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City Council, May 27

Council wants to be involved in selection of the new Fire Chief
A strong rebuff to the Mayor
Marc Knapp

It was not the Mayor’s night! Reflecting pressure from constituents, Council members successfully persuaded the City to drop some proposed amendments to its parking regulations. But the big upset came at the end of the meeting when Council defied the Mayor and voted its inclusion in the process of choosing the City’s new Fire Department Chief.

Heated discussion over issues
The discussion on both parking and the choice of the new FD Chief was heated. On the parking issue, Council members faulted the Mayor on the lack of notice that was given in relation to changes. And this was not only relating to the parking issue but others as well. There was insufficient information and poor communication with Council members in relation to Fire Department issues, particularly relating to the release of some of the reports on the Sofa Super Store fire. No doubt Council members have been stirred by the criticism that they bear some of the responsibility of the poor performance of the Fire Department on the tragic night of June 18, 2007 when 9 firefighters lost their lives. If Council had been more diligent in its oversight of the administration, the tragedy may have been avoided.

Council member White leads challenge
The challenge to the Mayor in relation to choosing the new FD Chief was led by Council member White. He asked that the Public Safety Committee which is comprised of some Council members and others be included in the final selection. He said that he did not seek involvement in the full process but only in the final selection when the field had been narrowed to perhaps only 2 or 3 candidates. He also said that he did not wish to take away for the authority of the Mayor but he felt Council had to be involved. Council member Aubrey asked that the motion be amended so that all Council members could sit with the Public Safety Committee in making this determination.

Mayor takes issue
Predictably, the Mayor took issue with the proposal. He claimed that the City ordinance and the relevant State ordinance gave him the sole right to make the choice. Somebody must have alerted him to what Council member White planned. By chance he had copies of the relevant State and City ordinances which defined his power. He had no issue with the Council being involved in defining of strategy or consulting over the new FD Chief. But when it came to the final choice of the latter, it was his decision.

We did not time the discussion following Council member White’s motion but it was probably the best part of 2 hours. Every Council member had some comment to make and some were adamant. Council member Gallant, often an ardent supporter of the Mayor, was fully supportive of the motion and also sought a briefing from an expert on the rights of Council and the Mayor in choosing the FD Chief.

Council members need to be engaged
Council members argued that with Council involved, there would be diversity of opinion and more certainty in selection of the best candidate. Council member Gallant, who is also Chair of the Public Safety Committee, noted his discomfort by not being able to answer questions from constituents in relation to the Fire Department. And as Council member Alexander said, all Council members need to be engaged.

Mayor Riley spoke innumerable times against the motion, constantly reiterating that the choice of the new FD Chief was his alone, and legally defined as such. He also questioned the viability of a process where Council interviewed the final candidates. This could be embarrassing and intimidating for the candidates.

The final vote was the surprise. All Council members with the exception of Council member Evans voted in support of Council member White’s motion. Council members Shirley and Waring were absent last night.

What do we make of the challenge to the Mayor?
What do we make of this challenge to the Mayor? Have we got a Council that at last refuses to “rubber stamp” the Mayor policies? Or was it a simple reaction to the public’s concern over the Sofa Store Fire and the blame that has been laid at the door of the City Administration through the Routley and other reports on the incompetence of the Fire Department?

We don’t know the answer, but looking also at the reaction of Council members to the parking ordinance amendments before Council yesterday, there is no doubt that Council members are refusing to remain passive when they have issues with the Mayor. And this is encouraging!

Administration backs down on parking issue as well
At a Council meeting last month, staff introduced an amendment to the City's parking ordinance. Amongst other things, this would have required developers to provide only 1 on-site parking space per dwelling unit in mixed-use developments as opposed to 1.5 spaces presently. As well, the distance from off- street parking relating to a new development was increased from 400 to 1400 feet – i.e. Any new development that could not provide on-site parking required under the ordinance could now provide it within 1400 feet of the development and meet the City’s parking requirement. Clearly, the amendment, taking the distance to 1400 feet would allow a lot more development.

Constituents oppose amendments
Council member Lewis at the meeting last month, sought a deferral of the issue. He said the neighborhood associations needed to be consulted. He and other Council members have been active in seeking the views of their constituents. Nearly all were opposed to the amendments relating to the reduction in the provision of parking spaces and the increase in the distance for off-site parking. The change would cause further congestion in on- street parking on the Peninsula and also lead to unwanted development.

Staff announced changes just before beginning of public hearing
The agenda for yesterday's meeting contained the same documents that were presented to Council at the earlier meeting. Some of us were ready to again rise to speak against the amendments. But staff, before the public hearing began, indicated that they were deleting the changes that related to the reduction in parking spaces and the increase in the off-site side parking distance.

The last-minute change was pleasing to us who weren't happy about the original ordinance. Council member White said so and he would support the proposed remaining amendments Council member Lewis was also pleased that the offending amendments have been deleted but he was not happy with the City nor the process. “Parking was a sensitive issue” amongst the constituents on the peninsula. The City had been insensitive. It did not consult with others.

Constituents need time to consider all the proposed amendments
The Council member and some other members did not expect the ordinance to be put on yesterday's agenda. It should wait for fuller discussion by neighborhood groups, Council member Lewis said. He was voting against it. He was pleased as to the deletions announced by staff at the beginning of the public hearing. But he would still vote against the whole proposed amendment, because some neighborhoods had yet to come back with comments of all of the proposed changes.

Council member Lewis has a point. It was probably shared by most of the Council members for they agreed to defer a decision on the whole ordinance to the next meeting of Council in a month’s time. This will give all the neighborhood associations more time to consider the proposal. It is our view, and we suspect that of Council member Lewis, constituents will still seek the removal of the amendments relating to the reduction in number of parking spaces and the distance for off – street parking. But it will also allow some input in relation to the other measures, which will affect areas outside the peninsula.

Mayor sees merit in changes deleted from ordinance
Mayor Riley had little to say in relation to the parking ordinance. He did defend himself and staff over the accusations of tardiness in consulting Council members. But it almost seemed a forlorn comment when after the vote he declared that he “saw merit” in the changes that staff had agreed to delete. From the tone of the discussion, we think he will be hard pressed to change the minds of Council members.

Other issues discussed yesterday included:

• Approval for the City to seek half cent sales tax funds to assist in the purchase of Morris Island. The developer agreed to sell the $6.5 million appraised property to the City for $3 million. Funds for purchase would come from the State Conservation Bank - $1.5 million, the SPA - $1 million and The Trust for Public Lands - $142,000. If necessary the City would find the balance of $358,000 but it was hopeful that two other non-profits would provide most of the balance leaving only $58,000 to be funded by the half-cent sales tax.

• The City sought an after-the-fact approval for fee amendment to a contract with architects, Glick Boehm and Associates for design services relating to the Lockwood Police Station. The actual amount sought last night was $34,730. The original contact was $93,000 but amendments have taken the final figure to $202,000. We commented on this in Citizen Participation and City CFO Bedard responded to our comment. He agreed that with the date of contract completion set at May 31, 2008, it was indeed an after-the-fact approval. But he said that there had been many changes in the design of the Police Station particularly with some of the upgrades sought be the new police chief.