June 18 Council meeting: Pakenham crossovers turn contentious

By Theresa Peluso

The June 18 meeting had one contentious issue, the final decision on whether to approve the existing engineering design for the two new Pakenham pedestrian crossovers.  It was disheartening to see four members of our new Council deliberately crush the hopes of the residents of this town for a timely, effective solution to the problem of getting across this busy, dangerous 12-metre wide street that cuts through their downtown area.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Two delegations were on the agenda.  As part of the first delegation, Dr. Paula Stewart and Public Health Nurse Danielle Shewfelt from the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit (LGLDHU) outlined their Public Health Strategic Plan, which addresses healthy, active living (all those things we individuals should be doing if we don’t want to get ill), and ways in which families and communities can encourage this lifestyle.

One example of how the community can support good health is by providing extensive natural areas for people – and are we ever fortunate in Mississippi Mills to have so many parks, forests, rivers, creeks, and nature trails available!  Dr. Stewart emphasized that getting out in nature is important for everyone, and especially for children, because it helps to develop their brains.  Advocacy for increasing human contact with nature is supported by many research studies, including one in Great Britain (see http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160420-how-nature-is-good-for-our-health-and-happiness), which shows that everyone, not just youngsters can benefit from being out in nature.

To promote physical activity, so important for good health, Ms. Shewfelt explained that encouraging school children to walk or bike to and from school is important because it incorporates physical activity into their daily routines – and as a bonus, enables them to spend more time socializing with schoolmates.

The LGLDHU also strongly promote ways for everyone, not just children, regardless of their disabilities, to get around independently or with assistance.  In addition to encouraging healthy living, the LGLDHU assess the level of health of our community, as well as how our community supports or hinders good health; provide support to new parents; conduct safety inspections of restaurants, farmers’ markets, and beaches; monitor evidence of infectious diseases; and help residents to navigate health-related resources and services.  Dr. Stewart and Ms. Shewfelt ended by suggesting that they work with our municipality on a strategic plan by including a healthy living component.

In response to a question by Deputy Mayor Minnille about how provincial budget cuts would affect the LGLDHU, Dr. Stewart responded that reducing the number health units from 35 to 10, as planned, might result in cost efficiencies, but the eventual decrease in funding from the Province’s current 75% (supplemented by County funding of 25%) to 60%-40% is of great concern to the county wardens of Eastern Ontario.

In answer to Councillor Ferguson’s question about how our municipality can promote transportation, Dr. Stewart recommended supporting Eastern Ontario Active Transportation, and promoting physical activity in residents’ daily life – through recreation programs, and especially through daily physical activity – walking, rolling, or biking – paying special attention to children and people with disabilities.  Councillor Dalgity asked about support for nutritional programs, and it was explained that the LGLDHU has three school nutritionists, breakfast programs, and has introduced a food literacy program in the schools, to show children how to prepare a healthy meal.

The second delegation was Gordon Harrison from the Stewardship Council of Lanark County (SCLC).

Mr. Harrison stressed the importance of forests, wetlands, lakes and rivers in helping communities to adapt to climate change.  He explained how climate events affect our watershed, which in turn have impacts on agriculture, tourism, forestry, fisheries and other sectors. Mr. Harrison explained that the SCLC, formed 30 years ago, have worked with individuals to encourage responsible environmental stewardship, including farmers, hunters, fishing enthusiasts and homeowners, by providing information and some funding for a broad range of activities that protect habitat and wetlands.  Some initiatives have involved restoring fish habitats, working with youth, tree planting, and linking fragments of unused land to form a larger habitat for wildlife.

To date, 386 farmers, 3,160 acres and 8 counties in Ontario are participating in ALUS (Alternative Land Use Program), a program of Canadian origin that aims to protect our natural heritage in a way that is driven by landowners. SCLC would like Lanark County to be added to that list.

Deputy Mayor Minnille informed Mr. Harrison that our municipality had already incorporated linked natural areas (animal highways) in their Community Official Plan. In response to questions from councillors, Mr. Harrison explained that funding for habitat restoration programs was provided by the Weston Foundation and from the federal government, and from other sources.  He also explained that a project could entail something as small as planting trees in a farmer’s field in a corner that couldn’t be easily tilled.

