getting justice at the tories' rental housing tribunal is tough enough. But the system can really seem stacked against you if your landlord happens to be renting the hearing room out to the judge ruling on your case.In January, Rhonda Lee Stephenson, a tenant in an apartment building at 1603 Bathurst, turned up at the tribunal seeking reimbursement for a year's worth of additional charges on her rent for a second parking spot she says she didn't use. But when Stephenson learned that her landlord, the Azuria Group, was also the tribunal's landlord on St. Clair, she immediately requested that the hearing be moved to another office.
The Azuria Group is the landlord for a number of residential buildings in the city and appears from time to time before the tribunal. An affiliated numbered company also happens to be the tribunal's landlord at 79 St. Clair East.
It's been less than a year since the tribunal's Toronto South offices moved into that building and NOW first reported (in the June 7-13, 2001 issue) on the potential conflicts of interest that could arise out of that lease arrangement.
Indeed, Stephenson's worries about a potential conflict were not totally unfounded. At first, Azuria's lawyer argued that there was no conflict. But in a strange twist, the tribunal member presiding over the matter, former Scarborough Tory MPP Jim Brown, revealed that he had been offered "a better deal" on parking at the St. Clair building by Azuria vice-president Rachel Saunders.
"I wanted no part of it," Brown tells NOW, adding that it was hardly a "deal" anyway since her offer was $10 more a month than he was already paying to another company.
Saunders did not return NOW's calls. The tribunal, however, hardly seems bothered by this turn of events.
"I didn't understand that it was a deal," says Carol Kiley, the tribunal's manager of program development. "I understood that (Brown) was working out the arrangements for (his parking) -- that's all."
Brown certainly felt uncomfortable enough about the situation to grant Stephenson's request and have the hearing adjourned to the tribunal's Toronto North office.
"I told Brown to get a folder, because the more this is brought to people's attention, the more people will be applying to get on a list to go to another venue," says Stephenson. "I don't care how squeaky clean they say they are. The fact of the matter is, it looks very weird."
Making the situation even weirder, according to Stephenson, was that the tribunal member who was originally presiding over her hearing, Sonia Light, a former lawyer in the solicitor's office at the city of Toronto, had to recuse herself from the case because of personal ties to Azuria officials.
Later, Light also had to step down in an above-guideline rent increase application for 1603 Bathurst brought by Azuria.
NOW wasn't able to speak with Light, but Kiley explains that "her family is friends with some of the members of this particular numbered company (affiliated with Azuria) and the Azuria corporation. So she transferred the rent increase matter to the vice-chair and another member to hear."
Earlier this month, Azuria won an above-guideline rent increase of over 8 per cent for 1603 Bathurst.
"I think in the end (the tribunal) actually punished us," says tenant Greg Edwards.
While Kiley maintains that all tribunal members are required to follow conflict guidelines, "sometimes they announce that they have a conflict of interest, and the parties feel comfortable going on with (the hearing)." firstname.lastname@example.org