On October 5, 2016 Toronto City Council voted ‘Yes’ (21 Yes, 14 No, and 9 Absent) to assign the sole-sourced former Boardwalk Café from the current tenant Tuggs Incorporated (Tuggs) to Cara Operations Limited (Cara), the largest restaurant franchise in Canada. The discussion once again, as in 2010, took place “in camera”, meaning behind closed doors.
To refresh memories, in 2010, the city awarded an untendered lease to Tuggs, giving it exclusive rights to the restaurants, concession stands, and parking lots on the eastern beach properties. Unlike any other parklands in Toronto, however, the city also gave Tuggs the exclusive rights to all sponsored events in Kew Gardens, Woodbine Beach Park, Ashbridges Bay and Beaches Park. This also included the exclusive sale of all food, drink and merchandise along the waterfront and in all four parks.
Carters Landing, a restaurant under the Cara umbrella, opened in the Lakeshore Boulevard building July 1st. Shortly thereafter, Tuggs requested its lease be reassigned to Cara. Since then, Beach residents have sent city councillors and the mayor over 55,000 emails urging them to vote ‘No’ on October 5 and refuse the assignment. Many groups sent testimonials to councillors and Mayor Tory outlining the hardships they had in using the parklands and how the lease had broken the spirit of our community. There have not been farmers’ market or Christmas markets in our parklands, and there are less charitable events and music festivals than there could be. That’s because, according to letters written by a number of groups and gathered by the resident’s group Free The Beaches – of which I am a co-founding member – some venues could not come to terms with the tenant and had to move elsewhere or be abandoned.
It’s the opinion of Free the Beaches that Tuggs did not obtain the required prior written consent for the assignment as required by the lease. It also, according to media reports, did not obtain the required written consent for the current renovations. A sheriff’s search showed that Tuggs was in arrears of taxes of approximately $150,000.00 on account of unpaid employer health taxes. The lease states that the tenant must pay all its taxes to all levels of government.
Our group argued, among other things, that because of these major lease violations, the city had the leverage to ask for concessions – such as a release of the parklands – in return for granting the consent. As far as we can tell, the city asked for nothing in return. Council voted ‘yes’ and gave the consent – presumably under the threat of being sued by Tugg’s Lawyers.
Ward 32 councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon moved a motion to enter into a discussion with the tenant to determine the cost of returning the parklands at a later date. But with the consent now granted, the city has effectively lost its leverage. The tenant will now predictably ask for the moon as its price to surrender the parklands back to the public. To be effective, they had to be done together, as one councillor tried to suggest to councillor McMahon on the council floor.
So why are discussions held “in camera”? This is done when there is the threat of a lawsuit. This way the city can receive legal advice which is generally privileged. That is why to a large extent there is no public transparency and the residents are effectively shut out of the process. But that is not always the case. This time around, city staff apparently advised council to make matters public. We know this because following the in camera session of October 5th, Councillor David Shiner in addressing the floor of city council gave us a rare glimpse behind the “in camera” scenes.
“The staff’s recommendation was not to keep things confidential… the public is entitled to know what we do… we shouldn’t be keeping secrets from them… it is their land and their space…”
But council voted 26 to 9 for no public disclosure and to keep the contents of a supplementary report provided to council confidential, a motion put forward by Etobicoke-Lakeshore councillor Justin J. Di Ciano.
Councillor Shiner gave us another glimpse from behind the scenes. He stated:
“It’s a bad business deal for the city (the lease assignment). Letting people cash out on city property and just make big capital gains because they just happened to be able to get this deal which is what it looks like … and not give back the public part of the land, not give back the rights of that community to be there.
This is the heart of the problem: turning public assets over to private companies is simply bad public policy. Doing the transactions “in camera” and then voting everything as confidential and sealed from public eyes – even when city staff says make it public – only makes matters worse.