A seemingly innocent comment at the close of Monday’s reference committee meeting – held prior to the regularly scheduled council session – unwittingly could have the same impact as flinging a full can of gas onto a smoldering fire.
In the new business portion of the meeting, Coun. Mark Burgess waded into the mire that is council grants to community groups, a process that sees hundreds of thousands of dollars doled out on an annual basis.
The response to the good councillor’s remark was swift.
“We need to get our act together,” advised Coun. Linda Stevenson.
“All of council should be involved (in the process),” stressed Mayor Heather Jackson.
Not so fast was the comeback from Coun. Steve Wookey.
“Council should be removed from the process,” was his retort.
Joining the fray Coun. Jeff Kohler reminded all, “We are dealing with taxpayer money, we’re not the United Way.”
Oh my, so much for the attempt at sane and sensible guidelines, the topic of council debate at the end of October, 2015.
At that session, members were in receipt of a report – authored by Jackson – entitled Policy on Granting Funds to Community Organizations outlining a process whereby council would receive requests for financial support from community organizations and then set timelines for the submission of requests each year. The recommendation was .5 per cent of the current year’s municipal property tax levy would be budgeted for community grants.
To be considered for funding, groups would have to complete an application, outline where and how the money will be spent, submit their most recent audited financial statement or financial report and, if available, the organization’s budget for the current year. A subcommittee was struck to review submissions and make recommendations to council.
Not sure how closely the policy was adhered to in 2016, but nearly $370,000 was divvied out to the likes of the St. Thomas Cemetery Company, the St. Thomas Senior Centre, the St. Thomas Elgin Public Art Centre, the Elgin St. Thomas Youth Employment Centre and the Family YMCA of St. Thomas to pinpoint but a few of the recipients.
So we’re not talking chump change.
And the fact mere mention of grants – not even included on the agenda – so sharply divided council suggests a policy re-visit is imminent.
It’s a funding procedure that has plagued recent editions of council and prompted then alderman Gord Campbell to pronounce in 2011, “We’re giving out money to people who haven’t even asked for it,” following a budget session in which several community organizations received a greater amount than requested.
MAKING THE 2018 MUNICIPAL VOTE RELEVANT
Did you participate in the 2014 St. Thomas municipal vote?
If so, you are a member of a select group comprised of just 35.8 per cent of eligible voters who cast a ballot.
And, don’t forget that trip to the polls had a hot-button issue in the proposed new police HQ.
In a report to council Monday, city clerk Maria Konefal explores alternative voting methods and vote-counting options for the 2018 municipal election.
She recommends paper ballots as the primary voting method to be counted through the use of electronic vote tabulators.
In addition, council is being asked to authorize internet and telephone voting for advanced polls only.
In 2014, approximately 22 per cent of Ontario municipalities conducting an election employed some form of internet voting, Konefal advises in her report.
She adds recent studies indicate internet voting is most popular with middle-age voters. In the last municipal vote, Konefal points out 40 per cent of city voters were in the 44-64 age bracket and 30 per cent were older than 65.
So is online voting the carrot that will truly attract younger voters?
Well the benefits – which can be applied to telephone voting – include the ability to vote at any time of the day; increased accessibility and privacy for electors with disabilities; increased opportunities for students, those on holiday and individuals working some distance from the city; and for those interested in telephone voting, it’s a familiar technology.
Another option being presented to council is vote by mail, whereby each qualified elector would receive a ballot kit in the mail with the ballot being returned by voting day. This method has proven popular in rural municipalities.
Early in 2014, then CAO Wendell Graves presented a similar report to council warning of the high cost of the latter option.
As for internet voting, Graves advised at the time it would require entering into a contract with a third-party provider at an estimated cost of $30,000 for a limited advance vote.
Voters would receive a secure, password protected voting package which they use to log onto a secure voting site to cast their ballots. Once a vote is cast, it is maintained in a secure environment that becomes part of the overall tabulation of the results at the end of the voting period.
If they desire, voters can receive an electronic confirmation their vote has been cast. Once an individual has cast a vote, their name is electronically crossed off the list and they are unable to cast another ballot.
