Diary From a St. Catharines Council Meeting
This is a story about deception.
My name is Lily, and I wrote this piece with my mother, Melissa Smith.
On July 24 I attended the first St. Catharines council meeting of my life. I don’t know exactly what I had expected, but it wasn’t this. I may be young, but I’m not blind – what I saw was arrogance and disregard for the community, in technicolour.
The meeting was supposed to be an opportunity for residents to express concern about a council decision to raise property taxes by 10.5 percent—the largest tax hike in City history. It was a decision that will profoundly impact property owners, who were frozen out of a process that is supposed to represent their interests.
Clockwise from top left, St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe and councillors Greg Miller, Matt Harris, Robin McPherson, Caleb Ratzlaff, Kevin Townsend and Mark Stevens pushed for and have defended their hard-to-fathom 10.5 percent tax increase.
(Top left, Niagara Region; All other photos City of St. Catharines)
The mayor and six councillors who made this historic decision argued that they had no choice after being “blindsided” by Niagara regional council and a bill for the City’s portion of regional expenses, which they claimed was vastly higher than expected.
While there were increases in several regional expense categories, by far the largest was for Niagara Transit. This is not surprising since in 2022, municipal transit systems were amalgamated into a single region-wide service. Costs, of course, were also centralized, with local expenses being uploaded to the region.
All municipal councils knew they were obligated to cover their portion of the transit costs. In explaining the regional tax levies, the Niagara Region website states, “All Niagara communities will need to change how they collect taxes for public transit.” The regional document pointed out that municipalities could choose to use the budget “space” created by uploading transit expenses to “invest those dollars in local service needs” or “provide a full or partial reduction of taxes.”
Instead, seven members of St. Catharines council decided to treat hard earned dollars from taxpayers like winnings at the casino, later gambled away along with the original amount that had first been wagered.
When the seven elected officials pretended the money previously used for local transit didn’t have to be saved for the City’s eventual share to cover St. Catharines’ obligation toward the Region’s new transit costs, that was not an option.
For the majority of council who passed the amended budget, after the so-called unexpected bill from the Region, expressions of surprise strain credulity—St. Catharines mayor Mat Siscoe sits on regional council and is a member of the budget committee. He knew exactly what was happening.
Despite knowing the transit bill was on its way, in January, council passed an initial 2023 budget—recommended by staff—that included some $15 million of new spending (knowing full well the City would have to pay the Region its share of the transit cost). This was done without community consultation, assessment of impact, or transparency about the budget’s implications.
When the regional transit levy arrived in May, blowing up the previous financial blueprint and triggering the dramatic increase from a 1 percent bump to a staggering 10.5 percent surge, the impact became clear. While everyone was going to be affected, for some, especially low or fixed income households and other vulnerable individuals, the tax hike could be catastrophic.
Not surprisingly, when the full story behind the tax increase emerged, including the council’s refusal to anticipate increased regional costs, the community, to paraphrase, was not amused. Against this backdrop, two councillors who had opposed the hike proposed a modest strategy for reducing the impact on the community. Finally, it appeared, the community would have its chance to express its concerns. Individual citizens wanted to share how the council's decision would affect them personally and they also wanted to urge the council to take steps to reduce the impact on those even more vulnerable.
The showdown was set for the July 24 council meeting at City Hall. About a dozen speakers had registered ahead of time to make presentations. The chamber was packed.
On Monday evening July 24th 2023, a sea of concerned citizens crowded into the St. Catharines council chambers, their minds focused on one purpose – to tell councillors what they thought of a behind-the-scenes decision to hike their taxes by 10.5 percent.The chambers were jammed, people standing in the aisles, crowding the uncomfortable wooden benches. But there was a buzz in the air. People were angry, afraid, hopeful.
