The first time I met Dave Conway, I thought he was my competition.
He sat in the back of the council chambers, a notebook perched on his knee and a pen angled in his hand. It was one of my first times covering Oshawa city council in the fall of 2014, and I had yet to know the key players, but Dave seemed to have it all figured out. I asked myself why he wasn’t seated at the media desk?
It was a question I would ask myself several times in the coming years as I got to know Dave a little bit. Even though I knew he wasn’t media, it seemed to be where he belonged. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the pleasure of getting to know much of the man behind the notebook, I knew that he was the father of three, and I knew that he loved softball. The part I got to know most about though, was his passion for this city. His passion for city hall and the betterment of Oshawa was something he always had time to talk about. It was only later that I also learned he spent time on the other side of the hustle as well, serving as a regional and city councillor for two terms between 1988 and 1994.
Unfortunately, Dave passed away in December, and my condolences go out to his family, his kids, grandchildren and his wife. He was a brilliant guy, always filled to the brim with good intentions.
And it’s those good intentions that led him to make one final request at city hall.
Dave was a consistent delegate before council, and in my years covering city hall, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him speak, and learning from him on a variety of issues from the city’s budget, regional relations, development in the city, and of course, the city’s auditor generals office.
This is an issue I heard him speak on many times, and it’s something that he consistently urged councillors to recreate.
It’s hard to forget the events that led to the disbanding of the AG’s office. I hadn’t even arrived in this city when they occurred in 2013, but the background is infamous. In short, a controversial report from the city’s former AG regarding the purchase of land for the city’s new works depot, alleged the process was fraught with misleading information. It pointed the finger at several key staff members, including the former city manager. However, when an independent investigator was brought in, he stamped the purchase of the depot as all-good, and went on his merry-way, leaving behind a council chamber filled with toppled chairs, disgruntled citizens, and two people dragged away in handcuffs by plain-clothed police officers. That was in September of 2013.
Well, to date, city council has not made the full contents of that AG report public. Portions of the report are available, however, a number of confidential attachments, information that provides support for the AG’s claims, have never been released.
For a long time, Dave was fighting to get his hands on those attachments, not just for himself, but to share with the citizens of Oshawa and to shed light on one of the city’s most controversial decisions in recent history.
It was shortly after his death that Dave had a small breakthrough. When his initial Freedom of Information request for some of the confidential attachments was denied, Dave appealed to the Information and Privacy Commissioner for help, and they took his side.
The city was forced to release one of the confidential attachments (Attachment 6), but unfortunately, Dave never got the chance to read it.
With that said, it doesn’t mean residents of Oshawa still can’t benefit from all of his hard work.
In order to honour the legacy of a man who fought to hold our city officials accountable, it is only right to review the final piece of information that Dave was able to break out of the vault encasing the controversy that was the purchase of 199 Wentworth Street East.
The confidential document is a report that dates back to March 2007, authored by former city manager Bob Duignan and outlines the potential purchase of the Cullen Miniatures, a miniature village that was previously a popular tourist attraction in Whitby. As we know now, the city purchased the miniatures that same month for $239,000. However, the 182 buildings, were eventually sold off for $113,000 to the Niagara Parks Commission after rotting away in a warehouse for several months.
Now, some may ask what the purchase of a miniature village has to do with the city’s controversial works depot? Well, let’s break it down.
Arguably some of the most controversial claims in the AG’s report surrounding the depot are that council was provided with misleading information when making the deal and were tricked into making the purchase in an expedient manner, believing others were interested in the site.
In attaching the Cullen Miniatures case to his final report, the AG is alleging that this isn’t the first time council has been led down the garden path towards making a bad purchase.
In his final report, the AG uses this purchase of the Cullen Minitatures to draw several comparisons between their purchase and the purchase of the building at 199 Wentworth, which he claims the city overpaid for by as much as $1.5 million. He also alleges a lower end evaluation for the property of $4.3 million was left out of the final report when council approved the $5.9 million purchase.
In terms of the depot, in a report suggesting the land be purchased, the former city manager noted that council should “move expeditiously” to purchase the land, and suggested that other parties were interested in purchasing the locations, including the Region of Durham. However, this turned out not to be true, says the report.
The new documentation unearthed by David Conway, shows similar language in the depot report, noting that the city should “take immediate steps” to purchase the Cullen Miniatures. When laying out their options, the former city manager did suggest that council could make a deposit with the Town of Whitby, the owners at the time, and then hire a consultant to create a financial projection and business plan for how to make the Miniatures financially viable for Oshawa. However, he advised against that option, “as it may not be accepted in the event a firm offer is received from another municipality.”
Seven months later, when trying to shuck the Miniatures themselves, council would learn that the interest was minimal at best.
So, is there a parallel? Well, if the city’s “independent investigator” George Rust-D’Eye is to be believed, all is well, as in his final examination of the AG’s claims, he found nothing wrong with either the depot purchase, or the purchase of the Cullen Miniatures.
Now, that is a curious thing to say, especially because the eventual fate of the Miniatures led the city to lose over $100,000 of taxpayers money.
With all that said, there’s a lot more to this story that this column cannot adequately address at this point.
However, if you want to learn more, perhaps you can get a copy of the confidential attachment yourself.
I’m aware that people have contacted the clerk’s office and received copies of the document, or perhaps the city will do the right thing and make the document public on their website.
Or, you can pursue the avenue that the late David Conway took so many times before, and file another Freedom of Information request.
Let’s hope the city makes the right call.
And Dave, may you rest in peace.