The composition of an ad hoc trails committee became the subject of a somewhat complicated debate at the meeting of the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee on Tuesday, Jun. 6, 2023, resulting in a lesson in municipal policy and procedure by Town Clerk Jessica Walters.
Town staff brought a report to Council recommending that specific individuals be appointed to the Ad Hoc Trails Committee — Dave Milligan, Mark Hamel, Shawn Davey, Tom Touzel, Liz Touzel, and Mike Sewell — and further that Tom Touzel and Dave Milligan be appointed as co-chairs.
Staff provided the report, as requested by Council, as a followup to resolutions passed at the Tuesday, May 23, 2023 meeting that “a Trails Committee be established as an ad hoc Committee reporting directly to Council, with members to be appointed at the June 6th meeting; and further, that Council direct staff to work with the trail ad hoc committee to determine a provider to remove the steel rail ties and direct any funds from the sale of the steel be used for the urban portion of the trail.”
Walters offered to answer questions with respect to the report, noting that this was simply “a followup of conversation that started at our last Council.”
Deputy Mayor Brian Calver began by asking why he, being on the recreation committee, was not appointed to the ad hoc committee.
Walters replied, “One of our intentions with the way this committee is composed is to be very explicitly clear in the terms of reference and how it’s laid out: that this committee is not a local board that would be subject to the code of conduct and potential claims of conflict of interest. There are obvious conflicts of interest when it comes to this discussion; we are aware of them,” she said, presumably referring to the conflicting interests of the landowners surrounding the abandoned CN Rail line and those who would like to see the town-owned line become part of a larger trails system.
“I think it’s important that the people with those conflicts be at the table and be part of the discussion; that’s the only way you’re going to get any collaborative solution here. But we also don’t need to have this thing be bogged down with potential integrity commissioner issues,” Walters pointed out.
“So,” she continued, “this committee has no authority of its own and no councillors sitting on it. It’s there to help facilitate discussions, to have the key people in the room for those discussions, and to do community consultation, and that was the main reason why we don’t have a councillor appointed to it.”
Councillor Mike Schenk then asked if a Town staff member would be sitting on the committee.
Since Town staff members are not permitted to sit on a committee, Walters explained to him that staff members can and do attend committee meetings to provide resources, pass information, take notes, and present reports to Council. She said that having the ad hoc committee report directly to Council would eliminate the necessity of “[information and questions] passing through another committee, which would potentially add a month of delay time if it had to be approved at the Recreation Committee and then be approved at Council.”
“You answered my question. Thank you,” replied, Schenk who then went on, “You have to have one member of Council or the Mayor or Deputy Mayor… sit there just so you can hear both sides, so you can give a report back and everything else… I have more faith that everything’s going to work better if you have a member of Council to make sure all parties are playing nice in the sandbox. “
Walters pointed out that Council could make the decision as to the committee’s composition: “This is staff’s recommendation based on the conversations that we had after the last meeting, but Council is able to do whatever you’d like to do.”
Councillor Angela Hicks then referred to the staff report, expressing her understanding that staff would not need to attend every meeting of the ad hoc committee, but that it would work without much interference or input from Council.
Walters responded, “This is a new process for all of us. We know, based on the turnout we had at the special meeting, that there’s going to need to be different levels of community input for different parts of this conversation… We had initially assumed that there would be a staff person there, at least to take notes, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Mayor Terry Richardson agreed that having a staff member there would be prudent, to take notes and provide other resources to the citizen-led committee.
Hicks called attention to the suggested members of the committee, saying she believed there was certainly someone from that list who could take notes. Then she asked how and when the committee would be presenting to Council.
The mayor and clerk offered that the reporting to Council would be as needed by members of the committee or staff on their behalf.
Councillor Schenk spoke again, saying he had no problem with the individuals on the committee or with the suggested co-chairs, “but to have somebody there, all right? So that staff member can write those minutes. And… just run it the way it’s supposed to be run… I agree with the staff recommendation, but just to add Deputy Mayor Calver in, if he wants to sit on that.”
