A seemingly routine entry about accessible parking permits in downtown Midland featured heated exchanges during this week's committee of the whole meeting.
During the notice of motions section, council suspended the rules in a two-thirds vote to urgently address a parking accessibility agenda item, that was otherwise slated for the next regular meeting of council.
Coun. Cher Cunningham proposed, “All drivers holding an accessible parking permit be allowed free parking in any paid parking spots, on streets and in lots in the town of Midland” effective immediately.
Recently, the town of Midland introduced a pay-by-plate parking system for its streets and municipal lots to streamline bylaw enforcement and increase revenue for project reserves and infrastructure. The adjustment to the new parking meters and boxes was met with confusion as many users struggled with the changes being introduced.
“We know that there are some challenges with the parking, with the system, with the implementation of it,” said Cunningham, who considered the motion a quick and easy solution “to show that we are paying attention and hear what’s going on.”
Pointing out that the difficulty isn’t in paying as much as it is in the attempt to pay, Cunningham described how a medical visit involved her walking to the nearest pay parking box twice following a backtrack for her licence plate information.
“Yes, I could have used the app, but it crashed on me three times,” Cunningham admitted.
CAO David Denault related an understanding to the sentiment of providing free parking to accessible permit holders, but issued strong caution against the “hard-to-enforce” motion.
“There might be some unintended consequences as a result of doing this, which may impact the very people you’re trying to help,” Denault warned, describing a “golden ticket” scenario where people become dishonest in an attempt to gain a free thing.
“When you create that golden ticket, you get a lot of people coming out of the woodwork who create fraudulent permits, who will reuse permits of other people, who will take advantage of a situation and start to populate the spaces by the very people who actually need them,” said Denault.
Additionally, Denault explained that “vigilante-type enforcement” has occurred in other jurisdictions as people confront others who are perceived as “gaming the system” despite possibly having a disability which isn’t visible.
“If the issue is making it easier for people with accessible permits to get access to the terminals, maybe we need more accessible parking spots,” Denault offered as an alternative to the motion proposed, citing 40 accessible parking spaces downtown with 69 terminals spread across the area which he considers a fair number.
Mayor Stewart Strathearn shared that what he thought was a benign and reasonable suggestion was as problematic as what both the CAO and Cunningham had described, from witnessing acquaintances gaming the system, to vigilante confrontations, and even requiring bylaw to help him determine if his own car was in the system.
However, Strathearn commented that the conversation of accessible parking should be a holistic one, “viewed in the broader understanding of parking in town.”
Coun. Bill Gordon cited the proposed free parking system as working the same for veterans who used it without “society falling apart” as a measure to accommodate accessibility permits.
The conversation took a turn, as Gordon took notice of Denault’s earlier words.
“I’m sure that the CAO didn’t mean to come across the way that I felt he did,” said Gordon.
“But characterizing a vast number of people as abusing the system,” said Gordon with regards to non-visible disabilities, “I don’t think that vilifying them and saying that if we do this then we’re opening ourselves up to rampant fraud and abuse... I think it could’ve been heard or certainly said differently.”
Denault responded by reiterating his earlier words of warning.
Coun. Beth Prost gave remarks to support the motion, saying that while accessible parking is difficult currently, some residents have left phone calls worried about winter snowfall which could make for an even greater obstacle; terminals closer to accessible parking spots would be ideal if somewhat unlikely.
In an attempt to keep the meeting moving quickly, chair Deputy Mayor Mike Ross lightheartedly commented that “there are no meters, and the fact is with the new technology we don’t need meters; we just have our smartphones.”
Prost attempted to clarify resulting in unintended cross talk between the two, and while Ross attempted to step back from the escalation, he brought up the necessity of smartphone ownership for parking users, in the process talking over Prost through his explanation of technology in a changing world.
The last word went to Gordon, who mentioned that the problematic app held one additional surprise when he last attempted to use it.
“If you use the app you pay an extra thirty percent. Thirty cents. On your dollar. For its convenience fee. If you walk up to the machine and drop your buck in it, there’s no thirty-cent fee. Just FYI,” advised Gordon.
Coun. Jonathan Main offered that the motion be deferred to the accessibility committee for review and comment, and the motion was passed.
Council meetings are held on the first and third Wednesdays of each month, and can be viewed on Rogers TV cable channel 53, or through the livestream on the Rogers TV website. Archives of council meetings are available through Rogers TV and on the Town of Midland’s YouTube channel.
Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, MidlandToday.ca