Monday, 8 August 2016

Toomas Karmo: Commentary on Useful RASC-TC Editorial on DDO&P Conservation Case






Quality assessment:






On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: There was enough time to make most of the desirable points.

                                                    







Revision history:


  • UTC=20160809T1402Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo corrected disastrous formatting, imposed on this piece by a bug in the blogger software, and also made many other adjustments, some of them substantive. He retained the right to make further small, essentially cosmetic, essentially nonsubstantive tweaks, as here-undocumented versions "2.0.1", "2.0.2", "2.0.3", ... , over the ensuing 48 hours. 
  • UTC=20160809T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded base version, while retaining the right to make further small, essentially cosmetic, essentially nonsubstantive tweaks, as here-undocumented versions "1.0.1", "`1.0.2", "1.0.3", ,..., over the ensuing 48 hours.


[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger software has in some past weeks shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some late points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears.]




On 2016-08-04, I received, in my capacity as a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Toronto Centre (RASC-TC), an e-mail notification that the August-September number of the RASC-TC newsletter Scope was available for download at http://rascto.ca/sites/default/files/SCOPE_55-4Aug2016.pdf.

I was pleased to find in this publication an editorial from Mr Eric Briggs, giving some background on the troubling 2016-07-22 announcement-to-members that RASC-TC was withdrawing from David Dunlap Observatory and Park (DDO&P) discussions with the Town of Richmond Hill. The announcement had triggered an emergency 2016-07-22  posting from me to this present blog. Mr Briggs has now shed significant light on the situation.

In what follows, I observe the proprieties of "Fair Use" in copyright law, quoting only selectively from the editorial. Although in the morning of 2016-08-08 I asked Mr Briggs for permission to reproduce his editorial in full on this present blog, it is a little too early for me to expect a reply from him.

Mr Briggs writes, "After our original agreement to lease the DDO from Corsica Development in 2009, in 2012 we signed a 'lease and offer to purchase' agreement which was kept confidential at the developer's request for some time, for longer than we had hoped."

I add here that the DDO Defenders (DDOD) and/or the Richmond Hill Naturalists (RHNats), being up to 2011 united in a determination to conserve the entire 77-hectare DDO&P, were themselves in 2008 or 2009 invited by the developer to sign a nondisclosure agreement regulating their contemplated future relationship. The DDOD and/or the RHNats declined, I would myself suggest correctly. At this point, their discussions with the developer ended. Analysts at both DDOD and RNats conjecture that RASC-TC was going in where they themselves refused to tread.

It is helpful to have the conjecture now confirmed by Mr Briggs, unhappy though the conjecture is.

****

Mr Briggs writes, "At the time of the 2015 announcement, there was some criticism that the Observatory was not being transferred to a 'public agency', although as a registered charity we are a public entity."

I was among the most vocal of the people voicing this criticism in 2015.

But today I must remark, in a tone of gentle and good-natured clarification, that Mr Briggs seems to have missed the essential thrust of the criticism.

It is of course true that RASC is a registered charity. It is additionally true that the RASC-TC financial accounts are published annually, in Mr Briggs's newsletter. In this sense RASC-TC is indeed a "public entity".

However, we must distinguish between the misleadingly similar terms "public entity" and "public agency". I am not sure if I, or indeed others, defined the terms correctly in 2015.

By a public agency, the critics of RASC-TC, such as I, meant an agency of government, such as a police force or a hospital. Public agencies are publicly accountable, for example through the provincial Ombudsman or the Attorney General. They differ in this regard from other agencies, including those non-government agencies (such as churches) which seek to operate for the public good. Every public agency is a public entity. However, there are public entities (for instance, churches, or again nonprofits such as Amnesty International, and indeed RASC itself) that are not public agencies.

The specific worry for the 2015 critics of RASC-TC was that title to key DDO heritage buildings would pass into the hands of a non-public agency - admittedly, a public entity - which might some decades later, in some possible eventual financial distress, be induced to sell on the open market. One part of the worry was that a sale might even be made to some commercial entity, even to some commercial entity in some formal or informal way connected to the present would-be DDO&P developer. In general, non-public agencies (registered charities included) are free not only to acquire buildings but to sell them, and their dealings are not subject to public scrutiny as the dealings of hospitals, police, and the like have to be.

