Karen Stintz, Billboards, and how to get around the Lobbyist Registry

On January 9, 2009, City Councillor Karen Stintz had a business lunch with Les Abro, president and CEO of billboard company Abcon Media.  They went to The Abbot, a pub on Yonge Street north of Lawrence.  Stintz had a shepherd’s pie, a soda water, and a tea; Abro had a burger, a cranberry juice, and also a tea.  We know this because Stintz submitted the receipt to have her meal reimbursed by the City [PDF, 3rd page].  (Two glasses of Ironstone wine were additionally ordered at $11 each, but neither was billed to Stintz’s expense account.)

Four days later, Abro submitted a permit application to build a massive new roof sign at 3442 Yonge — in Stintz’s ward, two blocks north of The Abbot. And on the Reimbursement of Business Meals form, Stintz (or her assistant) noted that the meeting was with regard to the upcoming sign bylaw (“re: Sign by-law”).

Les Abro, however, was not registered as a lobbyist, and so on May 26, I submitted a formal complaint to the Lobbyist Registrar.  On June 9, the complaint was officially rejected because the meeting “did not constitute lobbying” and the “Lobbying By-law therefore would not apply.”

So when is lobbying not lobbying?  When the parties involved say it isn’t.

Having a business lunch with a politician to discuss an upcoming piece of legislation that has the potential to earn or cost you millions would seem to fit the very definition of lobbying.  And indeed the Lobbying By-law itself [PDF] defines the term “LOBBY” as “To communicate with a public office holder on… [the] development, introduction, passage, defeat, amendment or repeal of a by-law, bill or resolution on any matter, by Council…”

There are, however, a whole host of exemptions under the By-law’s section 140-5, the intent of which are to ensure that routine communications that are part of standard processes (making a deputation, inquiring as to the status of a permit, etc.) are not branded as lobbying, regardless of who engages in them.  This is certainly fair enough, as anyone who has dealt with City Hall on any level knows that at least one email and/or phone call to a bureaucrat or councillor’s staffer is necessary to find out just what the hell is actually happening on any given matter.

So it’s not unreasonable that “A communication that is restricted to a request for information” should be exempt.  At the same time, I am doubtful that a multi-course meal convened for the explicit purpose of chatting about a new bylaw is the sort of “communication” this sentence was authored to protect.  Especially given that — with regard to a private meeting between two individuals — it is impossible for a third party to ever disprove that a conversation was not merely a “request for information.”

(Similarly, city councillors could virtually never be found to be in violation of their own Code of Conduct respecting lobbyists [PDF, page 9], as the Integrity Commissioner would have to determine — emphasis mine — that a councillor engaged “knowingly in communications… with a person who is not registered…”)

This would appear to be a fairly significant loophole in the Lobbyist Registry, as it raises the question: What is there to stop the parties to a meeting from excusing themselves from oversight by claiming that their conversation was restricted to an information request?

“If there is that kind of collusion, I would hope that that doesn’t occur,” Lobbyist Registrar Linda Gehrke tells me in an interview.  “You’re right, a meeting occurs in private.  Many meetings that lobbyists have are in private, and we rely on the honesty of public office holders as well as the lobbyists to report or seek advice.”

Would she consider this a loophole?  Not quite, but “it’s an evidentiary issue, obviously, only the parties who are there know what really happened.  That’s why we have a registry, so those types of meetings will become part of the public record.

“We know what happens in public,” but we don’t know what happens in private meetings.  “I guess it’s a shortcoming of our democratic system maybe” that when a private meeting occurs, we don’t know what was said.

Have there been other cases when a complaint has been dismissed because the communication was found to be an information request?  Gehrke declined to answer, citing her duty to maintain confidentiality under the City of Toronto Act.  But she did say her office has had “a number of situations when people have called us to ask for advice” on this issue.

Looking north on Yonge from The Abbot.

Mr. Abro did end up registering as a lobbyist after all — on June 8, the day before  Gehrke sent her letter dismissing the complaint.

