In one of the more staggering Pelham Town council meetings in recent memory, among other things members voted to endorse a loan of $600,000 to build a new airport hangar, flirted with killing transit service in the town, and one councillor inadvertently divulged information meant for a closed session

The Sept. 20 regular meeting began with Mayor Marvin Junkin announcing that he would no longer wear a mask in council chambers. The Mayor and Clerk Holly Willford have been helming the virtual council meetings from Town Hall since the Covid-19 pandemic began, with other members joining by Zoom.

“Madame Clerk and I had a discussion, we’re both double-vaccinated, we’re six feet apart, and I don’t care what you say … we’re both relatively young,” Junkin announced, apparently making light of his 68 years.

In another first, Pelham began a new tradition of starting Town meetings with a First Nations land recognition. The practice has been used extensively in other Canadian jurisdictions, and in Pelham’s case acknowledges the Hatiwendaronk, Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

The meeting underway, things quickly became contentious when airport commission chair and Wainfleet Councillor John MacLellan presented his idea to take out up to a $600,000 loan to build a new hangar at the aerodrome. The plan, backed by Pelham Ward 3 Councillor and airport commission member Lisa Haun, could potentially leave Pelham on the hook for $108,000 or more in the event of default as one of the four municipalities involved in governing the airfield and effectively guaranteeing the loan, which would be underwritten by the City of Welland.

Pelham Town Council meets virtually on Sept. 20, 2021. YOU TUBE

As has been demonstrated on the issue since a fiery December meeting over Pelham’s role in the future of the facility, the argument mostly pitted airport skeptics Junkin and Ward 1’s Wayne Olson against the political bloc of Haun, Bob Hildebrandt, Marianne Stewart and Ron Kore.

“This weekend, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many planes land and take off at this airport,” Haun told council. “Business is booming out there, and with more hangar space it would only be more so.”

Due to this asserted booming business, MacLellan repeatedly tried to make the case that the airfield could become profitable.

“This airport should be run like a business,” he said, adding that until now all four municipalities — Pelham, Welland, Port Colborne and Wainfleet — have neglected the facility.

“As one guy once said to me, it’s like being half-pregnant,” MacLellan said. “None of the four municipalities want to take any responsibility for it. They’ve never stepped up to do anything to improve it or bring in cash flow.”

When Olson asked about the airport’s existing debt or for a formal business plan, MacLellan said Pelham residents would be the only municipality to collect tax dollars on the improvement as the airport sits fully inside Town borders.

“I hope you’re not trying to beat your taxpayers out of taxes that are coming to you,” MacLellan said.

When Olson asked again about a strategic business plan, Haun said it was being worked on.

“We’ve spent almost three years cleaning up messes,” MacLellan added, repeating an earlier line that “a 12-year-old kid” wouldn’t have done some of the previous airport deals.

“Yes, Rome wasn’t built in a day,” MacLellan said. “I guarantee you if it’s not a moneymaking venture, we’re not building the thing.”

Olson provided statistics he said he found that growth in private registration aircraft the past three years in Ontario has been 0.3 percent. “All I’m looking for is a plan,” he said.

Soon after, Ward 3 councillor Hildebrandt called for a point of order, declaring, “I think it’s time to call the vote.”

I guarantee you if it’s not a money-making venture, we’re not building the thing

Junkin replied, “Usually we wait until no more questions are asked.”

CAO David Cribbs, asked for his input, said, “It kind of feels like Mom and Dad are fighting.”

While he suggested Pelham’s Finance and Audit Committee could look at the proposal, and that customarily such an approach would be appropriate, the airport commission was an independent agency and as such ultimately the decision rested with council.

“Given the decision to keep the airport, we now have to look forward to some kind of future for said airport,” the CAO said. “This seems to be rational and coherent. This sounds like a reasonable approach … I wish you the best of luck, I’m going to hit my mute button.”

As the discussion wrapped up, Junkin reiterated his opposition.

