Plebiscite on policing only democratic path

First published: June 13, 2008

The county policing study reached a critical point that will ultimately determine more than the future of policing in Northumberland, but the very nature of local government until the next election.

When Acting Chief Paul Sweet rose at the countywide policing meeting last week, he delivered a damning indictment. The protocols within the Guidebook for Police Restructuring were not followed because all stakeholders were left out from the very beginning of the process. Even a zone advisor for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services was never consulted prior to the start of the study.

Once again, politicians, consultants, and bureaucrats at the county have driven roughshod over the process and the public in an effort to jam through their agenda at the expense of taxpayers. By holding out the tantalizing promise of saving between $8 and $9 million over five years, taxpayers were supposed to be hypnotized into buying into a plan built on a foundation of sand. And, despite the number of “public” meetings, the level of consultation is about as deep as a cookie sheet, done merely as political theatre rather than a heartfelt desire to discover the wishes of residents.

In fact, this anti-democratic cancer is affecting every level of government on this issue. Take for example the meeting in Port Hope scheduled for this Thursday (June 12) through the Protection to Persons and Property Committee. In a motion approved by council after serious questions were raised council tried to reassure citizens. But it crafty in its wording: “proactive and open manner and without negativity, pre-judgment, bias or unqualified commentary so as to allow for a qualified and quantified consideration of the issue before council.”

Get out the duct tape. When is Port Hope council, and in particular Deputy Mayor Jeff Lees, going to learn democracy is not about limiting debate, but enhancing it. Citizens have every right to come in and speak negatively, make judgments, and communicate their own vision of what they want for their community based on the knowledge they have. Besides, who says council has all the fact, anyways. It seems council and committee members are the ones with bias, prejudged and spout unqualified commentary.

Speaking of predetermined outcomes, one only has to look down the road for an example of political stubbornness that borders on pathological. Cobourg council, despite incredible opposition, went ahead with its rink and fountain in the harbour, ignoring public outcry. Never once did the mayor or council present a study showing the cost-analysis, benefits or outcomes for downtown business and tourism. There was no “qualified and quantified considerations” there.

It is also stunning to realize that Mayor Peter Delanty decries the cost of police service and then pronounces he wants to see a massive new community recreational centre built. The council’s focus must be on providing essential services. But we only need to be reminded of the parking lot upgrades, the fountains around Victoria Hall and the rink/fountain to see he appears to care about beautification rather than essential services.

And, so it looks very bad for citizens in Port Hope and Cobourg. And, this brings us back to why the policing issue is so crucial, not just to the future security and services to West Northumberland, but also the way municipal governments intend to govern for the remainder of their terms.

Neither council should be advocating for a vote on the police study anticipated for the end of this month. Now that the study is coming to a close, the public needs to be properly educated through an outreach program to ensure all taxpayer understand it. And, then, they need a proper type of consultation that goes beyond traditional public meeting, which can be time consuming and unfruitful when a large groups wants to express their opinions. Bureaucrats need to be far more innovative in consulting with the public and this is a critical issue that demands more that the pathetic efforts that have been undertaken thus far.

Next, issues must be addressed. The shocking revelations around the guidebook must be properly answered and local police board more directly involved in the flow of information to the public.

Northumberland County is not alone in the lack of proper protocols when it comes to an OPP study. Just ask the residents of Temiskaming Shores, when Kenora OPP failed to follow the guidelines, too, in August 2006. This vital document outlines the best practices and recommended protocols to take place when a policing study is required. It has the endorsement of the Ontario Associations of Chiefs of Police and was approved in February 1998. These kinds of documents are so essential because it is able to provide a balanced and inclusive method rather than what we have now.

We must also hear from the local police service boards. These bodies have much to offer in providing additional information necessary for a comprehensive understanding of the study and the potential results.

Finally, citizens must be heard and honoured. People like Geri Sheedy, Ben Burd, John Henderson and others have opinions that matter far beyond the facts and figures. Decisions of this importance go well beyond the sterile approach. One solution is a referendum. Policing is a cornerstone service in our community. It is incumbent all people get an opportunity to express themselves on this vital issue. The plebiscite would ensure all sides made an appropriate effort to educate voters. And, considering taxpayers rarely get a chance to vote directly for county representation, it would ensure a level of democratic accountability not currently present.

If politicians and bureaucrats try to jam this decision in before the summer, then the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services must intervene. It will not matter who makes the request – local police board or citizen groups – but there will be little choice. Someone must make it clear the process is tainted and a plebiscite is the only fair and democratic method for such a vital change.

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