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Port Moody mayor, councillors, square-off on social media over public hearing on housing project for the city’s downtown

Mayor says request to delay came too late for a postponement; councillor said he knew earlier and should have delayed the hearing to get more details about affordable housing
0218-PoMoCondoProjectFile 1w
An artist's rendering of a proposed condo project on St. Johns Street in Port Moody, just east of the police stations

A Port Moody councillor says the city’s mayor was being disingenuous when he chastised a developer for requesting a delay to a public hearing for a large mixed-use project proposed for Moody Centre.

Now, the 197-unit project that includes a 49-space non-profit daycare — and affordable housing — is in limbo after the public hearing went ahead anyway and the subsequent meeting to discuss the development collapsed in disarray.

In an “open letter to Port Moody council” posted by Coun. Meghan Lahti on her Facebook page, she said the request by Buffalo Group to postpone proceedings so it could further amend its proposal for the six-storey, L-shaped structure just east of the city’s police station was actually conveyed earlier that day.

The company had asked for a delay and followed up with a written request at 2:16 p.m and an email request at 6:29 p.m.— 30 minutes before the public hearing was scheduled to start at 7 p.m.

Lahti said Mayor Rob Vagramov knew about the delay request earlier in the day because it was mentioned during a mid-afternoon session to review the agenda for the evening’s proceedings.

Meeting goes ahead anyway

In explaining the reasons for seeking the delay, project team member Allison Millar told council the developer sought to address a request by council to enhance the affordable housing component of its proposal.

Currently, the developer plans 44 rental units at market rates but six would be available at shelter rates as low as $375 a month. The low income units would be managed by the Bloom Group, a Vancouver-based social services organization.

“We hear council wanted to see more of a contribution,” Millar said.

Chi Chi Cai, a senior planner with Pooni Group, told council Buffalo Group was considering implementing a possible rent-to-own program for some of the units that would be for sale — to help out first-time buyers — as a way to boost the project’s affordability.

'Within council's control'

Port Moody city manager Tim Savoie said while he couldn’t recall a developer requesting a last-minute postponement of a public hearing, the proceeding is “a city process that’s fully within council’s control.”

Council then narrowly rejected a motion to postpone the public hearing on a 3-3 vote (Coun. Amy Lubik was absent), and Vagramov said the developer's 11th-hour request was “a little disrespectful to the process.”

But concerns continue to be raised on Facebook.

Lahti said in her post the mayor “deliberately referred to the 6:29 email rather than a briefing he had received earlier in the day.” She said Vagramov deprived council of “an opportunity to consider a request by the applicant, obtain information about precedents and research the ramifications of denying the request.”

Lahti added, “the mayor had a duty to share this information when he received it.”

The city’s mayor, meanwhile, disagrees with Lahti’s characterization of events, saying the timeline was shorter, making it difficult to delay the meeting.

In a statement posted to his Facebook page, Vagramov acknowledged city staff had received a communication from Buffalo Group enquiring about a possible delay at 10:45 a.m. on the 25th. He said the possibility of such a request was then conveyed to him during the afternoon’s briefing at 1:30 p.m.

“Their 10-second heads-up amounted to nothing more than hearsay at that point,” he said, adding a formal request for a postponement was made to city staff at 2:16 p.m.

But, Vagramov said, only council can grant such a postponement, and that request wasn’t received until less than 30 minutes prior to the public hearing’s scheduled start.

“If the developer’s request was approved, we’d have cancelled the public hearing we were actively in, hung up on dozens of residents who were in line to speak, and we’d hold a second public hearing later,” he said. “To me, that is not good governance.”

As the fall out from the meeting continues to be expressed via social media, Port Moody councillors are also explaining why they left the meeting at the conclusion of the public hearing.

Had they stayed, they would have been required to vote on third reading for the project, something they weren’t prepared to do.

No choice

Lahti said she left because she had no choice.

“The best and only course of action was to stop and safeguard the integrity of council and the city,” Lahti said.

Councillors Diana Dilworth and Zoe Royer independently decided to leave and any further discussion was adjourned as there was no longer a quorum to be able to continue.

The three councillors, along with Lubik, also didn’t attend a subsequent special meeting last Thursday afternoon to continue the agenda, depriving it of quorum as well.

Lahti said the process had devolved into something “really quite deplorable.” She added, “We don’t know what it is the developer has to offer, yet we’re willing to proceed without that knowledge.”

Lahti’s Facebook accusation is just the latest in a series of recent council imbroglios that has included councillors withholding their support for extending meetings as debates dragged on into the night, as well as accusations of ethical breeches, misogyny and homophobic slanders.

Councillors are scheduled to attend a professional guidance workshop later this month to help “improve effective and respectful communication.”