The Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference wrapped up Tuesday in Toronto. The city sent a delegation to the event with Mayor Joe Preston, Coun. Gary Clarke and city manager Sandra Datars Bere in attendance.
The city’s delegation had confirmed meetings with the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of the Attorney General.
We’ll deal with the former off the top as it was to address regional transit and accessible transit options, priorities for the city with the opening of the Amazon facility and the Maple Leaf Foods processing plant this year.
In a conversation with Preston following the conference, he indicated he felt “very comfortable” with the time spent with Associate Minister of Transportation Stan Cho.
Sitting in on the discussion was Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Rob Flack.
Preston zeroed in on the city’s pilot project which would see some form of transit between St. Thomas and the regional hub in the south end of London at White Oaks Mall.
He asked Cho, “In a positive way, can we wrap this up?”
Cho agreed we should and could, according to Preston.
“And so, we’ve got a few steps this week to send back a little more information and that this feels really comfortable to me that we will be able to at least get started with what we’ve been trying to do between St. Thomas and London.
“We would love it to include a lot more Elgin also, but we think we start fresh and then move to that.”
What Preston would like to implement is an extension to the pilot project that would incorporate trips to the Amazon facility north of Talbotville.
“It would be similar to what we suggested on the pilot project but when we wrote the pilot project we didn’t have Amazon, we didn’t have Maple Leaf Foods.
“So, the original pilot project would zoom back and forth to London. Well, now we can zoom back and forth to London but in that circle that includes going over to the Amazon facility and coming back the other way or vice versa.
“So there is a little bit more we have to look at.
“And then of course, the minute we get an absolute yes from the minister, we still have to work with our provider (Voyago) on how soon can we do this.
“I feel very comfortable, I feel very good about it.”
The city has already been granted funding from both the federal and provincial governments for the purchase of electric transit vehicles and other improvements.
We previously put it to Preston about the possibility of some of those funds being redirected to the pilot project.
He in turn briefly bounced that off Cho.
“It was mentioned,” confirmed Preston, “I believe it would be possible, but it sure sounded like it wouldn’t be necessary.
“That we could go ahead and do this in the envelope they already have for regional transportation.”
One piece of the puzzle remains missing.
What is Amazon bringing to the table as they look to assemble a workforce that could number as high as 2,000 employees?
Based on conversations with Preston and Southwold Mayor Grant Jones, it appears little if anything has transpired to this point.
THE PENDULUM HAS SWUNG TOO FAR AWAY FROM PUBLIC SAFETY
The second confirmed meeting for the city delegation at the ROMA conference was with the Ministry of the Attorney General’s office.
Discussions, in this case, were concerns faced by municipalities across the province with calls to improve the bail system to reduce repeat offender rates and increase community safety.
The city’s 2023 Provincial Advocacy Plan notes, “Police services across Ontario, including the City of St. Thomas Police Service (STPS), are exhausting precious time and resources having to manage the repeated arrests of the same offenders because of ‘catch and release’ policies.”
In our conversation with Preston, he reminded us, over the last little while, the premiers have all written to the prime minister to say this is an area of concern.
Heightened by the killing of 28-year-old OPP Const. Grzegorz Pierzchala on Dec. 27 of last year, shot while responding to a vehicle in a ditch near Hagersville.
One of the two suspects charged in the killing of Pierzchala, 25-year-old Randall McKenzie had served an almost three-year sentence for robbery and other charges and was currently out on bail with a warrant for his arrest.
Police say McKenzie was under a lifetime firearms ban from a previous robbery conviction and had been charged in 2021 with several more offences.
Preston continued, “The commissioner of the OPP (Thomas Carrique) is really pushing the buttons hard on saying we’ve got to watch how we’re dealing with bail conditions and fail to appear and those types of things because it just cost a police officer his life.”
“I asked the attorney general what else can we do from a local crime point of view. We used to have and still have a way to take people out of the criminal stream in order to get them into rehabilitation.
“There are some people who are screaming out I want to be a career criminal and we know where they should be. And there are those who have taken a wrong turn in life and we can certainly help them not to keep on that path.”
“And the same from a mental health point of view, get them out of the criminal stream and into support.
“We talked a lot about projects going on around the province and can St. Thomas take part in any of those and it was a pretty favourable discussion. Some of the municipalities get involved and start lobbying the other level of government (federal).
“Obviously we answer to the provincial government, but this is one that will include all of us.
“We speak of a pendulum that has swung too far away from public safety and into keeping people not incarcerated. There are some people who are screaming out I want to be a career criminal and we know where they should be.
“And there are those who have taken a wrong turn in life and we can certainly help them not to keep on that path. We have to differentiate between the two, we can’t put it all into one category.”
This corner has had several discussions with outgoing St. Thomas Police Chief Chris Herridge about a two-stream justice system.
You can read about that here.
