A motion introduced at the United Counties Council meeting last week saw a motion being presented that, if passed, would have discontinued all sittings of the Provincial Offences Court in Kemptville. The immediate result of such a move would be to require all residents in North Grenville and northern Grenville County generally to travel to Brockville for any court proceedings in which they would be involved. The Court House in Kemptville would no longer be used.
The motion was passed on a UCLG staff report to Council recommending the closure, using as a rationale the fact that the Ontario government had recommended that municipalities embrace technology during the pandemic to avoid having in-person meetings and gatherings. And, at first, it seemed a straightforward motion, as moved by Township of Rideau Lakes Mayor, Arie Hoogenboom, and seconded by Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands Mayor, Corinna Smith-Gatcke on behalf of the Joint Services Committee of the UCLG.
Almost before Township of Elizabethtown-Kitley Mayor, Brant Burrow, who was in the Chair for the Council meeting, could respond to the motion, Mayor Nancy Peckford was heard, asking to speak to the motion. Mayor Peckford was very direct in her comments, noting that the motion was “premature and a little offensive”, lacking in information, and “extremely tone deaf”.
The Mayor recognised the severe limitations presented by the old Court House, and noted that it was not the only possible venue in North Grenville that could be used by the courts. Most importantly, the people, council, and municipal staff in North Grenville had not been consulted about the proposed decision before it was brought to the UCLG Council, and Mayor Peckford demanded that the motion be withdrawn until “wholesome discussion of the community impact” for NG and surrounding areas could take place. Consideration of remote access, via on-line sittings of the courts, she said, must take into consideration public access to remote broadband. There was, at this time, no way of knowing how many residents would have access to such virtual meetings.
“To close the office and deny opportunity to appear to those without adequate broadband, which is the case for 45% of NG residents, compromises the judicial system.”
Asking that our residents be given more respect on this issue. It seems, she pointed out, that North Grenville was, as so often in the past, not being treated with proper respect, a case in point being the attempted closure of the Service Ontario office a few years ago. She called for the motion to be withdrawn until proper consultations take place, more information provided, and some options suggested by staff.
Mayor Brett Todd, Town of Prescott, immediately spoke in support of Nancy Peckford’s statement. He had, he said, wondered if North Grenville had been consulted, and found it astonishing that they weren’t. This, he pointed out, was not the only example of lack of coordination between UCLG staff and council.
The mover of the motion, Ari Hoogenboom then agreed that more discussion was needed. Remote services are not always appropriate for rural municipalities either, and there ought to be more moves towards virtual services. More work needs to be done, and noted that his municipality’s residents need to drive an hour either to Brockville or Kemptville to question a ticket or something else connected with the court.
Mayor Doug Struthers, of Merrickville-Wolford, spoke up to question the value of the current location in Kemptville. “We need perspective”, he thought, since the court only sat in Kemptville 6 days a year, which doesn’t seem much. Maybe that is not fiscally responsible, but perhaps with technology it would be worthwhile.
After some discussion around the table about how to deal with the motion – withdraw it, or defer it, Andy Brown, CAO of the UCLG, agreed that there should be further consultation with North Grenville, and more talk about how to deliver the service remotely. The motion was then withdrawn by a unanimous vote of council.
It is concerning that such a move, with real implications for this municipality, should arrive before the United Counties Council without warning or consultation. It seems consultation with the residents and council of North Grenville is not something that occurs to some before decisions are made. Fortunately, in this case, Mayor Peckford was on hand to put the brakes on the bureaucrats.