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Councillor walks out amid Kentville council debate about public engagement for 118 Oakdene Avenue

Kentville town councillor John Andrew, executive director of Open Arms, declared a conflict of interest and removed himself from the discussion as the council advisory committee discussed the proposed Open Arms Village affordable housing project on Oct. 9.
Kentville town councillor John Andrew, executive director of Open Arms, is pictured by the property in question - 118 Oakdene Avenue - in this file photo. - Kirk Starratt
KENTVILLE, N.S. —

Council deliberations about a hotly contested topic as of late reached a boiling point Sept. 30.

First, council dealt with a motion to rescind a previous directive approved during a meeting in mid-July.

The motion in question, passed unanimously at the time, would have allowed for the use of a third-party consultant and public engagement process to gather feedback about potential future uses for 118 Oakdene Avenue.

Open Arms, a registered charity offering outreach services, has pitched an affordable housing development for the property.

Mayor Sandra Snow spoke out against reversing the July decision.

“This was meant to be an open and transparent process, without prejudice to any party or citizen, to determine the best use of a property, which did not conform to established zoning criteria,” said Snow.

“The owners of the property have presented their development plan, which is not supported by the citizens of the neighbourhood, and the density and mix is not supported by any member of this council around the table, or the planning department.”

Snow was the lone council member to vote against the motion that would effectively cancel the public engagement process, and Coun. John Andrew refrained from voting.

Tensions mounted after a subsequent motion was tabled that would advise staff, through the acting chief administrative officer, to not hold a public engagement process for 118 Oakdene Avenue.

The motion, put forth by Coun. Cathy Maxwell, sparked criticism from Andrew, who described it as “the most embarrassing motion I’ve seen yet, in three years.”

Open Arms has struggled to receive the necessary approvals from the Town of Kentville to move forward with a proposed affordable housing development at 118 Oakdene, formerly known as the Kentville Christian Reform Church property.

Andrew is the executive director of Open Arms.

“You don’t want to facilitate public discussion with regard to a piece of land but, let’s be honest here, the issue isn’t about the piece of land,” Andrew said at the Sept. 30 meeting. “The issue is the proposed developer, the proposed development and the proposed residents of said development.”

Andrew asked council what will happen if the land is sold and another owner approaches the town with a plan for the property.

“Is this a longstanding tradition in Kentville, that 118 Oakdene is to remain untouched forever? That’s ridiculous.”

Andrew contested that council doesn’t know residents are opposed to the affordable housing proposal without proceeding with a public engagement process.

Maxwell said many property owners living near 118 Oakdene told her they don’t support the idea, and they wouldn’t attend a public consultation meeting.

“They are fearful for themselves, their families or their property. Some have been intimidated, as we’ve heard previously in these chambers.” Maxwell said. “With this in mind, the data that we would receive (from a public consultation) would not be accurate and, in fact, it would be flawed data. No decisions can be made using flawed data.”

Maxwell said she takes the fear and concerns of the residents she spoke to seriously. She said she has personally been subjected to communication on social media on the matter that made her feel “bullied, harassed and intimidated” within the past year.

Cate Savage, Kentville’s deputy mayor, read a prepared statement in explaining the rationale behind her decision to not vote in favour of a public engagement process.

Savage said she doesn’t “have faith (the) public participation meeting would be fair and equitable.”

CONDUCT CRITICIZED

Savage expressed concerns regarding disparaging remarks about Kentville’s town council that were published on Andrew’s Facebook page.

“When you make remarks about council… this is character assassination and it’s downright libelous,” Savage said. “I’m disappointed in your actions, Coun. Andrew, and the fact you have chosen to…  share your opinions on a matter to which you have recused yourself is unacceptable.
“You have attempted to influence the residents of this town on a matter (that) you declared a conflict of interest.”

Savage said that in order to come to a sound decision in creating affordable housing options, council must take an ethical approach and choose wisely when selecting a suitable location and developer.

Andrew said the Town of Kentville’s planning director “was involved and engaged before the property was purchased.”

He said he knows the planning director has met with the project developer on numerous occasions, but that he is not privy to all of the information shared due to his position on council.
“Let’s not pretend this isn’t part of a broader issue that’s happening behind the scenes, because you all know it is,” Andrew said.

Andrew then told council that he believes there is little trust in government, and he said he feels more can be done to achieve greater transparency.
“There have been some meetings that have happened here that have been deemed - and I’ve been told by municipal affairs - questionable,” he said. “I would call those… tea party meetings - our governance meetings we’ve called them - that are off the record meetings… let’s be honest, it is questionable.”

The discussion grew increasingly pointed as Andrew continued.

Mayor Sandra Snow intervened when Andrew’s remarks shifted to an allegation directed at a fellow councillor.

“That’s it,” Snow cautioned. “That’s it!”

Andrew rose from his seat in response to the mayor’s interjection and left the meeting, thanking council for “the night off” on his way out.

Prior to the conversation concluding moments later with a vote, Snow urged council to reconsider the value of hosting a “democratic meeting” that would give residents a chance to weigh in on potential future uses for 118 Oakdene Avenue.

Snow was the only opposing vote when the motion to not implement a public consultation process for 118 Oakdene Avenue passed 5-1.

Andrew was absent for the vote.

‘PLACE OF PASSION’

“He’s still very emotionally attached to it, so he becomes very passionate,” Snow said, after the meeting. “What we saw tonight is what we often see in many of his posts. The more passionate you are about something, the more riled up you can get when things don’t go your way.
“I personally don’t believe it comes from a place of malice; it comes from a place of passion.”

A Facebook post describing council as “increasingly toxic,” and alleging that the end result is an abusive working environment, was published via Andrew’s account on Sept. 29.

In his post, Andrew describes the group as a “hopeless.”
“There is no regard for the institution, much less the citizens of Kentville,” reads a part of the social media statement specifically addressed to Snow.

The mayor was prepared to accept the will of council following the Sept. 30 vote, even if she didn’t agree with the outcome.

“I think people should have their voice,” said Snow.

“My position is always that we live in a democratic society, and if we don’t listen to what people say, we are not functioning like a good democracy.”
She added that her job is to support the decisions of council – and that is what she plans to do.

Sam.macdonald@kingscountynews.ca

  • With files from Ashley Thompson

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