Contingency planning for COVID-19 sees pushback from Kore and Hildebrandt
While officially defined as a special meeting, Pelham Town Council for all intents and purposes held an emergency gathering last Tuesday, March 17 to vote on what amounted to a continuity of government bylaw, in the event the global COVID-19 pandemic incapacitates some or all of its elected members.
Its lead item delegates to the Town’s CAO and Treasurer — or their designates — financial signing authority for expenditures outside the current budget, exceeding $25,001, for pandemic or emergency-related expenses “deemed reasonable under the circumstances.”
Given the unprecedented nature of the current coronavirus pandemic —which has essentially shut down North America and put parts of Asia and Europe on complete lockdown — CAO David Cribbs said that the time is now to prepare for potentially unpleasant eventualities, while stressing it is only a contingency plan, and not a bylaw that alters the Town’s governmental hierarchy.
In fact, he said the bylaw is not much different from those placed before councils during “lame-duck” sessions in the period of time before municipal elections.
“We will not exercise that power if this council continues to retain its confidence,” Cribbs told a chamber with four councillors and the Mayor present —spaced apart, per “social distancing” advisories—and two other members, John Wink and Bob Hildebrandt, calling in by phone. Wink was feeling under the weather at home, while Hildebrandt was in Florida (he returned to Pelham last Friday and is to be observing 14 days of self-isolation at home).
“This is an option that allows government to continue in your absence. In the event that so many members of council become incapacitated, or unfortunately, die, this will allow the corporation to continue on its operations.”
Councillor Ron Kore, however, vocally objected to most of the 12 articles in the bylaw.
“I won’t support this. I think it’s too early to be in this position,” the Ward 2 councillor said, as the global economy had almost ground to a halt. “At this time I will not support this bylaw.”
Possibly sensing that Kore was concerned that staff were being given carte blanche on spending decisions, Cribbs tried to stress the extraordinary circumstances facing the Town.
“I really like my job, and so we’re not going to be using this power to buy the corporate Ferrari,” the CAO said. “We’re still accountable … we will not use it while you are competent. So this is a basic tool of governance—think of it as an insurance policy, and it’s insurance on yourselves … this might cause unease or anxiety, but it’s only meant to be used in the event of catastrophe. Let’s hope we avoid catastrophe.”
Kore’s opposition to the bylaw, and Ward 1 Councillor Mike Ciolfi’s questions about ensuring an elected official be included in any decisions once enacted, led to a line-by-line reading of the draft, with recorded votes for each of its 12 articles.
“This is designed for us to function in the absence of a council,” Cribbs said. “I don’t want us to become the only one of 13 municipalities in Niagara that fails to pass the basic provision needed as an insurance policy, and I worry that we’re on the verge of becoming so.”
Cribbs said that in any cataclysmic eventuality, the staff goal would still be transparency — including working with the press.
“I’m happy to undertake that I would inform the media of our expenditures, in addition to any councillors still around,” he said. “At some level you have to have some trust in the senior leadership team you employ. Ultimately it would be my office that would be accountable, and my career.”
Kore was still not sold.
“You gave us the explanation that if everyone was sick, some of us die, we need this in place for an insurance policy,” the councillor said. “If none of us get sick, we all stay healthy, do we need to have this in place?”
Cribbs replied: “No, we do not.”
Kore responded, “Well, why are we going on the negative side?”
“You have to pass that while you’re a competent council, and able to do so,” Cribbs responded, explaining a central tenet of contingency plans. “You can’t go and buy healthcare insurance for a pre-existing condition when you have the condition.”
Cribbs said that there was no way to guarantee that council could establish the required quorum for its next meeting, set for Monday evening, as the Voice went to press.
Ultimately, council passed the bylaw, with Kore voting against the overall bill and all but two articles— those involving quorum rules and staff work-from-home directives. Hildebrandt, his voice barely audible over a speakerphone, also voted against it.
Councillor Lisa Haun proposed an amendment to remove the term “or other similar emergency” from the bylaw, so that it cannot be used for another crisis. Fire Chief and Chief Bylaw Enforcement Officer Bob Lymburner also corrected the verbiage for the pandemic, properly referring to the current infectious illness as “COVID-19” and not “coronavirus.” In the end, the passed bylaw stated that it “shall take effect immediately and remain in force only during a period of a declared pandemic being the novel coronavirus COVID-19.”
With Town Hall now closed to the public, Ciolfi was concerned about where this leaves the work of the Cannabis Control Committee (CCC), which he sits on.
“We’re so close,” he said, referring to reaching actionable regulations on producers ahead of the July 15 expiry of the interim control bylaw that has frozen continued cannabis development in Pelham.
“As the law stands we need four of you [in the room] to have lawful meetings,” Cribbs told Ciolfi.
“We are hoping for some relief from the province, we are not alone, I have information from multiple municipalities that they’ve reached out to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and have made, more or less, the same plea [for remote participation in meetings by more council members].
Currently, the Municipal Act allow councillors to vote from remote locations, but not to be counted as present to achieve a quorum.
The stumbling block is Pelham’s new limit of 10 individuals attending meetings. This limit is easily reached just by council and the Mayor (seven) plus the CAO, Clerk, and only one senior staffer. Normally at least five senior staff are present at council meetings, plus various assistants.
During the special meeting, the CAO, the Director of Public Works, the Treasurer, the Clerk, and the Fire Chief were present, in addition to the four councillors and Mayor physically present, for a total of ten.
While council agreed that space can be made at the community centre for CCC meetings — again, with no more than 10 individuals present given the current circumstances — Ciolfi briefly pushed for having the meetings at Town Hall.