During the Committee of the Whole portion of the meeting, Deputy Mayor Minnille was formally appointed as Chairperson of the Committee of the Whole, starting on August 13 and ending on December 31. Councillor Maydan pointed out that this decision may change once the new procedural by-law is approved.  Which leads me to wonder why the duration of this appointment is such a concern.

The only Department Report was from Treasurer Rhonda Whitmarsh, which was approved.

Then the Petition Policy, which arose out of Councillor Maydan’s request a few months ago, came up. The original Petition Policy was amended by including the statement that minor municipal improvements (costing less than $20,000) could be successfully challenged by means of a petition, that supporting evidence could be included as part of a delegation in support of the petition, and that on-line petitions would be accepted.

My personal experience with submitting a petition to this current Council last February was that it met with a wall of indifference.  Why?  Because this Council refused to entertain the idea that residents’ concerns about the municipality’s plan to destroy roadside habitat by spraying them with herbicide that could leach into our aquifer was of the slightest importance.  However, since these councillors seem intent on removing the improvements made by the previous Council that encourage cycling (as promoted by the Health Unit), how do you think they will design and circulate a petition in connection with that, to get the desired response?

The big issue of pedestrian crossovers in Pakenham then came up.

This included two crossovers:  the contentious one at the intersection of Waba Road and Highway 29, and a second one at the Jeanie Street-Highway 29 intersection. Our Chief Administrative Officer, Ken Kelly, took charge of the discussion here, and showed an excellent command of the situation.  He stressed that Council could not leave staff in limbo without clear direction, and issued a firm ultimatum:  Council basically had three choices:

a) approve the existing design and budget;
b) rescind the existing design and budget and do nothing; or
c) rescind the existing design and budget, and formulate a new design and budget.

Mr. Kelly then summarized the relevant information on this issue, and asked, very pointedly:  Where does this data lead you?

The agenda package included pleas for a quick solution to the dangerous and disruptive traffic blocking access to the school, stores, library, recreation facility and beach on the other side.  Pleas from Bridging Generations, an inter-generational community group; from the Pakenham Public School Council; and from the Pakenham Business and Tourism Association.  Here are some of their comments:

…The bump-outs would act as a traffic-calming influence assisting in controlling the speed of vehicles, a continuing concern.  It is noted that both children and seniors do not necessarily move as quickly…as do those in between.  As business owners we want people to feel safe in our community.  We want the locals and tourists to stop and shop in our various enterprises…. (Pakenham Business and Tourism Association)

…A series of forums were organized…in Pakenham so residents could describe what was needed to age well in our community….many participants discussed the need for safe, well-constructed and protected space for citizens to walk throughout the village… most people must cross County Rd #29 in order to use the Post Office, Library, School, the Arena, parks, the beach and other services.  This situation affects not only seniors but children en route to school, the daycare staff transferring children from one location to another, and area residents using the riverside parks…. (Bridging Generations)

Over the past several weeks many more dangerous situations/incidents have been brought to my attention and School Council wants to go on record that this crossing is a very dangerous situation.  (Pakenham Public School Council)

So what happened next?

Councillor Holmes, notwithstanding all the documentation that supported Option 1, put forward a motion to support Option 3 (reject the existing design, and come up with a new plan and budget).

Councillor Ferguson spoke strongly and eloquently in favour of the current engineering design.  He fully recognized the need for agricultural vehicles to be able to negotiate the Waba Road-Highway 29 intersection, and said those concerns were met by the existing design.  He also said that speeding was a very real safety issue on this stretch of road, and needed to be dealt with as soon as possible.

Mayor Lowry stated that Council had heard loud and clear from all the Pakenham community groups.  She pointed out that the Integrity Commissioner had told councillors that “we can’t pretend to know what we don’t know”.  (Perhaps a veiled reference to the insistence by certain councillors that these proposed bump-outs would hinder large farm machines despite real evidence?  Did they really know that, or were they just assuming they did?)  Given the information provided in the agenda package, and given that none of these councillors are engineers, and therefore unable to create a substitute engineering design on the spot, Option 1 was the clear logical choice, right?  So why wasn’t it chosen?

