Did the April 24th, 2023 Pickering City council meeting go absolutely BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) over a motion playing municipal politics with a federally mandated new airport? While the city has little control over if and when the airport is built, that did not stop two local councilors from putting forth a symbolic motion opposing it. As expected, it generated some media attention for the airport issue. In the end, unintended damage may have been done to the City’s future.
The source of the trouble was a motion changing the City’s position from supporting to opposing the federal government’s plan to build a new airport. It was an updated version of one first proposed at the February 27th meeting, then postponed.
At the end of the meeting, the Mayor discussed some political skullduggery by one council member that may have discouraged pro-airport delegations from presenting. In the end, the motion was broken into several parts with Councilors defying all logic to vote NO to an airport.
They also voted to no longer allow the spending of staff time and city resources on the airport issue. This effectively puts the City’s head in the sand in a vain hope that the airport issue goes away. Given the need for the new airport, the value of the land, and a new Transport Canada study underway, there is zero chance of that happening.
The good news, the decision process on when to build the airport will not be affected by these shenanigans. It is after all a project of regional and national importance. 2.3 million people already live within 30 kilometers of the airport, defining a readymade Airport Economic Zone (AEZ). That is 23 time the city’s current population of 100,000. More people than live in 7 of Canadas Provinces.
The bad news is that the City’s credibility is damaged, good governance is in question and city staff have been hobbled. Long term, the prosperity created by private investors will be scared away from Pickering by these events.
Let’s dive into the details of the airport issue as presented.
Like most pilots, I have a reality bias, so I was there as the action unfolded. Action that watching the City’s YouTube recording just does not do justice too. What I observed was both entertaining and disturbing for the future of the good governance of our democracy.
Ted Nickerson from Durham Gateway Partners presented on why the airport is needed. He discussed the demand for new aviation capacity, the 60,000 new jobs, $10 billion in GDP, emissions reductions and hundreds of millions in new tax revenue the airport will create. Unlike some of the other delegates he did so respectfully, perhaps unaware that the logic and credibility that he brought to the room would soon be drowned by the emotion driven arguments of the anti-airport side.
The loss in the City’s credibility occurred thanks to the motion containing false facts as pointed out by Ted. Wishful thinking created by taking partial statements from a Transport Canada report, the ASA (Aviation Sector Analysis). The claim in the motion (at odds with aviation experts) is that the report concluded a new airport was not needed. In reality, the report draws no such conclusions and clearly stated that new aviation capacity is needed before 2036 to support the region’s growing population. While there are scenarios in the report to build out other distant airports, none have turned out to be economically or operationally viable. Pickering is a logical choice for the location of this new capacity, with 9600 acres of federally owned land set aside, zoned and waiting for a new airport and industrial park for decades.
The question is when, not if the new airport will be built. The challenge is keeping the land together as a single entity during the wait. In Toronto’s hot real estate market, the publicly owned land set aside for the new airport can be worth a million dollars an acre. Everyone wants a piece of it for other uses. Carefully planned balanced development is at risk.
Anti-airport delegates repeated now familiar mantras as if they are facts.
This included the idea that the city has been spending $200,000 a year promoting an airport. The City’s CFO corrected this by reporting that the city spent $0 dollars promoting an airport in 2020, 2021, 2022, and further that the only money set aside in the 2023 budget for aviation was in relation to discussions with aviation industry manufacturers. Despite this, councilors still repeated this mantra later in the meeting. That is what mantras are after all, repetition of something until it becomes a belief. A belief turned into fact by repetition.
The same was true of the other mantras being sung that night. These golden oldies include “no business case”, “No need” and “it will hurt our food supply”. In reality, there are multiple business cases for a profitable privately funded airport including one in the ASA report itself. Another example is the operator of Buttonville Airport, a profitable private airport in Markham, that has expressed interest in moving to Pickering in order to expand.
The investor is the business case, just don’t scare them away.
If planned properly, building a new airport will not hurt our food supply but improve it. Currently the airport lands only grow $4 million dollars’ worth of agricultural products a year. Very little of that is for human consumption.
One of the most exciting parts of the evening occurred when the Chair of Land Over Landings (LOL) attempted to dress down the city’s Mayor with an angry rendition of the above-mentioned mantras.
