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Remove the muzzle from Orillia’s environmental committee members

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In Council Watch
Sep 7th, 2016
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Kelly Clune

By Dave Dawson, Orillia Packet & Times

Kelly Clune believes something stinks at city hall. The long-time local crusader, who has, for decades, been a tenacious watchdog of all things related to the environment, has decided to resign from the city’s environmental advisory committee (EAC) because she feels muzzled.

Clune resigned because she believes a recent meeting involving city staff, council representatives and EAC chair Michael Williams, in which no minutes were recorded, was improper and violated rules. And she is furious city staff “decided to restrict the EAC from any discussion about 255 West St. S. because council had already made a decision to build (the new recreation centre) there.”

Williams defended the “informal meeting” that lasted about 20 minutes, stressing it was held only to address questions about the committee’s terms of reference and mandate. He said following that brief session, he reported back to the committee a clearer direction of its mandate. That direction, effectively, prohibits the EAC from weighing in on any concerns or questions about the municipal recreation centre that will be built on a disputed brownfield on West Street. In fact, the whole debate about the committee’s mandate occurred in the wake of a question about Ben’s Ditch, which is part of the risk assessment required of the new recreation centre property.

It is “ludicrous that a committee on the environment is restricted from discussing one of the biggest threats” to Orillia’s environment, Clune wrote in her letter of resignation. “This project requires close scrutiny from city committees and members of the public to ensure that our finances, the environment and human health are protected. Certainly, the purpose of an advisory committee is not merely to rubber-stamp every city project. This matter demonstrates a problem at city hall and raises questions about the democratic process and the effectiveness of city committees.”

Williams, however, has a different opinion: “Our role isn’t to be there and criticize or overturn decisions. It’s not within our purview, not within our mandate. It’s fairly clear (Clune) had a lot of concerns on council’s decision on 255 West St. That ship has sailed.”

While that ship has sailed, that does not mean the EAC should be neutered and marginalized when it comes to the development of the recreation centre. According to the city’s website, the purpose of the EAC “is to identify and advise on local environmental matters which contribute to a healthy natural environment focusing on the protection and sustainability of our air, land and water resources.”

Even though council has made a definitive decision on the site, the EAC should continue to play a role in advising municipal politicians about the process, about issues that arise during development and about the impact of that development on a fragile ecosystem that is vital to the city.

Without question, Clune is not easy to rein in. But she is also a passionate and valuable reservoir of information about this site and its place within our community. It is easy to characterize her questions and concerns as criticism; however, it would be better for everyone if she continued to serve on the committee, which has every right — and the responsibility — to give input into decisions related to the environment on West Street and throughout the community.

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