When councillors debated a motion intended to impose an end date to the delegation of authority approved in March, the tense discussion that ensued became more about whether councillors believe Lord Mayor Betty Disero and interim CAO Sheldon Randall have overstepped their authority.
The discussion occurred during Wednesday’s continuance of last week’s council meeting, when Coun. Norm Arsenault presented a motion asking that the delegation of authority come to an end Aug. 24, the date of the next council meeting.
It came into effect March 17, when the Town was declared a state of emergency, and was approved to allow the lord mayor and interim CAO to make decisions quickly, without waiting for a council meeting.
Since then, any decisions made by the lord mayor and interim CAO were later approved by council, although not unanimously. Some councillors have said they want a more detailed account, which has so far not been available to them.
Disero opened Wednesday’s discussion on a personal note, saying she felt the motion, which was presented to them in big, bold, red type, was “belittling, demanding, hand-slapping or scolding of some kind,” when she feels proud of the work that has been done through the authority delegated to her and Randall.
To remind councillors, and ensure the public understands what has been initiated through the delegation of authority, she listed some of the many decisions made “to protect the health and safety for the people of Niagara-on-the-Lake,” including closing facilities; explaining essential services; helping residents who need help; instituting the parking prohibition when too many visitors were coming to town and there were no services; reopening washrooms; instituting the COVID complaint line; organizing an appreciation night for frontline workers; sending food and supplies to long-term care facilities; continuing to provide services while working with a reduced complement of staff; continuing grass-cutting and parks and road maintenance; continuing the hanging basket program; offering children’s camps; and banning the use of tents and barbecues in town parks.
From the time the delegation of authority was approved, Disero said, she and Randall talked to councillors every day, until March 30, when the first special council meeting was held and councillors were given regular updates.
“We weren’t getting any pushback on our decisions,” she said.
In May, regular committee and council meetings began, with council making decisions, and weekly updates continued, with no dissension until Disero and Randall “tweaked” a decision made by council regarding the closure of Queen Street, changing some of the details of the trial closure “on behalf of majority of members of council. Some members of council had some remorse and were saying it publicly,” she said, referring to a vote approving the pilot project until the end of October, on a motion made by Coun. Clare Cameron. Disero and Randall shortened the trial to last just three weekends, with the support of the NOTL Chamber of Commerce.
The street was only closed two weekends before it was agreed, again with the Chamber, to close off parking spaces and open the street to traffic.
Disero asked why councillors felt they had to “scold us or discipline us in some way, shape or form,” when “the decent thing to say would be thank you. Thank you to the CAO, thank you to the staff, particularly the emergency team, and all our staff, and to the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake.” She went on to say councillors should say thanks to those who put “their own personal feelings and egos aside to make sure Niagara-on-the-Lake was safe.”
Instead, on the day that NOTL got its first new case of COVID in some time, and the Region’s number of confirmed cases has increased, she said, “somebody decides that we won’t need to do anything quickly after Aug. 24.
She suggested that if COVID numbers continued to rise, the goal should be to look after the safety of the town “by staying the course, until at least the end of August, calling the motion “a very knee-jerk reaction to something that will not be in the best interests of our residents.”
Arsenault, who had made the motion that was presented to council in large, bold, red type, as Disero pointed out, said he meant no offence by it, and apologized — he just wanted the change he was putting forward to stand out from the original motion.
“I have no concerns with the way the lord mayor and CAO have handled the emergency to date.”
He said he has supported all the decisions that were made through the delegated authority, but that the “status quo” should remain for now, but giving an end date of Aug. 24 would give council time to analyze whether it needed to continue.
Coun. Allan Bisback said he looked at the motion as extending the delegated authority, with an end date.
Couns. Gary Burroughs, Wendy Cheropita and Clare Cameron all spoke in favour of the motion.
Burroughs has indicated in recent weeks he thinks it’s time for the decisions of running the town should returned to the council table . He reiterated his concern at last week’s meeting, saying there should be more participation by all council representatives, and that he hasn’t understood the urgency of some of the decisions that were made without council’s input. His support of the motion, he said, “is not in any way a criticism of some of the work that has been done by the (emergency) group,” but because he believes council needs to be more involved.
After thanking the emergency group for their work, Coun. Wendy Cheropita said the motion “is not personal. This is about all of us working together as a team, drawing on our collective strengths.”
She supported the motion, she said, because “elected officials need to feel connected,” and she has felt disconnected at times, and would like to be more involved.
The motion, she said, is about inclusiveness, and allowing all of council to be “a part of the collective effort and the result that comes through this.”
Cameron said she was supporting the motion because “nine elected minds are better than one. We’re better together, we’re better as a collective, and that’s how I hope to work as a councillor.”
It’s how she wants to work, which she has found impossible in recent weeks, she said. “My goal is to try to represent the people I was elected to serve. This bylaw (that delegates authority) has make it difficult to feel adequately informed in order to fulfill this role that I was put into by residents within this community.”
Nothing in the motion on the table would strip powers from the “very important role of the head of council,” she said, but she was looking forward to working collectively, with “the full complement of council,” and the talent around the council table.
The motion, she said, would allow for more information-sharing and make working together possible.
Coun. Erwin Wiens presented a different view, that council has been meeting often, and that the town is still in a state of emergency. “This is not the time to take our foot off the pedal. This is not the time to ease up.”
The Town still needs to be cautious, he said. “We still need to be able to make decisions pretty darn quick.”
He hasn’t found any decision that has been “untoward,” he said, “and I don’t want to be the first municipality to take away delegated authority.”
He doesn’t want to handcuff the lord mayor, CAO and staff while they’re trying to run a town in the midst of a pandemic, he said. “This is premature. This is uncalled-for at this time,” he said. “We need to show that we support our leaders right now.”
He said he hadn’t heard any credible reasons that the decisions made haven’t been good ones.
“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, folks, and this pandemic is not leaving anytime soon.”
The motion was lost on a tie, with Couns. Arsenault, Burroughs, Cameron and Cheropita supporting it, and Bisback, John Wiens, Erwin Wiens, and Disero voting against it.