Residents of Merrickville-Wolford are concerned about how long it is taking for municipal council and staff to reinstate the municipality’s advisory committees. At an emergency meeting of council on March 16, 2020, the Municipal Emergency Control Group (MECG) called for all advisory committee meetings to be cancelled. According to the Village’s by-law to adopt an emergency response plan, the MECG is a group responsible for the overall emergency response within the community. All municipalities in Ontario are required to have an emergency response plan and an MECG under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.
On March 19, 2020 the Province of Ontario amended the Municipal Act to allow municipal councils, local boards and committees to meet electronically during emergencies. In response, Merrickville-Wolford council passed a by-law on March 23, 2020 to amend the municipality’s procedural by-law to allow for electronic participation during a state of emergency declared by the Province or the Village. Although council took advantage of this amendment to hold meetings via teleconference in the spring of 2020, this option was not extended to advisory committees.
Chair of the Recreation, Health and Wellness Committee, Katie Dickie, has been sending emails to council and staff, inquiring about having committees meet virtually since December. In response, council directed staff to look into the possibility of committees meeting again and what form that would take in a pandemic environment.
Over the past few months, staff have put together several reports for council and reached out to the members of the advisory committees via a survey to gauge interest in resuming their duties and figure out their preferred method for meeting. The survey indicated that 81% of committee members were interested in participating in meetings, and 68% preferred to meet virtually. In the last staff report, presented to council on March 8, staff recommended that Zoom would be the best way for committees to meet safely.
Despite this recommendation, staff indicated that council still has to amend the municipality’s procedural bylaw to allow virtual meetings. According to Mayor Doug Struthers, the March 23, 2020 bylaw only allows councils and committees to meet during a state of emergency. The state of emergency for Ontario has been lifted, and Mayor Struthers confirmed that no state of emergency was ever declared for the Village of Merrickville-Wolford.
Council has directed staff to amend the procedural bylaw to be brought back to council for approval. Despite the fact that things seem to be moving forward, Katie doesn’t understand how long it is taking to allow committees to meet. “It’s just been months and months and months of excuses and delays,” she says. “My main concern at this point is the amount of time and effort that the CAO has spent, and the resources he’s spent, putting together reports and putting together surveys, and all the while they knew that this bylaw needed to be amended. Why was that not done at the same time?”
Merrickville resident and former member of council, Chuck McInnis, believes that this council has not managed committees properly throughout their term in office. Chuck says they were slow to put the advisory committees in place, with the first meetings occurring in late November 2019, meaning that they were only in operation for a few months before the MECG shut them down mid-March. “They should be embracing the knowledge, skills and abilities of the community through this pandemic, not shoving them aside,” he said in an email to the Times.
Although both Mayor Struthers and members of council have expressed the immense value of municipal advisory committees, the past year has left many committee members feeling unwanted. “They don’t really want them is definitely my take on it because we seem to add a layer,” says Anney De Gobeo, Chair of the Environmental Advisory Committee. “They don’t see us as support. I think they see us more as a make work project.”
Mayor Struthers could not give a timeline on when the procedural bylaw amendment will be brought back to council. Katie says the most frustrating part of the whole process has been the lack of communication. She is glad to see that the process is underway but says she doesn’t believe it will happen soon. “I’m not holding my breath to be honest,” she says. “I know how this council works and when they are ready for us to meet again, I think it will happen.”