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Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Serious conflicts result in serious questions

First published: January 26, 2005

Several severe charges were laid at two municipal politicians over the past week bringing into question the reputation of the individuals and their respective councils. Port Hope Mayor Rick Austin faced allegations of secret meetings with Cameco after accepting an invitation to a social event and Cobourg Councillor Lloyd Williams faced harsh criticism from fellow councillor Gil Brocanier for a report he brought to council recently.
The Austin controversy finds its roots in an ongoing battle between citizens opposed to a proposal by Cameco to process slightly enriched uranium. The acrimonious criticism by both sides has led to many allegations and this is the latest volley. Austin defends himself against charges of holding secret meetings with company officials by saying he was invited to a social function. And, since it is the role of the mayor to attend these functions, then it was proper for him to go. Nothing untoward happened, he added.

As for Williams, he is accused of bypassing Cobourg council protocol for failing to make public reports regarding the handling of bylaw enforcement. Rather than presenting a report, which called for the contracting out of bylaw enforcement services by an independent company, he presented a recommendation to hire people on the town’s payroll to do the job. Williams said it was a staff report that he presented, which was later confirmed by senior town staff member Rick Stinson, who authored the report.

It would be impossible to know the truth. Sure, Austin can say it was a social event he was forced to attend as part of his job, but who knows what was said. Conversation could focus easily on the weather as on the company’s proposal. Nobody will ever know.

As for Williams, his actions could have been an oversight as much as a deliberate attempt at deception. Council eventually got all the information it needed and its collective will was expressed in the vote to contract out the service.

But there are several troubling points that should not be missed.

To begin, these politicians should know that perception is everything in politics. What is often perceived, as reality will often replace the truth. So, when Mayor Austin accepted the invitation and went to the event, he should be savvy enough to realize, especially in light of the current tensions, it was a bad idea. To not do this, demonstrates a particular callousness toward the citizens on both sides, since it show a disregard to opponents of the proposal who want to ensure their council gives them a fair hearing; and, it demeans those who support the proposal because Austin’s actions create an unnecessary flare up of this emotional debate. The sensible thing was to say thank you, but no.

In William’s case, as a politician with decades of experience, he shoul know process better than anyone on council. There is no imaginable reason for reports not to circulate broadly. For all the information not to flow freely is a simple question to staff rather than to a councillor. This brings into question Brocanier’s motivation for such a harsh tongue-lashing. If the concern were truly about process, this is job of civil servants to ensure councillor’s get the information they need. All it would take was a request to staff to investigate the reason for the lack of disclosure to have relieved any worries. What could possibly be gained by lashing out at Williams, other than humiliating a fellow councillor. By tearing down his colleague, Brocanier has hurt himself. And as a politician of some reputation of being a levelheaded voice on council, the damage done cannot be repaired.

There is also another aspect to these incidents that is troublesome. In the William’s incident, it is deeply concerning to see Mayor Peter Delanty sit idly by as his councillors behave in this unprofessional manner. It should never have been tolerated for an instant. This brings into questions Delanty’s credibility, too. No matter what he personally believed to be the truth, he should have reprimanded Brocanier immediately and taken the positive step of seeking an answer from staff or a report by the next council meeting into the situation in order to make sure the public knew the truth. By delaying, he has allowed this incident to fester in the public’s view. Squabbles over process are not in the best interest of citizens and should not be the fodder of council meetings. Delanty has demonstrated the baseness that he will allow his council to lower itself. WE can only hope he will not let the county and the public health board reach the same level. His actions border on ineptitude.

And the same hold true for the rest of council in both Cobourg and Port Hope. Where were all the members of both bodies when these issues arise? It would seem that besmirching one member tars them all with the same brush. It is terrible no one could find the courage to speak up against what has taken place.

In fact, it is a simple principle that seems to be lost in both these incidents: transparency. If municipal politician truly honoured the principle of openness, then neither incident would have happened. Austin would not accept the invitation because it would have clouded council’s neutrality. Williams would never be in this pickle because every piece of paper generated on the issues would be made public for council and taxpayers to review.

We deserve better than this. Let’s hope all the players find a way to achieve the standard of behaviour we can see and believe to be the truth.

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