Pelham Town Council and senior staff meet electronically on Feb. 1. YOU TUBE

Pelham’s bloc of close political allies — councillors Lisa Haun, Bob Hildebrandt, Ron Kore and Marianne Stewart — again wielded their collective power Feb. 1 by keeping the controversial idea of council proxy voting alive.

With a familiar 4-3 vote, the quartet deferred consideration of a requested staff report on the matter until what Hildebrandt forecasted as the second quarter of 2021, “pending receipt of further additional information such as other Regional municipalities’ position on proxy voting.”

The matter first came before council in November, after changes to Ontario’s Municipal Act in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic added a provision for proxy voting, essentially giving council members across the province the ability to vote in absentia without attending meetings—whether in-person or electronically.

According to the Town of Pelham staff report that council ordered in November, none of Ontario’s 443 other municipalities have since adopted the idea. The report also recommended against it.

“It is staff’s opinion that proxy attendance should not be approved or be limited to only extraordinary circumstances, if at all,” the report stated.

(After the report was completed, Pelham CAO David Cribbs told The Voice that staff learned last week that Peel Region, alone among Ontario’s 444 municipalities, has passed proxy voting.)

Hildebrandt wasn’t sold, implying he had been in contact with MPP Sam Oosterhoff about the matter.

“I don’t want to rush into an important decision,” he said. “It’s very complex. I think we need more time before we make a final decision.”

Stewart, who seconded Hildebrandt’s motion to defer, agreed.

“I believe that proxy voting does have a place. It’s not meant to supersede your attendance at meetings,” she said.

“I think it should only be able to be used in extenuating circumstances,” Stewart added, citing Hildebrandt missing a meeting once due to a death in his family.

Mayor Marvin Junkin debunked the theory, pointing out the existing rules of quorum address councillor absences.

“That’s why we have quorum based on four [councillors],” the Mayor said.

Ward 1 Councillor Wayne Olson and Ward 2 Councillor John Wink also shared their disagreement, both calling it an affront to democracy.

“This is very well-written report, very complete, and I will be voting against anything anyway, that has anything to do with proxies,” Olson said. “Because I was elected to be here. I don’t feel this is a very democratic way of doing business.”

Wink said there was no need to defer based on the report presented.

“I think we’ve got enough information here to make a decision,” he said.

Councillor Lisa Haun supported the successful motion, but said, “there needs to be some very strict parameters to the usage of this.”

Notably silent was Councillor Ron Kore, who took two lengthy leaves of absence from council in 2020, following his COVID-positive test result and the death of Councillor Mike Ciolfi. 

RELATED: Councillors comment to The Voice about proxy voting

RELATED: Editorial, Call it what it is: A backroom power grab

RELATED: Prof. David Siegel, The problem with proxies

Haun, Hildebrandt, Kore, and Stewart—along with Wink— also refuted staff expertise on another issue, voting to defer the municipal assumption of Fonthill’s Lookout Subdivision on an apparent technicality. Hildebrandt said that drawings in a staff report were not “as-built,” and insisted they be included.

Assumption of subdivisions is a standard procedure upon developer completion. “Based on inspections, we’re satisfied and ready to assume this subdivision,” Public Works Director Jason Marr said. He added that a report will come back Feb. 16 with all drawings included.

Help for ratepayers affected by pandemic

Council unanimously approved a special COVID-19 payment plan for 2021 property taxes. The plan will allow residents who have experienced severe financial hardship due to the pandemic pay their outstanding 2020 and 2021 property taxes penalty- and interest-free over a 10- month period starting in March.

Stipulations include that a property owner must have experienced financial hardship directly related to the pandemic in the form of temporary or permanent loss of employment, or a decrease in income greater than 70 percent. The property in question must also be taxable residential-only property, and the primary residence of the owner.

Elsewhere on the COVID-19 front, CAO David Cribbs suggested Pelham follow neighbouring municipalities in paying tribute to those who have died during the pandemic. Pointing out that there is no consensus among the municipalities as to the form of tribute, Cribbs recommended the Town lower flags to half-staff on the days of March 12, 13, and 14 to mark one year since the world changed.

“I think everyone remembers what they were doing [then],” the CAO said. He added that any larger-scale memorial site would be undertaken by the Niagara Region, possibly at Regional headquarters in Thorold.

Council unanimously passed the flag idea.

During his COVID-19 update, Fire Chief Bob Lymburner told council that while the national vaccination plan remains unwieldy, he was still expecting more doses, with the priority still vaccinating Pelham’s seniors.

Library exploring merger with Lincoln

Cribbs also applauded the Library Board’s announcement to enter into an exploration of sharing services with the Town of Lincoln, with eyes on a possible library merger.

“If people didn’t understand the importance of the public library system before COVID, the dramatic increasing use of online cultural resources and educational resources offered by the library system have really come to the fore in the community recently,” Cribbs said.

In its statement, the Pelham Library Board said that, “in the spirit of creating efficiencies and streamlining administrative functions and expenditures, this potential merger would provide enhanced delivery of library services for our two communities and dedicate more resources to programs and materials.”

More Public Works space needed

In a special presentation before the main meeting, council heard from consultant KPMG regarding the Town’s Public Works spaces — specifically its yard on Tice Road near Balfour. Concerns exist that the facility has outgrown itself, and that Pelham’s expected growth means Public Works may not be able to maintain the required level of service. Estimates forecast an additional 1,121 square metres of space will be needed 20 years from now.

KPMG found that the Tice yard is the smallest among those in similar-sized municipalities, and that Pelham had the fewest number of full-time Public Works employees relative to its budget — one for every $253,000 of the budget, versus one for every $211,000 in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Olson said some of that comparison was misleading as unlike NOTL, Pelham is landlocked and therefore has road access on all four sides.

KPMG laid out three options: expanding the Tice site, purchasing new land, or leasing space from the Region’s yard.

Wink said that relocating the yard would be expensive, requiring purchasing land at a higher price. Instead, he suggested investigating expansion.

“Our best option is to see if we need to expand, to see if we can purchase land from one of the neighbours,” he said.

Council voted to receive the report.

Odds and ends

Cannabis Control Committee (CCC) chair Tim Nohara provided an update to council on light and odour mitigation bylaws. He said the CCC visited CannTrust to review their approach to the odour matter, but that another local cannabis producer, Redecan, “hasn’t been forthcoming.”

Regional Councillor Diana Huson made her regular presentation, which included Regional approval of the expansion of Welland’s northwest urban boundary. Expected future development in that area is poised to directly impact Pelham’s eastern border, including a planned upgrade of Merritt Road to the 406 interchange.

Haun again asked Director of Planning and Community Development Barb Wiens about staff’s ongoing parking study. Wiens said the project has been delayed on the consultant end due to COVID, and is now expected in April. Wiens also confirmed that developer reports on the controversial Kunda Park expansion and a planned neighbouring subdivision across the Steve Bauer Trail to the east won’t be ready this month after all. At its last meeting on Jan. 11, council passed a motion barring road crossings on the Bauer Trail, throwing a monkey wrench into developer plans.

Council passed a plan to make a deal with a landowner to widen Park Lane, the narrow alleyway that leads from Highway 20 down to Marlene Stewart Streit Park. The Town will assume a narrow strip of property from the individual to allow for the widening, in exchange for exclusive use of four nearby parking spots. Olson attempted to amend the plan by suggesting costs be split 50/50 between the Town and the landowner, but no one seconded it. It then passed unanimously.

Junkin opened the meeting by marking Black History Month and paying tribute to Harriet Tubman, the American slavery abolitionist who was a key part of the Underground Railroad and made her home in St. Catharines in the 1850s.