“I don’t think [attendees] would jeopardize anything,” the councillor said.
“Our problem here is [that] intent is irrelevant,” Cribbs replied, explaining part of the staff’s contingency plans require a Town Hall closed to the public.
“Right now I feel very well, but I could well be carrying coronavirus and not know it. Allowing more people into this building is not in the community’s best interest. If the illness enters this building, it’s highly likely to take down six of the seven senior leaders of the corporation. We have plans in place if two or three of us go down, but if you take out the entire team inadvertently, that’s catastrophic for the corporate purpose.”
Mayor Marvin Junkin agreed.
“I would definitely not support opening this building up to any member of the public for at least the next month,” he said.
As it stands now, the Town’s position on the shutdown appears to be in line with the Ontario government’s timetable for the schools—which are currently closed until April 6.
However, their reopening on this date seems increasingly unlikely. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned last Tuesday that COVID-19 restrictions could last “weeks” or “months.” The federal government as of last week was considering implementing the Emergency Measures Act, the last iteration of which was used during the FLQ crisis in 1970.
That reality was not lost on Haun, who—while questioning whether the performance of Town employees working from home could be sufficiently measured— asked Town Treasurer Teresa Quinlin if plans are in place if local ratepayers are unable to pay their bills due to the subsequent economic downturn. Quinlin didn’t commit to an answer, only saying that because property taxes are only collected four times a year, “money doesn’t flow in on a regular basis.”
Haun asked that extra notifications go out via the Town and media advising seniors that they can continue to pay their bills at banks (if open) and at the secure dropbox at Town Hall if they don’t have an online payment option.
Kore also asked Cribbs if the Town anticipates the laying off of employees.
“None are anticipated at this time,” the CAO said. “Most of us are operating under the assumption — or the hope —that operations can resume in early April. The Town has been very careful in its public news released not to specify a date … we don’t know what the future holds, and every one of us could get hit.”
Bylaw for the delegation of authority during a pandemic
1. THAT the CAO and the Treasurer, or designates, are jointly delegated as the financial signing authority for expenditures outside the current budget, exceeding $25,001 as contained in the Town of Pelham Procurement By-law for pandemic or emergency related expenses that are deemed reasonable under the circumstances as determined by the CAO and Treasurer and that Section 23(2) of the Purchasing Policy Procurement of Supplies and Services is hereby suspended relating to Council approval. FOR: Junkin, Ciolfi, Haun, Stewart. AGAINST: Hildebrandt, Kore.
THAT the CAO and Clerk, or designates, are jointly delegated the authority to extend and/or execute any current Agreement of Purchase and Sale pertaining to the disposition of any real or personal property where Council has previously authorized the sale. FOR: Junkin, Ciolfi, Haun, Stewart, Wink. AGAINST: Hildebrandt, Kore.
THAT the Mayor or the CAO and the Clerk, or designates, are jointly appointed signing authority for all agreements pursuant to Article 2. FOR: Junkin, Ciolfi, Haun, Hildebrandt, Stewart, Wink. AGAINST: Kore.
THAT the CAO and the appropriate Department Director, or designates, are jointly delegated authority to proceed on any recommendation having received approval at either Committee of the Whole or the Policy and Priorities Committee but not yet having obtained Council ratification. FOR: Junkin, Ciolfi, Haun, Stewart, Wink. AGAINST: Hildebrandt, Kore.
THAT the CAO and/or the appropriate Department directors, or designates, be authorized to approve work-from-home provisions for municipal staff and to authorize payroll-related matters as they relate to the specific pandemic or emergency situation. FOR: Unanimous
THAT the CAO and the appropriate Department directors, or designates, be authorized to eliminate the appearance of delegations before Council, save and except delegations that are related to a specific mandated corporate business, and that any such delegation be limited to one representative, and that the Cannabis Control Committee be provided the provision to allow one person to attend as a delegation and if not available to be present in person, be permitted to present via electronic means. FOR: Unanimous.
THAT all Standing committee meetings, such as Committee of the Whole and Policies and Priorities Committee be suspended for the duration of the pandemic or emergency period, or as advised by the Corporation’s Community Emergency Management co-ordinator (CEMC) and in consultation with the Senior Leadership Team, and that only matters of a time sensitive nature be presented to Council. FOR: Junkin, Ciolfi, Haun, Hildebrandt, Stewart, Wink. AGAINST: Kore.
THAT unless otherwise proclaimed by the Province of Ontario, and in accordance with The Act, Council meetings shall achieve a quorum of no fewer than four Members physically present while three Members may attend through electronic means, and meetings shall be live-streamed for the viewing public, whereas the public is prohibited from personal attendance. FOR: Unanimous
THAT the Chief Administrative Officer be and is hereby appointed as a Deputy Clerk with all of the duties and responsibilities of the Clerk in the Clerk’s absence. FOR: Junkin, Ciolfi, Haun, Stewart, Wink. AGAINST: Hildebrandt, Kore.
THAT the mayor and Clerk, or designates, be authorized to execute any Agreement previously reported to Council that may have not yet been ratified through By-law. FOR: Junkin, Haun, Stewart, Wink. AGAINST: Ciolfi, Hildebrandt, Kore. (Junkin casts tie-breaker.)
THAT the CAO shall report to Council on any actions taken under the provisions of this by-law. FOR: Junkin, Ciolfi, Haun, Hildebrandt, Stewart, Wink. AGAINST: Kore.
THAT this By-law shall take effect immediately and remain in force only during a period of a declared pandemic, being the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. FOR: Junkin, Ciolfi, Haun, Stewart, Wink. AGAINST: Hildebrandt, Kore.