Back and to the right

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When the municipal election came and went in October, who knew that we would soon be kicking off 2023 with such political drama? I am referring to the new 168-unit apartment complex that is proposed to be built on the former site of Kemptville Public School, and the harsh criticism that many North Grenville residents are throwing at Council over its handling of the matter. Many eyes are currently on Council, since the decisions made regarding this project will certainly show just what kind of local government we can expect to have in the coming years. 

By now, some readers have likely noticed that my editorials are always titled with a vague phrase. This phrase has a connection to the subject matter that only becomes clear when explained part way through my musings. I do love a good pun, particularly one that makes use of a (non-smutty) double entendre. For fans of the CBC drama series Murdoch Mysteries (anyone?), there is a season 5 episode called “Back and to the Left”. Besides being a reference to the John F. Kennedy assassination, I see the title as having a double meaning. One is that the victim’s head goes back and to the left as he is shot. The other is that Murdoch is “back” from an excursion to the Klondike in the previous episode, and he is taking a liberally minded (left) stance of trying to find the real killer, rather than blaming the Irish patsy suspect at a time when Catholics were treated very badly by the majority of Protestant citizens of Toronto. I wonder whether this double meaning is the product of my own imagination, or if it was intentional on the part of the show’s writers. Either way, I love such a play on words. 

From what I have seen with Council’s handling of the proposed apartment complex on Reuben Crescent, I am inclined to suggest that Council is “back and to the right”. Council is back in the sense that a few short months ago, all five of its existing members were re-elected. By “to the right”, I mean the political right in the sense that their apparent disregard for the views of constituents reminds me of the recent behaviour of Doug Ford’s progressive-conservative government on matters such as healthcare shortages and Bills 28 and 23. 

At the December 14 Council meeting, there were quite a number of concerned local residents who showed up to bring concerns forward – about 10 by my count. Ten concerned residents in a population of over 16,000 is certainly not a scientific survey of the opinions of North Grenville residents on its own. However, combined with online concerns, Letters to the Editor published in the Times, and the fact that Council meetings almost never see so many ordinary residents show up to speak, these concerns should have been enough to at least implore Council to stop and think. A reader emailed to criticize me a few weeks ago for mentioning an uncomfortable “buzz” in the community regarding the apartment complex, saying that I was conjuring facts with no evidence. I contend that anyone who listens will hear this so-called “buzz”. We may have no way of knowing exactly what percentage of residents are for or against the project, but few local issues cause the kind of stink that this one has, and that speaks volumes. At the Council meeting, after the concerns were heard and put on record, it appeared as though Council was ready to move on and let the genuine worries of dozens of residents be ignored and forgotten. Only minutes later, two bylaw amendments were passed which helped the project move forward. It was almost cruel to let the concerned residents speak at the meeting in the first place – such false hope!

The situation with this proposed housing development is not an easy one for Council to navigate, there is no question of that. In the current housing market, a 168-unit development seems foolish to turn down, especially considering that a shortage of available housing is partially responsible for inflated rent prices for reasons of supply and demand. It would also be naïve to think that a company with the financial resources and commitment required to plan such a large project would not also have the means to apply pressure and ensure everything is done to push the project forward. As such, no matter what happened at the December 14 meeting, residents and financial stakeholders were all on the edge of their seats, and no “quick decision” could have ever hoped to please everyone. 

Developers may desire “quick decisions”, but passing bylaw amendments just minutes after residents raised concerns about the project was entirely too quick. It is understandable that a developer may get cold feet and back out of a potentially beneficial project if made to endure months of bureaucracy, but surely one or two weeks of public consultation could be tolerated? Perhaps Council is learning the hard way that there is a difference between “quick” and “too quick”. 

What should Council do now? Perhaps the better question is “why should Council care?” Yes, those five Council seats are secure until 2026, but four years of governing can go by quickly, and residents don’t easily forget when they’ve been scorned. Similar to what I often say about provincial and federal politics, it is important for Council to remember that we live in a democracy, and they are elected to be representatives of the wishes of the people. The five Council members were re-elected for what I believe to be good reason. They have shown that they care about the community and have consistently worked hard to act on residents’ ideas and concerns. A move toward governing the people instead of governing for the people would be a very bad political move so soon after the community gave Council the biggest gesture of confidence and support possible – re-election.  

People usually feel helpless to contest a lack of consultation in federal and provincial politics, but when it comes to local government, people are not so shy. It’s not too late for the newly re-elected North Grenville Council to revisit how it makes decisions, but residents won’t wait forever for accountability. Council has returned by the will of North Grenville residents. These five Council members now have a responsibility to make sure that they deserve it. 

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