City Council Recap: What Happened from April and May 2017?

In case you’re more of a reader than a listener, or maybe you just want to reference back to something quickly, over the next three weeks, Guelph Politico will post a recap of the first seven months of 2017 at city council in three parts. This second part covers April and May…

The April Committee-of-the-Whole meeting opened up the can of fish called “internet voting”? The City had to establish the methods of how the 2018 municipal election will be run by May 1 because of the fact that the provincial government had made ranked ballots an option for municipalities in 2018. Guelph had already taken that option off the table.

For 2018, City Clerk Stephen O’Brien proposed paperless ballot machines, and expanded online voting so that people could submit their internet ballots on election day as well as in the weeks leading up to E-Day. Although O’Brien reported that there were no security or administrative concerns with internet voting in 2014, current events weighed heavily on the minds of council as they started debating the report. There was also concern about the list of voters maintained by MPAC, the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, for which there is no easy way to make corrections, and is not controlled by the City of Guelph. There was also renewed concern about a lack of a paper trail

But there was was split on council as people spoke out in defence of internet voting. Councillor Dan Gibson said that to have internet voting in 2014 and then to take it away in 2018 constituted council taking away access especially in the wake of an over 12,000 vote increase in turnout in 2014. Ward 2 Councillor Andy Van Hellemond, who voted against online voting in the last council, said that he had heard from a plurality of citizens that they voted via the internet in the last election, and that council can’t vote to take away a service because something *might* happen. Ultimately, in a close vote of 7 to 5, committee took internet voting off the table for 2018.

A fierce fight online, in social media, and the press would unfurl in the month between committee and council on the matter of internet voting, but before April’s committee was through, there was another controversial issue that needed to be discussed: chicken coops. Guelphites would now be allowed to have up to 10 hens on their property, but not in the front yard, and not within 25 feet of a business, school, or religious institute. Instead of keeping pens 50 feet from a dwelling, they will now have to be kept 10 feet from any window and door of a dwelling, and four feet from the rear and side lot lines. As well there were additional regulations for proper storage of food for the hens, and the proper lining for the coops.

But back to online voting at the April 24 regular council meeting. In the three weeks between, the issue had only gotten hotter; 15 delegates were listed to speak that night, with another 300 correspondences including in the agenda package. The initial count of those letters to council showed support of internet voting versus support for the committee decision about 8 to 1 in favour of keeping the option. So how would council decide given a month to think about it.

Mayor Cam Guthrie began delegations saying that he was hoping for a “wholesome and respectful” debate, and though he didn’t say it, it was also assumed it would be a lengthy one. The debate, it seemed, would hinge on accessibility. For Guelph’s older population, for those with mobility issues, or mental health issues concerning crowds, the argument would be that internet voting allowed them to participate in the democratic process with greater freedom of choice.

The publicity of this debate though attracted out of town experts. Aleksander Essex, an associate professor of computer security at Western, said that concerns about the security risks of online voting are not unfounded, and noted that there’s a fundamental friction between online voting and cyber security: you can’t have a secret ballot on the same system that records your identity. Essex also said there are no recognized set of standards in Canada for online voting. It’s the wild west in other words, and it doesn’t have to be a state actor like Russia trying to upset the local democracy, it could be someone who just wants to watch the world burn.

Other delegates noted that there’s a trend going against online voting. Germany banned it, so did Australia. The matter has come before Waterloo council twice, and our tech savvy neighbour known the world over for being on the forefront of the Information Age and its revolutions has refused to follow-up on the possibilities of online voting. Twice. Dave Suffering, an internet tech security specialist, said that he would like internet voting to be the right move, but we’re not there yet and the practical truth is that it maybe sometime before security abilities will be able to address security concerns.

Still, the argument to beat was the one in favour of giving people better accessibility to vote. Jason Dodge of the Guelph Accessibility Committee said that although he recognizes the security concerns, he can’t make the reason to take internet voting away based of hypotheticals. Crossing the street has its risks too, he argued. Laura Root, who lives with a physical disability, said that it’s sometimes hard for her to get out of her home, but made a special point to come down to council to be heard on this issue.

When the matter came back to council, Ward 6 Councillor Mark MacKinnon put a motion on the floor to include internet voting in advanced polls, in essence, doing what the City did in the election in 2014. Security was still top of mind, and Clerk O’Brien said that while the voting system was susceptible to a DDoS, or denial of service, attack, there are redundancies in place, and that the City asks a lot from its vendors. Council tried to explore various options to maintain accessibility or improve internet security, but as the clock came around to midnight, it seemed that council was getting closer to having to make a hard decision.

At 12:38 am, council voted 6 to 7 against MacKinnon’s amendment to put online voting back on the menu.

The marathon meeting went to 1 am, which was a great way to leave things for one member of the local media. April 24 was the final council meeting for Guelph Tribune reporter Doug Hallett, who retired from the Trib after decades of reporting.

Things were a bit lighter when Committee-of-the-Whole convened on May 1. First thing, council joined local history buffs and members of the Parks and Rec staff in opening a time capsule buried in 1974 in the cornerstone of the Victoria Road Recreation Centre.

