Why Does One Feel So Unwelcome and Alone in these Council Chambers?
A News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted November 17th, 2017 on Niagara At Large
Niagara, Ontario – I walked in to Niagara Region’s council chambers this November 16th, where the seats in public gallery were packed with people from the Town of Pelham.
That’s the way it usually seems to go at Niagara regional council meetings these days.
The public gallery is either crammed to standing room only with people, there for the airing of a single issue that is rankling them, then leaving en masse after that one and only issue they came for – on an agenda chalk full of other affairs in need of public attention – has been addressed.
Or more often than not, a whole council meeting takes place with a public gallery virtually empty of people, leaving the councillors to say and do whatever, with hardly anyone outside of some regional staff and a few members of the news media physically there to look on.
At this November 16th session of Niagara’s regional council, the gallery was packed with people from Pelham as two of their fellow citizens stood at a podium expressing concern over what they see as “a lack of openness and transparency” when it comes to their town’s mayor, Dave Augustyn, and his council’s (along with some past town councils’) expenditure of millions of their tax dollars on land and infrastructure and buildings, including a new community centre, off Highway 20 and Rice Road in the Pelham community of Fonthill.
Questions and concerns over this spending have festered for more than half a year now with the regional government’s corporate services committee chair, Port Colborne regional councillor David Barrick, raising them early last spring in an exhaustive motion – and also possibly unprecedented one in Niagara when it comes to a regional government making demands for financial data from a local municipality – calling for an audit of Pelham’s municipal books.
In the wake of Barrick’s March 2017 motion, at least some observers, including this journalist, assumed that the allegations of fiscal mismanagement raised in it would be addressed relatively quickly with answers most reasonable people would find satisfactory given that they had to be available already in facts and figures that could easily be found in Town of Pelham budget reports.
But as spring turned into summer and summer turned into fall, the issue continued to fester to a point where a couple of months back, in another spectacle unprecedented in the annals of municipal governance in Niagara, a Niagara-on-the-Lake developer who has business interests in Pelham waved a cheque for $50,000 at a meeting of regional councillors, offering to pay for an audit of the town’s books.
Then earlier this November, Pelham councillor Marvin Junkin suddenly resigned his seat on the town’s council, saying (according to a story in a weekly town newspaper, the ‘Voice of Pelham’) that he could no longer cope with how the controversy over the town spending as “the council continues down a path that I feel is increasingly unethical and dishonest. …”
At the same time, stories emerged of an audit of Pelham’s books, completed earlier this year and apparently kept under wraps, showing that over the past seven or eight years, the town has slid down a far deeper million-dollar debt hole than previously thought, reportedly placing in jeopardy any wiggle room it now has to invest in other things its residents may want or need in the future.
That brings us up to the November 16th council meeting where Barrick and some of the usual groups regional councillors who side with each other on matters others view with worry or suspicion reprised their charges that Pelham’s alleged fiscal mess could hurt the credit rating and borrowing status for Niagara’s regional government, and where one of the Pelham residents standing at the podium, Nancy Beamer, representing a citizens group called Pelham DEBT, stressed over and over again that all people in the town want are transparency and accountability from their mayor and council when it comes to the town’s financial picture.
As she stood below a screen hanging from the ceiling of the chamber, showing a slide that featured the words; “They (meaning Pelham residents) all have a deep feeling of distrust and a genuine belief that the Mayor, CAO and Council are hiding something,” Beamer expressed a concern she said many others have that the town’s books may be so bad that living there will become unaffordable for them and their children
At one point along the way, David Augustyn who as Pelham’s mayor, has a seat on regional council, argued that, in his view, the residents’ concerns were based on “garbled”, “confused” and “inaccurate” information they were receiving from some sources, including the Pelham councillor who recently quit, then agreed to a demand from another regional councillor to apologize for making the argument.
No one else in the council chamber – not another regional councillor and not a single one of the many Pelham residents in the room – took to their feet in Augustyn’s defence. Indeed, the only party this journalist can remember standing at the podium in defence of the mayor and his council in recent months was a lawyer on Pelham’s payroll who argued to members of the regional government’s audit committee that at least some of the information it was demanding from the town falls outside its jurisdiction – an argument that served to play into a narrative Barrick and company has been spinning that the town is not being open and accountable to its own tax payers and others across the region.
This journalist stood at the back of the regional council chambers this November 16th, wondering how in hell the business of one of Niagara’s local municipalities has gone on festering to a point where it has spilled over to a regional tier of government that, often times, is all but ignored by people in Pelham, Welland, Thorold, Fort Erie and other municipalities across Niagara.
One could fill books with examples over the past four or five decades of residents angered over the way their local councils, at one time or another, handled their money, but hardly ever (if ever, at all) have a case where the anger spilled over to the regional council level like this.
So how did the wheels go flying so far off the wagon here?
There was also the gob-smacking irony at this November 16th meeting of listening, once again, to some of the regional councillors who sit on the board of directors of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) – a body faced with many members of the public demanding r more openness and accountability over the way it spends our tax dollars, and pressing for an independent audit of its books – demanding the same from the Town of Pelham.
There, in particular, was Sandy Annunziata, a Fort Erie regional councillor and the NPCA’s board chair, on his feet, rhetorically asking the Pelham residents if they feel they are entitled to know how their tax dollars are being spent, and whether they think the town’s mayor and council may be acting as if they are hiding something.
It was as breathtaking to watch, as it was depressing and disturbing, in my view.
I have covered Niagara regional council meetings off and on since I was hired to my first job as a journalist at The St. Catharines Standard in 1979, and I have never witnessed a council like this one over the last three or four years that has, in my eyes anyway, been so dark and divisive, and where everything you thought was right or wrong or good or bad around the way municipal politicians conduct themselves and the public’s business has seemed so over, under, sideways and down.
I stood there watching this November 16th, feeling more uncomfortable and alone in chambers that are supposed to be place for we, the people, to feel welcome to engage in our communities, than I have ever felt in all my adult life.
I left feeling that I don’t really want to go there anymore, which is something I have heard, by the way, from many other people across this region over the past few years.
There is apparently a group of people out there who that has recently launched a “Better Niagara” campaign, and they better get going and fire it up because if things get any worse than they are now, there will be nothing left to make better.
I was listening to an interview on CBC Radio earlier this November 17th where the legendary Canadian singer and songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie said; “When the people don’t pay attention, they get bad politicians.”
We have municipal elections coming up again next year. The question is, will any more people attention than they did before the last municipal election where far less than half of them even bothered to go out and vote.
For a related story on this issue, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2017/03/27/town-of-pelhams-financial-affairs-could-hurt-niagara-regions-credit-rating-port-colborne-regional-councillor-warns/ .
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