Now how did Stintz hook up with Abro in the first place?  Well, sometime in the middle of  2008, Abcon retained Sutherland & Associates as their lobbying firm, to meet with councillors and staff regarding the new sign bylaw as well as specific variance applications.  “Sutherland” is former city councillor Paul Sutherland; the “Associates” are Mary Di Mambro and Dan Bordonali, the latter of whom was Stintz’s Executive Assistant through June 2007, when he left City Hall to become a lobbyist.

On March 12, 2009, Bordonali registered to lobby various North York councillors, their staff, and the chair of the Yonge Lawrence Village BIA regarding 3442 Yonge.  Bordonali met with the BIA board on April 14  and evidently did a pretty good job pitching the project — two super-sized ad faces framed by a sculptural recreation of Charles C. Ebbets’s “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” as the BIA ended up supporting it [PDF, last page].  One wonders, though, if Bordonali informed them that they would be the recipients of Yonge and Eglinton’s sloppy seconds.

Top: What the billboard would have looked like at Yonge and Eglinton, Abcon’s first choice of location.  Bottom: What the billboard will look like at Yonge and Deloraine, the location for which Abcon had to settle.

You see, the billboard at 3442 Yonge, at the southwest corner of Yonge and Deloraine, was originally supposed to be at the southwest corner of Yonge and Eglinton, in Councillor Michael Walker’s ward.  Abcon spent a nice chunk of 2007 trying to win community backing for it, and the website of the South Eglinton Rate Payers’ and Residents’ Association (SERRA) still hosts a copy of the document that Abcon was using to sell them and Walker on the unique installation [PDF].  (In it, Abro goes on at length about how perfect the structure is for the Yonge and Eglinton intersection.)  Despite attending meetings of both the SERRA and Oriole Park Association boards, Abro failed to obtain their endorsement, and never ended up applying for a permit.

A year and a half later, the City was well into crafting a new Sign Bylaw and in mid-December 2008 revealed that it was contemplating prohibiting new roof signs, calling them “intrusions into [the] skyline” that “dominate and overwhelm buildings.”  The City also hinted at an overhaul of the variance process, to take decision-making power away from community councils (which generally go along with whatever a local councillor wants).  So if Abro was ever gonna build his sign, he had to act fast, and thus he tried again, two miles north and in the ward of his new lobbyist’s ex-boss.

On January 9, Abro met with Stintz, and on January 13 his company applied for the permit to build the sign at 3442 Yonge.  It’s a pretty transparent case of “variance shopping,” where a billboard company tries to build a sign in one jurisdiction, encounters resistance, and then just moves it over to the ward of a more billboard-friendly councillor.

3442 Yonge Street as it looked last week.

In this case, it worked.  Despite City staff recommending refusal [PDF], Stintz was able to collect enough votes at last week’s meeting of the North York Community Council in order to grant Abcon their variance.

This is how billboards in Toronto get built.

24 comments

  1. Wait a minute here.

    1) the meeting was requested by the councillor, not Abcon.
    2) the purpose of the meeting (as indicated in the registrar’s letter) was “in order to obtain information about the sign industry”.
    3) you’re the one saying the meeting was “[Abcon] having a business lunch with a politician to discuss an upcoming piece of legislation”

    It sounds more to me like Stinz was trying to familiarize herself with the current state of the billboard business in Toronto. And sure, Abcon’s got stuff going up in her ward – I’d bet they’ve got structures going up in many wards, or at least in the planning/approval process, just like the other players (Pattison, Viacom) do.

    Who knows? Maybe Stinz recommended Abro register as a Lobbyist because of the upcoming legislation and the amount of activity it might require on billboard companies’ parts to do business in Toronto.

    It’s not uncommon for politicians to go on fact-finding missions. Case in point the male councillors who had a little tour of the House of Lancaster some months ago. Have to get your hands a little dirty in order to move mountains!

    I don’t see anything sinister here. But go ahead, call up the Ombudsman or whoever and complain that you think the Councillor lied in her explanation to the Lobbyist-Registrar about who called who and for what purpose. Let’s see what happens. If it DOES turn out that you were wrong, or not, then please be sure to publish a follow-up either way.

  2. Well done. ‘The law is a whore’ is the saying. Only brightly shone lights, like yours, will put politicians in fear of their electability.

