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'Left the public entirely in the dark': Investigator finds Stouffville didn't report out from meeting properly

On April 6, 2021, Stouffville council held a closed session meeting in which they discussed an offer to purchase town-owned land
July 7, 2022

An investigator has found the Town of Stouffville did not follow proper procedures in reporting out on a closed session meeting about selling municipal land in 2021.

On April 6, 2021, Stouffville council held a closed session meeting in which they discussed an offer to purchase town-owned land.

In a report last month, John Mascarin from Aird and Berlis wrote that council did not comply with the reporting out requirement of the procedural bylaw. “The complete absence of any mention of the matter being considered in the meeting left the public entirely in the dark as to whether council even met to consider the matter,” he said.

In the report, the complainant noted the property was not put on the open market. “This was a closed sale to one single purchaser with the town, mayor and CAO negotiating the price and acting on behalf of the town,” the report said.

Mascarin did find the town didn’t break any rules by holding the closed session meeting to discuss the purchase offer. The error was in not reporting to the public about the matter being discussed in private.

The town is responsible for paying the investigators, which is anticipated to cost $9,000.

This is not the only recent example of the town coming under fire for closed session meetings.

An investigation by Aird and Berlis in 2021 found the town contravened the municipal act by holding a closed session meeting in May 2020 to discuss the potential of a local restaurant to include a portion of the Civic Square at 19 on the Park as part of its patio. The investigator found the town was not permitted to hold a closed session meeting on the matter because the matter being discussed was not a “proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land.”

The investigator also found the town failed to report out properly from closed session. Council’s resolution in closed session allowed for the applicant to include town-owned lands as part of its site plan application. “This, in and of itself, constitutes a decision," the report said.

While not explicitly mentioned in Mascarin’s report, the closed session meeting lines up with the timeline surrounding the town’s potential sale of the Bethesda Sports Field land and subsequent lawsuit after it fell through. The Town of Whitchurch-Stouffville is being sued for $38.1 million for a land deal involving the Bethesda Sports Park. Mayor Iain Lovatt and CAO Rob Adams are also named in the lawsuit.

The statement of claim alleges that on April 5, 2021 (one day before the closed session meeting), 2348219 Ontario, owned and operated by Mark Edwards, entered into an agreement of purchase and sale with the town to buy 52 acres of land at 6301 Bethesda Rd. for future development. The parties had been in talks for months prior to the agreement, and the suit alleges the defendants brought forward the idea of the Bethesda Sports Park.

The purchase price agreed to, according to the claim, was $77.9 million --- $1.9 million an acre for 41 acres of developable land --- with a conditional period running from April 5 to Jan. 26, 2022. Edwards was surprised that his development corporation did not have to compete with other potential bidders.

The town released a statement saying it received an offer in April 2021 to purchase the Bethesda Sports Park. “The town never listed the property for sale,” the statement said.

After consideration, the town said it did not feel it was in a position to complete the sale for the current sports park since a new location had not been finalized or secured.

“The resulting decision by council to allow the agreement to become null and void by not waiving its condition during the town’s due diligence period has resulted in the conditional purchaser commencing legal action against the town. The town will be vehemently defending our right to make this decision.”

The matter is still before the courts.