For many this was the first time they had ever attended a council meeting. Like me, a young person cutting their teeth on municipal politics, they even had to be given directions on how to find the council chamber. The us and them feeling was intimidating, but many wanted to speak their minds face-to-face with their elected representatives in the same room, finally. We were all there in solidarity.
Let’s Set the Stage
5:28 p.m. - A motion to reconsider the 10.5 percent increase had been put forward and would be dealt with at the council meeting, but to reopen the matter a two-third vote would be needed. This likely won’t happen, as seven of the 13 council members pushed the money grab through.
Upon arrival, I’m told the door to the council chambers will be closed at 5:30 p.m., though the security guard would continue to let people enter the building. I followed two others up to the third floor where we were directed to go to the “overflow room,” a tellingly named location that begs the question as to why St. Catharines’ City Hall lacks the accommodation necessary for 64 of its 130,000-plus residents who might appreciate seeing how their council operates and how decisions are made about the use of their tax dollars.
One of the people with us, unhappy to be denied access to the chambers, mentions having written council before and being told to watch the meeting online.
“Why not in person?” she wonders aloud. “Can’t we peek in?”
“I think they are overwhelmed," another replies.
“Well, I want them to know we are here,” the first woman replied. “Can’t we stand and look in?” I asked.
Within minutes, a makeshift door stop is fashioned out of a briefcase and three purses. Those gathered are clearly passionate about the issues on the agenda for the night and being part of the process themselves, so if that meant DIY’ing a window into the meeting, it would be done. This, after all, is how democracy functions.
5:36 p.m. - The meeting commences with the national anthem and then the obligatory land acknowledgement.
There was something ironic about all of it. Our Indigenous communities were forcibly moved off the lands they walked softly for millennia, and now we offer empty words to recognize what we stole. Is the real aim of the seven council members and St. Catharines’ so-called Community Improvement Program, to force working families and seniors out of their homes and apartments and replace them with million-dollar condo owners?
5:45 p.m. - After a few announcements, there is a dramatic and unexpected occurrence. Councillor Dawn Dodge, an opponent of the tax increase, asked that citizens be allowed to speak prior to the motion to “reconsider.” It was a brilliant move. Instead of a 2/3 majority (under questionable rules that sure don’t feel democratic) Dodge’s motion would have secured the peoples’ right to speak with a simple majority.
And who could object? The place was packed and there were clearly serious concerns about the issue. A dozen people had registered to speak. Opening the floor to the public had no obligation regarding the upcoming motion. It simply allowed community members to share their opinions, explain how council actions affected them, and perhaps suggest some solutions. Pretty basic democracy, right?
Clearly taken aback, Mayor Mat Siscoe (who appeared via video on a screen at the front of the chamber since he was in Texas on vacation), put Dodge’s motion to a vote. Surely this would be a slam dunk.
Nope. One by one the councillors voted. The six who had opposed the historic tax increase voted yes, let the citizens speak. But those supporting the tax increase voted no. It was 6 to 6. All the mayor had to do was vote yes and the people would have had a chance to speak.
But he voted no.
A groan went up from the crowd. There were scattered boos. Those who knew municipal procedure knew it was all over. Those who did not, were bewildered. I was confused. What just happened?
Now imagine the despair, dismay and disgust that played plainly on the faces of the very people who would be footing the bill of this historic—and dangerous—10.5 percent tax hike when they push ahead without even a word from the community.
“This is the first time in 47 years I’ve seen this happen,” one shocked observer noted from outside the chambers.
This may all sound like a scene from a political blockbuster, but lo and behold, these antics took place in none other than our own beloved St. Catharines, Ontario. Once a burgeoning industrial hotspot for young families, the city has rapidly fallen into decay, both literally and figuratively, as its citizens are actively being excluded from the democratic process and the city they own.
After defeating Dodge’s motion, a challenge to the chair’s decision that hearing the motion proposed by Councillors Joe Kushner and Carlos Garcia constituted re-opening the budget (which, I learned, takes a 2/3 majority) was hurriedly dispatched 7 to 6. Then the same seven quickly defeated the proposal itself.
