by David Shanahan and Hilary Thomson
Over the past year, relations between the Village of Merrickville-Wolford and the local Chamber of Commerce have been somewhat tense. The Chamber Board of Directors, which has only been in office for two years, had come to believe that their role in the social and economic life of the municipality was being undermined by council and staff in ways they found both confusing and insulting. Activities and initiatives, which in previous times had been welcomed and supported by the municipality, were now being criticised, and even rejected. An example of this were the provincial flags that were put up by the Chamber and promptly taken down by the Village the same night.
The Village of Merrickville-Wolford, on its part, has found itself having to deal with issues which had not previously been on the table, especially in the area of what is known as Joint and Several Liability. What this means is that insurance claims against the municipality were increasingly a danger to the financial health of the Village, as several court cases across the province have held municipalities liable in cases even where they were not directly involved. People involved in the insurance cases were citing municipalities as joint defendants on the often mistaken belief that they had “deep pockets” and were therefore easy sources of compensation.
In 2014, the newly-elected Council was faced with a changing context, and Mayor David Nash’s involvement in the United Counties Council educated him very quickly on the need for Merrickville-Wolford to adopt a strict risk management policy. What this meant in day-to-day life was that activities traditionally carried out by organisations like the Chamber of Commerce, could no longer be left to them without proper insurance coverage protecting the municipality from liability. Because of this, the Chamber members were no longer encouraged to climb ladders to put up flags and decorations on the municipal streets in Merrickville.
The most unfortunate part of all of this was that the Chamber Board feels that these changes were not communicated effectively to them, and they therefore supposed that their efforts on behalf of the community were no longer welcome. The exclusion of a member of the Chamber on the Economic Development Committee has further estranged the Chamber from the Municipality. On top of that, rumours of the possibility of a BIA in Merrickville had the Chamber wondering whether they were being deliberately squeezed out of the equation. “By default, or by design, the Chamber has been excluded,” said Chamber Board President, Karl Feige.
To try and clarify the issue, the Chamber approached the municipality as early as last June to arrange a face-to-face meeting between the Board and the Council and senior staff, without success. This came to a head at the last meeting of Council when Mayor Nash, in an effort to bring everyone together, brought forward a motion to have such a meeting take place. The resolution was moved by Councillor Chuck MacInnis, but the council chamber fell silent when it came to a seconder for the motion and it therefore died on the table. This was, as Mayor Nash says, “shocking”.
The Mayor and Karl Feige met afterwards and talked about the best way to move forward, and it became apparent that there had been much mis-communication and, in fact, a complete lack of communication on many of the issues between the two sides. Statements and rumours which seemed to pit them against each other were found to have been unfounded, and much of the bitter feelings were based on nothing solid. David Nash is now suggesting that the Chamber and Village representatives approach a mediator, who will bring the two sides together, identify the problems which have caused this division, and help them to come to a more productive and mutually beneficial relationship.
“From the minute I took office, I believed the Chamber was important,” says Mayor Nash, “I liken it to marriage counselling, in that it will only work if both sides want it to work, and that the merchants should not suffer as a result. We need to sit down at the table and resolve it.” He went on to say in a later interview that: “As community leaders, Council has a responsibility to support our business community, and, at this time, the mechanism in place to do that is our Chamber of Commerce. I’m not interested in looking back and pointing fingers, but rather to look ahead to improving this critical relationship with our merchants. The Mayor and Karl agree that, whatever the mechanism is, be it the Chamber or a BIA, it needs to be supported by Council in order to best serve our merchants.
The resolution of their differences is important to the health of the municipality’s relationship with its business sector moving forward, as the Chamber represents around 90% of the businesses in Merrickville-Wolford. It is hoped that, through mediation, the Chamber and Municipality will be able to clarify the Chamber’s area of responsibility when it comes to Village property, and to rectify any concerns regarding proper insurance for the Chamber. Mayor Nash says he will be bringing the suggestion of mediation to the next council meeting on Tuesday, November 14. It remains to be seen if this motion will receive a better level of support than the last.