DIXONS CORNERS – In a time where every person has a voice via social media, it is often remarked that everyone is speaking and few are listening.
In a similar regard, South Dundas council aimed to change the longstanding public perception that local government is tone deaf to residents needs and concerns by holding its first “coffee with council” at Matilda Hall Wed., May 1.
The event was informal and approximately 40 residents attended the session. Each was given printed copies of the 2019 South Dundas strategy and examples of questions or input that could be beneficial upon arrival.
Mayor Steven Byvelds opened the session on behalf of council, of which all members were present, with a brief statement outlining their vision before opening up the floor to any questions and comments.
A group of business owners that will be affected by the Morrisburg streetscape design were the first to present their concerns. The reduction of entrances, medians that will reduce traffic flow, sidewalk locations and other potential impacts were discussed at length.
It was an energetic discussion with an acrimonious tone that was expected; however, council members and municipal staff members, including CAO Shannon Geraghty and clerk Brenda Brunt, answered all questions and took notes on comments made.
Deputy-Mayor Kirsten Gardner suggested they note the changes suggested on a paper copy of the design to ensure all concerns are met.
Byvelds reassured business owners that “we are your voices at county council” and there will be a meeting before the plans are finalized.
“We’ll make sure there is a meeting at the 95 per cent level. I know there are places I’m going to want them to listen and you guys can get them to listen on some of the other stuff too.
I’ll be honest I did get some of the feeling at the time that it was a little too cut and dry.”
As the meeting continued, community recreation programs and infrastructure came to the surface. Those in attendance, wondered when lights would be put up at the Brinston ballpark and why a skate park wasn’t being considered.
It was part of a larger perceived problem that the municipality has abandoned small communities recreational services and council took the opportunity to ask some tough questions of their own.
Both Gardner and Byvelds stressed the need for partnerships and working with community groups to address recreational projects, big and small. Councillor Lloyd Wells challenged those in attendance to think about how some facilities, including the Dundela outdoor rink, are used after the public outcry has been satisfied.
“I’m hearing the vision but if you keep spending, whether it’s taxes or however you want to do it, and then things aren’t getting used, is it a waste of money?,” he asked. “There was a cry for some kind of building there. It was all done through the council. I drove by there I don’t know how many times, I made a point to drive by there, and it wasn’t being used.”
A local resident admitted that people in Dundela simply turned their back on the rink because they didn’t get what they wanted from council.
Gardner and Wells then suggested that they have some discussion on how they can work with the community to improve the current building rather than just allowing the discontent to fester.
Geraghty also pointed out that no community group should be discouraged when they are not able to get on a busy council meeting agenda and that while a deputation may not always be possible, communication options are still available that will bring issues to light.
As the evening continued, the firing squad mentality of those in attendance eventually gave way to meaningful back and forth dialogue with potential solutions once it became clear that this council and staff would not duck and cover. Instead, they were open to criticism and admitted fault readily.
The landfill issue sparked some interest as well with some residents suggesting a mandatory composting or recycling rule be implemented. Byvelds also gave a brief update on the known costs and where the municipality stands on the process.
Gardner took the opportunity to inform the community about the impending rural education crisis that has bubbled beneath the surface for years now.
She characterized her meeting with officials from the Upper Canada District School Board as blunt.
“I’m not thrilled with where they are heading. I told them that rural residents were not willing to settle for a second class education,” she said.
She admitted that these issues are on a provincial level and that even though some partnerships have been established and a lot of heavy lifting has been done by rural communities to save their schools, it may not be enough in the long run.
Gardner warned that they could be in for “a big fight” and that working with residents is key to delivering a strong message to Queen’s Park.
Byvelds agreed and strongly urged residents to contact local MPPs Jim McDonnell and Steve Clark to make their thoughts known.
As the more than two hour session wrapped up the mood at Matilda Hall had seen a notable shift.
One that began with an adversarial tone had transformed into one of collaboration and mutual respect.
Byvelds ended the meeting by thanking residents for their time and voicing their concerns and those in attendance replied with a simple, “thanks for listening.”
The second of five meetings is scheduled for tonight (Wed., May 7) at 7 pm at the Dunbar Recreation Hall.