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Thursday, October 6, 2022
Council gets heated: Queen Street closure among contentious issues

Niagara-on-the-Lake town councillors have been somewhat at each other’s throats of late, with bickering, sarcastic remarks and heated debate marking their virtual meetings.

During Monday’s committee of the whole meeting, several issues sparked contentious debate among councillors, with Lord Mayor Betty Disero stopping early in the meeting to address what she called “double standards.”

The first heated issue was about motions put on the table by Disero, one of which was a request to hold a special meeting to vote on mandatory masks in town.

The motions were not included in the agenda, but were brought forward under the general update on COVID-19.

Coun. Gary Burroughs didn’t agree with the procedure and questioned why the motions weren’t on the agenda for the meeting.

“Since (the mayor) knew she was coming forward with some motions … I’m wondering why we couldn’t have received advance notice of these, and why it didn’t go through the normal notices of motion or other business,” Burroughs asked.

Disero fired back, saying, “I don’t know, councillor Burroughs … you’ve got four pieces of new business — I have not seen the motions you’re going to make.”

Burroughs interrupted to clarify that he did not intend to make any motions, while Disero argued she didn’t see any problem with the procedure, and that it has been done before by other councillors.

“I thought the process was, and is, that we go through the other business approach and not through a line item called COVID-19, where none of us know what is happening anyway and we’re not informed about it. So I’ve made my point and the lord mayor has made hers,” Burroughs said.

Disero pointed out the town clerk said the process was fine.

“People pull information items all the time and bring forward motions that are brand new on the floor. I had some concerns about that but we were told by the clerk that this was all in order.”

Burroughs had also asked if there was a draft bylaw ready for the mandatory face masks that council could read before voting, to which Disero said she didn’t want to have staff spend the effort to contact lawyers and draft a bylaw if there was no intention from council to pass it.

Coun. Allan Bisback, who chaired the meeting, allowed the unusual procedure regarding the motions, after being told it was OK by the town clerk.

“I’m gonna cut it off because I specifically asked the clerk whether we’re following procedure. He explained that it’s not typical process. I then said I will allow it. And I’m allowing it because of the importance. We have discussed masks in the past, so let’s continue with the discussion.”

On the same mask motion, Coun. Wendy Cheropita asked if there was information given at the regional meeting about why people shouldn’t wear masks.

Disero replied that a report on the regional meeting was sent to council and that Cheropita should read it.

“So, I’m going to ask you please read the reports that I sent you,” Disero said.

Coun. Clare Cameron also questioned the whole process of calling a special meeting.

“Regarding the process for calling a special meeting of council, the procedure bylaw says that the lord mayor shall summon a special meeting whenever requested by a majority of the other members. Did this motion constitute that request in the clerk’s view?”

Town clerk Peter Todd said, if approved, the motion to set the meeting would count as a majority approval by council.

Cameron also pointed out that a draft bylaw should be available to the public at least 24 hours before the meeting.

Disero said there would be one, as that’s what the “whole meeting is about.”

“Yeah, that’s a requirement according to our procedural bylaw,” Disero said. “If you don’t believe me, then say that.”

“Yes, I’m fully aware that it’s a requirement,” Cameron said.

Disero said if council preferred the meeting not to happen or thought it would be challenging to pass a mask bylaw, that she would prefer to hear that said.

Bisback stepped in to say that by his understanding, councillors just wanted to make sure town staff had time to prepare the draft bylaw.

“And no one is going to not allow that to happen,” Disero said. “I’m not sure what conspiracy, Mr. Chair, there is going on out there. I assure you there is none.”

Burroughs suggested the special meeting be moved to Thursday to give staff more time to prepare the draft bylaw, to which Disero was agreeable.

Bisback said sarcastically, “Just before we call the vote, Mr. Clerk, can you remind me how many more meetings I have to chair?”

Another contentious debate was the test closure of Queen Street and further changes to the program.

For the next two weekends, the town will change its plan and allow traffic to go through Queen Street in both directions, Disero told councillors. Instead of the street closure, parking spots will be cordoned off to allow more room for social distancing.

Disero specified that she did not have any part in the decision, indicating she thinks councillors believe she’s pushing for the street to open back up.

“I did not open my mouth. I had no input at all, for those of you who think I’m trying to push one way or another,” she said.

The decision to alter the closure, she said, was the result of a discussion between interim chief administrator Sheldon Randall, NOTL Chamber of Commerce president Eduardo Lafforgue and the town’s heritage representative, Tim Jennings.

However, Randall later said the decision was made by the Chamber of Commerce.

Disero clarified in an interview Tuesday that Lafforgue does not have delegated authority and that the final decision was made by the emergency control group, of which Randall and Disero are key players.

The mayor came under fire once again from Burroughs, who questioned how long the closure was going to last, pointing out that the emergency group changed the decision for the closure length to end after July 19.

On Wednesday, the town announced the Queen Street pilot project would continue until at least July  26.

Before returning to COVID-19 updates, Disero spoke out.

“Before we do that, I have to rise on a point of personal privilege,” she said.

“I’ll be very calm and I think I’m allowed to do that. I just want to make one comment. At our last committee of the whole meeting last week, there was a motion made by a member of council (that) wasn’t on the agenda. It was in between delegations that had to not only be introduced, but also we had to waive the procedural bylaw to bring something forward, which wasn’t even allowed in the procedural bylaw, and actually it was adopted by committee of the whole, it’s never been to council and the clerk has already put it into practice.”

“And I didn’t know it was coming, no one knew it was coming, but I realized this was important to that member of council. So I kept my mouth shut and I voted along with council, but I didn’t know it was coming in, if people knew was coming it was a surprise to me, so I’m just, I’m a little bit upset when I have to take flak from my colleagues … that I’m bringing forward things that they haven’t had an opportunity to read. And yet, this happened, seven days ago. So, I just think it’s a double standard, and I think that it should be the same rule for everybody.”

“I think you know what I’m referring to and that was the motion on voting and the voting order. So, I’m just not sure why the clerk would have said, ‘Yeah that was totally in order’ — it was never introduced under new business even. It was just sort of thrown out there in the middle of a delegation. So, I feel a little bit like there’s a double standard here. And for what reason, I don’t know, but I honestly treat everyone the same. And I wish they would give me the same treatment as they would other people. Not one person stood up, or questioned the fact that this member of council brought that motion forward. And that’s all I’m going to say. 
I think it’s unfair.”

Bisback said he understands and respects Disero’s comments.

“I just want to say for the record, I don’t support double standards. I’m not subscribing to a double standard. Perhaps the chair should have been on point on that one,” Bisback said.

In an interview Tuesday, Disero said the meeting was “a lively debate.”

“I think people are passionate about what they would like to see happen in different areas. And I think their passion is showing through,” she said.

“The reason why I stood on a point of personal privilege is because what I was doing is no different than other members of council do all the time. So that’s why I said, ‘Certainly you can’t tell me (there’s) a double standard that other members of council can do it, make motions on things, and I can’t.”

Councillors were divided on a number of other issues, including frustration from Burroughs, Cameron and Norm Arsenault about the emergency group’s delegated authority, and heated discussion over how to handle procedure with regards to motions about the horse and carriage protests.

But for now, this lively tale ends here.