Report on December 3 Council meeting

The Spirit of the Season – with a Few Booby Traps? 

 by Theresa Peluso

On the whole, this two-hour Council meeting contained numerous examples of civility, genuine discussion and reasoned arguments, all in keeping with the spirit of the season.  There were a few contentious issues, though.

Two involved proposed changes to the Procedural Bylaw, which could affect transparency and democratic decision-making at future Council meetings.  For a third contentious issue – the question of allowing restricted use of ATVs in Almonte –concerns remain, but some wiggle room was provided, as explained below under the heading Return to Council Session – and New Business.

Public Meeting

There being no delegations, the evening essentially started off with a public meeting regarding a zoning bylaw amendment for a property situated almost entirely within the settlement area in Clayton, for which the property owner wanted a rezoning from D (development) to R1 (residential first-density) to allow the construction of a single detached dwelling. It was confirmed that the property owner had received all the necessary approvals and complied with all the requirements.

The customary lone objector spoke at this meeting, quoting extensively from the Provincial Policy Statement, and the public meeting portion was then concluded.

Consent Items

The meeting then segued into the Committee of the Whole (COW), which started off at a smooth, steady pace, with approval of the advisory committee reports and the Five-Year Accessibility Plan.

Roads and Public Works Report – Paterson Street

An interesting discussion ensued concerning parking on Paterson Street, which had been expressed by Orchardview Estates, the owners of a large retirement home on the north-east side of that street.  They had requested that parking be restricted on both sides of the street between Tatra Street and Robert Hill Street.

Councillor John Dalgity reported that his investigation of the situation indicated that there are only a few spaces for the public to park in the retirement-home parking lot, because many of the spaces are marked “Reserved”.  Yet the retirement home has maintained that their parking lot is under-utilized.  Councillor Dalgity also pointed out that while parking on both sides of the street creates a sight-line problem, parking on one side would not.  Apparently there is no additional space on the retirement-home property to provide additional parking.  According to Director of Planning Niki Dwyer, this retirement home currently meets the municipal requirements for sufficient parking spaces.

Upon further discussion, a few of the veteran Councillors recalled that the no-parking issue on this same street had been discussed during the previous term of Council, and had been raised by nearby residents at that time.  No one could remember how the issue had been resolved.  Planner Dwyer said she’d review the files to see what she could find on the issue.  Mayor Christa Lowry suggested that this matter be deferred until the community had a chance to comment.

Councillor Jan Maydan – rather cleverly –  suggested that a public meeting be held at the retirement home to discuss this issue, which would also provide an opportunity for the attendees to find out first-hand how easy (or difficult?) it is to find a parking space there. But Mayor Lowry responded that she thought this was overkill, and that, instead, a request for public input should be communicated via the municipal newsfeed, and via notification by Orchardview Estates.

In the end it was agreed to defer the decision to the second week in February, by which time people would have had a chance to comment.

A second separate question of where to install the planned pedestrian cross-over on Paterson Street was quickly decided, and approved.

Before the vote was taken, Councillor Dalgity explained that he had already had a good discussion with the Director of Roads and Public Works, and they had both agreed on Option B.  And so ended a significant chunk of deliberation on this one street.  Mind you, the discussion showed a sincere, constructive effort by all Councillors to resolve the matter appropriately. More evidence of the spirit of the season.

Draft Procedural Bylaw

Next up for discussion was the draft Procedural Bylaw, which defines the procedures for calling, placing, conducting, and recording all municipal (including advisory-committee) meetings.  Final approval of the Procedural Bylaw was moved to the December 18 Council meeting.  At this evening’s meeting, Mayor Lowry thanked Acting Clerk Jeanne Harfield for all her hard work preparing this document.  However, there were two sticking points.

The first was the proposal to provide an open forum at future Council meetings, where the public could speak on various agenda items.  Mayor Lowry expressed concerns about this, saying that qualified experts advised against it, and that there are other ways to obtain public input.  Councillor Holmes agreed with Mayor Lowry, but suggested that the open-forum format go ahead on a six-month trial basis.