Councillor Dave Pennell attempted to bring the conversation back to where it began by asking Walters to further explain her previous statement about conflicts of interest.
Walters stated that citizen appointees do not have a duty to declare conflict of interest, but any councillor on the committee would have to declare and leave the discussion. “I don’t know if that applies to anybody on council; I know it does apply to the residents that are being appointed. It’s just something to be aware of.”
Councillor Bob Norrie suggested having “a Councillor just to be an observer… [That way] we know directly what’s happening. Because it’s such a big project and so volatile, I think we should have a witness there, that’s all.”
Pinnell pointed out that the mayor is the ex officio of the committee, and asked whether Mayor Richardson would “hand that responsibility to the deputy and then, he could just [take that on].”
“I don’t think it’s a question of handing authority over,” responded Richardson, “the position of mayor would be an ex officio on all committees.” He then asked, “Is there a will to add a subsequent council member onto this committee?”
The clerk reminded Council that the mayor has an automatic ability to attend any committee meeting and sit on any standing committee; she added that “there’s also nothing saying that any member of Council can’t show up to all of these meetings. They’re going to be public meetings. So, it really does come down to what Council wants to do here; this is your committee.”
Councillor Schenk then declared, “Everybody here that’s on Council, mayor, deputy mayor, everybody here: you know what your code of conduct is, you know what a conflict of interest is, you know your integrity commissioner… if you go into this [in] bad faith, well, I’ll hang you myself… Make sure that everything’s being done correctly and work along with the community and [make sure] both parties are looked after, and their concerns are addressed. That’s all.”
Then Schenk continued speaking about conflict of interest: “Everybody knows what those rules are. If you don’t declare them, well then you shouldn’t be here.”
Deputy Mayor Calver then asked, “Is the conflict of interest because I’m also on the rec committee? Or what if we had another councillor sitting just in the background, as a bystander in a meeting? Would that make a difference?”
Walters responded, “Honestly, it’s just a question that comes up with every committee. I don’t personally know what everybody’s ties or holdings or interests are; it’s just a general rule of awareness for councillors. And because this issue is a sensitive issue in the community, the question of conflict of interest has been raised, and we [as your staff] wanted to make sure we were giving you clear and solid advice on that.”
Mayor Richardson asked Walters again to reconfirm that citizen members had no obligation to declare conflict of interest; she did so, reminding Council that “the whole point of having these citizen committees is to hear from people who have a special interest and have relevant experience, and they, by virtue of having an interest in that committee, are going to have a conflict.”
“That’s part of why you want them there,” she continued. “You want their experience, you want their input, but… [the committee is] not a local board under the definition of the Municipal Act because they have no power to spend money or make decisions. All they can do is give Council advice and recommendations. So therefore those rules don’t apply to them, because this is an opportunity to hear from those people.”
The mayor asked if a councillor sitting on the ad hoc committee could potentially be opening a door for a conflict of interest. Walters replied, “Any person who wants to file a complaint with the integrity commissioner can do so — but as Councillor Shenck sort of indicated earlier, if everything is above board, there’s no real reason for concern. I just wanted to raise that for Council because this is an issue that’s been under a lot of public scrutiny.”
Councillor Bill Martin pointed out, “The whole reason we were having an ad hoc committee as a separate committee was for it to be distant from Council. I mean, we could have just had the recreation committee do this.”
After establishing that the members of the ad hoc committee, rather than staff members, would report directly to Council, Mayor Richardson said it was important not to overcomplicate the issue, and he expressed confidence in the appointed committee members.
With that, the staff report was accepted and the terms of reference for the committee were adopted as presented, and the aforementioned committee members were approved in a unanimous motion, moved by Schenk and seconded by Martin.
As always, this is just one small report on what went on at the town council meeting. Kingstonist will present other items from the same meeting for your information in the coming days. As well, you can always follow along with Greater Napanee Town Council by checking meeting topics on the Town’s CivicWeb meeting portal, watching from home on the Town of Greater Napanee YouTube channel, or attending council meetings in person at the historic Napanee Town Hall, located at 124 John Street.