Accidental Activist

My Trip to Hamilton City Hall

With all these unhappy residents and all this new information, it seemed obvious that the Councillors would vote to delay the aerotropolis amendment...

By Ben Bull
Published June 16, 2005

On Tuesday, June 7, I took the day off work and set off on my trip to Hamilton City Hall. My wife had asked me to go and attend a meeting of the Planning and Development Committee because, she told me, it was "important".

"Who are the Planning and Development Committee?" I asked her.

"They are the folks who decide how our city is going to grow," she said, which sounded very important, so I agreed that I would go.

I had heard that the Councillors were going to be voting on some kind of futuristic space village called the "Aerotropolis.' It sounded cool. So I packed my Buck Rogers lunch bag, put it in my Scooby Doo backpack, and set off for Hamilton City Hall.

When I got to the Council Chambers I was about ten minutes late. I climbed the stairs and opened a door with "Public Gallery" written on it. I had been to one council meeting before - some budget debate my friend Sharlene had made me go to - but this time it was different. This time the room was packed! People were standing everywhere.

There was an eerie quiet and it reminded me of the scene from Braveheart - the one where Mel Gibson and the Scots were lined up waiting to fight the English - except in the Chamber it was the general public lined up on both sides looking like they were about to go to war with the Councillors sitting in the middle.

I crept along at the back and found a nice spot in the corner with a good view. The Chairman of the Committee, a fed-up looking bloke called Terry Whitehead, was saying something about a "lot severance." I looked around and noticed that most people didn't seem to be listening. A couple near me were talking among themselves and a lawyer-looking bloke in a nice suit was busy playing with his cell phone. Even the Councillors looked bored.

I asked the lady next to me if they had "got to the space village yet?" but she just stared at me and shuffled a few steps to the side...

After about 20 minutes of boring stuff about lot severances and "maintaining the character of the neighbourhood," Terry announced that it was time to talk about "the extension of the Glanbrook and Ancaster urban boundaries". I knew this was councilor-speak for "Aerotropolis" and I started to get excited.

I wasn't the only one. All of a sudden the room was filled with murmurs and whispers and the shuffling of many papers. The lawyer bloke turned off his cell phone, and the rude woman shuffled back in my direction and asked me for my pen. I took out my peanut butter sandwich and waited for something important to happen.

Some of the Councillors started looking around the room. They looked a bit shifty and scared. I wondered what they might be scared about. Mr. DiIanni, the Mayor, didn't look worried, though. For some reason he continued to look bored, like he wished he was back home and this was over already.

Terry Whitehead, the boss of the whole meeting, asked some City fella called Joe Papanella to read out the city's presentation. Joe stood up and the room went quiet.

As the lights went off and the screen came down, I half expected to hear some cool futuristic music - 2001: A Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Alas, Joe Pappanella just started reading from his PowerPoint and I realized that this was all we were going to get.

I listened carefully. I had read very little about the Aerotropolis in the paper because there had not been much in there, until that morning anyway. I wondered why our local paper ignored important stories only to spring them on us at the last minute. It didn't seem like a very good way to run a newspaper.

Nevertheless, I had heard a lot of rumours about the Aerotropolis. My mate Brad had said the City was going to build a launch pad next to the airport and, "send people to the moon." When I asked him who they would send he said, "All those bloody Councillors I hope."

I think he was joking.

Trevor had told me that the project was a "complete waste of time" and would "only lead to more houses and more expensive sprawl." Trevor gets in a mood like that sometimes.

But to my disappointment, Joe Pappannela's presentation didn't say anything about spaceships or launch pads or anything remotely futuristic. Instead, he talked about "creating shovel ready-land" for "new industries" to build on. He said that Companies now operated with "Just In Time" delivery methods that required distribution facilities close to airports and that there were "lots of possibilities" for growth in this area.

He said that "time was of the essence" because Pickering was about to build an airport and take away the business. He also talked a lot about noise pollution levels and the need to restrict residential development.

I didn't really understand all of this too well. Neither, apparently, did Councilor Sam Merulla, since he kept on asking lots of questions about it.