****


Mr Briggs writes, "Concerns were raised about the financial risks associated with our ownership of a landmark property. We were prepared to take those risks, as long as we had the co-operation of the town council.  We were cheered up by the developer, which funded an expensive roof repair of the Admin Building last year that would have depleted our cash reserves and our line of credit, had we had to go it alone."

I was the person mainly pressing those 2015 concerns. My argument was based on the published RASC-TC annual accounts. The accounts show, as one would expect, a modest annual income, on the order of 100,000 CAD or 110,000 CAD, already heavily committed to unavoidable outlays outside DDO. One of these outlays is for operation of a substantial property, a rural outpost of amateur dark-sky observation called the "Carr Observatory".

On consulting in 2015 with an engineer well acquainted with the Admin Building, I learned that that the probable cost of the roof repair was on the order of 50,000 CAD. This is indeed, for an organization with the modest annual income of RASC-TC, expensive. So Mr Briggs writes accurately.

Further, he sheds some light on a question which I did not ponder in 2015: not only is the annual income stream too modest to make a 50,000 CAD roof repair easy, but additionally the RASC-TC cash reserves and line of credit cannot easily handle such a repair.

The full bill for deferred maintenance on the key DDO heritage buildings is not in the tens of thousands, but in the millions. The figure was conjectured by Prof. Tom Bolton, testifying under oath as a witness called to the 2012 Ontario Municipal Board hearing by the RHNats, to be on the order 10,000,000 CAD. (I do not have Prof. Bolton's words immediately in front of me, and so I am going by my memory of what I learned in the hearing room, and subsequently read in the RHNats' court-reporter transcript. But I know he cited a figure not under 8,000,000 CAD.) The Town consultant's own report on contemplated rump-park development at DDO suggests some lower figure, comprising not only necessary maintenance on the buildings but some level of upgrade. Even this figure, however - I do not, unfortunately, have it immediately in front of me as I blog today - is in the millions.

****

Mr Briggs now goes on (I need not quote him directly) to remark that in 2016 RASC-TC faced an unexpected turn of events, with the developer transferring ownership to the Town rather than to RASC-TC. Mr Briggs expresses the disappointment of RASC-TC over the news.

The disappointment is natural, and in its way commendable. It must, however, be put into its realpolitsch context. My own private and subjective conjecture is that the developer was happy enough to have RASC-TC conducting tours at DDO in the warm months of 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, when inquiries were still coming in from prospective home purchasers. The developer's own promotional material at http://observatoryhill.ca certainly suggests a milking of the astronomical connection, to confer special cachet on what is being sold. Now, in what has been one of the hottest property markets recently experienced in the Greater Toronto Area, it is (so I privately and subjectively conjecture, knowing what the market is like) probable that the bulk of the contemplated homes have in some informal way been spoken for. What further need is there for an organization such as RASC-TC to supply cachet and glamour? I therefore privately and subjectively conjecture that the developer, having no further great use for RASC-TC, is in its unsentimental Realpolitik happy to mend its diplomatic relations with the Town - at this late stage in its game cutting RASC-TC out, and striking instead a deal with the diplomatic partner whose good will is in the longer term more important.

These conjectures, I stress, are private and subjective. Soon after I read the 2016-07-22 announcement, I  asked  the developer's project manager to correct my conjectures, should correction be needed. I have not so far heard from him.