Here is the video of the crescendo ending to that delegation.
The motion being debated was clearly promoting a shaky argument to remove support for the airport. But why the need for subterfuge? If a councilor is against growth, or a new airport, why not simply stand up and be counted? Was the intent of the motion to poke the federal government into action? If so, then mission accomplished, Transport Canadas new study is underway.
Is it aimed at undermining Durham Region’s new pro-airport development Official Plan? That party is over. The new draft Regional Official Plan with the airport at its center has already been sent up to the Ontario Government for approval. A regional development plan that the city must comply with regardless of how some might feel about it.
On April 26th, the Durham Region Chair, John Henry, and City of Pickering Mayor, Kevin Ashe, issued a joint statement strongly supporting the new Transport Canada study, saying:
“The potential for an airport is a rare opportunity to build a strong economic future for the region.”
The problem for those that oppose the airport is that the City’s newly elected mayor ran on a pro growth, pro-airport agenda and won. It is easy to see why if you listen to this response by city staff to the mayor on the value of the airport.
Sadly, the city employee, Fiaz Jadoon, Director of Economic Development & Strategic Projects, has now been forced to stop further examination of opportunities associated with the new airport.
Councilors who openly oppose Pickering’s rapid growth may run a risk of not getting re-elected. Although in their defense, supporting an airport tied to the whims of the federal cabinet is not so easy either.
Democracy in action is never a clean affair, especially at the municipal level.
The motion does have an effect of undermining the newly elected Mayor and the pro-growth agenda he was elected on. It does this by silencing the City staff’s ability to participle with and interact with industry and other levels of government on the airport issue. It also sends a clear signal that private investment in the City of Pickering by the aviation sector is not welcome. It could raise the question in the minds of investors that if Pickering opposes an airport, what other investments are they likely to opposed i.e., all growth in general? BANANA cities are not good places to invest.
I attended the April 24th council representing a flying club with 200 members that live throughout the region including Pickering. Without any political affiliation, we volunteer as a civic duty to help fight misinformation about aviation. We do what we can to educate the public about the importance of aviation, its path to Net Zero emissions and to promote a culture of aviation safety. As the majority of our members live within the 30 km Pickering Airport Economic Zone (as I do), we setup a separate website just on this issue. (PickeringAirport.org)
We had already delegated on February 27th, and our group had signed up to delegate again when we realized that the motion had changed. Our delegation request for April 24th was denied by the city clerk. Fair enough, one delegation per group, those are the rules.
So, you can imagine my surprise to discover executives of the anti-airport group Land Over Landing, given individual delegations even though their treasurer had previously done so on February 27th for the group. According to the response from LOL’s Chair to a question from the Mayor, the group has 12 “executives” and no members just supporters. Thousands of supporters on twitter and Facebook apparently. Even more fun and games happened later in the evening.
During a break, while I was sitting in chambers, I was approach by Mary Delaney, the Chair of Land Over Landings, and several other members of her group. She angrily asked me to “Leave, you have no business in our council chambers”. This sort of personal attack is the new norm for some on the far right and far left. Changing a debate from logic-based into a personal attack was made famous worldwide by US president Donald Trump.
I brushed it aside and instead took the opportunity to ask why her group does not publish financial statements. How did they raise the money for the radio ads run in the recent election? Could I have a copy of the group’s financial statements? In reply, she claimed that they took donations in a pickle jar. Given that radio ads cost thousands of dollars, and that the group bragged about spending $86,000 on consultants in 2018, that must be some big donations jar.
We analyzed the work of the AG consultants hired with that money here:
Before she retreated from the impromptu interview, Chair Delaney also threaten to sue me, calling the hard questions I ask about the LOL group slander. I wonder if concerns about this sort of emotional personal attack was intimidating others.
As noted, before the vote on the motion the Mayor asked just that question. The nights events highlight the problems created by the continued delay of the badly needed new airport. Luckily for the citizens of Pickering, the new Mayor is not easily intimidated.
Congratulations, you made it to the end of one of our longest posts ever!
To relax you may wish to watch my Delegation on February 27th on the need and value of the new airport.
City of Pickering Council Meeting April 24th 2023.