April 16 Council meeting: uncivil comments, pointless arguments

Uncivil comments, pointless arguments, and skewed priorities:  the Mississippi Mills Council meeting on April 16, 2019

by Theresa Peluso

Expecting our new Council to continue making progress in collaboration and collegiality, I was taken aback at what transpired at their last meeting. Here’s my report on the April 16 Council meeting, which took a distressing turn, as you will soon find out.

The big issue of the night was the approval of the municipal budgets.  This was ultimately completed, but only after many, mostly unproductive discussions.

The first budget item of interest was the question of the bump-outs proposed for the very busy Highway 29, which runs through downtown Pakenham, where the elementary school, clinic, library (one block away), arena, shops, restaurants, bank, and several other basic amenities are located, resulting in this main street becoming a drag strip for vehicles, including transport trucks, speeding to their destinations.

This main highway also connects to another important road (Waba Road) right in downtown Pakenham.  As a result, residents feel anxious about their safety as they go about their daily lives.

So last year, the Active Transportation Advisory Committee, with the considerable expertise of the Director of Roads and Public Works, Guy Bourgon, and approval from Lanark County, settled on a professionally engineered plan to create bump-outs to slow traffic and shorten the distance from one side of the street to the other, especially for small children and seniors, unable to race across a 12-metre (40-foot) wide street to avoid oncoming vehicles.

Councillor Holmes explained that, at a recent Agricultural Advisory Committee meeting, some farmers with larger vehicles were concerned that the bump-outs would not accommodate the turning radius of these machines, and were therefore against having these speed bumps installed.

It took a great deal of detailed explanations from Bourgon at this Council meeting, including a sophisticated video simulation showing a double-trailer transport trailer successfully negotiating this turn, with room to spare, and many additional questions, before several councillors tempered their opinions, but not completely.  Regardless of the clear workability of the proposal, they still wanted the proposal referred to the new Public Works Advisory Committee.

Bourgon explained that drivers regularly break speed limits and zoom through intersections if the road layout doesn’t in some way compel them to slow down.  (Observing the cars that speed through Blakeney not far from the bridge there, I can certainly corroborate his explanation.)

All these concerns could have been directly addressed to the Director before the meeting, but it appears Councillors are still not effectively communicating with staff.  The end result was that decision on this straightforward issue was referred to the PWAC for further discussion. It is hoped that PWAC will recognize the need for implementing this professionally designed modification.

In connection with the PWAC, it was also agreed that municipal funding would be provided for a pilot project, to plant pollinator-friendly perennials on a 1-km section of road in Pakenham that has been adopted to keep it from being boom-sprayed (ostensibly to control wild parsnip).   The pollinator project, although a wonderful initiative, is presumably to compensate for the more than 200 km of roadsides (both sides of most of our municipality’s roads) that will be boom- and spot-sprayed with herbicide this summer.

Another apparently straightforward budget item – but not to Councillor Guerard – was Roads and Public Works’ plan to improve the Ramsay storage facility.

It seems that the amount budgeted wasn’t high enough according to her research, and so Bourgon, a highly qualified engineer, had to explain to Councillor Guerard, with her background in upholstery, why he was able to have the work completed within the budgeted cost, by minimizing the amount of work contracted out.

Mayor Lowry basically had to ask Councillor Guerard to desist her unrelenting questioning. It seems she did not appreciate this department’s efforts to reduce municipal spending and taxes.  In any case, this pointless discussion could have been avoided by simply consulting with Bourgon before the meeting.

Finally, the recreation capital budget took a major $40,000 cut because of a motion by Councillor Dalgity to transfer these monies to the Roads and Public Works budget to build a second crosswalk on Paterson Street, instead of its original target, which was to replace the decrepit and essentially unusable basketball court at Gemmill Park.

No background information, no specific location, and no reasons were offered in support of the motion. Staff were surprised by the proposal.  Councillors Maydan, Guerard and Holmes lost no time supporting this motion, and it was passed.

