It’s been a year since this council was sworn in, and what a year it’s been! I started this blog during a campaign in which I focused on Vision, Communication, and Collaboration, and I feel like those have been central to the way that council has operated so far.
- The Strategic Planning exercises really embodied all three of those values. It was designed as a collaborative exercise, involving council, staff, and residents through exercises that were well communicated and had good turnout. We engaged in the process of imagining our future together, and identified the parts of that imagined future that we most want to bring about.
- I felt very honoured to have been invited to participate in the core team planning these events, and eventually was made Chair of the committee once it was formalized as such. That’s a good example of how our council collaborates and communicates: my colleagues know that strategic planning is a particular passion of mine, so they asked me to take a leadership role in it.
- The result is a new Strategic Plan that sets a strong vision for our future, and is operationalized into specific tasks for our staff to carry out over the next few years. There are several important plans included there, such as an IT Master Plan, Transportation Master Plan, and a Climate Action Plan. I look forward to those being developed over the coming year!
The End of 2022
While the Strategic Planning exercises oriented us to the future, it’s (thankfully) easy to forget that we started the term out with some controversy. One of the first matters that this council dealt with (December 5th, our first official meeting) was the adoption of the Organizational Culture report from KPMG, which identified several ways that workplace culture at the municipality could be improved. I am thankful that the municipality hired an HR Manager at the end of last term; Jennifer Smith has been wonderful to work with, and has been invaluable in creating and upholding policies that make Brighton a great place to work, as well as filling many staff vacancies.
We also started the term off by passing bylaws around a Municipal Accommodation Tax (or MAT Tax), which includes taxing Short Term Accommodations (STAs, commonly known as AirBnBs). Over the past year we have also brought in bylaws and invested in technologies that improve our ability to license and monitor STAs, as well as an Administrative Monetary Penalty system for issuing fines. The money from the MAT Tax goes into supporting the tourism industry in Quinte, through a partnership with Bay of Quinte Tourism. The Administrative Monetary Penalty revenues go back into bylaw enforcement (we want all fines to pay for themselves; we don’t issue fines as a way of raising revenues).
By the end of the year we were also very aware that the province was making huge changes to the way that municipalities operate, grow, and raise revenues to pay for infrastructure and services. Bill 23 was introduced the day after the municipal election, and we’re still adjusting to it (along with several other provincial bills that followed). While the explicit intent of Bill 23 was to ensure there are “more homes built faster,” in practice it makes that much harder from a municipal perspective; nonetheless we have continued to find ways to bring in more density of development (to get more units, cheaper, on less land), and moved forward with a land banking program to purchase land that is well-suited for affordable housing development.
Budgeting and Committees
The first quarter of 2023 was about setting up. We set the 2023 budget at a time of rapidly rising inflation AND the loss of significant resources due to Bill 23, which axed much of our Development Charges, and still ended up with a tax increase at or below the rate of inflation. I was very impressed with the way that council was able to look at the big picture: none of us like raising taxes, but there’s a healthy respect around the table for the municipal services that are funded by those taxes. While it’s common to hear that “we have a responsibility to the taxpayers”, I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say that that responsibility includes providing good value for taxes paid, not just reducing the amount of taxes paid. This year we invested heavily in infrastructure deficit, catching up on some much-needed projects; in our staff, filling empty positions and ensuring that we offer competitive and equitable wages as well as creating new positions to meet the growing needs of our municipality; and in our future, setting resources aside for forthcoming plans and positions, including in Climate Action. We have now started preparing the 2024 budget, and I expect that same respectful dialogue and forward thinking to define it.
We were all assigned our committee roles, and I’m quite happy with all of the committees that I’ve been able to be a member of:
- The Accessibility Advisory Committee addresses how accessibility is recognized as a value and embedded in the policies and practices of the Municipality of Brighton. We discuss things such as how to raise awareness of accessibility, how to implement the requirements of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) (and how to encourage compliance by Brighton businesses), and report any accessibility concerns around Brighton to our public works staff. We had a great conversation just today about how to better integrate accessibility (and walkability) into our development processes. Byron Faretis and I are the council reps.
- The Brighton Landfill Liaison Committee has only met once, but I learned a ton about how our landfill works. Did you know that it’s the only landfill in all of Northumberland, the last of the nine that existed when the County took responsibility for landfills about twenty years ago? Or that it was scheduled to be full this year, but thanks to waste diversion programs (like recycling and composting) we have another decade’s worth of capacity here? Next up is a mattress diversion program, to recycle the hundreds of mattresses that get thrown out here annually. Bobbi Wright and I are the council reps, along with Mayor Ostrander.
- The Environmental Sustainability Advisory Committee has been busy this year, getting our bearings (this is our first year with these Terms of Reference) and making some policy recommendations, including that Brighton start a Climate Action Plan (which made its way into the Strategic Plan) and that Brighton hire a Sustainability Officer (which has not yet happened, but we’ll keep trying). We partnered with the ENSS Environmental Club to have a booth at Applefest to raise awareness of invasive species and promote the ENSS tree planting fundraiser, and up next our policy committee will be reviewing the Official Plan to make recommendations for a more sustainable development process. Anne Butwell and I are the council reps, and I serve on the Policy subcommittee.
- The Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee is new this year, started through a motion by Anne Butwell. Our purpose is to address structural inequities in our community, and normalize diversity. As a new committee we’re still finding our feet, but we were quick to respond when someone vandalized the rainbow stairs at the United Church, and we will be organizing support for several important public events such as Pride and Orange Shirt Day moving forward. Anne and I are the council reps, and I am the Vice-Chair.
