Size does, in fact, matter.
That was the finding back in 2003 of what was known as the McCarthy-Tetrault report, a full and independent review of the council of the day and its working relationships at city hall.
The initial call for a review of council and staff dated back to April 28 of that year when Jeff Kohler, then an alderman, moved that “the City of St. Thomas undertake an independent review of human rights practices in the corporation of the City of St. Thomas.”
The subsequent report categorized council as “dysfunctional” and its inability to operate in cohesive fashion is “rooted in the mix of personalities . . . . The resulting lack of respect for others seriously undermined the effectiveness of council.”
The report’s author, Chris White of the law firm McCarthy-Tetrault, made several recommendations, the most contentious of which called for the reduction in the size of council to seven members from the then-current eight, including the mayor, in an effort to cut down on the number of deadlocked votes.
As it turned out, years later a motion was approved to increase the size of council to nine members, including the mayor, as is the case today.
Well, at Monday’s (January 6) reference committee – perhaps the most productive such meeting in the life of the present council – Mayor Joe Preston made it clear, in his opinion, “this council size is too large.”
Preston would feel more comfortable with a mayor and either four or five councillors, with the office of the mayor being a full-time position.
“There is a big demand on the mayor’s time. The city has grown, so there is a role for a deputy mayor.”
The revelation came as members brainstormed electoral reform, the merits of a deputy mayor, the possible return to a ward system in the city and the timing and format of reference committee meetings.
The need for a deputy mayor has been bandied about for several years with the key question focused on whether such a position, if adopted, should come via appointment or through election in the 2022 municipal vote.
Coun. Mark Tinlin opened the discussion by noting, “There is a big demand on the mayor’s time. The city has grown, so there is a role for a deputy mayor.”
Coun. Gary Clarke duly noted the previous council had lengthy discussions on this very matter back in 2016.
And the following year, two motions dealing with the addition of a deputy mayor were defeated.
The first motion to elect a deputy mayor by ballot in 2018 was defeated on a 4-4 vote.
A second motion to appoint a deputy mayor from councillors elected in the 2018 municipal vote was easily defeated 7-1, with Tinlin the lone supporter.
Coun. Clarke concurred with Mayor Preston “that we should have reduced the size of council.”
“The city is big enough to have a deputy mayor,” added Coun. Jeff Kohler, who felt the position should be filled through the electoral system.
Relying on this method of adding a deputy mayor to council “could take away from the mayoral race,” cautioned Coun. Steve Peters.
Instead, suggested Peters, the highest polling councillor should automatically be appointed deputy mayor.
City clerk Maria Konefal indicated a report dealing with the merits of such a position and method of filling the post will come to council next month.
REVISITING THE WARD SYSTEM
The merits of a ward system for the city resurfaced at Monday’s reference committee, a topic of debate in the council chambers on at least two occasions in the past 15 years.
And, the argument against adopting such an electoral system is simply St. Thomas is too small population-wise to divide into wards as is the case in London.
This, despite the fact, St. Thomas at one time operated in such fashion with a much smaller population.
Perhaps it is the fact a ward system would be one method of reducing the size of council, as noted by Tinlin.
Clarke is one member of council strongly opposed to returning to a ward-based system.
“It is divisive,” stressed Clarke. “I have seen this with the school board. People start building walls instead of tearing them down.”
On the other hand, Kohler is a true believer and would like to see a referendum dealing with the ward system on the ballot in the 2022 municipal vote.
Kohler has long advocated for wards.
In February of 20ll, both he and Coun. Lori Baldwin-Sands voted in favour of establishing such a system in time for the 2014 vote. The motion was defeated 5-3.
“I still think it’s something we should pursue in the not-too-distant future. The growth of the city is not stopping.”
Going further back to 2006, Kohler advised in an interview, “I firmly believe council needs to look at the ward system. There are a lot of great candidates that just never had the opportunity to get their message out with 23 candidates running (in 2006), but with the ward system, we might be able to do that.”
Two years prior to that, as mayor, Kohler established a task force “to go out and get input on what they feel the makeup of the ward system should be, or if the public is happy with the way things are today. There needs to be some extensive research into that. My personal view is I think it’s time we look at some sort of system like that. We want to do the research and homework, rather than just coming up with an arbitrary yes or no.”
The group determined the city was too small and Kohler conceded the matter was now “a dead issue.”
But he added, “I still think it’s something we should pursue in the not-too-distant future. The growth of the city is not stopping.”
Mayor Preston admitted, “I’m not a fan of the ward system, but it does make it easier for newcomers to get elected.”
As per the issue of a deputy mayor, a report will come to council next month dealing with the pros and cons of the ward system that would see St. Thomas divided into separate geographic zones, with councillors being elected based on where they live.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
One surprising topic of discussion at the above-mentioned reference committee meeting was the appearance of lawn signs during election campaigns.
Although he has run such campaigns both municipally and at the provincial level, Peters indicated he would “support doing away with election signs.”
Kohler who, no doubt, has purchased and erected thousands of those signs over a long political career called on staff to bring a report to council dealing with the placement of election signs on both public and private property.