Regarding the 2018 annual report on the Wastewater Treatment Facility, Councillor Holmes posed some good questions about whether tests were available to measure the volume of two sewage spills that occurred, one at the facility and the second at Gemmill’s Bay.

Bourgon responded that these tests are available, but expensive to perform, and not required by law.  It seems that heavy rainfall triggers these spills, and with climate change an increasing problem, these will most likely recur.  In my opinion, this is definitely an issue that warrants further study, as it affects our water quality, and has serious impacts on the environment, as well as on swimmers, boaters and fishing aficionados.

Then the issue came up of putting teeth into the existing by-law restricting ATVs travelling within the town limits of Almonte and Pakenham by actually stipulating a financial penalty, instead of just a verbal warning.

There was a lot of dithering over this, as the discussion was more about the entitlement of ATVs to travel on the road to access restaurants and service stations, than the right of residents to safety.  Ultimately, the acting CAO’s recommendation, to establish an effective bylaw with the option of modifying it later, was agreed on.  The point was made that this particular penalty was aimed at rogue ATV operators who willfully race around town, which has been a serious issue with residents, especially since the opening of the OVRT.

Regarding the MVCA (Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority) report, Councillor Holmes reported that a significant portion of their flood protection funding had been cut.  It seems our provincial government is unperturbed by any problems we may have with flooding, water conservation during droughts, erosion control, or water quality.

So, hunker down, folks, start stockpiling those sandbags and cisterns, and say good-bye to water quality protection and hello to Walkerton, Part 2.  This Council needs to speak against the Province’s short-sightedness on this matter, because our municipality will be saddled with yet more taxes to pay for flood- and water-quality protection.

Under New Business, Mayor Lowry made a motion, which was passed, requesting that the Province provide Eastern Ontario with a regionally appropriate land-use plan specifically with respect to identifying agricultural land.  Our region differs from others in that agricultural land is often interspersed with large rocky areas, so that it’s not possible to apply an overall designation to a given section, as can easily be done in Southern Ontario, for example.

Then – Councillor Guerard weighed in with a complaint regarding the Community Official Plan, which, if you may recall, was finally passed at the last Council meeting.

She was upset that a letter by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, suggesting that municipalities should delay planning decisions pending further provincial legislation, was not acknowledged by Niki Dwyer, our Director of Planning, and she point-blank accused Dwyer of deception.  Councillor Maydan immediately supported Guerard’s accusation.

Mayor Lowry quickly reprimanded Guerard, stating that her accusation was unfounded and unhelpful.  It was an unwarranted attack on Dwyer, who appeared shocked at this deliberate public questioning of her professionalism.

First, of all, the fact is the current Provincial Policy Statement prevails in this case, even over a letter from the Municipal Affairs Minister, to the Mayor, with a one-sentence comment thrown in near the end of the letter suggesting that PPS changes are coming.

These further changes could easily take two to three years to become Provincial Policy, and the just-approved COP had undergone close to ten years of review before being accepted. Keep in mind that these PPS requirements help to prevent Mississippi Mills from being disfigured by urban sprawl.

Secondly, for Councillor Guerard to deliberately ignore Council’s previous decision to approve the COP by continuing to raise objections demonstrates disrespect for Council and for the decision-making process.

Third, to publicly level an accusation at a staff member – or anyone, for that matter – is the height of incivility, and disgraces all councillors present, the staff, and those residents attending the meeting, by witnessing such behavior.

First-time politicians need to understand that, after a successful election, they now MUST work with their team to achieve anything meaningful. That team includes the municipal staff. The senior municipal staff are highly respected professionals with a wealth of knowledge that they are only too happy to share.  The last thing our municipality needs are councillors who chip away at our first-class system by eroding staff morale and making uninformed decisions on how we spend our money.

Please let Mayor Lowry, Deputy Mayor Minnille, Councillor Ferguson, and Councillor Holmes know that you fully support their efforts to promote a POSITIVE outlook, and to have this Council operate in a civil manner.

Please reassure our municipal staff that their professionalism is appreciated. They may not be hearing it from several new members on Council.