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Springwater councillors criticized for newspaper columns

In AWARE News Network
Mar 27th, 2013
CAO’s recommendation to retain marketing consultant voted down
By Kate Harries AWARE News Network March 28 2013
Springwater Councillors Jack Hanna and Sandy McConkey say they will continue to write their regular columns in the Springwater News despite criticism from others on council.
The criticism came at a meeting on January 21 (of which no public notice was given) that had been billed to councillors by Mayor Linda Collins as a mid-term review of council’s progress.
But the only topic discussed was “communications,” and particularly the issue of whether Hanna and McConkey should write their own columns in this paper.
Hanna said he felt he was “ambushed” at the meeting, which lasted for more than an hour.
“I’m not going to be intimidated,” the Ward 5 (Midhurst) councillor said in a telephone interview last week. “I made a commitment when I ran for election that I would do my best to keep residents informed and advance their concerns to council.”
His column in January dealt with the province’s partial withdrawal of its appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board of the Midhurst Secondary Plan and the fact that massive growth in that village could have major financial impacts for all of Springwater.
Collins said writing for the paper is a matter of choice for councillors and she has no problem with communications going out “if it’s accurate.”
Asked whether there were inaccuracies in the columns, Collins replied: “I’m not going to sit in judgment on someone’s writing in a public forum.”
Hanna said Deputy Mayor Dan McLean told him that he was “offended” by the column. Only McConkey and Councillor Perry Ritchie defended his right to communicate, Hanna said.
Hanna said he told Collins that if she wanted him to stop writing for the Springwater News she should order him to do so and “I’ll let the taxpayers know.”
McConkey said there was no request to stop writing. “Not officially,” she said, adding, “I’m going to continue to write and keep everybody informed.”
McLean explained in an interview that he told Hanna he had found the column offensive because it only reflected one point of view. 
“What he’s done is he’s put me at a disadvantage,” McLean said, adding that he feels that the best way for residents to find out what’s going on is to attend council meetings.
But if a councillor is expressing his own opinion out of council, he should provide an explanation of why another councillor might have voted differently, McLean said.
Hanna said alternatives proposed at the January 21 meeting were that the councillors contribute to ‘Council’s Corner’ (an upbeat account of council activities that’s written by Collins, according to the Springwater website), or have their writing edited by staff.
“The CAO (Robert Brindley) suggested there were typos and errors in my submission and it reflects negatively on the township,” Hanna said.
Collins agreed that there was a proposal that “staff could help with their writing.”
Asked whether this meeting – dealing with a matter of general interest, namely councillors’ freedom of expression – should have been held in open session with due notice to the public, Collins pointed out that councils are allowed to have a private meeting “when it’s around education or training.”
Bu McLean said the council meeting should have been public and the lack of notice was an oversight.
Later, Collins provided clarification in an email that there is no “meeting” as defined by the Municipal Act when there is no intent to exercise council’s decision-making authority.
“A good example is the Mayor’s golf tournament,” she emailed. “How is it that a quorum of Council can come together (meet) in the club house without breaching the Act?”
Collins added that the Ontario Ombudsman has found that meetings that allow for discussion and exchange of ideas, rather than to assist with future decision-making, do not violate the Act. 
An official with the Ombudsman’s office said that each finding is very case-specific. Without an investigation it would not be possible to determine whether the January 21 meeting furthered the business of council by laying the groundwork for future decision-making.
While many municipalities use the Ombudsman as their closed meeting investigator (the service is covered by the province and is not charged directly to ratepayers), Springwater has retained a private consultant, John Maddox of JGM Consulting in London, to look into any citizens’ complaint about possible violations of the Municipal Act.  
Interestingly, on the topic of “communications,” CAO Brindley this week asked council to authorize retaining yFactor, a Toronto marketing firm, to prepare and distribute “accurate” information about the Midhurst Secondary Plan, to be delivered to township residents in print, email and through the internet.
“Over the past few months a series of independent communications and media reports have been released by outside parties regarding the Midhurst Secondary Plan that feature misleading information and misstatements of fact,” Brindley stated in a report Monday.
No cost estimate was given for the contract – which Brindley suggested not to be tendered because “timeliness is a concern.” If the amount cannot be covered through the township communications budget, it should be taken from reserves, Brindley said. 
Council was tied 3-3 on getting a quote from yFactor, meaning Brindley’s plan was defeated. McConkey, Hanna and Ritchie voted against, Collins, McLean and Dan Clement were in favour.

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