This is a strange time for the Municipality of North Grenville. On the one hand, public energy has helped prevent the closure of the Service Ontario offices here. We’ve just had a great Canada Day, also built on the energy and work of the people. Residents are putting on more events every week than I can keep track of, and there’s a sense that great things are possible when we all get together and work.
Then there’s the other side. The Municipality has managed to show itself to be petty and excessively bureaucratic in dealing with three young people trying to make some summer cash in Oxford Mills (see the article in this issue). They have shown a split personality in their approach to the Kemptville Farmer’s Market: encouraging them to apply for a Community Grant, then rejecting the application (see another article in this issue). They have rejected a request for a few hundred dollars from the Oxford Mills Community Association to help restore a gazebo to municipal property, while giving thousands of dollars to businesses to help them make their property look pretty. (Yet another article..)
But there is a far more serious issue being played out within the confines of the Municipal centre, one which I find very troubling indeed. For the second time in just a few months, a Senior Manager on the municipal staff has suddenly vacated the building, without warning and without explanation. Just weeks after being named to run the transition of Kemptville College, Forbes Symon, Director of Planning and Development, has gone on “extended gazebo
leave”. No announcement was made, no explanation given, as was the case with the departure of Sheila Kehoe from the Treasurer’s position.
In Sheila’s case, her unreported and sudden departure (sudden as far as the public was concerned, anyway) led to speculation about the reasons for her leaving, and it took repeated questions from me to elicit from the municipality that it had nothing to do with the municipal finances, budgets, etc. A brief statement at the time could have made that clear, but the lack of transparency, of communication, made the situation look worse than it was, and that was unnecessary.
Now Forbes Symon has left under even more mysterious circumstances. Is he on paid leave (he earns over $100,000 a year), and is he coming back? Is it health-related, or something quite different? Now, I accept that there are legal restrictions on revealing personal information on staff, and there are some issues that need to be addressed in private. But, based on past experience, we may never know what’s happening, even after it is all settled. Confidentiality agreements, fear of litigation, or simple unwillingness to impart information can mean that taxpayers never find out how their money is being spent and why.
The Municipality of North Grenville is involved in on-going litigation over their role in approving the Kemptville Meadows development. Will we ever know how that works out? For a Council that promised transparency, openness, and better communication with residents, there have been too many instances of staff and council failing to keep us informed.
There are two attitudes at play here that need to be addressed. One is the idea, promoted by both staff and council, that North Grenville is a corporation, an Organisation, as staff like to call it. Council are the Board of Directors, and staff are..well, staff (they do not like to be called bureaucrats). If that is so, then we, the taxpayers, are the shareholders in this corporation. In the private world, shareholders at least get an Annual General Meeting at which they can ask questions and where staff and Directors are answerable to them for decisions taken. We don’t have that: we get to vote once every four years, without knowing much of what Council or staff have been doing before then.
The other attitude is confined to Councillors and Mayors. It states that “Council must speak with one voice”: which is taken to mean that, once something has been voted on and passed, no Councillor can then speak against it. That means that a Councillor can vote against a measure, but must afterwards act as if they approved of it all the time. We elect individuals, not a complete Council. We expect that each one on Council should have the freedom to state their case, while accepting the results of votes, etc. To be able to say: “I accept the vote, but I still think it was a bad idea”seems to me to be a basic freedom we all enjoy. Between these two attitudes, and the silence behind which they operate, Council and staff are keeping the taxpayers, those who pay their salaries and voted them into office, at arm’s length and in ignorance of things they should know about. The people who pay the bills deserve better. There is much more to say about this.