Fall municipal elections ground zero for political turnover

By Robert Washburn

Port Hope fire station

Port Hope fire station

The world of politics in West Northumberland seems ready to explode.

An angry group of Port Hope residents are demanding answers from council about a proposal to consolidate and relocate two local fire stations. Resident Dan Christie is leading a growing number of residents who argue it will increase fire and emergency response times, waste taxpayers money and potentially increase fire insurance rates.

But this is not the only protest going on.

Bill Thompson is feeding birds in Cobourg harbour, expressly ignoring the local bylaws. He is worried the ducks, geese and swans will die. So, he makes a daily trek to the harbour to provide them with food. He has already been given two tickets, costing him $105 each time.

But supporters are coming out of the woodwork. Thirty volunteers from a nearby wildlife centre came out in support recently. People are walking up to Thompson and giving him money for food. Others wanting to help regularly join him.

While Christie is trying to work through the system, presenting a 230-signature petition to council, along with other presentations, letter writing and public education, Thompson’s is using civil disobedience to make his point. It is difficult to figure out who is more effective.

Despite where one stands in relation to these issues, the reaction by politicians is noteworthy.

It used to be people were elected and they governed. Political leaders sought expert advice from either staff or outside sources allowing them to make informed decision. If citizens were unhappy, petitions, public meetings and other traditional forms of protest demonstrated dissatisfaction.

That is no longer true.

Rather than consultation, public meetings are political theatre. Politicians tolerate concerns raised by the public. And, only when the leaders are completely boxed into a corner do they bend.

In Cobourg, council blinked. Deputy Mayor Stan Frost announced a month-long moratorium on ticketing those who violate the bylaws that ban feeding the birds in the harbour. He struck a balance by not getting into a messy debate between local wildlife groups and those wanting to feed the birds. In the process, he has avoided a major battle.

By the time the month’s end, natural sources of food should be more plentiful and it may not be necessary to feed them. By then, hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and a sane discussion can take place without dead birds lining the beach.

Port Hope is another story. Their problem is systemic.

There are many politicians on council who have a long history of clashing with individual citizens and ratepayers groups. The controversy over the fire stations is another in a growing list of collisions between citizens and politicians. The tax reforms being proposed for Ward 2 is also a sore spot. Policing, radioactive waste clean up and some of the fiscal boondoggles are others.

Sure, somebody has to make tough decision. True enough. But the arrogance, isolationism, righteousness of some of those sitting in council is a major problem. Residents opposed to the plan can only hope they can stave off a decision.

With a municipal election on the horizon, tensions are rising. Cobourg may have stickhandled itself out of a potential mess. However, Port Hope could be ground zero for a substantial turnover. The fire station is only one piece in a political house of cards close to collapsing.

First published: March 12, 2014

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