Mississauga residents furious at councillors after crammed 8-hour meeting that prevented public participation
COVID-19 may have essentially cancelled the Mississauga Marathon, but the competition almost found its match in a council meeting at the beginning of the month. On July 8, city councillors convened at 9:30 a.m., bringing proceedings to an end almost eight hours later at 5:02 p.m.
The lengthy meeting, which included an extended closed session, dealt with two major issues. A much anticipated and controversial review of the City’s noise bylaw was considered, alongside the introduction of mandatory masks, with both topics sparking serious debate.
Some residents were keen to express their views on the topic, particularly on the noise bylaw, and were left extremely frustrated when they had to wait hours to have their voices heard.
“In forcing the public to cool their heels for five hours while they ran over time on their first meeting, conducted a closed session at the start of Council, followed by a long break, with no explanations or apologies, the Mayor and Council very clearly demonstrated their lack of respect,” the Mississauga Residents’ Association Network (MIRANET) wrote in a letter to council entitled “We don’t get paid to wait!”
The harsh correspondence elicited different responses around the council table.
Ward 6 Councillor Ron Starr told The Pointer he shared the residents’ frustrations and felt digital council sessions could be run more efficiently. “I think that was a record in the last year or two,” he said. “It was frustrating because there was a lot of important business, but with the type of virtual meetings we’re doing, it’s not as easy… Every meeting is taking longer.”
Karen Ras, Ward 2, shared similar concerns, citing a contract for winter maintenance she had recently deferred from one meeting as she felt the agenda was too full.
“Having an eight or nine hour meeting is unacceptable either to us personally or those following the meeting or the media or those trying to get [a] deputation done,” Starr added.
Ward 9 Councillor Pat Saito did not take the same view. Instead, she said she was “surprised” by the angry letter from the residents’ group.
“We followed the usual Council procedures and have gone in camera at [the] beginning of meetings previously,” she told The Pointer by email. “We also took a half-hour lunch break. I really was shocked that anyone could object to that given we went until 5 pm in the meeting.”
Councillors (seen here in the council chambers before the COVID-19 pandemic) offered mixed reactions to residents angry about a lengthy council meeting that they claim impacted public participation.
Even as the frustrations of local residents ring out around Mississauga, councillors are gearing up for a summer vacation. By this point in the calendar year, the city’s twelve elected representatives would normally already be on summer recess.
In light of COVID-19, council sessions have continued, with a pause scheduled for August 5. The municipal process will then take a break of just over a month, resuming in September.
The break, combined with the additional legislative needs of COVID-19 and the absence of most committees, means agendas at City Hall are growing. The July 8th meeting was one of the longest councillors have indulged in for quite some time, but lengthening digital meetings have been a trend since the pandemic began.
Deborah Goss, President of the Lakeview Ratepayers Association, is heavily involved with council matters as she advocates for her community. She told The Pointer that, while she was delighted with the attention from her local councillor, agendas at council meetings were becoming unmanageably long.
“I would say that right now council has very full agendas, too full almost,” she said. “I don’t know if this is what the reason is, or whether they want to close for part of the summer, but it’s too full. There’s too many things trying to get through.”
There’s no question the City’s plate is full. Ontario’s Ombudsman, which investigates complaints against municipalities over a wide range of issues involving questionable governance, issued a statement during the pandemic, as concern mounted across the province regarding the way councils deal with the business of towns and cities.
“[Our] municipal team, who are experts in the rules that require local councils to have open meetings, were alerted to gaps in the law that hampered municipal councils’ abilities to hold ‘virtual’ meetings. We raised this with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, which was working on emergency legislation to address this (it passed the next day). We will review the application and effectiveness of these new rules, to ensure local governments remain transparent and accountable as they navigate this difficult time.”
Anyone who feels their council is not carrying out its functions in accordance with accessibility, accountability and transparency requirements can file a complaint with the Ontario Ombudsman.
Councillors will convene their last meeting of the summer on August 5.
The economic impact of COVID-19 on Mississauga has been astronomical. Early staff estimates suggest the City is on course to have a deficit of at least $60 million by the end of 2020, with no plan currently on the table to tackle it.
Excluding the deficit and with the suspension of future capital projects, budget plans estimate an increase of more than 9 percent in 2021 on the city’s portion of the tax bill. To absorb the deficit, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities says Mississauga would need a tax levy of a further 17 percent.
On Monday, the province announced welcome news, as Queen’s Park and Ottawa have finally committed to funding assistance for municipalities. The province’s towns and cities will share $4 billion, however it has not yet been decided how much each will receive. Toronto alone is projecting a $1.3 billion deficit this year as a result of the pandemic, largely because of impacts on the country’s largest public transit network, the TTC.
Alongside the thorny financial issues, COVID-19 has thrown up complexities like the mandatory wearing of masks indoors. In the background, questions about when Peel will enter Stage 3 of reopening abound.
“The reason those agendas have been a lot heavier is because we’re dealing with a lot of stuff,” Ward 10 Councillor Sue McFadden said. “Look at some of the stuff we have packed onto those agendas: noise bylaws, masks, things that we would normally have General Committee and Council [to deal with]. We’re trying to get as much done as we can.”
The Pointer reached out to all 11 Mississauga councillors and Mayor Bonnie Crombie to ask about complaints around the length of recent agendas and if now was a reasonable time for councillors to consider taking a holiday in the midst of a global pandemic.
Councillors Stephen Dasko (Ward 1), Chris Fonseca (Ward 3), John Kovac (Ward 4), Dipika Damerla (Ward 7), Matt Mahoney (Ward 8) and George Carlson (Ward 11) did not respond in time for publication.
Of the councillors who were able to reply, most were supportive of continuing to meet during August. The video conferencing technology used to convene council meetings since COVID-19 struck means elected representatives could still get away from the city to cottages or other retreats, while considering items of importance on a weekly basis.
“In a typical session, Council recesses in mid-July,” a spokesperson for Mayor Bonnie Crombie said. “This year, due to the pandemic, Council has extended meetings with an additional two meetings scheduled. Should the need for additional meetings arise in August, this is certainly something Council would consider.”
The sentiment was echoed by councillors, saying, in theory, they would be happy to convene in August if the need arose.
“We were elected to do the business of the city, we have a pandemic and we have restrictions on how we do business, maybe we have to change our mode of business for the summer. Yes, every other municipality in the rest of the country takes summer off. Yes, we’ve been working right into July, but if there is important business … that has to be addressed,” Starr said.
He synthesized the tone around the council chambers: few councillors are excited at the prospect of giving up their break, but can stomach a few extra meetings if the need arises.
“I would have no trouble meeting during August,” Ward 5 Councillor Carolyn Parrish said. “We’re heading into some pretty rough budget waters and I think the more we meet, the more we iron out little pieces at a time, the more it’s going to make that [process] easier.”
Mayor Bonnie Crombie
Whether that willingness to engage on high-profile items during their break will be enough to quiet resident dissent remains to be seen.
“Frankly, we’re not satisfied,” Sue Klein-Shanly, Chair of MIRANET, told The Pointer. “Anytime somebody from the public makes a deputation they should not have to be sitting around and waiting around for hours and hours and hours.”
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