- The Lower Trent Conservation Authority Board of Directors is made up of municipal councillors from municipalities in the Lower Trent watershed, including Brighton, Cramahe, Trent Hills, Stirling, and Quinte West. We’ve had a tumultuous year, as the province has made significant changes to what a Conservation Authority is allowed to do, and how it can be funded. Bobbi Wright and I are the council reps.
- The Strategic Plan Review Team eventually became the Strategic Planning Committee. While the SPRT was intended to be all about planning the public engagement process of strategic planning, some members of the community pointed out that our meetings were not publicly accessible, and that the inclusion of councillors on the team made it effectively a committee and therefore must be accessible to the public. That public accessibility is important: if your public representatives are engaged in making decisions on your behalf, you should be able to see it happen. As such, the team was officially made into a Committee (with Mayor Ostrander and Councillor Wright serving alongside me as council reps), for which I was the Chair, just in time for it to be dissolved. Moving forward this will be a publicly accessible committee when it is re-formed for the next Strategic Plan update, which fits nicely with its purpose of increasing the amount of public engagement in setting the vision and strategic goals of our community.
While much of the collaboration between Northumberland municipalities happens at the County level, it’s important to remember that the County is its own level of government, with unique responsibilities and purposes. It is not just a catch-all for municipal issues in the region, but nevertheless there are many issues that affect all Northumberland municipalities for which collaboration can be very helpful. I’ve been part of a handful of councillors from Northumberland municipalities who sought each other out for that kind of collaboration:
- Alongside councillors from Cramahe, Alnwick Haldimand, Cobourg, and Port Hope, and environmental committee members from Brighton, Hamilton, and Port Hope, and a volunteer from Trent Hills, I’ve been a member of the Tamarack Climate Cohort. This is an informal group, each of us being a local champion for climate action and coming together for training and mutual support as we promote climate action in our respective municipalities. Tamarack provides us with training and interaction with many other municipalities who are much further along that we are, and we think carefully about how we can best champion climate action both individually and collectively. I led a delegation to the County Council Public Works Committee last month, introducing them to our cohort and making the recommendation that, when the County delivers its promised Climate Action Plan, that such a plan be designed to be collaborative between the County and our lower-tier municipalities. Our suggestions were not well-received, but hopefully we will see some movement on this from the County that can serve as a catalyst for our respective municipalities in 2024.
- In September I brought a motion to Brighton council to initiate an Inter-Municipal Task Force on Housing and Homelessness, for the purpose of better defining what actions lower-tier municipalities can take to move the needle on affordable housing and supporting people experiencing homelessness. There’s a lot of confusion about which actions are County responsibility, which programs are provincial, and what we can actually accomplish at the lower-tier. Since then we have seen five out of seven Northumberland municipalities assign councillors to this task force, and we’ve met once with County CAO Jennifer Moore. I have high hopes for this group, and the experience of starting something completely new and having it (at least so far) be successful has emboldened me: if something needs doing, I feel like my colleagues and I are up for the task of doing it, even if it means starting from scratch and exploring new territory. That makes me hopeful!
Throughout the year, many matters have come to our attention through delegations from residents and organizations, correspondence from other municipalities, or (primarily) from staff reports. We’ve dealt with a number of issues including:
- Traffic issues, some of them going back decades, that have underlined the importance of traffic safety and the forthcoming Transportation Master Plan. We have installed new stop signs, reduced some speed limits, and extended the Community Safety Zone near our schools and institutions. We are now looking into automated speed enforcement (i.e., photo radar), and will further consider how to design our roads for slower speeds even as we make our community more walkable and bikeable via our Transportation Master Plan, which will be finished before the end of 2024.
- Physician Recruitment: we have made agreements with several doctors over the past year, and approved more space for Nurse Practitioners to operate as part of the Family Health Team. We recognize that this will be an ongoing issue, as the days of family doctors settling into a community for life appear to be over. We have also given a considerable amount of money to hospitals in our area. It has become very clear to me that, while healthcare is technically administered by the province, it is largely paid for by the community — through both municipal coffers and private fundraising, such as the home the Tobeys are currently building in support of the Trenton Memorial Hospital Foundation, for which the municipality has donated $18k in rebated development charges.
- Supporting local causes and organizations, through grants in aid and other arrangements. The largest grants have gone to Gift From The Heart, which provides free dental care; and the Smithfield Public School, where we gave funds for new playground equipment in exchange for designating the playground as a public park in off hours.
- Supporting our first responders, including purchasing a new fire truck, and negotiating a land deal with the Ministry of Education to get the necessary space to build a new fire hall. The plans for the new fire hall have yet to be drawn up, so we’re excited to see what will come forward in 2024!
Each councillor gets two conferences per year, and it was difficult to narrow it down from the many options! I chose to go to the Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference in Toronto, and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Sustainable Cities Conference in Ottawa. Both were fantastic learning opportunities, and I met many people I will want to keep in touch with as I follow their progress toward our common goals. I haven’t chosen yet which conferences to attend in 2024, but I’m certainly looking forward to it.
This blog has been a lot of fun for me, as well as a way for me to clarify my thoughts on important issues and confusing processes. I first started blogging while I was working on my master’s degree, as a way of working through complex texts and concepts, and I find it very helpful in shaping my thoughts. I hope it’s as helpful for you, as I explore complex issues, legislation, and processes here! You may have noticed that I don’t often comment on matters that council is currently dealing with; my goal here isn’t to sway you to a particular position on current issues, or otherwise engage in “politics”, but rather to inform you about how municipal processes work so that you can be more engaged in all political processes with confidence.
Thank you for reading, and for those who leave comments or send me emails, thank you even more! That feedback is really helpful for keeping me active and focused here. I would love to hear from more people about what matters to them, or any questions they might have about political processes and issues. The more we know, the more we can do; and the more we do together, the better our community will be!