In her analysis, Konefal notes the cost to the city of undertaking the 2014 municipal vote was just over $65,000, based on roughly 28,000 electors.
For 2018, she estimates that figure to be $75,650 for paper ballots only; $98,475 for telephone/internet as a stand alone; $117,651 for a combination of those two options; and $100,250 for vote by mail.
The critical consideration for council on Monday is which of these options has the best chance of improving on that dismal 35.8 per cent turnout.
Or, have voters become so turned off by politics at all levels of government, especially first time or young voters who complain politicians just don’t relate to them.
Post Update as of April 9
Chris Cates, a computer programmer from Edmonton, has sent a letter to all members of council urging them not to adopt online voting as an option for the 2018 municipal vote. Download a copy of the letter here.
Just as the Blue Jays opened the 2017 campaign in Baltimore, the Sutherland Saga is taking to the road.
This coming Wednesday (April 12) the combatants will trundle off to Toronto in the next chapter of the City of St. Thomas vs. Sutherland Lofts saga.
This next round, to be played out at Osgoode Hall, could conceivably deliver the knock-out blow to David McGee, owner of the derelict Sutherland Press building.
If you’re a movie buff, this hearing can be likened to a tightly woven subplot that lingers long enough to leave the finale in doubt.
Here’s the synopsis.
The city is appealing a Sept. 27 decision at the Elgin County Courthouse in which a notice issued in March of last year warning of demolition of the structure for failure to comply with a previous work order was declared null and void by Justice Kelly Gorman.
She ruled the notice was improperly delivered to McGee and the work order lacked specificity.
“The lack of specificity with regard to repairs mandated by the city, combined with the unreasonable time frame to complete those repairs resulted in a situation that is “just not realistic,” McGee’s lawyer, Valerie M’Garry told City Scope.
“The order to repair an unsafe building directs the recipient to (engineering reports), one is 58 pages and one is 37 pages with no specificity,” M’Garry continued
“And the engineering report was prepared for the city to talk about what they needed to do to make sure there is no liability.”
Now, if you’ve forgotten the main plot in this saga of a city held hostage by a big city developer – or you just wish it would end already – let’s bring you up to speed.
McGee is challenging an unsafe building order issued Oct. 28 by the city that gave him until Dec. 15 of last year to provide a detailed work plan and schedule repairs to begin in January of this year on the four-storey structure.
The work order covers remediation of damaged bricks and securing the roof which suffered a partial collapse.
After two false starts earlier this year due to M’Garry’s ill-health, the next hearing is pegged for May 24.
There is a feeling on the city’s part, however, that should it obtain a positive outcome at Osgoode Hall, the May date won’t be required and McGee will be forced into action.
Or, the demolition team will be called in from the bullpen.
HAVE YOUR SAY
Reader Jim Russell turned green thumbs down on the April 3 posting outlining the proposed Moore Food Garden at the site of the former skateboard park in the east end of the Moore Street parking lot.
“I for one do not want to see another First Ave there,” notes Russell in an email. “The fencing looks terrible, however I understand why it is needed. If you want a garden go talk to Ferguson Farms or someone like them.”
Are there many others who want to throw dirt on the idea?
THE WEEK AHEAD
Monday, April 10
Port Stanley harbour redevelopment meeting
The public is invited to share ideas on the project at an open meeting at the Village Square Coffee House, 284 Bridge Street in Port Stanley from 10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Regular meeting of city council
Public portion of the meeting begins 6 p.m. in the council chamber at city hall.
Regular meeting of Southwold council
Begins 7 p.m. at the township office in Fingal.
Regular meeting of Central Elgin council
Begins 7:30 p.m. in the council chamber at the Elgin County Administration Building.
Tuesday, April 11
Regular meeting of Elgin county council
Begins 9 a.m. in the council chamber at the Elgin County Administration Building.
Wednesday, April 12
City of St. Thomas vs. Sutherland Lofts appeal hearing
Begins 10 a.m. at Osgoode Hall in Toronto.