Councillor Maydan supported Councillor Holmes’s suggestion, as did Councillor Dalgity.

Mayor Lowry repeated her reservations about allowing a trial open-forum, explaining that it’s easy to give people something, but not easy to take it back.  She also stated that open forums would make Council meetings less productive, but that she’d be willing to discuss this proposal separately with her fellow councillors, in small groups.

My personal opinion is that globally – and locally, too –numerous vocal groups abound, with very extreme views.  I still remember the nightmare that erupted at a public meeting here at the Almonte arena exactly two years ago on the Natural Heritage System, where a large angry mob hijacked the meeting by refusing to listen to the proposed changes explained by Mississippi Mills’ hired consultant.  Instead, they pressured all the Councillors there to vote – illegally!!! –  against it – which, thankfully, the Councillors present at that time refused to do – except for one.  It would not surprise me in the least to see this happen again at an official Council meeting.

For this reason, it would be a good idea for Mississippi Mills residents to share their views on this open-forum issue, because it will definitely affect the quality of decisions that our Council makes. Provided that residents have other ways to express their views and have them acknowledged before decisions are taken by Council, open forums at Council meetings are not necessary.  Perhaps lengthening the time between discussing Council meeting items and voting on them to two weeks, instead of on the same evening, would allow for public input to be included.

Councillor Cynthia Guerard then objected to the stipulation in the Procedural Bylaw that new items could not be added to an existing agenda, unless there was a two-thirds majority.  It was explained that adding items at the last minute interferes with the requirement that Council meetings be democratic and transparent.

Deputy Mayor Rickey Minnille also pointed out that using this ad hoc approach could result in some sloppy decision-making, because no one would have a chance to do a proper investigation of possible solutions to these last-minute items.

Acting Clerk Harfield pointed out that this particular item was in place to deal with emergency situations, in which case getting a two-thirds majority would likely be easy to get. As the famous English writer Samuel Johnson is reported to have said: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

I think we residents can all see how adding last-minute items to an existing agenda would degrade the decision-making process at Council, especially if there are a majority of members of Council who can be swayed by a vocal minority group.  Again, if Mississippi Mills residents are concerned about this issue, please do share your views with our Councillors.

Chief Administrative Officer Ken Kelly suggested that the terms of reference for Council meetings be discussed during Council’s strategic meeting.  In the end the draft Procedural Bylaw was approved, with the question of Open Forums during Council meetings to be tabled as part of the Strategic Plan discussions.

Municipal Modernization Program

This program is in connection with the Province of Ontario’s efforts to encourage municipalities to find service-delivery efficiencies and lower the costs of service over the long term.  In March of this year, the Province provided $626,000 in funding to Mississippi Mills for modernization projects, none of which has been spent yet.  In addition, the Province is offering additional monies – $125 million over 4 years – to continue this modernization initiative. The catch for municipalities keen to access these additional monies is that they must have:

  1. a) a ready-to-go plan in place, with
  2. b) tangible objectives and, furthermore,
  3. c) inclusion of a third party to ensure accountability, and
  4. d) all of the above in place within a tight deadline – the beginning of February.

So the question on the floor was whether our Council was interested in the second pot of money.  There was concern about the pressure this would put on senior staff to meet the requirements.

But CAO Kelly pointed out that a recently done Recreation and Culture (R&C) plan, prepared for our municipality by a consulting group, had already highlighted a number of system-wide areas in need of improvement, and so identification of the problem areas was already done. He also pointed out that Council’s focus should be on a project that they would do anyway; e.g., the R&C plan.

Mayor Lowry suggested that the consultants who performed the R&C plan be hired, which would also ease the workload of senior staff. In response to Councillor Denzil Ferguson’s question about whether each municipal department would need to be assessed separately, CAO Kelly responded that there is a long list of consulting companies specializing in municipality-specific assessments, who would do a system-wide analysis.  In the end, it was agreed to bite the bullet and approve the application for this new Provincial funding.

