“Political spectacle” ensues as banned resident shows up for public meeting

At approximately 7:23 p.m. May 28, nearly half an hour after the scheduled regular Stratford council meeting was supposed to start, the packed gallery roared at Stratford city hall.

Mayor Martin Ritsma and CAO Joan Thomson arrived in council chambers with Ritsma announcing he will not call the meeting to order.

“We are going to postpone the meeting until further notice,” he said as boos from those gathered for the meeting erupted from the gallery.

“Cowards!” One angry resident exclaimed as he left.

The May 28 council meeting’s agenda was packed with a public meeting and a number of items of note, from special-occasion permit requests to tender awards for a street reconstruction.

That was evidently derailed by the arrival of Mike Sullivan, a Stratford resident who was recently suspended from City of Stratford property.

Sullivan arrived with a baseball cap and a small package of papers, telling the Stratford Times he intended to speak at the public meeting scheduled to discuss a proposed development at 93 Trinity St. and 266 King St.

As the gallery filled with more residents, council was delayed as the mayor, CAO and clerk Tatiana Dafoe were absent. At around the 15-minute mark, some residents began to audibly heckle, with one resident asking, “Do you get paid if you don’t show up on time?”

Ritsma entered the gallery at one point to speak with Sullivan before the meeting was supposed to start. Sullivan later shared that Ritsma had asked him to leave and that he had declined because it was his democratic right to speak.

Two Stratford Police Service officers were in attendance, just outside of council chambers, and Sullivan said that is what he expected.

“I expected the boys in blue to call me out,” Sullivan said. “But they got a letter from our lawyer today saying, ‘If you do, there will be penalties for you.’ ”

Ultimately, Sullivan was not escorted out and the meeting was postponed.

On April 4, Sullivan and Barb Shaughnessy were among the residents who received notices from the city’s solicitor, Paula Lombardi of Siskins Law Firm, informing them they have been suspended from all city property for three months, stemming from actions that occurred at the city council meeting on Feb. 26 that violated the city’s respectful workplace policy.

Both Sullivan and Shaughnessy have joined with Get Concerned Stratford and David Donnelly of Donnelly Law to challenge that suspension.

Tim Forster, husband of Shaughnessy, was in attendance at the May 28 meeting and said he was shocked the mayor would “unilaterally” cancel the meeting.

“That, to me, makes no sense – but that's where we are in Stratford,” he said.

Thomson declined to comment, however Ritsma did share one brief statement, saying there is a process in place and that process must be allowed to move forward, declining to go further into detail on what that process is.

Coun. Cody Sebben, who attempted to pass a motion to rescind the suspensions at the last council meeting on May 13, said he was very disappointed with what occurred, thinking mainly of the items on the agenda that may be time sensitive.

“I think there's going to need to be a review of our procedural bylaw,” Sebben said, “and whether that was followed.”

Sebben went on to say that as some of the gallery members voiced their frustration, he knew where they were coming from, while also stressing that in no way is he attempting to disparage staff or the work that they do.

“I feel their frustration and in some ways I'm as frustrated as they are,” Sebben said. “But I'm also trying to, you know … I want to follow the procedural bylaw.”

“Quite frankly, I was surprised to see Mr. Sullivan here,” Coun. Mark Hunter said after council chambers had emptied. “And I was surprised – a little surprised – by the response … Whether he agrees with that process or not, we did determine that he should be staying away from city property and he chose not to accept that and to make a political spectacle by showing up here.”

Hunter said the tenor of the dialogue in the city, coming from a small group of people, is hostile.

“I believe everybody on council was very open to listening to the community. We want to know what the community wants, and anything that gets in the way of that messaging, I think, is problematic.”

He also added that, without “calling anyone out,” the city likely has not done a good job at communicating with the whole community and that is something that can be improved. How exactly it can be, he does not know.

Coun. Larry McCabe added he recently attended the Ontario Small Urban Municipalities conference and that “volatile” interactions between the public and council and staff are top of mind throughout the province.

“It is very concerning that we can't come together and at least have conversations in which people are civil to each other,” he said.

Joan Bidell, a resident in attendance for the public meeting, said she knew many residents that came out to speak at the meeting, some with mobility issues, made a concerted effort to come and hear about the development.

She did not think the postponement of the meeting was an appropriate response.

“I just think it's disrespectful,” Bidell said. “It’s very disrespectful.”

Connor Luczka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Stratford Times