Friday, April 20, 2012

Small-town development fight ends in mayor’s arrest

From Saturday's Globe and Mail 
Published Friday, Apr. 20, 2012 8:20PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Apr. 20, 2012 8:29PM EDT 

Few citizens stood up to the mayor at the height of his 21-year reign, and certainly no forest, ranch or field of hay stood a chance against progress in the village-wrapped-in-a-city named Mascouche.

In a suburb where three-quarters of the population had recently fled the crime and crowding of the big city, who would have stood up? These former Montrealers came looking for peace and quiet, the privacy of a big backyard and a coveted garage. As they faced their hour-long, one-way commutes, civic oversight was not a high priority for most new Mascouchois.

But Mayor Richard Marcotte ran into one 3,000-foot strip of asphalt he could not control. The tiny Mascouche airport looked like prime real estate to him, but to Jean-Daniel Cossette and a small group of pilots, it was a jewel in a rock garden of new car dealerships and big-box stores. They fought like mad to keep the planes flying.

His Worship was in a race to transform his sleepy village into a metropolis, but he also pocketed his own share of the spoils, police allege in the charges laid against him and 14 others this week. It’s likely just a start. Cities like Terrebonne, Boisbriand and Laval grew even faster and have had their own scandals, from politicians alleged to have taken envelopes of cash to contracts for the summertime snow-clearing of fire hydrants to multimillion-dollar fraud allegations linked to spiffy new water-treatment plants. Police say 16 investigations are under way. (Construction company executives and a former mayor are among those already facing charges in Boisbriand.)

In 2001, Mr. Marcotte turned his eye to the airport with two million square feet of well-groomed land populated by a clutch of small aviation businesses. News of the plan broke to Mr. Cossette, an aerial photographer, about 18 months after the deal was already done. It was late 2002 and he’d returned to his hangar after hours to find the mayor checking out the taxiways with the man who, he would eventually learn, was the buyer. The pilots didn't even know their airport was for sale.

“The mayor tried to pull a fast one and sell it to one of his buddies,” Mr. Cossette recalls. “It was part of this Eldorado, this great gold rush.”

Eleven years later, the Cessnas and Pipers still land every few minutes at one of Canada’s busiest airports catering to private pilots. Mr. Marcotte has been charged with fraud, breach of trust, theft and corruption related to other real-estate deals and contracts around the city.

The Mascouche airport withstood the bulldozer because, for the past decade, the pilots and business owners lobbied the province, filed court injunctions, and won and lost in court to stall the selloff of land the province ceded to the city for public use.

Mr. Cossette was threatened with lawsuits for criticizing the mayor. In a city of new pavement, the handful of airport businesses have a pothole-riddled dirt road to welcome clients for flight lessons and private plane charters. Even a court injunction couldn’t get city crews out with a load of gravel. “It became personal for the mayor,” said Serge Hamelin, one of the few city councillors who opposed Mr. Marcotte.

The airport case now sits a tangled web before the Quebec Court of Appeal, but with the arrest of Mr. Marcotte early Friday morning, the pilots think their fight might finally be won.

“I’ve had dozens of calls from friends and family saying, ‘We thought of you’ and ‘Where’s the party?’” said Mr. Cossette, a 51-year-old father of two teenagers who said he has led the fight to save the airport at the cost of his marriage and thousands of dollars. “Yes, there is satisfaction. But is it really possible we will finally have some peace? I can’t tell you the price we’ve paid.”

Right into the 1980s, Mascouche was little more than a rural parish. Then francophone Montrealers decided in droves that they could no longer bear (or afford) the city. In a dozen small towns north of Montreal, hundreds of new crescents and cul-de-sacs went up at once. In the 1990s, Mascouche tripled its 8,000 people and then doubled again to a 2012 population of 45,000.

The growth has consequences beyond sprawl. In 2007, Charles Taylor, the eminent philosopher, completed a tour of Quebec including many cities of the 450 area code surrounding Montreal as he and sociologist Gérard Bouchard studied the integration of minorities.

Dr. Taylor found those distant Montreal suburbs were having a tougher time adapting to diversity than small towns and established cities. People living in those “atomistic, individualistic suburbs” are less active in their community and aren’t drawn into civic institutions that promote the benefits of diversity, he said.

Another growing body of research shows that weak social investment and civic involvement also makes such communities easy targets for corruption, especially when combined with runaway development.

“It’s so difficult to wake everybody up,” said Gilles Patenaude, a local activist who has tried to chase the mayor from office for more than two years. “People are very individualistic, they have nice big yards that are of greater concern. People are revolted, but making them move is another story.”

And then there’s the fear factor. People in Mascouche hear about mob ties to the construction industry in Quebec, and they’ve seen the price paid by people like Mr. Cossette, who chose to fight.

“We know how we feel in our hearts, but it doesn’t pay to be too up front. But I’ll tell you, we have to clean this place up,” said a restaurant owner who was desperate to keep his name unpublished.

The mayor of Mascouche clings to his title, but Mr. Patenaude, who runs a group home for troubled youth, said his city may finally be waking up.

Mr. Marcotte has ruled Mascouche with a combination of cold calculation and charm, Mr. Patenaude said, but little could stand in his way. “He was like a bulldozer,” Mr. Patenaude said. “But I think we’ve seen enough bulldozers for now. It’s time to start cleaning up.”

No comments:

Post a Comment