“I can only imagine that this council will be asked again to support further debt,” the Mayor said. “When you’re talking airports there are no small bills … this is a huge money pit that the residents of this town cannot afford.”

Junkin also mentioned the airport’s septic system, which is in apparent need of replacing. That led to another testy exchange with Haun.

Haun replied that Niagara Region doesn’t feel the septic system is a problem as it is not used year-round.

“I encourage you to do your homework,” she told Junkin.

The Mayor rebutted, saying that he had spoken with a Niagara Region engineer earlier that day who, Junkin asserted, had said, “’Huge repairs eventually, sooner than later.’ He also mentioned a business plan would be appropriate. So, I did do my homework, I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

When the vote was finally called, Ward 2’s John Wink joined the bloc members in supporting the plan.

However, with Haun (“Yes, absolutely”), Hildebrandt (“Yes, absolutely”), Kore (“Yes, absolutely”) and Stewart (“Opportunity knocked, answer the door”) adding superlatives to their yes votes, Wink said, “Yes, reluctantly.”

Junkin and Olson were the only no votes, with the Mayor saying, “No, definitely.”

More fireworks over transit

Despite council passing a renewal of the existing agreement for on-demand service with Niagara Transit this past April, Bob Hildebrandt appeared poised to attempt to kill it at the too-late stage of bylaw-passage during the meeting.

Again raising complaints over service levels in Pelham, Hildebrandt and Haun were concerned that the memorandum of understanding attached to the bylaw did not include terms of improvement.

“We saw the terms when we originally okayed this,” Junkin told Hildebrandt.

“I wasn’t okay with those terms,” the Ward 3 councillor replied.

CAO Cribbs said Niagara Transit has made assurances that service levels would improve, noting the launch of a new booking system this month. He also appeared concerned that transit was suddenly in peril.

“This is the least expensive option for providing transit for the next year, he said. “Not passing this means ending public transit in Pelham this year.”

After some discussion about potentially holding back some funds, Wink pointed out that the Town’s first payment on the new deal was actually due in late August, putting Pelham in arrears. “Quite frankly we’re delinquent,” the Ward 2 councillor said.

Clerk Willford then reminded council that the bylaw was essentially binding given that it had been passed five months ago.

“This is like the U.S. Vice President having no choice but to certify the election results,” Cribbs explained, referring to then-VP Mike Pence overseeing the Capitol Hill chaos of last January 6.

“You’ve already voted and made up your minds.”

Hildebrandt responded, saying that while he was pro-transit, he wasn’t happy.

“They’re delinquent in getting that report to us,” he said of Niagara Transit. “The sloppiness of their contract just shows you the quality of work they do. I’m not trying to stop the transit.”

At this point, Haun’s hand had been raised for a few minutes, with Hildebrandt pointing that out.

“We’ve called the vote,” the Mayor replied, before asking Cribbs for his opinion.

While the CAO noted that it was within the Mayor’s prerogative to proceed to the vote, he added, “We are here as a democratic institution and there’s a member that clearly has something she wishes to say.”

Junkin granted Haun her point, to which the clearly seething Ward 3 councillor said, “Thank you very much Mr. Mayor … I have no intention in cancelling transit.”

Junkin responded: “Thank you, councillor for repeating what I just said.”

Kore then raised a point of order, berating the Mayor for his response to Haun.

“I didn’t appreciate your answer to Councillor Haun, that’s disrespectful,” Kore said.

“Yeah, and she wasn’t being disrespectful to me at all?” the Mayor replied.

“You’re the Mayor, you’re the big boy,” Kore retorted.

“So, it’s kick the Mayor and council gets to do whatever it wants?” Junkin said.

With the bickering finally subsided, members unanimously voted to pass the bylaw as well as to ask Niagara Transit for a more detailed memorandum.

See this week’s Editorial: Pelham Council’s transit obstinacy

 

Councillors debate pay raises, moving meeting days, contradictions galore

Given that Pelham Town Councillors are some the lowest-paid elected officials in Ontario, at an annual salary starting at $12,500 per year, staff and an external consultant have recommended bumping that up to $20,000 per year.

