by Theresa Peluso

Good Tidings – and One Problem:  The Mississippi Mills Council Meeting on January 14, 2020

As this first meeting of the year unfolded, I really thought I had been carried off to Shangri-La.  The Councillors all seemed well-disposed, and many of the governance and environmental concerns I had identified at previous meetings seemed to have resulted in fairy-tale endings – except, alas, for the roadside spraying issue.  But let’s begin at the beginning.

Changes to how Council meetings are run

Mayor Christa Lowry started the meeting by wishing everyone present a Happy New Year, and explaining how, as of January 1 of this year, our new procedural by-law will affect the way Council meetings are run.

In addition to starting each meeting with our traditional national anthem, there will be a moment of silent meditation.  Once a year there will be a land acknowledgement stating that the meeting is taking place on unceded Algonquin territory, to show respect for the original inhabitants of this land, their culture and their history – and also to rebuild trust with the First Nations in keeping with the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Recording Council meetings will now be permitted, provided that the Clerk is notified ahead of time.  Recording is restricted to the meeting itself – not before or after the meeting, or during intermissions.  Furthermore, Notices of Motion may be discussed at any time once they are posted on the meeting agenda, including at the initial meeting. Mayor Lowry also explained that Councillor John Dalgity had been appointed as Chairperson of the Committee of the Whole (COW) for the first half of this year.

Last but definitely not least, the Council and the COW meetings will be run separately on the same evening, and motions that arise from the COW portion of one evening will be voted on two weeks later, at the following Council meeting.  While this may slow down business, it will provide ample opportunity for feedback to Councillors from us residents.  See what I meant about fairy-tale endings?

Mayor Lowry then mentioned that she and Councillor Jan Maydan had attended a meeting with Mississippi Mills All My Relations, an initiative coordinated by St. Paul’s Anglican Church, which provides opportunities to build respectful connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous neighbours through its programs. In connection with this initiative, at the next Council meeting (Jan. 28) there will be a delegation by Mr. Larry McDermott, who is an Algonquin from Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation and Executive Director of Plenty Canada.  (Plenty Canada provides support to local Indigenous community organizations for small-scale development that is economically, environmentally, socially and culturally sustainable.) To list just a few of Mr. McDermott’s many credentials, he’s also a former three-time Mayor and long-time Council member of Lanark Highlands, the first Chair of the Rural Forum of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and a Commissioner for the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Council Meeting

During the discussion in connection with passing the by-laws listed on the agenda, Councillor Cynthia Guerard asked for further discussion regarding the by-law on temporary borrowing. Because the Treasurer, Rhonda Whitmarsh, was not at the meeting, Councillor Guerard directed her question to CAO Ken Kelly.  Councillor Guerard wanted to know why the $1.1 million in Reserves, which is not assigned to any particular budget category, was not used to pay for needed municipal services.  CAO Kelly replied that, being new to staff, he was not familiar with the history behind this money.  Mayor Lowry then explained that this money was used to temporarily cover large unforeseen expenses, where there might be a shortfall in capital as a result of, for example, non-payment of taxes by residents.  This would save the municipality from having to pay late penalties when bills such as school board payments or policing fees come due.  She said she would get clarification from the Treasurer, following which this by-law was passed by Council.

So ended the Council meeting portion of the evening.

Committee of the Whole

This started with Councillor Dalgity taking the seat of Chairperson for this portion of the evening.

Defibrillator for Pakenham Library

As part of the Consent Reports, Councillor Holmes said that Councillor Maydan, on behalf of the Library Board, was seeking funding from federal member of Parliament Scott Reid for a defibrillator for the Pakenham branch.  It seems MP Reid’s office provides money for this type of equipment.  This request was approved.

Seasonal roads

In connection with the staff report from Roads and Public Works (R&PW), questions were asked about how Roads and Public Works decide what constitutes a “seasonal road”, how the November 1- April 15 time frame for closing these roads is determined, and what effect road closures have on residents on these roads.

