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Out of Left Field: Council cost itself by passing the buck

Kyra Hoggan
By Kyra Hoggan
June 5th, 2013

I think, in the six years I’ve been here, I’ve only criticized city council twice. Not because they’re my buddies, or I’m afraid they’ll get mad at me, but rather because I’ve found them to be very capable, and I largely agree with the direction in which they’re guiding our city.

At Monday night’s regular council meeting, however, I was extremely disappointed to see them handle a political hot potato by essentially chucking it at the Chamber of Commerce.

When the issue of mobile food vendors first arose via a letter from Element owner Florio Vassilakakis, I said it was a non-starter and wouldn’t become much of an issue. Boy, did I ever miss that call!

Turns out, it’s a hugely contentious debate.

It’s not a black-and-white concern, as I see it – the food vendors are trying to make a living, and consumers appreciate having choices. Moreover, it’s arguably council’s job to try to attract bustling commerce here in town, and then there’s the whole free-market-economy argument.

On the flip side, once local restauranteurs have paid their development fees, property taxes, winter staff salaries and supported the many charities by whom they’re approached year-round, I wouldn’t blame them for questioning the “free” part of that market economy, you know?

I can see their frustration at having mobile vendors come in during peak season and siphon off a choice chunk of the market share after paying only $90 for a business license.

Where one stands on the issue is neither here nor there, though, for the purposes of this column – I take issue, not with the debate, but with the process by which council is letting it play out.

Councillor Deb McIntosh told the room that she and fellow councillor Dan Rye had recently attended a meeting, facilitated by the Chamber of Commerce, to which all food sellers (chamber members or no) had been invited. Few people showed up, but those who did formed an ad hoc group willing to sit down and discuss options with council’s planning and development committee (The members of said ad hoc group being the owners of McDonald’s, A&W, Tim Hortons, Boston Pizza and the Element).

Planning and development chair Sue Heaton said she’d be happy to meet with them, as well as invite the rest of the city’s food sellers once more – and I think that’s exactly what should’ve happened.

Instead, the motion put forward was that, to quote city CAO John Malcolm, “the chamber be requested to meet with food sellers and submit a package of options to the city’s planning and development committee regarding food vendors”.

Councillors Dan Rye, Kevin Chernoff and Gord Turner voted for the motion and McIntosh and Heaton voted against (Mayor Lawrence Chernoff voted against an earlier motion for the meeting to happen through council’s P&D committee).

I found the whole thing ridiculous. This council, the one I’ve heard complain for six years that the public doesn’t engage enough and doesn’t provide enough input, had members of the public right there wanting to engage, and instead of crowing with delight, they punted the whole mess to the chamber – which is also bizarre because it leaves the chamber having to consult and speak with non-chamber-members, which is not their mandate as I understand it.

In fact, I’m guessing chamber ED Tammy Verigin-Burk doesn’t budget a great deal of time for city staff responsibilities, since she’s not city staff. Of course, she can’t really say no, given that the city’s a huge funder of the visitor’s centre, and I’m sure she’ll do an excellent job, she’s a pro – but why on earth should she have to?

I didn’t elect her, and neither did you. We elected city council – they should be the ones, not only making the final decision, but also consulting with the public and hearing the various perspectives so the decision they ultimately make is based on the realities of their constituents.

I think it’s unconscionable for them to pass the buck like this, and I think it’s costing them a valuable learning/networking opportunity with their electorate.

I also take issue with the nonsense argument against inviting all the city food sellers to the table, because too many people will make consensus impossible.

Please.

Anyone who has attended the city’s many public consultations knows that if you invite 40 people, you’ll be lucky to have four show up. Most invitation recipients for the first meeting didn’t show up, and it’s a half mile past silly to think a second round of invitations to the same group is going to instigate a flood of impassioned attendees. What would happen is the exact same thing that happened just days ago – a handful of people who feel strongly about the issue will show up.

I think council should be thrilled at any opportunity to meet with that handful. I think they should’ve seen this as a shining opportunity to not only hear what the voters want, but to start shifting a paradigm that has people disinclined to participate in the process because they think politicians won’t listen. I think they should reward anyone who asks to give them input with a willing ear and an open mind.

I understand that they haven’t handed over responsibility for making the decision – council will have the last word, to be sure – I just wish they were more engaged in the conversation itself.

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