****

Mr Briggs proceeds to write the following, in a passage of importance to all who are trying to monitor the work of our Mayor and Council: "The RASC Toronto Centre Council was prepared to negotiate a lease under certain terms, which we communicated to the Town.  The proposed 'Net Net' lease we received back in June was a bitter pill that required us to re-check our position  /.../ The draft lease proposed that costs of upkeep of the observatory and property taxes would be borne by the occupant, and that a more expensive insurance policy than our current coverage was required. Our negotiators expressed to us that although a second try at negotiations would probably bring slow progress, no deal was likely to meet many of the terms we had outlined /.../ "

Was the Town at fault? I am willing to believe anything, if given convincing evidence and convincing logic. At the moment, however, I go by the Town's own remark, that it offered RASC-TC a lease of its standard kind, as an opening manoeuvre in negotiations. Although I remain ready to be corrected by RASC-TC, I do not here see grounds for considering our Town to have acted inappropriately.

****

Mr Briggs ends on a helpful and cheering note: "/.../ there is no rationale to say that we have decided to leave the observatory completely. [The RASC-TC leadership is] still obliged to negotiate with the Town for any role at the DDO that the members of the RASC Toronto Centre would like to participate in."

His remark helpfully serves the cause of truth, since it corrects my evidently premature conjecture on this blog in my emergency posting of 2016-07-22, when I said that RASC-TC was altogether "pulling out" of DDO.

Moreover, his remark is helpful in promoting reconciliation, as I now explain.

DDO does not benefit from having RASC-TC pull out.

The ideal solution is one on which RASC-TC somehow continues the presence it has maintained since 1935 - reverting, however, to the sane normalcy of the years from 1935 through 2008, on which RASC-TC is present less as a decision-maker than as an honoured guest.

Under this ideal, RASC-TC continues to do what it does well, by conducting public tours from the auditorium and Great Dome, with its own members also setting up amateur tour-night telescopes on the main lawn.

Additionally, I for one would urge the Town and the provincial and federal governments to construct a solution on which one or both of RASC-TC and RASC-National have office space in the Admin Building (perhaps for free, perhaps for some modest rent).

We want RASC, both as a Toronto and as a national organization, to flourish. RASC will flourish most if as much of its office operation as possible, both at the Toronto level and nationally, can be conducted from within an actual observatory, rather than from (as is the case now)  comparatively low-profile downtown premisses.

Admittedly, we will also under the ideal solution have some other amateur-astronomy association conducting "Citizen Science" astrophysical research at DDO, eventually under professional professorial guidance (could Dr Ian Shelton help?) with office space of their own. I have already remarked on this present blog that one obvious such association is the North York Astronomical Association (NYAA;  http://www.nyaa.ca).

Many, both within Town Council and outside it, will be uneasy over the prospect of two potentially rival groups of astronomers living on the same DDO corridor. To reassure these potential critics, I cite a small episode from the 1917-through-1920 crisis years in which Estonia achieved independence, in due course securing the respect of the Great Powers in their Versailles treaty deliberations.

Our nascent republic was marked (so what else is new, whether in Ontario amateur astronomy or in Estonian parliamentary work?) by strident debate.

Estonia had only a small, only marginally relevant, faction which sought outright incorporation into V.I.Lenin's nascent "Soviet Union".

Within the ranks of those urging independence, on the other hand, there were sharp divisions. (One basic fault line, I think: How far to the left should we go, in revising the centuries-old local rule by German Baltic barons? What degree of land reform, with what compensation scheme for the barons as their estates are divided into smallholdings, might prove appropriate?)

Two politicians, Mr "Alfa" and Mr "Beeta", were really, really not getting on. And then someone figured out how to bring peace. Härra Alfa and härra Beeta, as someone noticed,  had at the moment to travel some tens of kilometres across country, to get to some appropriate railway station. I imagine it thus, that they were needed in the capital, in Tallinn, and yet were awkwardly in some such distant outpost as Irboska -  painfully redolent of the novel and film Dr Zhivago, and painfully far even from the Tartu depot.

Ah, said someone, here is how we effect the necessary reconciliation: do by all means bundle härra Alfa and härra Beeta under the usual bearskin rugs (or whatever), and do by all means arrange the usual sleigh transport. (Winter roads were in the 1917-1920 era often impassable for horse carriages and motorcars.) But do ensure that they get put into one and the same sleigh.

By the time that shared sleigh reached the light and warmth of the railway depot, political things were working out well enough.






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