Information Items

This part of the meeting was fairly smooth, and included Mayor Lowry’s announcement that Deputy Mayor Minnille had been appointed to chair Lanark County’s Community Services Committee.  Mayor Lowry also described her enjoyable meeting with several volunteer groups in our community as part of Giving Tuesday (an antidote to Black Friday and Cyber Monday), where people are encouraged to donate to charitable organizations.  She wants to make Giving Tuesday an annual tradition for Mississippi Mills.

Return to Council Session – and New Business

During this part of the meeting, all the items discussed during the Committee of the Whole portion were approved unanimously.

Then came Councillor Holmes’s motion to lift the ban on All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) travelling on Almonte streets.  Councillor Holmes pointed out that, as it stands, ATV owners are not allowed to travel on Almonte streets to access the Ottawa Valley Recreation Trail (OVRT).

She also said that, at the moment, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officers are making exceptions for ATVers wanting to access the OVRT, and so she wants to make this legal by specifying designated streets they can use, or identifying a designated parking lot for ATV trailers.  Councillor Holmes then proposed that staff find out how other jurisdictions are dealing with this concern, and that they provide this information to Council at a later date.

Councillor Maydan stated that the Province is loosening the barriers as to where ATVs can ride, and so Councillor Holmes’s motion was a step in this direction.  She also questioned how the municipality would deal with irresponsible operation of ATVs.  Councillor Ferguson questioned the appropriateness of this motion, as parking for ATVs in Almonte is still an issue.

Councillor Dalgity said he had received numerous emails expressing concern about this proposed change, and suggested that there be public consultation.  Councillor Holmes replied that public consultation could take place simultaneously with staff’s investigations.  She also suggested that in the spring the OPP could do a few blitzes to curtail any problems with ATV speeding and noise problems. Councillor Holmes’s proposal to wait for staff’s report before approving this exemption for ATVs was then passed, with six Councillors in favour, and Mayor Lowry abstaining.

Several obvious concerns seem to have been ignored.

First, many residents have complained that there is no enforcement at all of the ATV restrictions as they are defined now, including ATVs NOT heading to or from the OVRT, and ATVs that violate licence requirements and curfew and noise restrictions.  So perhaps this is the thin edge of the wedge.

First of all, a practical question: How do you define a “designated” street?  If an ATVer lives on an “undesignated” street, will s/he be able to legally drive on it? Secondly, and more importantly, you can see where this approach – to reward illegal behaviour by removing the regulations that make it illegal – would lead to. ATVers riding around on all Almonte streets, including non-designated streets, and, if stopped by the police, explaining that it’s their “route to access the OVRT”. More flagrant speed, licence and noise violations without fear of consequences.

Surprisingly, during discussion of Councillor Holmes’s motion, no safety concerns were raised with respect to cyclists and pedestrians, and no information from the OPP was included as part of this discussion.  Well, seeing as Council are considering public input, now would be the time to start circulating a petition and collecting signatures, and to write/call/email your Councillors to let them know how you feel about this proposed change.

Following this item, there was a motion by Councillor Guerard to support the Township of Ramara’s request that Conservation Authorities be abolished, and that municipalities assume their responsibilities.  Following her hard-to-follow argument in favour of this motion, she was unable to get anyone to second it, so thankfully this motion died.

Most people, at this point, including our other members of Council, appreciate the invaluable work our own Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority does in protecting and monitoring our watersheds, and has done in helping us to deal with last spring’s flooding.

Councillor Guerard also provided a Notice of Motion for the next Council meeting to, it seems, abolish higher level jurisdictions, in this case, I believe, Lanark County.  It will be interesting to see if she can solicit any interest from the other members of Council.

Following discussion of a few additional minor matters (including last meeting’s blown-up-out-of-proportion no-parking change on Waba Road), the Council meeting came to an end.

Conclusion

As you can see, Mississippi Mills residents who care about open, democratic governance need to make their views known to our Councillors, and, if at all possible, attend the Council meetings to show our members of Council that you are watching and you are concerned.  At the moment, there is a regular group of attendees at these meetings.

The rest of us need to join them, to encourage constructive discussions – and to watch for booby traps.

There’s one more meeting this year, on December 18.  I hope to see you there!