Holding a virtual Pelham Town Council meeting didn’t stop some spirited debate on April 6. With only Mayor Marvin Junkin and Town Clerk Nancy Bozzato present in the Town Hall chambers, the rest of council and staff joined via video conferencing. Councillors Mike Ciolfi and Ron Kore did not participate. Ciolfi was absent due to illness. Kore’s absence was unexplained.
In a meeting that lasted longer than it needed to thanks to the vagaries of modern technology, Junkin shot back at councillor Lisa Haun’s position that Pelham Transit be suspended outright during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Town has reduced service to on-demand only during the crisis, and Haun suggested during the meeting that this was still irresponsible given widely accepted physical distancing guidelines.
“I’m shocked that the concern right now is saving grant money when we’re in a pandemic,” Haun said, referring to the money Pelham receives from higher levels of government under the directive that some form of transit service exist.
“We have a myriad of services that can be delivered to our homes,” Haun said, adding that there are additional support networks that have popped up since the pandemic hit.
That’s when Junkin jumped in.
“I’m sorry councillor, we are not running a service so we can use the grant money up.
“I’m sorry councillor, we are not running a service so we can use the grant money up. We are running a service because the neediest people in this town that do not have the privilege of having a car, that do not have a licence— they are using our service. I think that’s a heck of a thing to accuse our staff that we’re looking at grant money. This service is said to be an essential service by the province. It’s not just us.”
Haun had earlier said she hoped the Ontario government would restrict municipal transit, but the province has continued to designate it an essential service throughout the escalating crisis.
“Where are you suggesting these needy people are going?” Haun asked Junkin.
“I haven’t gone out on the bus myself,” the Mayor replied. “The handicapped that are probably by themselves … you’d have to go on the bus and ask them. I haven’t done a personal [poll]. All I know is that people … that know what they’re doing, in bigger cities and across the province, have called public transit an essential service. Where are they going? I have no idea. I’m sorry, I can’t answer that trivial question. The [public health] people have given their okay on this. Please don’t tell us we’re trying to get the grant money, that’s not why we’re doing it. We’re providing a service for the neediest people of this town,” he concluded.
“Okay, that’s great,” Haun replied.
Regional Councillor Diana Huson had previously criticized Haun’s position, telling the Voice on April 5 that transit remains crucial.
“I don’t think people are using transit at this time for leisure,” Huson said. “They are using it because it is the only mode of transportation available to them for work, or to obtain essential items such as food and medicine.”
Niagara Region CAO Ron Tripp echoed that view.
“Although drastically reduced,” said Tripp, “[Region buses] still do have ridership. Based on what activities and employment has been deemed non-essential, it is fair to say that most, if not all, still using transit, are using it for essential employment, shopping for food, or access to support services. We do not want to cease transit operation for those that require it for this need.”
Director of Culture, Recreation and Wellness Vickie vanRavenswaay said the on-demand bus service is limiting passengers to four at a time, and that the bus itself is “cleaned and sanitized every hour and a half.”
Elsewhere on the COVID-19 front, Fire Chief and Chief Bylaw Enforcement Officer Bob Lymburner gave an update on how the Town has been handling the pandemic.
“We’re in some very difficult times, very uncharted waters,” Lymburner said. “We need to protect our seniors.”
He said the Pelham Fire Department is still responding to calls, and that volume is down somewhat. He also credited local businesses for taking the situation seriously.
“The ones that are open are doing a great job, they’re limiting the access into their buildings, they’re constantly cleaning,” he said. “The general public is generally playing by the rules.”
Lymburner also said that COVID-19 notice signs in Spanish have gone up in parts of town for the area’s seasonal migrant workers. He reported that as of April 1, five farms had brought in 41 migrant workers. Under federal law, they are required to quarantine for 14 days.
More traditional goings-on
Council accepted a presentation from Summerside Mews developer Drew Toth, who appeared via video link to defend his development’s parking plan. Council had asked for discussion on the matter at its previous gathering, with many members concerned the new East Fonthill housing units will see spillover into the adjacent community centre parking lot. One of council’s objections related to proposed walkways that would connect the new street with the frequently-at-capacity lot. While some councillors thought that this could invite illegal parking at the MCC, Toth said the pathways simply promote walkability. (Similar walkways can be found all over older Fonthill developments.)
Toth’s plan also calls for a total of 78 parking spaces as part of the new development, 20 more than are required under the zoning bylaw.
Council voted to go into closed session for legal advice, likely to be told that the Town had the slimmest of chances at prevailing should council turn down the development at this late stage and see it challenged at a tribunal. When the public video feed came back on, council agreed to have the site plan submitted for approval at their next meeting.
Council also voted to allow a duplex at 1084 Quaker Road to continue existing as-is. Homeowners Rick and Del Laney had been pleading with the Town for months over their secondary unit, which only came to light when the family required accessibility upgrades, necessitating a building permit. Council agreed to rezone the subject property on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. The fact that a triplex has existed on the neighbouring property for several years was also a consideration.