During their regular Nov. 16 meeting, a faction of Pelham Town Council regarded by some observers to be sympathizers of Councillor Ron Kore, whose current leave of absence is set to run out within weeks, briefly attempted to rush through an order for staff to provide information on absentee proxy voting.
At issue was a bill passed in July by the Government of Ontario to amend regulations for municipal council voting—adding an option for proxy voting, now that meetings across the province are being held online due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In brief, proxy voting would allow a councillor not to attend council meetings—neither in person nor by video conference—instead notifying the Town Clerk ahead of time, by means to be determined, which way he or she wished to vote on that meeting’s agenda items.
Under such a scenario, the councillor would be able to avoid debate, discussion, or the responsibility to vote on amendments to motions, or to discuss and debate unique motions, made during the meeting itself.
This would effectively allow Kore, for example, to return to council without actually being present, participating in debate, or being answerable to other council members’ concerns.
Ward 3’s Bob Hildebrandt led the charge, seconded by Lisa Haun, requesting that staff bring back a report by Dec. 7 on the feasibility of implementing proxy voting.
Clerk Nancy Bozzato diplomatically suggested it would be “challenging” to do so in this timeframe, while CAO David Cribbs was more direct.
“This falls under changes to the procedural bylaw, which you, not two months ago, ranked as a priority between ten and 15,” the CAO replied, referring to council’s setting of strategic priorities for 2021.
“We have set our work accordingly. I actually fear the Clerk is so polite that it causes us problems sometimes, when she says Dec. 7 would be difficult. I don’t think it’s at all possible. That’s actually going to require a lot of back-end work on our part. It’s not a traditional municipal norm at all.”
Hildebrandt remained adamant.
“The plans changed based on what we’re doing,” he said. “It would become a very useful tool for all of us as councillors, so to me it becomes a high-priority item.”
Kore faces a deadline of Dec. 14 to return to council or find his seat declared vacant. He hasn’t participated on council since Sept. 23, taking his second leave of absence this year in the face of criticism, inside and outside of Town Hall, regarding his conduct during the coronavirus pandemic.
Councillors Lisa Haun and Marianne Stewart agreed with Hildebrandt.
“The provincial government seems to think it’s okay, that’s why they passed the bill,” Haun said. “We just learned about this.”
However, Haun’s assertion is incorrect.
Back on Aug. 10, council received and discussed a report from Clerk Bozzato which specifically outlined the proxy proposal.
“[Provincial] Bill 197 introduces new rules to permit proxy voting at council meetings,” read the report. “However given that the Clerk would be required to establish an appropriate process to develop appropriate procedures in this regard, it will be necessary to further study the rules related to proxy votes before a recommendation can be made. Because this represents an entirely new policy direction through the Municipal Act 2001, a thorough review is needed.”
In fact, the motion to accept the Clerk’s report on Aug. 10 was made by Kore, and seconded by Haun.
Already aware that proxy voting was potentially an option, council nonetheless opted not to prioritize it some six weeks later, during a marathon, three-hour strategic planning meeting held on Sept. 28, which set municipal priorities for 2021.
The only apparent variable between Aug. 10 and last Monday was that Councillor Kore had taken a leave of absence in the interim.
We’ve never had proxy voting before. And we’ve been fine, thank you very much, without it.
Mayor Marvin Junkin and Councillors Wayne Olson and John Wink were in opposition.
“I find that wild, I think that anybody that votes on something should be in the council chamber so they can be accountable for it,” the Mayor said. “To think we can bring this forward … in two weeks, councillor, no offense but I think you’re being unreasonable,” Junkin told Hildebrandt.
“We’ve never had proxy voting before,” Wink added. “And we’ve been fine, thank you very much, without it.”
Ultimately Hildebrandt softened his stance and ended up agreeing with Cribbs’ assertion that it would be more sensible to deliver the report early in the new year. Council then voted to have staff report on the matter in February.
In a cursory online search, the Voice was unable to identify any Ontario municipal council that had adopted the proxy option.
Councillors will also vote Dec. 7 on the matter of extending meetings by video conference to as late as next August.
