The city of Ottawa, Canada, has an official boundary and a greenbelt. They exist to purposefully constrain growth outside the city and encourage intensification within. In the long term, it is a more sustainable approach to city development than continuous urban sprawl. It is also more efficient. Each expansion of the urban boundary means increasing the distance that sewage and water services have to be extended, it means more road building and more demand for transit. On the other hand, there will always be a demand for low density, single family homes and there will always be people willing to commute from these homes. Developers stand ready to build what people want.
At the planning and rural affairs committee meetings, councillors were presented with three options. First, freeze all expansion and maintain the city’s current urban boundary. Second, limit expansion to just 300 hectares . Third, allow an expansion of 842 hectares (recommended by city hall staff).
Ecology Ottawa took a look at the amount of campaign cash taken from developers by Ottawa city council members in 2006. As they put it, “Ecology Ottawa hopes the acceptance of these donations does not influence how our councillors end up voting.”
Lets take a look at that. I’ve taken their figures and matched them with the votes cast by the members of the planning and rural affairs committees.
Some councillors took very large percentages of contributions from developers, while four of the councillors on the committees took no money at all. So does money line up with votes? The four that took no developer money voted no for the largest expansion. One of the four voted no for everything – no for freezing the boundary, no for the 300 hectare expansion and no for the 842 hectare expansion, for reasons unknown. Of the councillors that did recieve campaign contributions from developers, one is outstanding in his field. Rural councillor Rob Jellet voted to freeze the boundary, or to permit a small expansion to 300 hectares, but no to the largest expansion, 842 hectares. For the six remaining councillors on committee that receieved developer money, freezing the boundary wasn’t an option and 300 hectares was not enough, but 842 hectares expansion met with their approval.
There are other factors to consider. A single analysis like this doesn’t in any way prove that money equals votes. Councillors that represent wards outside the city proper may want to see expansion and development in their communities in response to their perceived community needs, and arguments can be made for expansion that are not necessarily for the express advantage of developers. Considering that developers were pushing for a 2,000 hectare increase, and city council staff recommended an 842 hectare expansion, these votes are not all that unreasonable. But remember also, companies do what they do because they have certain expectations of success; why would developers give money to Ottawa city councillors at all?
From the Center for Responsive Politics in the US, on the recent TARP payouts:
“The companies that have been awarded taxpayers’ money from Congress’s bailout bill spent $77 million on lobbying and $37 million on federal campaign contributions, Center finds. The return on investment: 258,449 percent.”
That’s just one example of the success of lobbying and donations.
In part II, when the full council votes on the expansion, we can see if donations from developers again line up with votes.