Is democracy dead in North Hatley?
I left last Monday night’s Council meeting frustrated at having once again wasted my time. This feeling was shared by many of the unusually large crowd, who had shown up to voice their opposition to proposed changes in the Town’s parking policy, abolishing fees in the large municipal parking lot (140 cars) and eliminating the job of parking attendant.
Gross revenues from parking have totalled about $40,000 annually, providing a clear profit of at least $20,000. Taxpayers asked why the Town would forego this income. The only reply was that free parking would improve business for merchants. However merchants are not being asked to provide compensation. Instead, the shortfall will be picked up by residents, who already pay excessively high taxes. Surely a parking fee of $1.00 per hour, rising to a maximum of $5 for the day, is a small price to pay to enjoy North Hatley’s attractions. In comparison, taxpayers pay from $10 to 40 or more, each day of the year, for the privilege of living here.
Moreover, the loss of the parking attendant who patrolled village streets, enforcing parking regulations, means a probable return to the chaotic conditions of the past. The mayor’s response to citizens worried by the prospect of illegal parking: “Call the SQ … we pay for their services”.
Although this is not a major issue in itself, it represents another blatant example of an endemic problem. What this lengthy and at times angry question period revealed is that citizens have no say in decisions taken by Council, whether minor or major. Decisions are taken and motions adopted a week before the public meeting, in a closed-door working session. The public meeting only serves to inform citizens of decisions taken by Council, and to the best of my knowledge, public outcry has never succeeded in reversing a decision in recent decades, or even postponing one. When challenged on other issues, councillors have trotted out the glib and convenient reply: “You elected us to make decisions on your behalf”.
This kind of response makes a mockery of democracy, in so many ways:
• Various important changes were never even contemplated at election time.
• Many candidates did not express their views on major issues, in the absence of a public forum pushing them to do so.
• Many people voted unsuccessfully for other candidates.
• The Town has shown no willingness to engage in true public consultation. Effective ways do exist of involving citizens in the planning process, which can lead to win-win solutions, especially in view of the skills which some residents of this community can offer.
• Many taxpayers (mostly summer residents) have no voting rights. Ways must be found to include them in discussion of “hot issues”.
• People’s views and opinions on any issue can change between elections, if they are presented with adequate information.
As it happens, this large parking area surrounds two sides of the 3.5 acres, on which high density buildings are being planned, in the heart of the village. One of the two councillors who opposed the new parking policy worried that the municipality was opening the door to free parking for the developer, if the spaces he is required to provide on his land are insufficient to meet the various parking needs his project generates.
Regardless of the motivations, it’s the way this policy change was railroaded through that worries me greatly. It is totally indicative of how the Mayor and Council treat citizens with disdain and show themselves unwilling to enter into meaningful dialogue over issues which may pose serious threats to the community’s well-being.
Will the new rules and by-laws governing the proposed 3.5 acre development be adopted in the same cavalier fashion? Will citizens’ only recourse be to fight their elected representatives in court? The Town is presently spending our money to hire a new law-firm to look into “legal matters dealing with the town centre, including a management plan of the flood zone, a Programme particulier d’urbanisme (Specific Urban Development Plan), by-laws and any future construction projects”. I might cynically assume that Council is seeking to minimise ways in which citizens could oppose this major project. In other words, we are paying to be shut up!
In a municipality strapped for cash, it is remarkable how many tax dollars are being spent on various studies relating to this proposal, even though citizens have been repeatedly assured that the developer would pay all associated costs.
Michael Grayson, eng.
Concerned citizen and member of Action North Hatley
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