Petrolia developers call for Integrity Commissioner to review development rules

Heather Wright Photo

Three Petrolia developers have asked town council to examine the business practices of the town.
One has asked for an Integrity Commissioner to be called in.
Louis Bratanek made the request during a packed council meeting Monday.
Well over 100 people crowded into the town’s council chambers and spilled out into the foyer to see what councillors were doing. Many in attendance raised concerns on social media about the town’s practices in the wake of revelations the town’s CAO owned and was receiving either rent or utility payments for two buildings which were in use by the town.
Wade Deighton spoke for a concerned citizen group and raised issues around the business licence granted to a local coffee shop owned by the artistic directors of Victoria Playhouse Petrolia. Deighton alleges The Cottage should have an accessible washroom and questioned when the store’s business licence was granted.
He also said the group wanted the town to review its purchasing bylaw. Deighton says administrators should not be able to approve projects for more than $1,000 without council approval.
But it was three local developers who dominated the questions from the floor. Developers Bob Leaper, Floyd VanderWal and Bratanek all voiced concerns that town staff seemed to be hindering development.
Leaper says when he started to develop a phase of Countryview Estates, he expected to be ready to build in six months. It took a year-and-a half. And Leaper says added demands by town staff cost him over $200,000 on a subdivision which was not expected to make money in the first place.
Leaper pointed out Woodland Subdivision didn’t seem to have the same problem. Mayor John McCharles, who is a real estate agent, sells homes for the builder at Woodland Park.
Leaper says the developers are not required to grade lots or have them inspected saving about $1,000.
Mayor John McCharles later told The Independent, the builder’s plan of subdivision was grandfathered and they were not required to grade the lots as developers are now.
“Over the last few years, when I was frustrated with the costs and delays, the red tape and the politics, I was repeatedly told by (former CAO) Dianne (Caryn), McCharles, by (former CAO Manny) Baron and by (Deputy Clerk Mandi) Pearson, the changes were the new town standards – that everyone is being treated the same. This is not the case.
“Can the mayor be involved in matters of real estate and development and be involved with staff and council where he can influence the outcome for good or bad depending on his clients or competition?” Leaper asked. “Can he be involved in voting or discussions of any of these relevant matters?… Are these not clear cases of conflict of interest?”
Leaper asked for an independent party to look into the subdivision agreements, bylaws and engineering plans.
VanderWal also voiced concerns about development practices saying it took three years to get the final phase of The Gables started as town staff, he says, made new demands adding he was repeatedly told his engineer didn’t know what he was doing even though he had decades of experience in the industry.
VanderWal says things have to change. “I need to know the Town of Petrolia is open for business. We need to get things done in a timely manner.”
VanderWal added if that doesn’t happen, he’ll consider selling the development land he has left in the community.
But it was Bratanek’s impassioned speech which moved the audience. He pleaded with council to take action.
“I can’t go to the grocery store, Home Hardware or a washroom in a restaurant… without hearing about corruption in the municipal office.
“I’m asking the town council to bring in an Integrity Commissioner to do a complete audit of the finances, the business practices and the real estate dealings of the Town of Petrolia. If there is any conflict of interest… the Integrity Commissioner will find it.”
“There are a lot of good things happening in Petrolia but what we have to address is those problems in order to clear up even a perception of wrong doing. I feel the best way we can go ahead with this is a full investigation.
“You were elected on a promise of complete transparency, please do what you promised.”
After council, McCharles said the Woodland Park subdivision had bylaw exemptions and there was not special treatment since he was not on council at the time the builder applied for them.
McCharles took offence to some of Leaper’s accusations suggesting he should go to the Sarnia-Lambton Real Estate Board with a complaint saying “I’m being defamed here.” However, the mayor did acknowledge there have been some problems.
“I agree there have been difficulties over the last few years… because of the change of front line people… That was my concern, too. But the mayor and council have nothing to do with subdivisions, that’s day-to day operations.
“It’s up to council if they want to have some sort of an investigation but I think the investigation has already been done by the inspection department and the planning department.”