Chatham-Kent Council Six Months Later
Back in December Chatham-Kent’s Councillors ended up with eggs on their faces. It came to light that they were having secret meetings with a group looking to potentially purchase the Downtown Chatham Centre (DCC). Apparently, these meetings revolved around the Municipality becoming partners in this group and then using the old Mall property as a replacement for the Civic Centre. Those meetings had the look and feel of a backroom deal in the works right down to a whistleblower Councillor who made them public knowledge. Exactly what was discussed and with whom is still not really known.
As those closed-door talks concluded, CAO Don Shropshire said “I think a lot of the public is curious to know what happened, but I need that decision from council.” He wanted to encourage our Councilors to create an information report that could be shared publicly. Despite assurances by Council that these closed-door meetings were nothing to worry about, this report, it seems, was never created. If it does exist, it’s nearly impossible to find on the Municipal website. It’s another example of Council’s seeming belief that if you are just a common taxpayer, you didn’t need to know.
Did they hope that Chatham-Kent would forget?
On June 25 it was announced that the DCC property was purchased by a group of local investors. Three days later Council supported a surprise motion to conduct a feasibility study on moving out of the Civic Centre and to become tenants in the old mall.
Is that the smell of cigar smoke coming from a back room where deals are made? The timing of this motion and the way it was brought to council seems odd. Six months ago, Council was done with the DCC property. Now, potential municipal use of the property is so important that the motion had to be rushed through.
The normal procedure is to enter a Notice of Motion, with the Motion considered at a future council session. But not this one. This one was so important they had to get the ball rolling because July 12, the date of the next Council meeting, was just too long to wait. It’s almost like they didn’t want any public input at all.
Chatham-Kent Council Speeding Past Your Questions
Sort of like how they really didn’t want public input six months ago. There was a curious statement made by Councillor Thompson in a December interview with the Chatham Daily News. When the paper noted that “any decision made in closed session must eventually come to open council, Thompson seemed resigned that the matter could be ‘pretty much decided’ by that point.”
Do we have the same dynamics in play here? The motion was rushed through. The public had no idea that using DCC space was back on the table. Once the study is done, will its conclusions be pretty much a done deal? Are the conclusions of this study pretty much a done deal already?
Council’s haste also raises questions. How many meetings happened between Councillors and Administration, officially or unofficially, before the property was purchased? Is the group that purchased the DCC the same potential ownership group that was involved last December? Was this ownership group privately given feedback as to what would work for the Municipality? Were assurances given that if it was bought, Council would see how the taxpayers could help out?
Of course, if Council had followed normal procedure, there would have been an opportunity at subsequent meetings to address any concerns. Citizens would have been able to weigh in, which would have provided a quick scan of public perception. The due diligence case could be coherently presented, leaving us with something better than the “it doesn’t cost us anything” justification.
Council and Administration have a transparency problem that they just can’t seem to avoid. It is likely that nothing untoward is happening behind the scenes, but the people who run the Municipality, both elected and hired, are too often reluctant to pull back the curtain and let the rest of us taxpayers know for sure.
The Civic Centre has issues that will be costly to address no matter what route is pursued. Yes, Council should do their due diligence to ensure taxpayer revenue is spent efficiently. They simply need to do it in a way that promotes engagement with the people of Chatham-Kent and doesn’t smell like distant cigar smoke from a backroom.
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