Let us know what you think of the following Citizen article regarding a City planner who moonlights as developer.
By David Reevely, OTTAWA CITIZEN October 2, 2013
OTTAWA — A city planner with a sideline as a small-time property developer was assigned to evaluate a rezoning application close to her own controversial redevelopment project, until nearby residents complained.
Bliss Edwards, who works in the Ottawa planning department’s development-review branch, built a major addition to a property she co-owns at 433 Dawson Ave. near Kirkwood and Byron avenues, and is trying to sever the building into two legally separate lots. That turns out to require the rules for buildings in the area to be bent — something that comes up frequently, but usually before a building is finished rather than after — because its back and front yards are the wrong size and it has a garage that violates rules city council approved last year to try to preserve the characters of old neighbourhoods.
The city’s planning department’s decision to assign Edwards to review a proposed condo building nearby at 236 Richmond Rd. put the local community association in an impossible position, said its president, Lorne Cutler. It’s not next door to her property but both are in the territory covered by the Hampton-Iona Community Group.
“There is the question, which I think is very important, that we have to be able to freely criticize a planner without concerns that our comments on files she’s handling will be held against us,” Cutler said. The association worried that it couldn’t oppose the zoning variances for Edwards’s own property without risking affecting her judgment on other projects in the neighbourhood.
Somewhat more indirectly, he said, the city’s planners frequently argue that intensification is good for nearby property values (even if nearby property owners don’t like it), which would mean Edwards’ own interest would be in recommending to city council that it approve the condo building.
Cutler is particularly perturbed by Edwards’s decision to pursue the project at 433 Dawson Ave. under a different name, Inez Margaret Gloyn, a combination of her given names and married last name that she doesn’t use professionally.
Edwards and her husband also bought a rental property even closer to 236 Richmond Rd., at 219 Wesley Ave. in May. It’s less than 250 metres away.
“A big concern for me is who approves this in the first place. What disclosure was there and who approved it?” Cutler asked.
The Hampton-Iona group wrote to the city to complain and heard back from Michael Mizzi, its chief of development reviews — Edwards’s boss’s boss — that she’d been taken off the file.
Mizzi is coy about what happened. He responded to a Citizen request for an interview with a written statement relayed by the city’s communications department, which didn’t answer a question about whether he knew about Edwards’s side project when she was given the 236 Richmond file.
“The assignment of planning files is a management function and such files are assigned with the full acknowledgment of the principles and guidelines set out in the City of Ottawa’s Employee Code of Conduct,” Mizzi wrote. “In the instance you cite, when the matter was raised in the community, the planner asked to be removed from the file in response to the perception of possible conflict. This request was granted and another planner was assigned to the file.”
(It’s now in the hands of veteran planner Doug James.)
It’s not clear whether Edwards was assigned to deal with the condo building because her bosses didn’t know what she was doing at 433 Dawson Ave. or because they didn’t consider it a conflict of interest.
There’s little ethical guidance for urban planners in such a position. The code of ethics for the Ontario Professional Planners Institute spells out that a planner can’t file an application and then turn around and work on it as a regulator, which nobody has suggested Edwards did. It also says that a planner has to tell her employer about any conflicts of interest she might have, but it doesn’t specifically define what those might be.
The city’s code of conduct says that employees must not make decisions where they or their families stand to benefit and that employees have to report any case where there even might be a conflict of interest to their managers immediately. It tells employees to consider how a situation might look to an outsider and make sure their choices would satisfy a stranger’s sense of propriety, not just their own.
“After you have disclosed an actual or potential conflict of interest, you need to avoid any involvement in the matter. That is why disclosure is important: so that others know not to involve you as well,” the code says.
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This renovated home at 433 Dawson Ave. is an infill building in a popular neighbourhood, in which a single house with a detached garage has been turned into a duplex with two garages, apparently in violation of zoning. It is a project by a junior city planner and her husband, an investment officer at CMHC.
Photograph by: Jean Levac, Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Citizen