“Why” Shouldn’t Be A Secret in Chatham-Kent
Here we are again: Another tempest in a tea-pot because of Chatham-Kent’s ham-handed way of handling potentially controversial issues. As reported in the Chatham Daily News, Councilor Trevor Thompson has spilled the beans on something that has largely gone under the radar: the potential purchase of the mall property by the Municipality of Chatham-Kent. Councilor Thompson states, and other councilors have confirmed, that they are not allowed to discuss any of this in public, as the issue is being dealt with in a closed session.
This leads one to question Councilor Thompson’s motive in bringing attention to what he must have known would be a controversial issue, as past purchases and developments have been. The Capitol Theater, the railroad line, the attempt at housing CK’s homeless by renting a facility, and the construction of the Bradley Centre provide examples of how big purchases, big rentals, and big projects are looked at suspiciously by some in CK. Since the public is not privy to the 100 King St. discussions, it seems as if Councilor Thompson might have some unknown motive. Otherwise, why is he kicking the hornet’s nest?
That aside, this issue once again illustrates that neither Council nor our Municipality seems to be able to figure out how to get ahead of an issue. Take, for example, the homeless shelter debacle earlier this year. CK citizens were informed by the Municipality that it had arrived at a solution and that no public consultation was taken simply because they didn’t have to. As reported by Chatham-Kent this Week, “When asked by Latimer if she’s considered a [sic] organizing a public meeting on the issue, [Director of Employment and Social Services, Polly Smith] said, ‘There’s not a requirement for a neighborhood consultation, but I do consult with groups and I would be happy to do that.’” Remember though, by the time this question was put to Ms. Smith, the horse had already left the barn.
Municipal staff knew the placement of the shelter would be a controversial issue, so the public didn’t get to have input ‘til it was a done deal. It seems convenient that all the motel rooms, which were our municipality’s previous housing preference and which had been full up to that point, were suddenly available once the public outcry got loud. It was also convenient that the city failed to manage to wrap up the lease. Coincidence is rarely what it seems.
So, on Monday, December 14, Municipal Council is going to continue to discuss, exactly what, we do not know. Speculation is that with the cost of repairs to the Civic Centre, purchasing the mall to relocate municipal offices might be an option in some form. This, though, is only speculation, because Council won’t even tell us WHY they are thinking of buying the property.
The need to have closed session discussions is not in question. Matters of privacy, competitive bidding and the like, warrant discussion behind closed doors. So, too, does “brainstorming” when all options are on the table and a frank, honest, open discussion needs to happen without the peanut gallery getting involved.
However, there should be nothing stopping Council from telling us WHY they need to have this discussion. Ombudsman Ontario provides an open meeting guide for Municipalities. Point number 6 catches the eye right away. It reads, “Pass a resolution in public that includes meaningful information about the issue to be considered (not just the exception) – before closing the doors.”
There may be very good and valid reasons to consider the purchase of 100 King Street. The Council certainly cannot begrudge the citizens of Chatham-Kent their healthy dose of skepticism, however. If this were to come to open debate, it will be controversial. It is nearly beyond belief, though, that our leaders can’t seem to figure out how to lead, and can’t get in front of an issue. A betting person could have looked at this on the docket and assumed that once the public got wind of it, it was at least going to raise eyebrows.
All that had to be done was a message from the Mayor after the first discussion that reads something like this:
“Council needs to look at all the alternatives to fixing up the Civic Centre, and that includes looking into a cost/benefit analysis of purchasing 100 King St. We need to be able to make the best financial long term decisions for CK, so out-of-the-box options are on the table, too. Our closed-door meetings are a way to ensure robust discussion and when we are ready, we will bring a plan to the people of Chatham-Kent that may or may not involve 100 King St.”
This, of course, assumes that using the property in place of the Civic Centre is why they are having the discussion. It may be a different reason, but that part of the statement could be changed to reflect reality.
Just because Council doesn’t have to tell us “why,” doesn’t mean that it’s a good policy to keep people in the dark. Yes, being upfront will bring out the negative-nellies right away. It will also start a public discourse that can be monitored to judge the public’s reaction, which will provide direction for the discussion or the messaging.
Be brave. Be leaders. You can’t lead if your primary mode of communication comes after people start complaining and making up their own answers based on rumors.