After a while the presentation got a bit boring so I concentrated on my sandwich and opened up my Cool Aid Jammer juice box. It was raspberry flavour, my favourite! As I packed it away, I felt a bit sad looking at my Buck Rogers lunch bag. Will Hamiltonians ever get to go to the moon? I wondered.

Eventually Joe Papannella stopped talking and sat down. Everybody clapped. Terry Whitehead said, "Thank you," and asked the public if anyone wanted to "speak to the motion.

"I think there may be quite a few people who will wish to speak," he said.

And he was right! Just then, the whole room seemed to stand up and stir. People filed past me and lined up all the way to the top of the stairs and around the corner. A tall bloke with a big moustache stood right in front of me and blocked my view. I coughed politely until he moved.

I felt a bit scared for the folks waiting to speak. There were so many people in the room I figured they had to be nervous. But the first guy did just fine. His name was Jack Santa-Barbara. I had met Jack before. He was part of some Clean Water Committee or something and I knew he was a clever bloke.

Jack talked about something he called "Peak Oil" (link to Ryan's article) and said that "leading experts" had estimated that we might run short of it in 20 years time.

Holy crap! I thought. What will we do with no more oil? Don't we need that?

"This is not theory," Jack said. "It's fact."

I felt a bit scared by this. How will we fly planes, I wondered? For that matter, how will we drive our cars? What kind of businesses will want to open up in the Aerotropolis, if no one can get there?

Jack didn't say there would be no planes, though. What he said was that Peak Oil is something that should be "taken into consideration" and that it presents a "significant risk" to the success of the Aerotropolis. This sounded like a very fair point to me.

Jack got lots of applause.

The next presenter was Len somebody from the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. I had heard of these folks and seen them quoted in the newspaper lots of times. They seemed like a brainy bunch. They were business people so they had to be.

Len whats-his-name spoke about what an important project the Aerotropolis was, and how it would bring lots of new jobs to Hamilton. He brought up Jack Santa Barbara's concerns and said that we shouldn't worry too much about Peak Oil because we would find "new energy sources - including solar" to fix the problem.

I wanted to believe him and he seemed like a clever bloke, but - solar powered planes? That didn't sound too clever to me. Unless it really was possible... maybe my Buck Rogers lunch bag was not so stupid after all.

There was no applause for Len.

Next up was a nice lady, again from the Chamber of Commerce. They sure had a lot of people here today, I thought. Who's looking after their shops? I wondered. The lady looked very smart in her brown suit and she had obviously prepared her presentation very well. She spoke very carefully and convincingly and sounded very impressive indeed.

She talked about the City's role in pushing forward the development of our highway 403 and the Lincoln Alexander Parkway on the Mountain. She said these were "lost opportunities." I wondered if she meant that these roads had been a mistake.

She then listed a bunch of companies, whom she said were "not coming to Hamilton.

"Tim Horton is not here," she said. "UPS is not here. Camco is not here."

This confused me. I had heard that Camco had closed down because all the washing machines were now being made in China. My friend Jason had told me that the 403 and the Linc were built to encourage industrial development, like the Aerotropolis, but that nobody came except the homebuilders.

What is she talking about? I wondered. It seemed to me that if these roads and schemes weren't working - why would we keep coming up with them? I didn't get it. She didn't mention the Red Hill Expressway either, which I thought was strange. Wasn't this supposed to bring us lots more jobs?

How come nobody is talking about this? I wondered. Where are all the new businesses we keep getting promised?

The smart lady then started talking about something called Hamilton's "brain drain." She explained that since she had graduated from McMaster University, nearly all her classmates had left town. I wondered what jobs there might be at the airport that would force them to stick around?

Next up was another smart lady who said she was a mother of two living in Glanbrook. She was a very angry lady. She told the Councillors that she was "deeply troubled" by the process they had used to "fasttrack" the proposal. She said she had only heard about the Committee meeting six days before and that the City's report had only been made available one day before this meeting.

Joe Pappannela and Larry DiIanni seemed a bit put out by this and insisted that the "statutory process" had been followed. I wondered if perhaps the statutory process should be changed.

