Cobourg council needs to tread lightly when it comes to Rotary

Recently, Cobourg politicians have walked a razor’s edge when it comes to the activities of the local Rotary Club. The interaction has lessons for all municipalities across Northumberland County

It began in mid-May when environmental concerns were raised over the club’s RibFest event held in August. RibFest is a travelling BBQ extravaganza involving a number of chef’s competing and cooking BBQ. The event takes place in Victoria Park.

However, last year, a local blogger posted a number of photographs depicting the environmental impact of the event on the park, showing brown spots and other temporary damage.

RibFest draws approximately 30,000 visitors over the three-day event. There is entertainment, a market place and the money goes to local projects.

Last month, Councillor Miriam Mutton said the oils from the cooking are causing long-term, serious damage to the mature trees. As a credentialed landscape architect, Ms. Mutton ought to know. She says the fumes stress the leaves of the trees and spilled oil on the ground gets down into the roots. It can take up to five years for the trees to show the damage. The town arborist agrees.

She asked if the cookers could be moved to the Centennial Pool parking lot, away from the trees.

On Monday night, Mutton told council the town’s arborist will be working with RibFest officials to ensure the protection of the trees.

Then, last week, Councillor John Henderson raised concerns about the use of the east pier by the Rotary Club’s midway rides during the annual Waterfront Festival held on Canada Day weekend.

He worries about the stability of the pier after a number of holes, or voids, were identified. The town engineer, Barry Thrasher, confirmed the existence of the voids, but said temporary measures are being taken to alleviate the situation. He said the town is working with Rotary to ensure public safety. A review by the risk management team at town hall deems the measures sufficient to satisfy safety concerns.

Henderson argues safety is paramount, since it would take only one person to be hurt or killed and there would be no going back. The town and the event would never recover from the black eye on Cobourg’s reputation. He has also raised issues surrounding liability.

Henderson said last week he intends to ask council to move the midway rather than take any risks. On Monday night, Thrasher said a contractor will be on the east pier this week using special equipment to assess the voids and locate them.  This will allow rides to located on solid ground and avoid the weak areas of the pier, Thrasher said.

Both politicians heap praise on the work of Rotary. It has donated millions of dollars to a wide range of initiatives in the town over its long history. It committed $500,000 to Northumberland Hills Hospital; given money to the development of the harbour area; donated to literacy projects – both locally and internationally, amongst a long list of other projects.

Events like RibFest and the Waterfront Festival also have an impact beyond raising money for Rotary, since the broader economic benefits tourism.

Both Mutton and Henderson make valid points. And, both sides have talked about the issues. Still, in the case of Henderson’s request, it may be too late. With only three weeks until the event, it would take a mighty big turnaround for Rotary to find a suitable location, if the midway is moved off the pier. By forcing the organization to move it might cause a serious rift between the town and the club.

Whatever the outcome, politicians are left in a precarious position. How are legitimate concerns mediated between volunteer groups and the town? This applies anywhere. In both cases, the politicians were able to tell council the town was able to work with the organization to address concerns.

But, here is the danger. If the volunteers are mistreated, then events will dry up. But, if town regulations or policies are not followed, then even more problems ensue. The volunteer groups don’t want to look like they are above any other organization in terms of following the regulations or the broader municipal interests.

In cases like these, both sides can take a page from the Cobourg’s risk management team and measure the political peril. Being right, no matter what side of the debate, may obscure the larger picture. Neither side could afford a misstep that could undo the valiant efforts of all concerned. If not handled properly the reputation of the entire town, along with all of its events and festivities, could be hung out to dry.