Saturday, April 06, 2013

Nuisance Bylaw Part III: Activists and Councillors

A public nuisance? From
The following is a sort of 'play-by-play' from the discussion and Council vote on the proposed nuisance bylaw. How it unfolded shows the diversity of philosophies and approaches among the community 'activists' who stepped up to the microphone - and the councillors who had to make the big decision.

The first to speak to the issue was Coun. Findlay. It was the committee he chairs (Operations, Transit and Emergency Services) that unanimously voted to send the bylaw to Council for approval, and Findlay brought the issue forward to Council with enthusiasm.

Public delegations to Council were up next and James Gordon led the pack. This was fortuitous - James' address really set the tone for the discussion. His main messages were that the bylaw as written did not represent the kind of Guelph he knew, and that he expected better from this 'progressive' council that he had helped to elect.

Another stand-out presentation was that by Evelynne Sundholm. This was Ms. Sundholm's first time addressing Council but she handled it like a pro with her cautionary true tale of the impact that an 'executive director's' decisions can have on the lives of residents.

Keith Bellairs of the Council of Canadians, a former attorney, agreed with the Mayor's blog post that running a roadside lemonade stand would not be a public nuisance but argued that the bylaw as written did in fact make this an infraction.

Andrew Eisen hit the nail on the head when he said "That’s the tricky thing about law - one day you won’t be here to tell us what you meant and we’ll only have what you wrote down."

Richard Chaloner addressing Council
Other delegations speaking against the bylaw included Tom Higson, Ron Foley, Hugh Whiteley, Norah Chaloner, Richard Chaloner, Devin Foley, James Reinhart and yours truly, Dave Sills, on behalf of the Guelph Civic League (the text of the GCL delegation is attached below).

Barry Milner was the only delegation to argue in favour of the bylaw. At committee, he had focused on the real need for the 'nuisance parties' provision of the bylaw in his neighbourhood, but at this meeting he decided to advocate for permits when multi-day protests are planned, likening them to the Santa Claus parade and Rib Fest.

After delegation presentations ended, it was Council's turn to discuss the issue.

Coun. Laidlaw wasted no time in introducing a motion to refer the issue back to staff, suggesting that staff take into account all that had been said by delegations and revise the bylaw accordingly. The discussion then turned to the motion on the floor.

Coun. Piper agreed with the intent of the motion to refer but suggested that, since nuisance parties are still a problem needing attention, the section of the bylaw relating to nuisance parties should be separated out. Coun. Laidlaw agreed to amend her motion to include keeping the nuisance party provisions.

Councillors Van Hellemond, Burcher and Hofland all stated their support for the motion to refer as amended.

Coun. Wettstein appeared to reluctantly agree with the amended motion, but stated that there might have been more vocal support for the bylaw had proponents not been intimidated by the 'activists' lined up against it (whose average age was likely 50!). Coun. Dennis took a similar tack and, while supporting the motion, lauded the "bravery" of Mr. Milner in being the lone supporter of the bylaw among 'activists' in the room.

Coun. Guthrie cited all of the delegations for their 'bravery' in speaking to Council on this issue. He also said that he had been on the fence on this issue but his libertarian beliefs led him to support the referral despite his disagreement with some of the protests - presumably including Occupy Guelph - that the bylaw aimed to outlaw.

Coun. Furfaro had little to say except that he supported Coun. Laidlaw's motion. Couns. Findlay and Bell remained conspicuously silent.

In another round of discussion, some interesting remarks were made. Coun. Laidlaw said she was shocked that this bylaw came forward as written, and wanted to have a one-year review of the nuisance parties provision of the bylaw. Coun. Wettstein said he was "insulted" by insinuations that outlawing Occupy-type protests was a motivation behind the bylaw. Not at all the case, he said. Coun. Piper said that she doesn't want to lose the language in the bylaw that would help young people avoid criminal charges, and that such language may actually encourage peaceful protests.

Mayor Farbridge discusses the nuisance bylaw
Mayor Farbridge typically likes to have the final word in such debates, and this was no exception. She said she supported Coun. Laidlaw's motion, but tempered her support with a claim that there is a lot of misinformation in the community related to this issue - seeming to imply that if the community only knew the real facts, there might actually be support for the bylaw.

When it finally came to a vote, Coun. Laidlaw's amended motion - to refer all sections of the bylaw back to staff except the one dealing with nuisance parties - passed unanimously. As was mentioned in Part I, this has to be viewed as a stunning turn of events given that the full bylaw had just passed unanimously at the committee level.

