First published: July 12, 2007
In a nifty bit of manipulation, Alnwick/Haldimand township council was able to stickhandle its way out of a public confrontation over a proposed bylaw allowing all-terrain vehicles to use township roads last week. Residents on both sides of this debate are right to be upset as council failed to include them in the deliberations despite any good intentions in wanting to consult with various experts.
It appears municipal councils in Northumberland County continue to turn their back on taxpayers when it comes to deciding tough issues. Rather than building a consensus, township politicians shut down any public discussions when it voted to consult with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, its lawyer and planner before proceeding. It also neatly passed the issue back to its ATV committee, rather than take the heat, before going any further.
Certainly, there is merit in this strategy. The community is deeply polarized as opponents gather momentum through an online petition with 251 signatures to date and a series of old-fashioned petitions at various locations throughout West Northumberland. However, the Northumberland and District ATV Riders club is also ready to respond. And, with the enviable position of having control of the township’s ATV committee (the committee chair is a member of the club), this is going to be a barnburner once both sides get a chance to make their case before council.
Sadly, Mayor Bill Finley shut down a few people in the 40-member packed public gallery as they tried to get an open debate started. And despite promises of a public meeting, there is good reason for opponents to be concerned. Previous councils were not the most open to opposition, no matter how well organized or knowledgeable. Just ask people living in Shelter Valley.
And, it will not be easy. The online petition is filled with entries from people living outside the township. For many of the xenophobes on council, who trust no one outside the township boundaries, this will automatically discount this initiative.
Still, the pro-ATV lobby will also have its work cut out. With a huge push to raise awareness of environmental issues, particularly in the shadow of the Earth Live campaign this past weekend, many people are questioning what can be done. The impact of ATVs in terms of noise, pollution, road damage, public safety and a long list of concerns must be carefully addressed. The notion that innocent riders who follow the rules are being punished doesn’t hold water. Farmers and cottagers are able to access property now. This bylaw is not going to make a big difference.
And, the dangers are real. Look at the community outpouring that took place when 11-year old Elizabeth Corbeil died on her way to Little Lake variety store. We cannot forget the tragic results despite all the best intentions to be safe.
Still, the biggest issue is not what side of the debate one is on, but rather how the township council will handle this issue. As Cobourg council recently demonstrated during the fountain/ice rink debate, process is very important to people. Politicians ignored a 2,200-signature petition asking members to not approve the project until further consultation could take place. The results were disastrous, as many believe an important trust was broken.
And, this is the point: politicians only have legitimacy in power if they have the trust of the people and act credibly. Without this, the council is nothing. Cobourg council is merely a lame duck body. No one will believe them anymore or think they care about the wishes of the public. This is particularly damning considering there are so many vital issues that will need to be decided, like policing, the future of a seniors centre and so on. With more than three years left in their mandate, this is a serious liability that is being disregarded. Cobourg will be lucky if it every gets another government grant again from the province.
Also, citizens need to be heard. Whether petitions are valuable forms of public opinion or not, they are certainly one tool for expressing a point of view en masse. These have a long and powerful history in Ontario politics, dating back to the earliest days of settlement. If politicians decide to ignore petition or other tools of protest, like letters to the editor, deputations, newly formed citizen groups and so on, then taxpayers are left impotent. This only kills democracy and borders on fascism. While this may seem like a bit of hyperbole, it is not when considering the alternative of discouraged, disenfranchised residents lead by political leadership that does not have popular support.
Municipalities were give the right to decide if township roads could be used by ATVs by the Ontario government back in July 2003. Alnwick/Haldimand township council must not fall prey to the same arrogance Cobourg politicians displayed during the fountain/ice rink debate. While the township council’s history is not good, there are some new members who could step up and argue for an open, fair debate. As well, the township needs to understand it does not sit in isolation anymore, but is part of a larger community where outside forces will play on its decision-making. And, with some leadership, rather than polarize the community, a solution can be reached.
Other municipalities can take a page from this issues. As Port Hope and Hamilton Township councils look on, will they get the message of trust and credibility? Without it, they are nothing.