There is an elderly gent manning the door to Hearing Room 16-2 in the anonymous downtown office building where the Ontario Municipal Board convenes.
He looks, dresses and acts the part of a Commissionaire – one of those dignified old soldiers often found dozing peacefully near the doorways of courts and other public offices, except when protocol demands them to stand and declare, “All rise,” “Take your seats” or “The court is in session.”
All the other appurtenances of official solemnity are in place, including no fewer than 15 lawyers crowded into dishevelled ranks amid a slum of cardboard boxes, lava-flows of thick tabulated binders covering every surface and much of the floor, the leftover spaces occupied by little chromed trolleys in a state of apparent exhaustion, bungees slack and tangled.
But nobody actually hired or appointed Roy Bridge, the apparent Commissionaire, to tell this lot when to stand up and sit down.
Like so much else in the airless room with its bleak views and toxic concentration of false pretences, Mr. Bridge is a play actor, a retired rural politician closely allied with the developer sitting at the back of the room and financing the show. His performance as mock commissionaire is the crowning absurdity of a bizarre legal bun fight with major consequences for the environmental movement.
The question at hand is whether or not this congeries of lawyers, consultants and politicians, fed by a determined developer, will succeed in their campaign that will punish the cottagers and environmentalists who appealed a proposal to build a huge marina and resort on degraded Lake Simcoe last year. Despite winning the right to go ahead at the board, the developer applied to recover $3.2-million in costs from the cottagers and their lawyers to cover the costs of the proceeding.
The claim has spread fear and loathing among environmentalists, who call it a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) and worry its success will slam the door forever against citizen participation in the development process.
But the developer’s lawyers, whose briefs threaten to buckle the floor, claim they and their clients, along with such worthy figures as Mr. Bridge, are the real victims in the case.
Mr. Bridge formerly employed a top Bay Street firm to threaten lawsuits and launch complaints against environmental lawyer David Donnelly, the focus of the alleged conspiracy to derail justice in Simcoe County.
Although nothing came of that, his colleagues in the room offer 101 other reasons why the citizen appeal of the mega-marina, led by Mr. Donnelly, was “frivolous and vexatious.”
This week lawyer Susan Rosenthal zeroed in on Mr. Donnelly’s allegedly questionable preparation of a witness, an internationally recognized expert on water quality who had questioned the developer’s assertion his marina would actually improve the quality of Lake Simcoe water.
“He’s still not given the golf-course report,” she intoned dramatically. “What is he given? He’s given Schedule K of the [inaudible, with exclamation point]. I believe that’s 34, Exhibit 34, volume two, 34B.” (One hundred thirty pages.)
“And another – he is given a phosphorous report. Not the new one, not the up-to-date one. They give him a March phosphorous report!” Pause for dramatic impact.
Another expert witness, Ms. Rosenthal declared, didn’t even read the 253 pages of the Innisfil Township Zoning Bylaw. “This is shocking to me, shocking,” she commented, with all the conviction a lawyer paid a big heap of cold cash can muster.
Such “shocking” lapses prove that the citizen appeal of the mega-marina was “unreasonable, frivolous and vexatious,” according to Ms. Rosenthal and her fellow crusaders.
The distinguished municipal branch of the Ontario bar thus declares a public duty to crush the province’s most courageous environmental lawyer – that little twerp at the back of the room in the pink socks, with a bicycle helmet.
Mr. Bridge says “All rise” and I follow Mr. Donnelly to the coffee shop downstairs.
“I’m the only person who does this kind of thing and there’s a reason,” he says. “‘Cause you lose.”
So does everybody else.