CHECK THE LISTINGS FOR START TIME
With several councillors noting the short time spent dealing with city business at recent council meetings – in some cases less than a half-hour – look for possible changes to the start time and structure of both the reference committee and council meetings.
The former has had floating start times ranging from 4:30 p.m. – as is the case this coming Monday – to as late as 6 p.m. which has left little time for debate prior to a 7 p.m. council meeting.
Kohler has long been opposed to the early start for reference committee meetings noting, “people are still at work . . . it makes it look like we’re hiding from the public.”
He would like to see a 7 p.m. start with council meetings following immediately afterward.
“People wonder if we are accomplishing anything.”
Mayor Preston is calling for “flexibility on start times,” with the possibility of just two council meetings per month with a third, longer meeting dedicated to the reference committee.
Which prompted Kohler to point out, “the reference committee is a committee of council so include it in the council meeting.”
He added, “Why does it have to be a separate meeting?”
As to the length of meetings, Baldwin-Sands observed, “People wonder if we are accomplishing anything.”
It wasn’t that long ago council meetings typically required two or three hours to complete and featured considerable healthy debate.
MOVING FORWARD WITH ALMA DEVELOPMENT
Such will likely be the case at Monday’s (Sept. 13) reference committee meeting where the Alma heritage easement agreement is on the table for discussion.
Specifically, the agenda notes “Administration will provide an update on the actions needed to complete the development approval process.”
The easement agreement is a detailed and complex document dealing with the alteration of the former Alma property to allow for the construction of a three-tower residential development proposed by Patriot Properties.
Particular detail must be adhered to when addressing the heritage built form elements on the Moore Street property and the commemorative features to be installed on the property by the developer.
These include “a permanent outline in paving materials delineating the former footprint of the main Alma College building,” in addition to “a permanent spire sculpture representing a portion of the former central tower above the front entrance of the main Alma College building.”
The development must also include “a garden commemorating the original landscaped forecourt of Alma College, including a central flower bed in its original ellipse shape and four panels, other signage and historical plaques conveying information about the history of the site at various locations in the (three conservation) zones.”
It is appropriate, then, that Coun. Peters is in the chairman’s seat for this particular reference committee meeting. Of all members of council, he is the one who best appreciates the significance of Alma to the history of St. Thomas.
YOU’VE BEEN DISSOLVED
The email from Melanie Knapp in the city clerk’s department to Joe Spencer and members of council’s animal welfare committee was blunt: “Please be advised that at the January 6, 2020 council meeting, council decided to dissolve the Select Committee for Animal Welfare.”
No explanation, no heads up and no thanks for your years of valuable service to the city.
As the former chair of the committee noted, “It’s a bit harsh.”
Lois Jackson added, “Clearly the email from Melanie is quite curt. And that is all the committee members know. It doesn’t really say here are your options.”
We talked with Mayor Joe Preston on Thursday to seek clarification on the status of the committee that has been tasked with undertaking fundraising to construct a new animal shelter to replace the woefully inadequate existing facility.
We’re not winding down the committee, stressed Preston, “We expect it to carry on. It just won’t be a committee of council.”
Preston continued, “We would like them to carry on. They have a common interest.”
It’s simply a matter of cutting back on the amount of time members of council spend dealing with committee matters, suggested Preston.
“The animal welfare committee will continue on and do the great work it does advising us.
“If we can do that through reports, or even through deputations, if it needs to, and probably more efficiently than just having one member (Coun. Joan Rymal) sitting on it that occasionally mentions what the work of the committee is back to the council as a whole.”
Preston noted “We don’t have a committee for each of the departments in our city. We don’t have a snow plow committee, we don’t have a garbage collection committee.”
As for the direction needed for a new animal shelter Preston advised, “If you’d like us to do more than remodel the old shelter, there would need to be some fundraising done.
“And the committee did agree to that. And, it started out on that track. There is no reason for us to meet on a month-to-month basis to hear the progress on that.
“Come back to us once or twice a year and tell us where you’re at so we can plan what our expenditures would be in the following year.”
And here we thought the committee had been dissolved because the former chair may have gotten under the skin of a department head or member of the council.
FOR THE CALENDAR
This Wednesday (Jan. 15) the Municipality of Central Elgin will hold a public open house to garner further input on the Port Stanley harbour secondary plan, which lays out the long term vision for the repurposing of the harbour lands and their planned integration with the adjacent waterfront areas. According to the advisory released by the municipality, “These plans will build on previous work to identify land use designations and policies that will guide detailed planning and recommend the location of specific land uses, such as parks, recreation, retail and tourist commercial, housing (both primary and second/vacation homes) and infrastructure investment.” The open house runs from 6 to 8 p.m. with a presentation at 7 p.m.
MP Karen Vecchio is hosting her Elgin-Middlesex-London Youth Council winter meeting from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Monday, January 20 at the CASO station. The focus will be on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. For more info and to register for the voice of youth meeting, you can call Jill Ferguson at 519-637-2255 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
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