What had happened? The council, recently elected for the sole purpose of acting for the greater good for our city’s population, along with Mayor Siscoe, voted 7-6 in favour of not giving the citizens of St. Catharines a chance to speak for themselves. They did not want to hear how their decision affected the future of homeownership for young people. The impact of rent increases. The impact on small business. The devastation for those on a fixed income.
6:11 p.m. - The meeting was in shambles at this point, with many angry residents rising up out of their seats and striding toward the railing separating them from the councillors, determined to see the faces of the people who refused them the opportunity to speak—and making sure the councillors saw their faces, too. Others filed outside, making sure the door was still propped open, as they expressed their disbelief and disappointment.
6:21 p.m. – From inside, Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips (who was actually there in person) thanked everyone for being at the meeting and acknowledged that people were upset. Of course, he threw in the assertion that councillors were upset, too, which was met with cries of “Really??!” amongst audible eye rolls. In his defence, Phillips was one of the seven members who voted against the jaw-dropping tax hike. He cautioned us citizens to show respect so that they could get through the meeting “as quickly as we can” because that’s the purpose of a city council meeting, I suppose, to get it over and done with.
Here, I feel it relevant to share some African wisdom in the hopes of enlightening those seven elected officials unresponsive to the very electors they are simply representing: What time does the meeting begin? When the people show up.
The people of St Catharines certainly showed up. We raced from our jobs, some leaving kids alone at the dinner table so they could make the 5:30 early start. But heaven forbid we would expect Council to do the bare minimum of what is expected of elected officials and public servants, to listen to the people that gave them their jobs.
6:25 p.m. - From his Airbnb in Texas, sporting a red t-shirt and Apple air pods, Mayor Siscoe withdrew his housing affordability motion, and proceeded to bow out of the meeting entirely. This cues jeers of “Of course you are.” “Bullshit!” “Unacceptable”.
“Good luck getting voted in next term,” a woman called out ominously, her words hanging in the air like a speech bubble.
This feeling of exclusion isn’t something fleeting and ephemeral. The Municipal Democracy Index, a ranking of democratic health in Ontario's largest communities, published its report in October 2021 and placed St. Catharines 28th out of 32 overall. Worse, St. Catharines came in last place in Measure 4: User Experience Design, which considers efforts made by the municipal government to maximize simplicity and comfort with democracy for its citizens. Monday July 24th’s St Catharines Council meeting exemplified what it means to be a city at the very bottom, where residents are rendered invisible.
Whereas cities like Peterborough were found to be standouts in the ranking, with their local democracy flourishing and the level of community engagement described as inspiring, St. Catharines citizens are left to literally peek in on the process. The City of London, 12th on the overall ranking, reported that “Residents know the needs of their neighbourhoods better than anyone.” Why does the City of St. Catharines refuse to acknowledge this? What do these so called public servants gain by ignoring the public?
Measure 4 User Experience Design showing municipal governments efforts to be more inclusive.
It is my age-group that will be inheriting this city. We are the ones who want to live here, to build families and businesses. While these decisions do indeed affect everyone, they hit young people particularly hard. The millions going to subsidize million-dollar condos do nothing for us. But ramming a crippling tax hike down our throats without input or consultation is like a slap in the face.
Does this city really want to attract and hold onto its young people? Does it really want to create a city government that is open to change and public input? Does it really welcome new ideas, genuine democracy? Does St. Catharines aim for more than the bare minimum and want to be a standout like Peterborough or even dare to dream with the likes of truly progressive and sustainable cities like Helsinki or Singapore?
After the fiasco two weeks ago, I’m not so sure.
Melissa and Lily Smith are a mother-daughter duo currently based in St Catharines. Melissa is an educator with a background in sustainable development. Lily is completing undergraduate studies at Brock University.
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