And for the first time in a long time, 'activists' felt that citizen input had not only been heard by Council, but it actually had a significant influence on the final Council decision.

Stay tuned for Part IV of this multi-part blog post: "Myths and Facts".

And if you missed Part I or Part II, you can find them here and here.

Many thanks to the Guelph Chapter of the Council of Canadians for providing video for a number of the delegation presentations linked to above.


GCL Comments to Council re Draft Nuisance Bylaw

Good evening Madam Mayor and Councillors,

The Guelph Civic League has reviewed the updated draft of the 'nuisance bylaw' and, though it is has been improved, we continue to have a number of serious concerns.

Through the bylaw and its original preamble, it is clear what City staff want. They say that a number of incidents and ‘undesirable gatherings’ - both on public and private lands - have demonstrated that staff do not have sufficient tools at their disposal to protect the ‘interests’ of the City. Staff wants those new tools.

But what does the community want? Oddly enough, at the community input sessions, that question was never asked. Instead, we were asked what parts of the proposed bylaw we want – or, as was more the case, do NOT want.

There is some demonstrated citizen support for the ‘nuisance party’ provisions of the proposed bylaw. And those provisions are very similar to those in London’s new nuisance bylaw.

I’m sure you are all aware of it. But have you had a chance to read it? I have - it's very short. London’s nuisance bylaw is tightly focused on nuisance parties. Only two other related items are addressed: public urination and knocking over mailboxes.

Media reports suggest that the bylaw was vigorously debated by councillors. The London Free Press wrote that “Many fed-up homeowners supported the draft bylaw, while others worried that it is too vague, open to abuse and tramples on individual rights.” Because of this, London councillors decided to refer the issue for further study, with additional public and staff comment.

In Guelph, where the proposed nuisance bylaw is much more broad and controversial, there has been little in the way of vigorous councillor debate. And last week the Operations, Transit and Emergency Services Committee declined to refer the issue for further study, as GCL recommended.

But let me outline what the community did NOT ask to be included in this bylaw.

We did NOT ask for peaceful assembly and protest, an integral facet of freedom of expression protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to be at the discretion of an unelected executive director in the name of ‘public safety’. But this is what the permit system outlined in the draft bylaw would give us. And this interpretation is supported by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in their second letter to the mayor on this issue last Friday.

We did NOT ask for ridiculously vague language that effectively allows enforcement officers to interpret not only the degree of enforcement, but the meaning of the bylaw itself. An example straight from the bylaw - “While on City Land, no person shall interfere with any permitted activity carried out by any other person.” Talk about opening a Pandora’s Box! But this is what the draft bylaw would give us.

We did NOT ask for the planting and tending of boulevard gardens on City property by Guelph residents to be rendered illegal. But, again, this is what the bylaw would give us, in section 9b. We've been told "trust us - if it isn't a nuisance, there won't be a problem." Well, if it isn't a nuisance, make that clear in the bylaw!

The vast majority of citizen input has been critical of the bylaw. And local media have been unusually vocal about the problems with it. It is clear to GCL that, overall, the community does not want this nuisance bylaw as written. And, as you know very well, councillors are elected to represent the community, not City staff or police services.

Therefore, the Guelph Civic League strongly urges Council to refer this important issue back to staff so that staff can address outstanding concerns, and additional community consultation can be undertaken. It’s obviously an important issue for our community and it will likely set a precedent for other communities – please take the time to get this bylaw right.

1 comment:

  1. Karen Wendling4/08/2013 11:38:00 pm

    I am very glad that Council voted to send the nuisance by-law back to staff, with the exception of the part dealing with nuisance parties. It is a bad by-law.

    I am another 50+ citizen who voted for this mostly-progressive council. I'm also a bus rider, so I've seen the Occupy and other longer-term encampments in St. George's Square, and I've taken my fair share of leaflets.

    I am not a citizen who complains about taxes. I think that, by and large, my tax dollars are some of the best money I have spent. But I would object MIGHTILY to having my tax dollars spent by the City to defend the remaining portion of this almost-certainly unconstitutional by-law.

    If there is a problem with protests and leafletting -- and I have yet to see or hear anything about what that problem is, other than ominous-sounding allusions -- this by-law is not the answer. It's like swatting flies with a sledgehammer: very destructive without even being effective.

    As James Gordon said, this is not the kind of Guelph I know, and it is not what I have voted for.