Rookie Woodstock councillor initiates debate on returning benches to downtown

A rookie city councillor wasted no time at Woodstock's first meeting of the new term, bringing forward a motion asking staff to reinstall the benches and picnic tables that were yanked last year by the previous council.

In her first order of business Thursday evening, Coun. Kate Leatherbarrow introduced a notice of motion for the city to immediately return the benches to Museum Square and the remaining benches and picnic tables in the downtown come springtime.

"I think it's important that we revisit and open this discussion as a new term of council collectively. Removing the benches was never a long-term goal," Leatherbarrow said.

In October 2021, the city pulled eleven benches from the downtown area, including several at Museum Square on Dundas Street, to prevent homeless people and drug users from congregating in the area.

The previous city council approved removing the benches and boosting security in the square after members of the Woodstock Museum advisory committee submitted a letter calling on the city to address "vagrant people" and the dangers they pose to visitors and staff. It was later amended to include all downtown benches and picnic tables.

"When the museum wrote to city hall about a year ago, they had a tremendous list of concerns. But at the very end, it highlighted we need short-term goals and long-term goals," Leatherbarrow said.

The city has seen "significant improvements" in its front-line services during the last year, she said, adding that bringing the benches and tables back would encourage more visitors to support small businesses.

"This is the long-term goal; we need to make sure the downtown is of paramount priority in the next four years. Discussion around being more inclusive and engaging the community to come down ... is a great starting point."

Coun. Deb Tait, who brought forward the motion last year to pull the benches and tables, said it wasn't a decision council took lightly.

"It was a long time coming, trying to figure out what to do," she said.

Several groups, such as residents, merchants and museum staff, had expressed feeling unsafe in the environment around the downtown benches, Tait said, citing an incident last year when a man allegedly tried to set a fire at Museum Square.

If the new council revisits the issue, she said it must consider public input.

"We have a duty to all of the residents when we're elected, and you've got to do your homework and consult with all the people with a vested interest in what you're doing," Tait said.

Most important to her, though, is ensuring people are safe downtown, she said. "It may sound great, 'Oh, we're gonna put (the benches) back, and they can come and sit.' But you're putting (people) at risk."

Still, the controversial move last year drew criticism from residents and advocates who argued removing places for homeless people to gather would only displace and worsen the problem.

Bryan Smith, chair of the Oxford Coalition for Social Justice, said he was pleased to see a new city councillor stepping up to bring the tables and benches back.

"It's a very good sign that this council is prepared to reconsider what was a very ill-advised decision, a knee-jerk reaction to a problem," he said.

Council will discuss the motion at its Dec. 15 meeting to allow time for public input.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press