As to the business of committee, Clerk O’Brien update on how the experiment with the Committee-of-the-Whole has been going, and he was convinced its been going pretty good. From his point of view the work load was streamlined, and city business was being handled more efficiently although there was some disagreement among councillors that this was the case. Councillor James Gordon noted that the new system did seem to be working out well for staff, but he was curious if the public input factor had been negatively affected. Committee agreed to continue with the present structure, and to be updated again after a year about progress. The only sticking point was who would act as chair, whether there should be a set chair for every meeting or to continue on would each councillor representing the various service areas take turns as chair. Committee went with the latter.

In other news from this meeting, Guelph is winning the war on termites, committee decided to keep school zone speed limits at 30 kilometres an hour in the interest of safety, and they asked staff to look at opening up the possibility of members of the public to buy naming rights for city assets. There was also a debate about the increased use of notices of motion. Councillor Karl Wettstein said there was a perception that council is getting ahead of the public, and he noted that some of this was politically motivated. He tried himself to bring forward a notice of motion on the issue, which failed at council the month before. Ward 3 Councillor June Hofland proposed the matter be sent to staff for investigation into creating a new policy, which was passed in a vote of 8 to 3.

In matters of budget, Mayor Guthrie asked that a $1 million budget surplus be moved from Tax Rate Stabilization to Infrastructure Renewal so that the City could capitalize on time-sensitive projects that may become available for federal or provincial matching funds. Committee had to go in camera to discuss what possibility Mayor Guthrie was referring to, but all that was said in open council was that it had to do with the sale and acquisition of land downtown. Councillor Wettstein, again, accused council of playing politics, but Mayor Guthrie’s amendment still passed 7 to 4.

May’s planning meeting dealt with a couple of ongoing issues. The first was Standards for Mid-Rise Buildings and Townhouses, which dealt with design directions that included guidelines for parking and landscaping, the shape of buildings in relation to neighbouring residential areas, and how to establish a pedestrian friendly streetscape. Ward 5 Councillor Cathy Downer asked if it had “teeth”, to which senior urban designer David de Groot said that the standards would focus on compatibility and predictability in terms of those developments.

The other major item was a follow-up to the Affordable Housing Strategy, a Review of the Affordable Housing Target and Secondary Market. Staff’s review confirmed that the 30 per cent affordability housing target will remain with 25 per cent ownership and five per cent rental, but that the five per cent rental target will be split between one per cent primary and four per cent secondary.The definition of “secondary rental” is a rented accessory apartment, purpose built secondary rental until, and investor units, condos, and single detached homes.

Both sets of recommendations were approved.

What should have been a light agenda at the regular council meeting on May 23 turned into a free for all when the matter of Committee-of-the-Whole Structure came up again for council approval. Councillor Leanne Piper moved that the three recommendations be separated so that a new vote would have to be taken for each one rather than as a group, and on the first recommendation, “That Guelph City Council Committee of the Whole governance structure remain in place”, the vote failed 5-6. Essentially, the vote meant that Committee-of-the-Whole could no longer continue.

A small “constitutional crisis” of a sort erupted. The work done by council is predicated on the work done by committee, and the City could not immediately go back to a standing committee structure. The next Committee-of-the-Whole meeting was two weeks away. After a five minute conference, Clerk O’Brien said that council could suspend procedure and do a vote of reconsideration with the support of two-thirds of the whole council. Councillor Wettstein agrees to the re-vote, but notes that council is not as committed as it needs to be going forward with the Committee-of-the-Whole structure.

In the end, council voted unanimously to reconsider and a new vote was held on Recommendation #1 and this time it passed 10 to 1 with only Councillor Piper voting against.

With council unemploded, they moved on to the contentious issue of 13 Stuart St, a lovely old home in the east end that had a lot of neighbours and heritage nerds concerned that the owners, John and Pamela Rennie, were getting ready to tear it down. Massive renovations had been happening inside the home, and there were no demolition permits requested with the City.

Eric Davis, a representative of the Rennies said that there was a mould problem inside the house, hence extensive construction, but Piper, herself a heritage nerd, pointed out that every architectural element inside the house had been gutted, even things and areas that don’t get mouldy. Mayor Guthrie asked Davis directly when the last time Heritage Guelph reached out to the Rennies, to which he said he knew of correspondences, but not sure when.

Four is the number. That’s according to Susan Radcliffe of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. According to Radcliffe, numerous requests from her group, neighbours, and the media have been met with silence. Ed Sulga, one of those neighbours, said that the day this matter was before Heritage Guelph, there was a back hoe dismantling the electricals at 13 Stuart. In his words, it was “pretty clear that the house is being readied for demolition.”

The problem here, according to staff, is that when it comes to privately owned homes, heritage issues are “self-policing”. The matter seemed obvious, and Mayor Guthrie himself admitted that 13 Stuart seemed a clear cut case a property deserving of a heritage designation. In its report, staff was recommending that council publish its intention to designate 13 Stuart St according to provisions of Section 29, Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act at the end of this meeting, and it seemed like from the tenor of the room that things were going that way. Councillor Gordon summed things up by saying that the property owners had lost the faith of the neighbourhood on this, and recommendation was passed by a vote of 10 to 1.

Part 3 of the recap will be published next Monday.

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