FORT ERIE – Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin wants to abolish the ward system in Fort Erie and council has agreed to look at his idea of having councillors elected by all the town’s voters.
Nothing wrong with that.
Study it to death.
Then do it.
Because Fort Erie’s electoral system is not the source of what ails Fort Erie council.
It’s the behavior of its elected officials, and, on some occasions, members of its senior staff. Before I go any further with this column, let me say I’m not going to name names – not in a negative way.
First of all, I don’t have to.
The silliness that goes on inside the council chamber almost every week plays out in front of the media, the audience and in front of the Cogeco television cameras. It’s well documented and plain to see. Once more, not even the members of council deny the level of child-like misbehaviour and downright stupidity that has come to brand Fort Erie’s council the most dysfunctional in the region.
Heck, Martin himself issued a press release last week saying he’s not planning to attend any more closed-session meetings of council unless the Ministry of Municipal Affairs appoints some form of chaperone or investigator to deal with issues he says he just can’t tolerate anymore.
“As mayor, I am the Chair of Council, and as the one elected to represent all of the constituents of Fort Erie, I cannot in good conscience or good judgement do anything else,” Martin said in his statement. “In my opinion, there have been serious breaches of ethical and moral issues that confound my integrity and there are things going on behind closed doors that are just not right.
“It is further my opinion that the MMAH Act and procedures were never intended to provide sanctuary to politicians from public scrutiny and accountability. Confidentiality in closed meeting sessions are meant to protect the innocent though proper and appropriate observance of privacy laws and to protect the integrity of contract tender procedures for fairness purposes only.”
Martin’s press release was followed by letters from several other members of council, denying the accusations and pointing the finger back at him. A few weeks back, the same councillors were accusing Martin of breaching confidentiality, when he spoke publicly about closed-door discussions surrounding the hiring of a new CAO.
But all this is just a tip of the iceberg.
Meetings are so bad, there’s no way on God’s green Earth I would take my two minor children to council meetings. During the past two years I witnessed the tantrums, the shouting matches, the accusations. There have been times when council members have treated staff members the way no employees should be treated. And there have been times when I have personally witnessed senior staff members roll their eyes or shake their heads from their seats behind the councillors.
The audience is often no better. I’m talking about the regulars, most of whom go there to be part of the soap opera and cheer for their chosen side and jeer at the other. On far too many occasions, they are allowed to act like clowns. Some of them operate blog sites. After the meetings they go home and post genuinely disgusting – and sometimes libelous – statements about the night’s proceedings.
Yeah, sure. They can try to pass themselves off as “citzen reporters” or the defenders of democracy or whatever. In fact, they too are part of the real problem that confounds Fort Erie’s local government: A complete lack of civility.
And its such a shame. It’s shame because it taints all of us who live in Fort Erie and those staff and members of council who do behave themselves and everyday work quietly and respectfully for the betterment of the community.
It’s a shame because the three-ring circus that is Council Night in Fort Erie actually leads people to believe that Fort Erie’s government is stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels and getting nothing done. It’s not true.
Contrary to what many think, the vast majority of bylaws are passed each week unanimously. Fort Erie was one of the first municipalities to pass a 2013 operating budget. Some councils will be struggling with their books for months to come.
Customer service at town hall and by town hall staff in Fort Erie, is, in my experience as a resident, excellent.
And even on the most of the major issues, Fort Erie’s council is generally on the same page. Every member of council supports the proposed Canadian Motor Speedway plan, every member of council wants to do whatever is necessary to see the Fort Erie Race Track stay open for years to come. Every member of council is concerned about the loss of jobs, consolidation of schools and hospital services, the continued migration of our youth from the community.
As a resident and as a journalist covering the town for a decade and a half, I can tell you this with all sincerity: I personally know each and every member of council. They are all good people, who believe they have the best intentions of the whole town – not just their wards – in mind when they make decisions. I can find plenty of good things to say about each member of council, as politicians and as citizens.
Bob Steckley – Peacemaker. Isn’t afraid to admit when he makes mistakes, isn’t afraid to make the tough decision to drop his own strongly held views (Bay Beach) if he believes it’s for the good of the community. He has the kind of personal humility I wish I had.
Stephen Passero – Astute businessman who brings a fresh perspective to council, who takes on tough, thankless assignments (school board accommodation review committee member) and never complains. Constantly champions projects to benefit the youth of the community (skateboard park, Kinsmen Pool, to name a few initiatives).
Don Lubberts – Way, way smarter than people give him credit for, a constituency man who has worked for years before he was elected to council to do what he can to make sure Fort Erie’s waterfront is a jewel that’s not lost to development. You can argue with his point of view, but his motives are unimpeachable.
John Hill – Thoughtful, eager to learn, tries as much as possible to dig deeply into issues to understand not just what’s happening but why it’s happening and what can be done to improve the system over the long term.
Paul Collard – A Fort Erie cheerleader, optimistic and energetic, believes the town’s best days lay ahead and refuses to be brought down by people who say otherwise. Is always ready to roll up his sleeves and help where it’s needed.
Richard Shular – If you’ve ever been inside the Fort Erie YMCA, maybe you noticed Rick Shular’s name of on the plaque commemorating the people who helped raise the money to build it. Shular is by far one of the most self-sacrificing and charitable people I know, involved over the last four decades with so many good causes I can’t even remember them all. Every community needs more people like Richard Shular. Every council should have one too.
And last but not least, Mayor Doug Martin. Few Fort Erie mayors have ever fought for Fort Erie’s interests like Doug Martin. He’s not afraid to stand up for the town at the Region, Niagara Parks Commission and at Queen’s Park, even when the odds are against him and the chances of winning are small. He’s not a vote chaser, simply supporting the popular point of view. He’s a principled, intellegent man, who has given much of his adult life – more than 30 years so far – to public service. That’s something to be praised, not ridiculed.
That was easy.
Now it’s time for the seven members of council to do the same.
Cancel the next regular council meeting, lock yourselves in a room (with the clerk, of course, so you can later prove you weren’t secretly advancing the business of the municipality) and have a good, heart-to-heart talk. Start by saying nice things about each other, things you think the other guy did right, things you appreciate about them.
Then make a list of three things – just three – that you can all agree are the most important items to accomplish in the little over a year and a half until the next election.
Agree to end the name calling. Agree to ask your supporters to stop coming to council meetings to heckle. Agree to treat staff the way you yourself expect to be treated. Agree to hold accountable any staff members who don’t show council members due respect. Agree to start being more agreeable and less confrontational.
It’s never too late to make amends, to start fresh. It’s never wrong to say sorry, it’s never wrong to turn the other cheek, it’s always a good time for self-reflection.
That’s what needs to change – attitude – not ward boundaries.
Don’t let us down. We know each of you have it in you to make things better. It’s time to show us you can act like the decent, community-minded people you are.