The big meet – Or not so meet

by C. Hunter Wells

Green line indicates proposed Heritage District boundary
Green line indicates proposed Heritage District boundary

Small whirlwinds must still be eddying through the meeting room of the Old Town Hall after the dust-storm of Tuesday night’s public meeting on the subject of the Downtown Heritage Conservation District. Or perhaps I should have said dust-up.

Town officials clearly anticipated intense feelings on the part of some of the citizens present, and attempted to control the meeting – and the feelings expressed there – by limiting ‘comments’ to questions. The Chair repeatedly refused to hear comments by participants unless they were couched as questions about the District, or specifically, about the presentation made that night. Bad form!

This writer was, frankly, horrified – and deeply incensed – that Council chose this method to try to squelch opposition. I have accused them before, in this forum, of “demonstrating an unseemly level of bureaucratic hubris,” and I reiterate that now. Shame on you!

Allow me to clarify the reasons for my horror and my wrath. First let me suggest that Council seems not to have gotten the point that, in essence, the meeting on the 23rd of June was not their meeting. It was, effectively, held under the auspices of the Province, and was therefore, for all intents and purposes, the Province’s meeting. It was held because the Provincial government demands that it be held. Under Ontario law, the Town cannot proceed with any Heritage District plans unless they bring those plans to the public, in an open forum, and provide the public with an opportunity to respond.

Here, I quote from the “Notice of Public Meeting” posted on the Town’s own website [ http://www.mississippimills.ca/en/news/index.aspx?page=3&newsId=03326fbf-0d1c-4f25-8e23-d436460028f5 ], in which it is stated that the purpose of the meeting was:  “to receive information and public input on the proposed Downtown Almonte Heritage Conservation District (HCD) Plan. This meeting of Council is the statutory Public Meeting required under Section 41.1(6) of Part V of the Ontario Heritage Act. Before Council can consider a By-law to designate an HCD area or to adopt an HCD Plan, a statutory Public Meeting must be held to provide the opportunity for the public to provide comments.”

Does this sound like “for the public to ask questions”?  NO!  It says “to receive information and public input” […] “to provide the opportunity for the public to provide comments.” The Town was thereby obligated to listen to the public’s comments, to “receive information” from the public, and to accept the public’s “input.”

Furthermore, this same notice states that:  “In accordance with subsection 41 (8) of the Ontario Heritage Act, a person who does not raise objections to the adoption of a proposed heritage conservation district plan by making oral representations at a Public Meeting or written submissions to Council may be later denied an opportunity to appeal the passing of a By-law adopting the HCD Plan.”  In other words:  “speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Tuesday evening, June 23, 2015 at the Old Town Hall in downtown Almonte was the final opportunity for any dissenting citizen to express that dissent orally. Ergo, not only did the citizens at that meeting have a right to express their opinions – they had an obligation to do so; otherwise they risked never being allowed to express that dissent, in any meaningful way, again. If any person attending that meeting was denied their right to express their dissent, and that person is later denied their opportunity to appeal the Heritage designation – on the grounds that they didn’t object before – I very much fear that the Town may have opened itself to a lawsuit, or a class-action lawsuit, as a result. And a lawsuit against the Town potentially hurts us all.

Had this been a meeting sponsored by the Town at its own behest, instead of a meeting mandated by the Province – at which the Town was obligated to accept the input of the citizenry – then there would have been no problem in the Town deciding on a format that limits an attendee’s participation to asking questions only. This was not such a case, and it was inappropriate – if not illegal/unlawful – for Council to attempt to vet the content, or to muzzle completely the comments of anyone present at this meeting, as long as that content and those comments related to the creation of the Downtown Heritage District. This is a matter of civic responsibility and civil rights, and Council, once again, had the wrong end of the stick.

For the record, I would like to make clear that I personally support the Heritage District designation. I believe it will be good for Almonte and will provide a safeguard for future development. As well, I lived in downtown Perth during its transition to a Heritage District and saw for myself the palpable increase in numbers of “architectural tourists” [they’re the ones standing stock still in the middle of the street, pointing at a building’s dentil moldings, and having an animated conversation]. But I am aware that there are others who have objections to the designation, including Mr Brian Gallagher and a group of concerned citizens for whom he spoke.

Initially it appeared that Mr Gallagher was going to be denied any opportunity to express the group’s concerns. This was appalling to me. As Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall (aka S. G. Tallentyre) said, in The Friends of Voltaire, by way of summing up Voltaire’s personal philosophy:  “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Mr Gallagher was, eventually, allowed to continue his statement, and, in my opinion, he and his group showed the best that democracy has to offer:  they met, spoke together, shared their views and concerns with each other, formed a joint opinion, and prepared a “manifesto” for presentation, by their chosen representative, at a public meeting being held for just that purpose. Good on ya, folks! Well done!

If only Town officials had shown the same respect for democracy, instead of, once again, attempting to control the outcome. Have they not had criticism enough on this issue for doing just that in the past? In all honesty, we are in far more danger from an administration that refuses to allow dissent, than we are from the dissent itself. If you will learn to have a little more respect for, and trust in, your fellow citizens, Mayor and Councillors, you may find you have more supporters for the cause out here than you know, and that we may be morally, verbally, and legally quite prepared to “go to the wall” for you on this issue [though in a slightly different sense], provided we are  not on the other side of the moat when you decide to bar the gates and raise the drawbridge against the advancing hordes!

C. H. Wells