“We’ve got to stop the proliferation of crime against property in our community by a very small number of people,” stressed Preston.
Unlike the transit discussion above, this is not a quick fix and will require an overhaul of the justice system from the top down.
In the meantime, segue down to the next item.
DEALING WITH REPEAT OFFENDERS
In September of last year, a report was released entitled, A Rapid Investigation into Repeat Offending and Random Stranger Violence in British Columbia.
As an aside, how timely is the random stranger violence portion as the transit systems in Toronto and elsewhere across Canada deals with shocking acts of violence aimed at passengers and transit employees?
In any event, the document specifically deals with public safety challenges in that province but the information, findings and recommendations are valuable in this province.
The report is authored by Amanda Butler and Doug LePard, experts in mental health and policing.
It points to the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic where, “Research shows that the pandemic has worsened mental health and contributed to loneliness, substance use, suicide, disruptions in care, and financial difficulties.
“Importantly, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted those who are underserved, marginalized, and already living with the fewest resources.
“We heard from many stakeholders that the pandemic has had a profound impact on service access and social determinants of health, contributing (at least in part) to crime and disorder.
“The pandemic has also contributed to a reduction in the number of people held for trial on remand, and a decrease in charges for substantive offences and for breaching bail conditions.
“This trend, already underway due to recent changes in federal legislation and case law, has left police and probation officers frustrated that the only tools they have to manage people who offend in the community have been virtually eliminated.”
The authors caution, “Many stakeholders believe a solution to repeat offending is more aggressive prosecution and sentencing to support police enforcement and detain people who repeatedly offend.
“However, sentencing is in the hands of an independent judiciary bound by legislation and precedent.
“The typical sentence is short and there is evidence that short custodial sentences cause harm and do not reduce recidivism.
“Yet seeking longer sentences as a solution is undesirable and unrealistic because it conflicts with Canadian sentencing laws, including the principle of proportionality.
“Furthermore, long-term reductions in crime require that the Provincial Government invest significantly in addressing the systems-level issues that contribute to offending including systemic racism, poverty, inadequate health services, food insecurity, and housing unaffordability.”
The provincial government in B.C. is working on a trio of recommendations:
- bringing back the prolific offender management program that ran from 2008 until 2012. The program had success bringing together community partners such as police, mental health and community support service providers to monitor and help offenders break the cycle of repeat offending and was shown to reduce repeat offending by as much as 40% in the first year;
- establishing a dedicated provincial committee to co-ordinate supports for people with complex health-care needs in the criminal justice system; and
- supporting work by the BC First Nations Justice Council to develop a pilot program based at the Prince George First Nations Justice Centre to better support Indigenous people who come into conflict with the law.
The report is lengthy at 170 pages but is worth delving into and can be found here.
THE ECHO CHAMBER
Earl Tayor, general manager of the Downtown Development Board challenges a comment made by C.J. Allen, chair of the Good Vibes Community Association (GVCA) board of governors during his deputation to council on Jan. 16.
“The Summer Harvest Festival did not involve our downtown yet the comment by the presenter stating ‘and conflicting messages regarding live performances downtown on city property and some of the downtown businesses’ is a low blow.
“And don’t forget the fact that we had to put up with seeing the Summer Harvest Festival signs on street corners throughout our city for months after the event.”
Writing in with a different perspective on concerts in Pinafore Park, Sue Margetts says multi-day events are a challenge for nearby residents.
“If you talk to residents who live to the east side of the pond and surrounding areas, really talk to them, they enjoyed the festival but by Day 3 they had enough of being inundated with loud music.
“Bylaws are, in general, a problem. There is lots of talking about a problem e.g. noise, animals at large but going on six years of continual problems and no enforcement.
Seems that the bylaw officer Dan Smuckavich and (Manager of Roads and Transportation) Matt Vriens have given no other proof than in hopes of ignoring a problem, it will go away.”
Responding to C.J. Allen’s deputation to city council, Herb Warren gets right to the point.
“I hope council listens and is prepared to take action on some of his ideas.”
Following up on our item last week on the water billing fiasco, Leo Anthony has this observation.
“It seems that the acquisition of St Thomas Energy by Entegrus has not been entirely beneficial to the City or its residents. It seems that Entegrus has difficulties with transparency.”
Staying with Entegrus, Marcus Muxfeldt is not impressed by the course of action taken by Jim Hogan, president and CEO of the utility on dealing with customers impacted by higher-than-normal bills.
“When I was being mentored at a young age in business, the president of my company stated, ‘If any of our customers ever receive an invoice that they weren’t expecting or it wasn’t communicated that it was coming, you should be fired.’
“Mr. Hogan should be removed from his position by the board for doing this to customers. He also put his employees in a difficult position. Poor leadership, full stop.”
To which Dan Vernackt responded with the following.
“Never had issues like this when it was a small-town utility. Bigger is not always better.”
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