request to sit down. Security was called and the meeting was adjourned for 16 minutes. But instead of being ejected from the meeting, McGrath was allowed back at the instigation of Ms. Samra.

By now the continuity of Mr. Brown’s presentation was entirely disrupted and it’s doubtful anyone could completely recall what he had said. More importantly, he’d been prevented from presenting any new information that could help his client’s case.

Whenever they hear appeals of staff decisions, councils act in a quasi-judicial capacity. By law, applicants have a right to state their case fully and completely. In this instance, though, Mr. Minhas was denied an opportunity to fully state his case.

This opens the door to council’s decision being set aside should Mr. Minhas decide to ask a judge to review the matter. However, developers I spoke to said they are unlikely to appeal council decisions in court for fear of antagonizing city officials who review their projects.

The City of Nanaimo also has a formal policy that can bar companies from being considered for city contracts if they have taken legal action against the city.

Tim McGrath
Heckler Tim McGrath, appeased by Mayor’s foes, caused 16-minute disruption

Friend of my enemy

However, preventing new information from being presented was not the only problem with how Mr. Minhas’ application was heard.

While councillors are required to keep an open mind when hearing appeals, it’s reasonable to wonder if the fierce infighting on council influenced proceedings and prejudiced Mr. Minhas.

For one thing, Mr. Minhas was portrayed as a supporter of the Mayor, which is not a benefit when the majority of council recently asked for the mayor to resign. Councillors had access to public information that the builder had contributed $500 to Mayor McKay’s election campaign in 2014.

While it should have been irrelevant, the campaign donation loomed large both in the lead up to and during Monday’s council meeting. In a Facebook post titled “Money in Politics,” Robert Fuller, brother of Councillor Fuller, first mentioned it on May 28. And it was brought up again at Monday’s meeting by McGrath and Storrie.

The suggestion was that the mayor was doing his friend’s bidding because of the campaign donation and that he was in a clear conflict of interest situation by doing so. In actual fact, the case law (see King v. Nanaimo, for instance) is clear that campaign donations alone do not create a disqualifying conflict. What’s more, Mr. Minhas’ donation amounted to just 1.7% of the mayor’s total campaign donations.

But the allegation was made — on live television no less — leading one to wonder how it might have skewed council’s decision. Given the depth of personal animosity that is evident on council, it seems unlikely that it had no bearing on the outcome.

I’ll reconsider, but it won’t change my mind

Another factor that could have biased councillors against Mr. Minhas was the fact that they tried but failed to stop the mayor from making them reconsider the application. Provincial legislation gives mayors special power to force councils to reconsider decisions, and they have no way to stop it.

Nanaimo councillors, supported by Ms. Samra, did try to prevent the mayor exercising his authority by claiming that he needed council’s approval to use the power. There was no basis for that position either, and they eventually had to accept that they would have to reconsider the application.

All of which makes it highly unlikely that when Mr. Minhas came to council on Monday that all councillors had open minds and were willing to change their decisions. If anything, they were likely more determined than ever that a perceived supporter of the mayor would go away empty handed.

In the final analysis people who invest, create jobs and make contributions to the community’s development need to know that when they appeal to council for help with a problem, they will be treated fairly. On Monday night at Nanaimo’s council meeting, that did not happen.

But perhaps the most startling thing of all is what Mr. Minhas was actually asking council for. All of the drama over the past six weeks was about getting permission to add a driveway to a house he has already built with a city building permit!