  3. 3) you’re the one saying the meeting was “[Abcon] having a business lunch with a politician to discuss an upcoming piece of legislation”

    No, that’s precisely what the evidence shows. The “Business Meeting” box was ticked off on the “Reimbursement of Business Meals” form, and a meal that concludes at 1:10 in the afternoon is called lunch. The confusion might be around my phrase “upcoming piece of legislation,” which in this sentence refers not to the variance request but to the new Sign By-law, i.e. the note that the meeting was ”re: Sign by-law.”

    I have no intention of taking my complaint any further. Rather, I wanted to point out this unfortunate (and perhaps inevitable) loophole in the Lobbying By-law; I’m not quite sure how best to reconcile the strict regulation of lobbying with the necessity to protect informational inquiries, but the current situation seems to offer a lot of leeway.

  4. As long as we attempt to bring transparency to lobbying — and I believe that we should — there will always be tricky questions as to precisely who ought to register as a lobbyist (and when), precisely which exchanges of information constitute lobbying strictly speaking, and to what extent it will ever be possible to “know” what goes on behind closed doors… let along if knowing who’s behind that closed door (and how often) tells us anything in and of itself.

    In a way, this relates to Lawrence Lessig’s recent New Republic article “Against Transparency”, the basic gist of which is that access to certain kinds of information about politics will by necessity — thanks, human nature — lead us to unfounded conclusions (his central example was the conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton “flip-flopped” on bankruptcy reform due to donations from the financial services industry).

    This does not mean that we should avoid transparency, but it does mean that we should either provide more context where more context might help; or, in cases where transparency inevitably undermines public confidence (even in the absence of wrongdoing!), we should eliminate the thing about which we are being transparent (e.g., ban corporate campaign contributions and substitute a public system).

    Unfortunately, for lobbying this is not an option. It would not be possible to conduct anything remotely approaching democratic governance without frequency — constant, even — interface between elected officials and stakeholders. I’m sorry to trot out the old Poli Sci standards here, but politicians need information to make decisions and lobbyists (not just those acting for presumptively ‘bad’ corporations, developers, and so forth but also charities, NGOs, and the like that represent ‘the little guys’ like us) have that information and play an incredibly important role in any responsive political system.

    Imagine for a moment that this was someone trying to find a place to set up a safe injection site or some other cause more-or-less diametrically opposite to billboards. Would variance shopping in that case be something worth sounding the alarm about, or would the need to shop around be the problem?

    What interests me most is the notion that once someone is registered as a lobbyist, we essentialize them as such. Every time they meet with a councillor it’s “lobbying”. No wonder these highly politically aware and engaged individuals are interested in resisting such registration until doing so is unavoidable.

  5. Given that it was apparently Stinz who requested the meeting, we should be able to infer what the intent of the meeting was – a fact-finding mission ahead of the sign by-law. If it were requested by Abro, it would be lobbying. Pretty clear-cut. It’s still a business meeting – but Stinz’ business, not Abro’s.

    You can question whether the two parties realized the possible conflict and set it up so that it was Stinz who initiated the meeting in order to give plausible deniability. Given that you aren’t willing to pursue the matter further I’m not sure why stirring the pot makes any sense in the absence of proof either way.

    As long as we’re implying things ~ It’s kinda funny that you bring up Mike Walker – he’s been on both sides of the billboard issue – I worked for Pattison Outdoor (then Gould Outdoor) for a time in the mid 1990′s and he was an occasional visitor to the company’s offices along with several other councillors. This was back when there wasn’t a registry, of course. Nice to see he’s decided to be anti this time around or at least, his constituents have.

  6. This is the same Karen Stintz who defeated the incumbent councillor on the issue of the intrusion of the Minto high rise at Yonge and Eglinton, among other development issues in North Toronto.

    It’s a good thing she doesn’t run for mayor … too much dirty laundry.

  7. You say that you have no intention of taking your complaint further.

    If you did want to, is there an appeal mechanism? You rightly point out that the documentary evidence does not support Stintz’s claims. Any self-respecting regulator would accept the documentary evidence over verbal evidence when the stories don’t add up.

    This is sad.

  8. You can question whether the two parties realized the possible conflict and set it up so that it was Stinz who initiated the meeting in order to give plausible deniability.