Director of R&PW Guy Bourgon explained that in the past, the roads in question have always been closed in the winter (i.e., not cleared of snow), but that this decision was now being formally stated.  The main reason for closure is that these roads are not built to municipal standard to withstand the size and weight of snow-clearing equipment, and they are little-used. To upgrade these 19 roads, which are on municipal rights-of-way, would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the roads do get occasional gravel surfacing and dust control.  Private roads get no municipal services.  If additional houses were to be built along one of these seasonal roads, the road would be re-assessed and upgraded as needed; otherwise the onus is on residents to ensure that their road is safe to travel on.  Following this discussion, Director Bourgon’s request for temporary closure of these seasonal roads was passed.

Wild parsnip spraying

Then followed Councillor Holmes’s Notice of Motion, in connection with the on-going wild-parsnip controversy, which requested that Council direct the Agricultural Advisory Committee (AAC) to bring forward options regarding wild-parsnip management alternatives for organic farmers, including mitigation strategies, and that this Advisory Committee identify organic agricultural areas within Mississippi Mills.

Councillor Holmes explained that there are numerous organic farmers in Mississippi Mills who, to maintain their “organic” status, must ensure that their crops are completely free of chemicals of any kind; for these farmers, chemical contamination from roadside spraying to control wild parsnip would result in a huge economic loss.  Councillor Denzil Ferguson asked how these farmers proposed to manage the wild parsnip on their roadsides.  Councillor Holmes replied that one AAC member is an organic farmer who has successfully used organic methods, which he would like to recommend.  Deputy Mayor Rick Minnille pointed out that Lanark County uses native plants to choke out invasive plants, which could be a suitable remedy to control wild parsnip.  Councillor Holmes made it clear that this year she wanted to avoid a repeat of the many problems that had arisen during last year’s spraying program.

Councillor Maydan then reminded her fellow Councillors that at a previous meeting she had referred to Friends of Lanark County, who had extensive expertise managing wild parsnip, who could provide interested organic farmers with advice on alternative management strategies for wild parsnip.

And here, alas, is where the evening’s magic spell was broken.  It was as if some malicious spirit had barged in!

During this discussion, no one referred to Councillor Maydan’s unanimously approved motion at the November 19 meeting; namely, to direct Staff to contact the Friends of Lanark County (FOLC) about producing a Vegetative Management Plan (VMP) for our Municipality (based on the County’s VMP), which would help to address and prevent the many problems that occurred with the roadside spraying program last year. Unfortunately, the delegation requested by FOLC has not yet been scheduled by our Municipality, and now it very much looks as though FOLC’s expertise will be treated as an empty gesture, and not an honest attempt to look at proven alternatives for wild parsnip management.  It seems that R&PW are also intending to include an engagement strategy to ensure that those wishing to provide comment on the plan are provided an opportunity.  Another empty gesture?

Let’s hope that R&PW DON’T repeat the approach they used last year, as explained in their report on the Wild Parsnip Management Program for 2019, published last November.  (I couldn’t find this report on the Municipal website, but Director Bourgon was kind enough to send me a copy, which can be found at this link (Nov 2019 R&PW roadside spraying report .) This report stated that R&PW staff found infestation to be heavy on 24 roads, medium on 21 roads, light and very light on 39 roads, and clear on 40 roads.

And yet, according to the 2019 road-spraying map published by R&PW, nearly all of Mississippi Mills’ roads were designated to be boom-sprayed.  As it turns out, long stretches of roadside bordering forests and watersheds that had little or no wild parsnip were boom-sprayed, and some people who had opted out of having their road frontages sprayed, got sprayed in error.

Why this heavy-handed approach?  Because of the fear of supposed renegade seeds sprouting and overtaking our farms?  No heed was paid to concerns about the mounting evidence of damage caused by these inadequately tested, expensive herbicides to our health and environment.

This no-holds-barred approach also makes it difficult to assess the effectiveness of the boom-spraying.  If you spray non-existent plants, and those plants still aren’t evident the following year, was the spraying effective?

Last year’s huge public outcry against boom-spraying our roadsides must be acknowledged by eliminating unrestricted boom-spraying (as done last year) as an option from the Wild Parsnip Management Program for 2020.  Instead, R&PW need to solicit, from the very beginning, input from our Councillors, environmental experts, and the public (several of whom have recognized scientific expertise) on best management strategies for controlling wild parsnip.

