City of Ottawa's Lansdowne legal tab to swell by another $200,000

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By David Reevely, The Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — The city expects to spend as much as another $200,000 fighting in court to defend its plans for Lansdowne Park — and perhaps more, as new legal threats land at City Hall.

That could take the total tab past $1.7 million.

City council voted Thursday to continue with its Lansdowne plans, accepting a longer timeline for the project that will see work finished in 2015, two years later than it was all supposed to have been done. Councillors also agreed to revised financial projections that strengthen the city's financial position somewhat, but also to spend more money sooner on the project's design work and on preparing to move the historic Horticulture Building elsewhere on the Glebe site to make way for a parking garage and commercial space. The vote was 21-2, with downtown councillors David Chernushenko and Diane Holmes dissenting.

Part of the delay is caused by a court case brought by a community group called the Friends of Lansdowne Park. According to a report to councillors, the litigation occupied a great deal of staff time before Superior Court Justice Charles Hackland in July rejected the Friends' allegations that the city's deal with the private Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (to renovate Frank Clair Stadium and construct retail and commercial space along the northern and western edges of the site) amounts to an illegal subsidy, violated the city's procurement bylaw and was negotiated in bad faith.

The Friends have filed formal notice of their intention to appeal, and city solicitor Rick O'Connor told councillors that he expects the next stage of the case to cost between $100,000 and $200,000 in fees for the private lawyers hired to represent the city. There's room allowed for it in the revised timeline for the project.

Councillors were irritated Thursday to learn that some of the funding for the Friends has been provided by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, whose Local 503 is the city government's biggest union. The $15,000 donation — the Friends of Lansdowne say they'd received $250,000 in contributions until the end of June — was made by CUPE's national office, not the city's specific local. Spokesman Greg Taylor of CUPE's national office said the umbrella union has a long history of fighting public-private partnerships like the Lansdowne deal in the interests of defending public workers' jobs and publicly owned property.

"There was no consultation with CUPE 503 in making the donation," Taylor wrote in a short e-mailed statement.

Even so, "it's not helpful," said Mayor Jim Watson. "We're going out of our way to ensure the protection of CUPE jobs and rights in the planning process ... I was surprised and disappointed."

Councillor Eli El-Chantiry was particularly frustrated that the union is helping fund a legal action against the city when councillors were being asked to hand union members an extension of their deal to collect garbage in a zone covering downtown Ottawa, rather than putting it out to tender.

"It's like we're sitting here having a conversation, you know, and they're doing this behind our backs."

Holmes took a different view: "It's their money. They gathered it from their members, they can do what they want with it," said the Somerset councillor. "A lot of people have a problem with democracy, eh?"

The Friends' case isn't the only one the city is contending with.

Glebe businessman John Martin has filed in court to have city council's decision quashed on the grounds that it's a bad deal for taxpayers compared to his own proposal for a scaled-back renovation run by a non-profit group he'd call the Lansdowne Park Conservancy. O'Connor said his lawyers will be handling that case "in-house." A senior lawyer has been assigned to it and that costs money, O'Connor acknowledged, but he doesn't have an estimate how much work it will involve.

There are also negotiations with the Glebe Business Improvement Area over how much and what kinds of retail presence will be on the site, and the legal department received a letter Wednesday night from a lawyer representing residents of Holmwood Avenue, which runs along the north edge of Lansdowne Park. Both the Glebe BIA and the so-called "Holmwood group" say the city is shirking deals it reached to head off parts of their appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board, which can overturn city land-use decisions. The Holmwood group primarily takes issue now with a decision to replace some planned office space with retail shops.

The city's lawyers say the deals the city made are being respected.

The six-figure bill for the appeal in the Friends' case and the smaller amount expected to be needed for Martin's case are in addition to $1.5 million the city has already spent to defend the Lansdowne plan in court. Numerous councillors, plus Watson, support a change to the city's policy of not chasing public-interest group for costs when they take the city to court and lose (judges often require losers in civil cases to pay some or all the legal fees of the winners). O'Connor said he'll deliver a report on such a change in the next couple of weeks, likely Sept. 6, right after Labour Day.

Councillor Diane Deans pointed out in Thursday's meeting that the city's policy allows the city to seek costs if a legal case is found to be "frivolous or vexatious" and asked whether the city's lawyers asked Hackland to make such a determination about the Friends' case.

"The case isn't over," O'Connor replied, until all the avenues of appeal are exhausted.

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