Residents concerned over lack of public engagement

·5 min read

Some residents of Merrickville-Wolford are concerned about the lack of engagement council has had with the public over the last several months.

When the pandemic was declared in March, the Village was one of the first municipalities in Ontario to enact their Municipal Emergency Control Group, whose task it is to make operational decisions for the municipality as it related to the health and safety of residents. According to a statement from Mayor Doug Struthers at the last council meeting on January 25, “Under the steady hand of Council’s governance, and the guidance of our local Health Unit, the Municipal Emergency Control Group continues to make difficult operational decisions to maintain service levels while keeping everyone safe.”

One of the decisions that the municipality made was to restrict public access to in-person council meetings. Throughout the Spring, most members of council were participating in meetings via teleconference, with only the Mayor and some staff in the council chambers. Council returned to in-person meetings in July. Meeting recordings have been uploaded to the municipal website directly after each meeting since March to ensure transparency.

But Merrickville resident, Katie Dickie, says this is not enough. She believes that council meetings should be conducted virtually, to allow residents to interact with council in a seamless but safe way. “Essentially, right now, because this council has voted to stay in-person and do the audio uploads, they have literally locked people out from being able to participate in council meetings.”

Katie is particularly concerned about this with the upcoming budget. At the last council meeting, Mayor Struthers made it clear that they would do their best to engage with the public during the budget process; but, depending on the status of the pandemic, it might just have to be uploaded to the website for the public review. “This is not an open process,” Katie says. “There is no indication that council will reach out to the public for input.”

As the current chair of the Recreation, Health and Wellness Committee, Katie is also concerned that Committees of Council have not been allowed to resume their duties. “There’s so much that my Health, Recreation and Wellness group could be doing and should be doing. The rink being a perfect example. The committees haven’t been able to table any issues, or move on, or be able to plan for the Spring, because we’re literally being told that we can’t.”

Both the Library Board and the Police Services Board have been given special permission to meet virtually, and Katie doesn’t understand why the same protocol can’t be extended to the advisory committees of council. “I’m just wondering why advisory boards were not included at that time, or even canvassed to see if we could have the capability to be able to meet virtually.”

While residents who listen to the council recordings are welcome to contact council or staff with questions or concerns, Katie says many of her questions have fallen on deaf ears. “I have four unanswered emails with regards to going virtual and my committee.”

The topic of the council advisory committees was on the agenda at the last council meeting. CAO Doug Robertson presented a report to council outlining the status of each committees and stating that having the committees resume, even virtually, would put a strain on municipal resources. “Council may wish to consider that the resumption of advisory committee meetings will further strain resources which are vitally needed at this time to preserve public safety,” the report states.

Mayor Struthers acknowledged the value of advisory committees at the council meeting, and said there would be value in reaching out to the committees to see if they might have the capacity to meet virtually or via teleconference. Deputy Mayor Michael Cameron agreed, adding that committees are an essential part of the municipal process. “We’re going through this pandemic and, in the end, we want to come out a little bit ahead of when we came into it,” he said. “By holding these people back, and not allowing that input, I think it’s going to end up hindering us more than it’s going to help us.”

There was some concern around the council table about bandwidth, and members of the committees having the capacity to meet virtually. Councillor Molloy suggested they open the council chambers up to committees, as council has been using the room to meet and there is enough space for social distancing. Councillor Foster was dead set against that idea, saying that it was putting residents at unnecessary risk. “I’m not even comfortable being in this room, to be quite honest with you, with the number of people in this room,” he said. “Right now, we’re on the edge of the maximum number of people you can have for an outdoor gathering, let alone indoor.”

It is not clear why the Village of Merrickville-Wolford hasn’t embraced virtual meetings like so many other surrounding municipalities. Although these meetings aren’t always open to the public, they are often live steamed through YouTube, and residents are welcome to send in questions before or during the meeting via email, to encourage public engagement. “Council needs to get out from underneath their rock that they’ve been under for a while,” Katie says. “Things have been status quo, and that’s great, but we need phone numbers, we need virtual, we need technology. We need to move into the century that we are all living in here, so that we can become inclusive and we can participate.”

Council has directed staff to reach out to the committees to see if they can figure out a way to resume meetings safely. A report will be brought back to council at the next meeting.

Hilary Thomson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Grenville Times