R&PW also need to restrict wild parsnip management to those areas where there is actual evidence of this plant. (Such evidence can only be gathered, at the earliest, in the spring, so it’s highly premature to be tendering contracts in mid-February!)  R&PW should also concentrate more effort and expense on assisting those farmers who are experiencing challenges with wild parsnip and less in areas where there is little or no problem?  Think of the money that would be saved, the harm reduction that would result, and the many taxpayers with valid health and environment-related concerns about the toxic effects of boom-sprayed chemicals that would be accommodated – not just organic farmers.

Unfortunately, none of the above options were even considered in advance of the January 14 Council meeting.  There is now a tight deadline – Director Bourgon will be meeting in mid-February with Lanark County Public Works Director Terry McCann to discuss tendering a contract for roadside spraying.  So the question arose of how to ensure that the AAC had time to provide the necessary information on organic farm exemptions before this meeting.  It was ascertained that the AAC’s information and recommendations could be approved by the COW, without necessitating approval by Council (recall that the new Council meeting rules result in a two-week approval delay).  In any case, Director Bourgon said that adjustments to the contract resulting from exemptions for organic farms would be minor, and therefore it didn’t matter when he received this information.

To issue a tender for spraying in 2020, without even an up-to-date, properly vetted Wild Parsnip Management Program, makes no sense. To paraphrase the hammer-nail analogy:  To someone with a tanker-load full of herbicide, everything looks like a parsnip plant.

If you share my concerns about roadside spraying, please relay them to our Council, care of the Acting Clerk: jharfield@mississippimills.ca before January 25.  It’s time to take advantage of our Council’s new decision-making process!

Information Items

At this point, the evening took a turn for the better.

County’s Climate Action Plan

The highlight here, in my opinion, was Mayor Lowry’s account of the January 8 Lanark County Council meeting, specifically regarding the County’s implementation of its Climate Action Plan. More information can be found here: Lanark County Jan 8 corp services minutes.

In his report to Lanark County Council, CAO Kurt Greaves explained that the topics of climate and the environment have been on the radar of County Council for a long time.  The County’s 2005 Strategic Plan established a core strategy to protect and enhance the natural environment.  The County’s 2012 Integrated Community Sustainability Plan identified Climate Change and Air Quality as areas of concern. Three years later, Lanark County enrolled in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Partners for Climate Change program. Then last year, County Council identified Climate Change and the Environment as their priority for this term of Council.  So far, so wonderful!

County Council is now considering the formation of a committee or working group to focus on climate-action-related initiatives:

  • hiring a summer student dedicated to moving forward with the Partners for Climate Protection Program established by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities;
    authorizing $25,000 to be allocated to an “Insulate Lanark” program to help low-income residents insulate their homes
  • authorizing $2,500 to be allocated to fund tree-planting programs in coordination with the local Conservation Authorities
  • creating a new position titled “Climate/Environmental Services Coordinator” to begin in the fall of 2020
  • using the Municipal Modernization Funding to help fund these environmental projects in 2020, as well as applying for relevant grants
  • promoting a home insulation program for low-income families
  • encouraging industries to follow best practices to reduce carbon emissions
  • reducing single-use plastics, encouraging a composting program, and speeding up the move to supplier-pay recycling
  • incorporating green-design standards into new buildings.

It is planned to include County staff in this initiative, and meet with municipal representatives from all of Lanark County to bring forward their ideas and share best practices.

Councillor Maydan thanked Mayor Lowry for her comprehensive report.

Mayor Lowry hoped that, as the various County representatives shared this information with their municipalities, that their staff would have some good ideas; for example, suggestions on how to modernize road management or how to increase the number of services shared by municipalities.  Councillor Ferguson suggested that the County think outside the box, and consider shared services among the different municipalities as a key goal.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our Council could embrace these environmental initiatives, and think beyond shared services to actually considering all their decisions in the context of their effect on our natural environment – for example, herbicide spraying?

Towards the end of this evening, several pieces of correspondence sent to Council were selected for further discussion, including a press release from the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority announcing opportunities for public input on the future of the Mill of Kintail, and a letter from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario encouraging municipalities to provide recommendations on how to implement the upcoming transition of our current recycling program to full producer responsibility.

To conclude, I came away feeling quite optimistic about the approach this Council seems to be taking and, while I don’t expect to re-experience the Shangri-La effect, I look forward to continued progressive attitudes towards governance.  Would it really be too much to hope for a more environmentally sustainable approach to managing wild parsnip?