Nevertheless, the lady pointed out that she had read through the report and that it was missing several important points, including:

My friend Ryan had told me all about the growth strategy in Hamilton called GRIDS. He said that a City-sponsored review had found that the Aerotropolis did not comply with the goal of accommodating growth inside the current urban boundary. I wondered why we would go to the trouble of creating a set of guidelines if we had no intention of following them. This seemed daft.

I looked at the Councillors to see if they were as confused as I was, but it didn't seem that way. Most of them still looked bored! I was sure that Ferguson bloke from Ancaster was fast asleep. But at least he was still in the room; Sam Merulla had disappeared. I watched him come back a few minutes later, after another speaker had nearly finished, with a cup of coffee in his hand.

It's rude to walk out while people were talking, I thought to myself. I knew my boss would never allow it. Shouldn't the Mayor have said something? Maybe they need occasional "Bio breaks" like we have at work. I should suggest that to the Mayor.

More presentations followed. It seemed that whenever a business owner got up to speak, they were in favour of the project, and whenever an "ordinary resident" - as one person called himself - got up, they were against it. There were certainly more residents than business folks making speeches. It made for an interesting exchange of views and it seemed to me that the debate should be allowed to continue for at least a few weeks longer.

I couldn't help wondering about some of these business folks. With all the campaign financing stuff I was reading in the papers, it made me wonder if they were really interested in the wellbeing of the City or just themselves.

What have they got to gain? I wondered. I didn't like to be so suspicious but it seemed only fair to me that everyone should be made to declare any special interests they might have. I remembered something my Dad had once said when we were arguing about politics. "Everybody has something they want and something they fear," he said. "You can't have an honest debate unless you know what's in it for you - and what's in it for them."

One resident stood up and told the council, "If you want to increase investment in Hamilton, invest in the downtown." I liked that suggestion. I knew it was true. I thought back to everything I had learned from my studies about other cities like Liverpool, Leeds, Portland and even Memphis in the States. All these cities had learned that their prosperity was directly linked to the success of their downtowns.

Even the Mayor of Buffalo, a town traditionally associated with heavy industries and urban sprawl, has recently declared, "You cannot have a healthy city without a healthy downtown."

So why aren't we talking about an important proposal for our downtown? At one point, out of nowhere, Councilor Bob Bratina, the radio bloke, started getting agitated. He turned on his microphone and said, "This process is not fair. I'm not comfortable taking in all this information and voting on this amendment today. We need to change this process."

This seemed to upset Mayor Larry DiIanni, who shot back that "the procedures must be followed."

Sam Merulla joined in, saying, "We always do it this way. Why would we change it?" - which made everybody laugh.

After two hours of this I had to leave. The bloke with the moustache was blocking my view again and I figured I knew what was going to happen next anyway. With all these unhappy residents and all this new information that had not been included in the Staff report, it seemed obvious that the Councillors would vote to delay the amendment and continue the debate.

From what I was hearing this seemed to be exactly what most people wanted. Susie, my wife, had once told me, "It's the council's job to give the people what they want," so I figured that was what would happen.

But the next day, when I read the paper, I saw that this was not what had happened. In a short article, which, for some reason, seemed to brush over the drama and the details of the meeting, I read that a "verbal vote" had been held and only two Councillors, Bob Bratina and Brian McHattie, had spoken out against the proposal.

The motion was carried.

"How could this happen?" I asked my wife. "How could they ignore all those people? How could they ignore all that new information?"

"That's easy," replied Susie, putting her arm around my shoulder. "This is Hamilton!"

"Eh...? What do you mean?" I asked, confused.

"We're screwed." she replied picking up the GO section and walking away.

"We are screwed today and we'll be screwed tomorrow," she announced, before disappearing into the front room.

What could I make of this? I wondered. I looked around and spotted my Buck Rogers lunch bag squished under a table. I reached in, picked out the remains of my peanut butter sandwich, and started to eat.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By brodiec (registered) | Posted None at

Very cute writing. I'm left wonder where in the world we can see an example of a thriving "aerotropolis"? What fantastically pathetic spin on a motion to build some hotels and industry around the airport. Yuck.

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