Observing the continued conduct of Pelham Town Council brings to mind a group of people turning lemons into lemonade, spilling it, and then, while waiting for someone else to come and clean it up, forgetting that the floor is slippery and ending up flat on their backs.
Last week should have been a victorious one all around. Meridian Credit Union pledged a million dollars to our new community centre in exchange for naming rights, and the Town announced a further $200,000 in pledges from individuals.
Instead, the most notable story is the Town’s pettiness.
Apparently displeased by the Voice’s continued investigative coverage of its finances—coverage which has been awarded by the Ontario Community Newspaper Association—persons unknown began removing copies of the paper left for the public inside Town Hall. Some 500 copies over a month were deliberately trashed.
During the last several weeks, the Town increasingly declined to answer our questions directly, instead requiring the newspaper to file Freedom of Information requests, a delaying tactic than can also be expensive.
Three weeks ago the Town ceased responding to any questions at all, ignoring emails and phone calls. Then they stopped sending out news releases.
Finally, as if to ensure that no other community could challenge Pelham for 2018’s Most Childish Municipality award, the Town removed the media table from Council chambers.
Town Hall seems committed to providing information only to its most favoured media outlets, and to running its own news-free newsletter. Whereas some readers once claimed that the Voice was Town Hall’s mouthpiece, Pelham now has its very own state-run media.
Considering that questions are no longer answered, perhaps this feel-good newsletter is the principal rationale for continuing to employ an expensive Public Relations and Marketing Specialist.
(If you’re having trouble recalling the job’s priorities, just remember that in Pelham, PR always comes first.)
There has been much speculation that inside Pelham Town Hall the tail wags the dog—that CAO Darren Ottaway is running the show, with Council just along for the ride. But however authoritarian Ottaway’s approach may or may not be, he still reports to Council.
The Mayor has stitched himself to the hip of Ottaway, protecting him at every turn, even as there is reportedly disagreement among some Councillors with the CAO’s tactics. Nonetheless, Council still holds the ultimate authority, the only true power.
Unfortunately it seems they don’t care to exercise it on behalf of the residents they serve.
Councillor Richard Rybiak, who recently received praise for his defence of Poth Street residents, briefly chaired last week’s Council meeting. (The Mayor was out of town; the current Deputy Mayor, a position that rotates, declared a conflict of interest.)
The last time Rybiak was left at Council without mayoral supervision was last summer. At that meeting, Regional Councillor Brian Baty suggested that the Town could address public concerns by agreeing to a full, independent audit of its finances.
Rybiak was the most forceful in dressing down Baty for his suggestion—the irony being, as we later learned, that at the very moment Rybiak was chastising Baty, an audit was already underway, an investigation at least partially prompted by newly hired Treasurer Teresa Quinlin, who evidently took one look at Pelham’s books and didn’t buy the tale they told.
Last week Rybiak flubbed again.
A resident in the audience expressed frustration that the public was not being given the chance to comment on the Town’s decision to allow development of a seniors’ residence in Fenwick to go forward.
After Town staff clarified that public consultation was not needed to lift a holding provision, the resident still expressed disbelief that his concerns would not be addressed.
Rather than sympathizing with the resident and recommending that he speak to staff after the meeting to try and find some resolution to his worries, Rybiak peevishly banged the gavel.
“Please. Order,” he said sharply, as if he could not resist imposing his authority.
The resident left the room in a huff. While he was not inclined to disorder before the meeting, he was no doubt inclined to it after. Another day for Council, another enemy made.
Former Councillor Marvin Junkin told the Voice last autumn that he recommended to his fellow councillors that they needed to come clean about the Town’s financial situation. In response, one councillor agreed with the moral choice, but said he was afraid that being honest with residents would make the community centre look bad.
This symbolizes Pelham Town Council’s entire approach: the truth be damned, let’s try to make things look good instead.
Now that the Town has trashed newspapers, refused to answer questions, cancelled public meetings, and removed the media table, it’s clear that Council is doing everything it can to ensure that residents aren’t being given the whole truth.
Yet not even the strongest authoritarian can stop time. Sooner or later, as the weather warms and the heat rises, that thin ice that Council’s been skating on will crack. When that happens, chances are there’ll be more sinking than swimming.