A few residents have raised concern over the past few months about the transparency around the Merrickville-Wolford’s Municipal Emergency Control Group (MECG). The MECG is a provincially mandated group that is part of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA). Comprised of the Mayor, CAO, Fire Chief, Operations Manager, Community Emergency Management Coordinator (CEMC), Manager of Finance/Treasurer, Chief Building Official and Emergency Information Officer, with support from various community emergency services, the MECG is responsible for direction and control of the overall emergency response within the community.
The Village enacted the MECG on March 13, 2020 and held meetings on March 13 and March 16 to put some proactive measures in place to keep the community safe from COVID-19. This included closing the municipal centre to the public, shutting down all municipal facilities, and suspending all meetings of village committees and local boards.
Mayor Doug Struthers says Merrickville-Wolford’s MECG has been meeting as needed throughout the pandemic. Resident and former Councillor Chuck MacInnis says he is concerned that no agendas or minutes of these meetings have been made public. He says that most of council is also in the dark about when, where and how the group meets and what they discuss. Chuck also noted that they are not requiring the MECG to follow the municipality’s procedural by-law, which governs the structure and reporting requirements of council committees.
Mayor Doug Struthers clarified at the council meeting of March 22, 2021 that the MECG is not a committee of council. This would suggest that it falls outside the procedural by-law and does not have to follow the same process and reporting standards of typical committees of council. To confirm that municipalities are in compliance with the EMCPA, they must submit a yearly report to the province. On March 30, Merrickville-Wolford received a letter from the Ministry of the Solicitor General stating that they achieved compliance in 2020.
CEMC for the town of Smiths Falls, Rick Chesebrough confirmed that, they too have an active MECG. Since the pandemic was declared last March, their MECG has met 53 times to discuss items that relate to staff and public safety. This includes return to work protocols, advocating for the wearing of masks, social distancing, the use of municipal facilities, how to continue to provide levels of service from municipal government, and how to publicize and enforce provincial legislation when it comes to the requirements under the Ontario Reopening Act.
Although minutes are taken at every MECG meeting, Rick says they are not for public consumption due to the sensitive nature of some of the topics discussed. However, he does provide council with an update from these meetings, and any information that is not confidential would be released in an open council session.
North Grenville CAO and CEMC Gary Dyke says that MECGs are set up to be able to make decisions, without council approval, to allow flexibility and speed during an emergency. He did note, however, that the pandemic is a unique situation. “They were established for normal emergencies, floods, tornadoes, anything of that nature, not something that we are in now that has been going on for over a year,” he said.
Gary says North Grenville’s MECG met regularly at the start of the pandemic, and most items discussed at the meetings were reported to council and resulted in things like amending the 2020 budget to respond to COVID-19. However, Gary says they haven’t felt the need to keep up with regular meetings after they were able to put things in place to allow council to meet regularly. This has allowed decisions to be made in the public eye, rather than behind closed doors. North Grenville MECG meetings are now held when something unique happens regarding the pandemic, like the area jumping up into the red zone a few weeks ago. “We’ve locked it in place just because we’re still in a state of emergency by definition, but we have not been exercising the full powers that it grants us because we don’t need to,” he said. “Decisions are going through council.”
Unlike other municipalities, Deputy Mayor Michael Cameron says council has not been kept up to speed on MECG meetings. Although he acknowledges that the group isn’t mandated to release agendas or minutes to the public, he still believes that council should be kept apprised of what is going on in the community in relation to the pandemic. “There needs to be a constant flow of information on how they’re managing, what they’re managing, what procedures they’re putting in place, and what the predicted outcomes are,” he says.
Deputy Mayor Cameron says he has tried to get more information from staff about the MECG so he can respond to the many resident concerns he has heard over the past few months. Unfortunately, he feels like he has gotten nowhere. “I’ve gotten frustrated and sort of given up hope because there doesn’t seem to be any information flowing from the mayor’s office in regards to that,” he says.
Mayor Doug Struthers maintains that the MECG does not report to council. “People need to understand this is the provincial government saying that every municipality needs an emergency plan,” he says. “Part of that is having an Emergency Control Group. Period, full stop.”