“We are asking you to do something that is difficult and for which you would be criticized,” CAO Cribbs said. “But this council has made some very hard decisions over the last almost three years and you’ve demonstrated a tremendous capacity for those. It is important that we at least get close to minimum wage.”

You’re a grey zone, we could work you to death without proper compensation … but I don’t think that’s the type of community Pelham is

A salary of $20,000 per year would still come in under the minimum wage, but Cribbs pointed out that elected officials are excluded from the Employment Standards Act.

“You’re a grey zone, we could work you to death without proper compensation … but I don’t think that’s the type of community Pelham is,” the CAO said.

Either out of conviction or indulgence in political theatre, some Councillors appeared opposed.

“I do not intend on increasing my salary,” Hildebrandt said. “I think we should be deferring the motion until next summer so the next council will know what they will be paid.”

Kore agreed.

“I think in the 40 years I’ve worked in retail, I always got paid minimum wage for the hours I put in,” he said.

The Hildebrandt-Kore-Haun- Stewart bloc succeeded in voting to defer the matter until next year’s election cycle, but more discussion followed regarding a staff report recommending that regular council meetings be moved from Mondays to Tuesdays, and that an extra summer session be added (council presently only meets once each in the months of July and August).

Hildebrandt said Tuesdays or Wednesdays don’t work for him.

“When I ran, I ran because Mondays were the day the Clerk promised me we would hold our council meetings,” Hildebrandt said. “Now we’re trying to change the day. I don’t … think this is fair.”

Stewart, who voted to defer the pay raise, then said: “As very low-paid members I think we deserve the consideration of a block of vacation time.”

Few seemed keen on the idea of adding another summer meeting, something that Cribbs said he felt became necessary after this summer’s packed agenda.

“That was the most difficult summer, as far as council, in my 18 years,” the CAO said. “We just managed never to get the work done. And we’ve had very large agendas both times here in September as a result.”

Council has imposed explicit limits on staff as to how long meeting agendas may be, and has shown increasing reluctance to continue meetings until all agenda items have been dealt with—even on the shortened agendas.

Ironically, shortly afterward, council hit its curfew time. When Wink moved to extend curfew to finish the night’s business, no other councillors seconded it. The usually calm Wink reacted sharply.

“We probably have about five or ten more minutes of actual work to do and we’re deferring something?” an incredulous Wink said. “I can’t believe this council is so adamant to stick to time. I’m just totally frustrated with all of you.”

After the Mayor exasperatedly told the Clerk to wrap up the meeting, he gave council a second opportunity to second Wink’s motion, at which point a stone-faced Olson raised his hand, and council voted to continue.

This allowed Wink to present a motion that meetings of the Town’s advisory committees — bodies comprised primarily of citizens and not elected officials — not be video recorded nor placed on YouTube.

“Many members of the Pelham Active Transit Committee will resign if meetings are going to continue to be videotaped,” Wink said.

His motion cited video recording as potentially causing “unintended and unwelcome consequences” and the “stifling of free-flowing discussion.”

The motion unanimously passed.

With the regular agenda covered, council was then set to meet briefly in closed session regarding “personal matters about an unidentifiable individual and labour relations or employee negotiations.”

Wink, who was unaware the matter was on the docket, then ironically asked to defer it to another day.

However, at this point, Hildebrandt began blurting out details about the matter with the live video feed still on.

Several members began shouting at him to stop.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, we’re in open session here,” Junkin exclaimed.

Odds and ends

The bloc defeated a staff recommendation that Pelham join a new consortium with the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre regarding trees in the town. Public Works Manager Ryan Cook had said the project would help Pelham learn how to mitigate storm drainage issues. Junkin, Olson and Wink supported the failed proposal.

■ There were 13 active Covid-19 cases in Pelham as of Sept. 20. On the same day, 93 percent of those on ICU ventilators in the Province of Ontario were not fully vaccinated.