Because Councillors Holmes, Maydan, Guerard and Dalgity apparently had issues with it.

While claiming to be sympathetic to the plight of Pakenham residents, they objected to the bump-outs and said they shouldn’t have been included in the design. They picked various statements in the Ministry of Transportation document to support their claims, only to be told by the CAO that their interpretation was wrong.  They proposed duplicating random crosswalks in other municipalities, only to be told how none of those examples took into account the unique situation in Pakenham.

They apparently forgot that the Roads and Public Works Director had told them that Lanark County didn’t approve of a 12-metre crossover on Highway 29 in Pakenham.  (Can you imagine the irritation of some morning commuters as they’d have to wait several minutes for schoolchildren to cross this expanse of road, and how some would try to sneak past?)  These councillors also seemed to forget the problem pointed out to them earlier, of the signal-crossing arms for a 12-metre crossover interfering with the overhead hydro wires at that intersection.

Despite this, Councillor Maydan kept insisting that a one-size-fits-all crossover would work.  Was she seriously trying to understand the problem and find a workable solution?

So, clearly designing this new crossover on the fly wasn’t going to cut it.  Mr. Kelly, supported by the Director of Roads and Public Works, explained that rescinding the current plan would mean going through the whole design process yet again, and getting public input.  (Which raises the question:  Why didn’t the agricultural community raise their concerns during the previous approval process for the current design?)

Deputy Mayor Minnille pointed out that the long-term cost for this new design will be higher, taking into account the money already spent to create and review the existing design, which is now wasted.

Councillor Dalgity kept insisting that the Public Works Advisory Committee would need to review the new design – oh – and, of course, Pakenham residents.

One question I have is why the people concerned about the bump-outs impeding their large vehicles didn’t request to give an actual demonstration of this problem to our Council and staff, and interested residents.  It seems that the only evidence was some amateur video showing the turn couldn’t be negotiated.  What was the intention and level of competence of the driver demonstrating this turn?  Furthermore, this amateur video contradicts the professional engineering analysis contracted by the municipality.

The long and short of this discussion was that Option 3 was approved by Councillors Maydan, Guerard, Dalgity and Holmes, and voted against by Mayor Lowry, Deputy Mayor Minnille and Councillor Ferguson in a recorded vote (as requested by Councillor Ferguson).  There is money in the current budget to pay for yet another engineering design (the original design cost $13,000), and it sounds like it will be taken out of the money previously allocated to actually build the crossover this year.  The second, non-contentious crossover at Jeanie Street was also cancelled as a result of this vote.

Before this new pedestrian crossover can be built, it will be necessary, in addition to requesting and receiving a new engineering design, to organize public consultations with residents, key stakeholder groups, and advisory committees.  What’s your guess as to how long this will take?  One year?  Two?  Three?  I guess these residents won’t be following the Health Unit’s advice any time soon to stay healthy by taking every opportunity to walk and bike daily in their community.  Instead, for the next year or two – or three – , they and their children will continue to risk their safety every time they cross this busy highway.

This Council meeting ended with Mayor Lowry enthusiastically commending Tiffany MacLaren, Community Economic and Cultural Coordinator, for her creative, hugely successful initiatives to enable our municipality to participate in the outpouring of support for the Toronto Raptors during the exciting NBA Championship finals, and make Americans aware that our little town of Almonte (actually Mississippi Mills) was the birthplace of basketball, to the point that she and Mayor Lowry had numerous interviews with the press at the local, national and international level, including coverage in the Washington Post!

It was also explained that there will be no council meetings during the month of July.  The next one will take place on August 13.

From this June 18 Council meeting I can only conclude that Councillors Guerard, Maydan, and Dalgity are unable, or unwilling, to grow into their new roles as representatives of a diverse municipality, although the behaviour of Councillors Maydan and Dalgity towards staff and colleagues has become more civil. There is some feeble evidence that Councillor Holmes is trying to advocate for residents other than her core group; however, when push comes to shove, she and the other councillors tend to vote as a bloc against the wishes of whole communities and citizens’ groups, so as to comply with the pre-determined agenda of a certain core group. So much for real representative democracy.