By Stephen Vance, Editor
Meaford Mayor Francis Richardson called the shouting match between Councillor Deborah Young and a few upset residents regrettable, but it was much more than that.
The incident was both painful and disturbing to witness, but what was even more disturbing is that it should never have happened.
There is no doubt that many of the residents who attended the Monday afternoon council meeting did so out of genuine concern for the health and safety of their families, the value of their properties, and the well-being of the community.
There is nothing wrong with that. Everyone has a right to be part of the governing process, and everyone has the right to express their views, and to ask hard questions. Residents even have the right to express anger if that is what they are feeling.
That is what democracy is all about.
What transpired during the dinner recess at the November 14 council meeting though, was a disgusting display of what is not acceptable.
The reason the incident should never have taken place, is that prior to the heated tête-à-tête between Young and the group of residents that surrounded her, the residents had been given what they had asked for.
They came to council wanting answers, and they came wanting public input into the proposed waste to energy facility that is being considered by our council.
During the delegation presentation by a resident who brought before council a laundry list of important questions about the proposed project, council was asked to provide answers to the public.
In response, Meaford’s CAO Frank Miele took 24 minutes to read through, and provide answers to the 30 questions that had been put before council during the deputation.
At one point Miele was rudely interrupted by groans and cat-calls from residents in attendance which Mayor Richardson quickly addressed by reminding everyone not only that there is a time and place to express opinions, but that time is not while the council meeting is taking place.
If residents want to be respected when they have concerns, they have to be willing to offer the same respect when council or staff is taking the time to provide answers to questions.
No member of council or staff interrupted the resident who made the presentation in which the questions were asked. In fact the resident making the presentation was even allowed to exceed the five minutes allotted for delegations in the procedural bylaw.
So to interrupt a member of staff who is reading each and every question, and providing answers, can only be characterized as disrespectful.
As had been requested by residents, the questions asked were answered by the CAO, and while the residents aren’t obliged to like the answers given, and they may feel that the answers were insufficient, however the fact is that as requested, answers were provided.
Residents had also asked for the entire process to be halted until there was an opportunity for a public meeting on the issue, and they got that too.
After some debate around the council table about the draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the municipality and Partners Energy Group (PEG) who, if the project moves forward will build and operate the facility, Deputy Mayor Harley Greenfield asked that the decision to approve or reject the draft MOU be delayed until a public meeting can be held.
Council in a recorded vote supported the motion to table the issue until after a public meeting.
At that point council recessed for a dinner break.
The residents who had attended the meeting should at that point have been pleased that they had been given the opportunity to present their list of questions, a senior staff member had provided answers, and council voted to delay any further decisions on the MOU until after a public input meeting is held.
That is quite a victory. Apparently it wasn’t good enough.
Why councillor Young chose to return to the council chamber while the rest of council was in the kitchen having dinner we can’t know. But she did, and when she did, she also chose to approach a group of residents and engage in a conversation with them – not once, but twice.
It certainly can be argued, and I suspect that Young herself would be the first to concede that she didn’t handle the situation well. At the point when Young was feeling disrespected, rather than begin shouting, she could have simply walked away.
That is an easy thing to suggest, but for an elected official it is a no-win situation. If they walk away they will be accused of hiding from the issues, if they remain in the situation and ultimately lose their cool as Councillor Young did, they will be accused of being unfit for their elected position.
Young decided to stay and fight.
What was particularly disturbing though was that while Young was clearly agitated and was expressing her frustration through yelling, screaming, and vowing to resign, some of the residents involved didn’t let up.
Instead they taunted her, laughed at her, and yelled back at her.
A natural reaction perhaps, however I would suggest that if a resident was standing before council expressing anger over an issue, and the passion of the moment caused them to raise their voice, or even to yell, if the reaction of the members of council was to taunt the resident, or to laugh at the resident, they would find that quite offensive and would be demanding an apology.
Councillor Young was wrong to react the way that she did. Nobody would suggest that she handled the situation appropriately. But the residents too were wrong, and they are just as responsible as Young for what transpired.
Should Councillor Young – whether she decides to follow through with her vow to resign or not – apologize?
Of course she should, but so should the residents who once Young resorted to expressing her frustration by yelling, chose to taunt and laugh at her.
For those that complain about the quality of candidates in elections at any level of government, I would ask – if offering up yourself for public office means that you will be publicly taunted, called names, and laughed at, why would anyone choose to put their name on a ballot?
Anyone who runs for office has to know that a big part of the job is listening to constituents who have concerns. Often those with concerns will be angry, and in many cases their anger is justifiable. It is however part of the job of an elected official to calmly listen, to rise above the situation, and to maintain their cool.
There is no excusing what Councillor Young did, but surely most of us can relate – we all have a breaking point.
Respect is a two-way street. If you give it, you will get it. If you are giving respect and not receiving it in return, then it may mean that you have to try a little harder, or you have to find new ways to make your views known, but nobody should ever resort to taunting and name calling.