    That’s just it… it’s turtles all the way down. There’s that sort of handshaking communication process that leads up to a request for a meeting, from initial contact, through follow-up and response, to the point where someone (who?) finally says “you know, let’s meet on this.”

    Using initiation as a bright line is flawed because the skeptic will always ask who initiated the initiation.

  9. If it was just a fact-finding mission, why did Stintz go against the recommendations of city staff and stump for votes to allow Abro’s variance? Pure coincidence?

  10. This is a fascinating article.

    Jonathan – Did you ask Stintz to comment on the matter?

  11. jonathan: if you don’t have a lawyer already then may i suggest that you consider retaining one?

  12. Great work, further confirming Stintz as the corporate whore we’ve come to know.

    But what’s especially galling to me is that we (the taxpayer) picked up the tab so that Stintz could be lobbied!

  13. Why does Karen get to expense a lunch on a fact finding mission? THAT does seem to me like a waste of taxpayer money. That is definitely NOT allowed in any corporate environment I’ve been in.
    2ndly, we all know that she’s scamming the system. It is also very easy to pick up a telephone or use that new fangled google to do research. When I’m doing a analysis on a solution for my organization, I don’t expense lunch with the potential vendor… and they will come into my office to talk to me… which in the politicians case, the vendor has to be registered.

  14. As it stands, it seems pretty impossible to determine if the meeting was genuine fact finding or clandestine lobbying. Still, does it really make a difference? We know the meeting happened. If it had been registered as lobbying, what difference would that really make? Would we not have picked up the tab then?

    (I’m not Stintz fan, and I’m no fan of variance shopping either, FWIW)

    (Also: let’s try to refrain from calling a female — or male I guess — councillor any kind of “whore”, shall we? This is re: McKingford’s comment, not jamesmallon’s.)

  15. Well, done Jonathan.

    This stinks of imprompriety, regardless of Hamish’s naive belief that the councillor’s request for the meeting is the determining factor whether or not this was lobbying.

  16. Seems to me this piece is less about impropriety and more about smearing Stintz, a critic of the Mayor, with innuendo. If you want to look at something that really stinks of impropriety look at my comment under Friday’s Headlines.

  17. I am no fan of Stintz, but I don’t think we are being entirely fair to her by criticizing her expenses (a whole $17.00, which would have come out of her office budget).

    If this were a legitimate fact finding mission, then it would be appropriate for Stintz to expense her lunch. In my experience, this happens all the time in the corporate world (except that more often than not you would add another zero to the lunch bill). It certainly seems much more prudent for the taxpayer pay for Stintz’s share than for the lobbyist pay for lunch.

    Also, it is preposterous to say that you can obtain the same information from a google search (or even a telephone conversation) than you can obtain from a face to face conversation over a meal.

    The key lapses in judgment here were (i) Abro not registering as a lobbyist, and (ii) Stintz involving herself in the variance question so soon after the lunch with Abro.

    Regardless of whether there was actual wrongdoing, politicians need to avoid even the perception of impropriety in order to maintain the public trust.

  18. Priceless comment coming from Dace McDonald! The man who uses every opportunity in Spacing’s comment section to smear Miller and anyone left-of-centre politically.

  19. Speaking of disclosure and transparency, mightn’t it be prudent for some mention of Jonathan’s role as Campaign Coordinator with the Toronto Public Space Committee’s “Billboard Battalion” appear along with this blog post?

    I don’t think it invalidates anything that appears here, but it is relevant. Personally I tend to think of Jonathan as a blogger/journalist-activist hybrid, but the latter part of the combo is not clear

    Speaking of which — where’s the line between an activist and a lobbyist? And I ask this honestly.

  20. That’s actually a good point, Greg. I tend to point out my affiliation when I’m writing about a specific issue that I’ve advocated on via the TPSC (as with the note at the end of my previous post), but because I didn’t actually do anything with regard to the 3442 Yonge sign, I didn’t bother making special mention of it. My TPSC role does, however, appear at the top of the Registrar’s letter to me.

    As for your second question, well, my next post has a kind of answer.

  21. I agree that it would add some transparency if Spacing writers listed what city committees they served on. The Pedestrian Committee seems well stocked.

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