There have been three recent issues before Parry Sound Council that have made me realize that the Town really doesn’t have a process for community consultation. And that lack of consultation has led to discouragement and a lack of trust. Let’s start with understanding how the current process works.
Typically, Staff will put issues before Council in one of three ways.
- The matter is something that Staff has been working on for a few weeks and it is now ready for Council approval. This might be approval of a tender for road salt, or EMS purchase item, or a renewal of a previously approved permit. Council at this point typically reviews and approves or rejects the resolution. In some rare cases they may have questions or concerns and ask Staff to return with a revised proposal. The Public is generally made aware of this issue only when the agenda is published the Friday preceding the Tuesday evening meeting of Council.
- The matter is something that Council has asked Staff to address and the Resolution or By-Law provides Staff’s recommendation. Examples include an amendment to the Smoking By-Law, or the Free Parking issue. In some cases, there has been an announcement that Council is considering the issue and the public is asked to provide input. Otherwise, as for 1. above, it just shows up on the agenda.
- The matter is a ‘trivial’ request for an item like a Tag Day, or approving another municipality’s request/recommendation to the Province. This usually comes unannounced until the agenda is made available to the public on Friday.
So how many people, besides those who are paid to attend Council meetings (Council, Staff and Media), actually take a look at the agenda before a Council meeting? All those who do, stick up your hand. (At this point I’m typing with one hand.) That’s why this website exists. It’s the only way people can reasonably understand what is on the upcoming agenda. ParrySounds.com provides a summary of the agenda items, some commentary, and a link to the full agenda package. Don’t underestimate how important it is for people to understand an issue and that means access to the full agenda package. Not having the full package on the Town’s website is denying people access to necessary information. I understand the accessibility issue, but that is, in my opinion, a cop out. I digress.
So for the majority of issues this means the Public has essentially no ‘heads up’ on what Council will be reviewing and likely approving or rejecting. Almost all input to an item on the Tuesday agenda will by necessity be last minute, because the Public is only provided with the ‘short-form’ agenda online by the Town four days before the meeting. You weren’t on vacation were you?
The best example of how this bites concerns fluoridation. Although I am firmly in the pro-fluoridation camp I do have empathy for the Fluddites in terms of the process that Staff and Council undertook regarding Council’s review of this issue. Although it was realized that the issue would be considered by Council the only notice of a formal review was a few days before the issue was presented to Council (June 2, 2015 if you want to check the agenda package and minutes). At this meeting the Staff Report and Recommendation suggested that the Town cease water fluoridation based on cost and the potential safety hazards to Public Works employees. At that meeting Dr. James Chirico, District Health Officer, made a deputation on the medical benefits of fluoridation that swayed Council (as it should have in my opinion), and the resolution was defeated. The fluoridation issue was effectively over in the mind of Council. But of course it wasn’t. Since Council did not explicitly reaffirm the fluoridation of water, or actively solicit community input, it remained an open issue. Council’s decision brought the issue to the attention of the full community, and concerned individuals decided to provide input that has led us to where we are now. The important point is that there really wasn’t any sort of community involvement in the issue. It was to some extent sprung on Council and the Public. Being posted at the very earliest the Friday before a Tuesday meeting really doesn’t allow people the opportunity to be aware of issues or to assemble any sort of response, especially if the full agenda package is reasonably only available the day before the meeting, if it’s not a statutory holiday.
Another example concerns the Master Trails Plan. This is an issue I used to express a concern about public input and process. In this case the Town engaged a consultant for tens of thousands of dollars to prepare a report on future plans for the Town’s trails. It was reviewed by a Committee of Council and then presented to Council for approval. At no point prior to the council meeting was the plan shared with the Public for input and comment. While it was unlikely that any substantial objections would be received, it was important to let people know what was up and let them provide their input. Remember the experience with fluoridation? In the end one of the Councillors proposed a decision be delayed and the document be posted on the Town’s website for comment. Council agreed, the document was posted, and limited input was received. In the end Council approved the plan with a good sense that it would not come back to bite them like the fluoride issue had.
I guess I could remind Council of their decision to ‘blow away with prejudice’ the Chair of the Downtown Business Association. There was no apparent process. Council can choose to do whatever they wish and the only recourse is the Integrity Commissioner (doesn’t frighten them), the Ontario Municipal Board (does frighten them) or the next election (sorry about that, how about we don’t increase taxes this year).
It has become obvious that the majority of Parry Sound residents only find out about issues once they have been publicized by the public media, Moose-FM (on air and online) and the North Start / Beacon Star publications (print and online). This is generally following a decision at a council meeting. Unless the Town announces an issue well before it is to be reviewed at Council it is unlikely there will be public input. The Public won’t know what is going on until it is over. That brings me to the third example.
The decision to demolish the heritage gazebo on the Town Dock would have been obvious to anyone who participated on the Waterfront Committee. But anyone else? Not at all. It was at the same June 2, 2015 council meeting that the Waterfront Committee presented their thoughts on improvements to the Town’s Waterfront. This included painting the safety railings gray instead of the existing yellow (an idea I still don’t understand, the low railings are already too easy to trip over), and changes to the benches. It also advanced proposals for new gazebo designs, some of which seemed quite unlikely. Fast forward to the March 14, 2016 meeting of Council where it was proposed that a defined new gazebo be installed and the old one demolished (or offered to someone for the wood). This revelation was provided to the public on the Friday preceding the meeting. Council then suggested to the individuals that had done deputations in support of repairing the existing structure that it was too little, too late. (Disclosure: My wife and brother-in-law made the deputation, on behalf of a number of concerned individuals who attended the meeting.) Now exactly how soon were they intended to provide input? They only had the weekend to understand the issue was coming before Council for a final decision because I reviewed the council package on the weekend and gave them a ‘heads up’. Was there something posted on the Town’s website that stated the Town was planning to replace the structure and that input was being solicited? Did the Town reach out to the local press to get the word out to the public?
The middle of the night, or the last minute, is a great time to get something done where you want to avoid input or interference.
I look forward to engaging the Public and the Fluddites in a discussion concerning the merits of fluoridation as part of the next election. But for now, I would like to thank them for providing Council with a reminder of the consequences of not involving the Public in an open and transparent manner, especially when it concerns an issue for which there is considerable public interest.
One last little nit about the new gazebo structure. There was discussion at the council meeting about how the new structure should be brown to evoke our heritage and bring together a sense of the land to the waterfront. Well, okay, sort of. Now why is the structure being built with Douglas Fir? This is a species of wood that has never grown in this part of Canada. How about pine, or spruce, or oak, or ash, or maple? That’s like suggesting a rebuilt 1958 Corvette is ‘original’ when half the parts are Chinese made. Let’s walk the talk and at least use locally sourced materials. There are a number of saw mills in the area that could provide the lumber.
So, I’ll continue to keep an eye on the goings on at Council. You can be sure Staff will try and push additional items through without appropriate Public consultation. It’s just so much easier that way, especially when time is running out.
Perhaps it Can ‘Stand’ as a Reminder of the Importance of Process