Short-term rental casualty
The Town’s sweeping ban of short-term rentals saw its first claim of unfair targeting from a small business owner during the meeting.
Bobby Kozjan, who owns a semi-detached, two-unit house on Welland Road in Fenwick, and rented one of the units out as an Airbnb for more than two years, tried to present his case to councillors that the property should be exempted from the Town’s new requirement that any short-term rentals be subject to a costly zoning amendment application.
Kozjan said he spent $75,000 to renovate the house into its current configuration of a two-unit structure, and that revenue from the Airbnb was helping pay for his mother’s residence in a long-term care facility. He said the rezoning application would cost him another $20,000.
Most staff and councillors provided little sympathy.
“It is now caught by the new policies and licencing requirements,” Director of Community Planning and Development Barb Wiens said, describing the structure as a semi-detached residence.
The only grandfathering exemptions for the short-term rental bylaw exist for traditional bed-and-breakfast operations inside single-detached, owner-occupied homes.
However, Kozjan pointed out that his sister-in-law lives in the non-rental unit —providing a full-time presence — while adding his Airbnb never received a complaint from neighbours. Wiens confirmed the latter.
Still, CAO Cribbs appeared to chastise Kozjan for not bringing up his concerns during the public meeting process leading up to implementation of the bylaw earlier this year.
“There were multiple public meetings, public articles on the topic,” the CAO said. “This was years of work in the making to create this product, that quite intentionally, licences.”
Kozjan said he was unaware of any of it until after the bylaw was passed.
“The first time we heard about this, is when we heard about the bylaw,” he said.
Olson provided the only real conciliatory tone — agreeing that because a family member lives permanently on-site at the rental property, it was a significant consideration.
“It seems like there’s an element of unfairness in this whole thing,” Olson said. “Perhaps we should go back and look at the rules and see how they apply here.”
Earlier, Mayor Marvin Junkin had implied there was little council could do, but suggested staff contact Kozjan directly.
“I don’t think there’s a will on council to make an exemption,” the Mayor said.
Speed study results
Staff presented results of a speed study on Pelham Street north near Shorthills Place, where residents have asked for installation of a three-way stop. The study, conducted between Oct. 29-30, recorded some 1,100 vehicles, with a combined average speed of 53.5 km/h.
Still, Olson pointed out some higher speeds, calling them dangerous.
“These speeds I see on this chart are not survivable,” the Ward 1 councillor said. “I’m astonished at some of these speeds and combined with distractions, this is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Public Works Director Jason Marr said the high-speeders constituted a limited number, but agreed it was concerning. The next step for staff will be to determine the course of potential traffic-calming measures.
Town Treasurer and Director of Corporate Services Teresa Quinlin provided an update, and projected a current potential year-end shortfall of $221,000. She added, however, that Pelham’s application for Phase 2 COVID-19 relief funding from upper levels of government has been submitted, and said losses this year have been mitigated by the previous layoffs of 43 town and library staff, as well as other cuts — to the tune of $704,000 in savings.
In an odd interaction toward the end of the meeting, Councillor Bob Hildebrandt pointed out a spelling error in a document regarding a section of Brayden Way, in Fonthill, meant to finalize its designation as a “public highway,” i.e., a municipal road. Town records had inadvertently listed the name as “Braden.” As Hildebrandt spoke, Councillor Lisa Haun visibly anticipated his line of questioning, nodding affirmatively, then bowed her head in apparent bemusement when Wiens confirmed the spelling error. Haun did not respond to a request for comment regarding the evident importance she attached to the spelling mistake, nor her reaction in seeing Wiens acknowledge it.
In any event, the matter appeared to be a minor oversight dating back to when the surrounding development was completed.
“It’s just really cleaning up something that should have been done six or seven years ago,” Wiens said.
Plans to open outdoor rink
With COVID-19 regulations limiting attendance at the MCC, Fire Chief Bob Lymburner confirmed that the fire department still plans to flood their outdoor hockey rink at Fire Hall No. 3 in North Pelham when weather permits.
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