Observations from a recent Northumberland County Council meeting

By Deborah O’Connor

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the monthly County Council meeting with fellow citizen journalist Scott Lamberton. We were there to record our impressions of the occasion, from the timely showing of a video on local poverty from the Halliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge Health Unit, to another from newly hired consultant Tim Welch explaining how he’ll spend the nearly $42,000 awarded to his company to develop a 10-year plan for housing and homelessness in Northumberland. Following that, there was discussion about the 2013 County budget, a $95 million package that looks after many of our most crucial services.

The Council Chambers, like the entire facility, is impressive. Intimidating might be another word. Soaring ceilings of pine make it almost church-like with the town and lake beyond it visible from the wall of windows on the south side of the room. With ample space for everyone, from the visitors’ section at the back it’s almost impossible to hear what’s being said between Councillors and the presenters standing in the middle of the room. While microphones were placed in front of each Councillor they didn’t appear to be turned on so it was a challenge to follow the proceedings. All the latest gadgets were there: huge computer screens for displays, each Councillor with a laptop at their desk, and Wi-Fi for use by the public. Except my connection couldn’t be maintained, despite the earnest efforts expended by the young man who emerged from the offices to get it going. My companion insisted the system was a bit weak and dated, and the computer fixer agreed, saying it could use an upgrade. Frustrating when one’s participation depended on using Wi-Fi.

The meeting itself proceeded smoothly and on schedule, with each staff member clearly knowledgeable on his or her subject and able to provide responses readily. In fact, all the staff we encountered that day were exceedingly pleasant, accommodating and friendly. Full marks for customer service. Councillors though, were not so amiable. Knowing I was in the room, several of them took potshots at criticism I had made by letter to the Warden through the organization called the Northumberland Coalition Against Poverty. Our group was skeptical of their plan to spend $42,000 to hire the consultant to write a strategic plan for their Housing and Homelessness department. Instead of responding to our letter though, the Warden, Hector MacMillan and Social Services Director Mark Darroch had criticized us in the media, claiming we didn’t have the facts. Denied an opportunity to know what these facts were, it was difficult to sit through a new barrage of put-downs. Our members wonder how many other citizen groups are treated in such a dismissive and cavalier manner when they approach Council with concerns. We would hope every citizen group would be treated with some measure of respect, but we certainly were not, and that attitude will colour the tenor our future communications with Council.

But it was enlightening to sit in on their meeting and see how Council goes about the business of running the good ship Northumberland. Suggestions about moving Council meeting times to 7 p.m. would allow more residents to come out and see it for themselves. We sincerely hope Council follows through on that idea, and soon. Adding a public question period at the end of each meeting would go a long way towards achieving good communications and transparency too.