Peterborough mayor ‘disappointed’ by city council’s reaction to pandemic recovery task force report

Some councillors want report's broadly worded recommendations to be costed out before moving forward

Diane Therrien in 2018 shortly after being elected Mayor of Peterborough. At that time, she told kawarthaNOW writer Paul Rellinger she was optimistic the new council would "come together as a team". (Photo: Paul Rellinger / kawarthaNOW)
Diane Therrien in 2018 shortly after being elected Mayor of Peterborough. At that time, she told kawarthaNOW writer Paul Rellinger she was optimistic the new council would "come together as a team". (Photo: Paul Rellinger / kawarthaNOW)

What seemed liked a good idea at the time has become bogged down in the procedural red tape that is all too often frustratingly commonplace in the political realm.

A series of 21 recommendations emanating from the months-long work of the Community Recovery and Resilience Task Force — chaired by Mayor Diane Therrien — was presented to Peterborough city councillors Monday night (June 14).

The task force’s report came very close to being dismissed outright, as some councillors expressed concern over the future financial implications of the recommendations. Sensing that her motion seeking approval of the recommendations would fall short of the votes needed to pass, Mayor Therrien removed it.

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In its place, she put forward a motion that the task force be reconvened and that it meet with Peterborough Commissioner of Corporate and Legislative Services Richard Freymond to review the recommendations’ possible budget implications with a report coming to council in November.

That motion passed and will go before city council June 28 for a final discussion and vote, at which time registered delegations may speak to the matter.

The road to that point was messy to say the least, prompting Mayor Therrien to issue a lengthy statement on Twitter the morning after the meeting in which she accused some councillors of “using a procedural technicality to try and stall this report.”

She also lamented their “refusal to step up and seize on this opportunity to build a stronger, more resilient community,” adding “It is a refusal to step up and reflect on what is a watershed moment with regards to recovery from the devastating effects of the pandemic on virtually all sectors of Peterborough.”

In a subsequent interview with kawarthaNOW, Mayor Therrien said the councillors’ opposition to the recommendations by fearing their financial implications has no basis in truth. In fact, she says, the task force went out of its way to not connect dollars and cents to the recommendations.

“The goal (of the task force) wasn’t to look at things through a financial and economic lens but through the cultural and social impacts of COVID on the community,” Mayor Therrien said.

Many of the report’s recommendations are strategic and long term, and recognize additional work would be required by city staff to identify financial implications and pursue funding sources.

“The task force was very careful to not put any budgetary commitments in (the report),” Mayor Therrien added. “We knew at the moment there were any monetary commitments, council would take issue with it.”

“One of the goals of the task force was to get the city and the community thinking about (pandemic) recovery in a different way as opposed to having it tied to the budget cycle, the four-year election cycle — all that bureaucratic stuff. It’s bigger than that. It’s more complex than that.”

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Mayor Therrien said she had a feeling her motion would be defeated at Monday night’s general committee meeting, having been alerted prior to the meeting by one councillor “who had the courtesy to let me know there was an effort to defeat it without telling me, by using a procedural nitpicking tactic.”

“I’m disappointed but not surprised. During a term of many disheartening moments, this is yet another one. But the hardest part for me is there were so many people that put so much time into this (task force).”

“The process wasn’t perfect, the report certainly isn’t perfect, but the fact that this effort to not talk to me about it is what is most frustrating. People can personally attack me — I’m used to that — but this has impacts on the broader community.”

While those councillors opposed to the task force report cited potential financial implications of the recommendations as their main concern, a source tells kawarthaNOW the big point of contention is some councillors’ claims they were “blindsided” by the recommendations, only being aware of them for the first time when the committee meeting agenda was made available late last week.

The task force was struck in July 2020 with council’s approval. According to its terms of reference, the task force would exist for a six-month term with membership including the council-appointed chairs of social services and arts, culture and heritage (Councillor Keith Riel), waste management (Councillor Gary Baldwin), transportation (Councillor Kemi Akapo), housing (Councillor Henry Clarke), and arena, parks and recreation (Councillor Lesley Parnell), along with four city staff members.

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However, Councillor Riel tells kawarthaNOW he was never invited to any of the task force’s meetings.

“Unless I missed an email or something, I was never asked to attend any of these meetings, even though I’m supposed to be there,” he said, adding Councillors Baldwin and Clarke also weren’t notified of task force meetings either.

“So the meetings took place and then we got this list of recommendations. There are some good ones, there are some that are so-so, but others have huge financial implications for the city. These have to vetted. If on Monday night we just arbitrarily passed and accepted these recommendations, we’d be accepting them without any due diligence. We have to know what the cost is here.”

Councillor Riel adds the first time he saw the recommendations was when he received his committee meeting package last Thursday (June 10).

“I thought ‘Holy God, there are millions and millions of dollars here. There’s a huge impact to our budget here that needs to be addressed. So we’re going to defer it (acceptance of the recommendations) invite the people back together and look at each recommendation.”

“There were community members involved — and God love them for doing that — but we have to go back. Not throw out the baby with the bath water, but look at these recommendations and get the people that were supposed to be at the table together. We’re just starting the budget process, so it’s not a loss. We’ll discuss the recommendations and maybe even add some.”

According to its terms of reference, the task force also includes community representation from a broad range of sectors, including social services, the environment, arts, culture and heritage, sports, parks and recreation, urban Indigenous, and waste management.

One of the task force members is Su Ditta, the executive director of the Electric City Culture Council (EC3). She reiterated Mayor Therrien’s point that these are broad recommendations at this point, put in place to get the ball on pandemic recovery rolling sooner than later, with any financial implications reserved for a fuller discussion at a later time.

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“There are some (recommendations) that have financial implications in principal,” Ditta said. “It would be great to have investments in this kind of recovery program, but (the report) doesn’t ask for any particular amount of money.”

“I think it’s important for the city to have a report like this in hand, with very specific things, to help bolster their argument with the province and the feds for what kind of recovery initiatives they might take if money was offered or being discussed. These are the general priority areas.”

One of the report’s recommendations related to the arts sector reads “Task Force to work with City staff to identify specific financial investments, stimulus measures and City/arts sector partnerships and collaborations to provide support to professional artists, address on-going revenue challenges for arts organizations, help the sector prepare for safe and successful re-opening, and prevent permanent closures and loss.”

Another reads “Explore ways to recognize the important economic and social contributions that Peterborough’s vibrant arts and culture community make to the well-being of all citizens and to the quality of life of in the City of Peterborough. Promote on-going collaboration with and support of the arts, culture and heritage sector to ensure its long-term resilience.”

A full copy of the report to council and its 21 recommendations is provided at the end of this story.

“We have really great ideas coming forward on the environment front, on the Indigenous front, on the arts, culture and heritage front,” Ditta said. “Nobody is saying we need $200,000 for these. I’m not sure what the rationale was behind the push back. I don’t quite understand it.”

Ditta says EC3 will have a representative at the June 28 council meeting to address councillors prior to the vote on Mayor Therrien’s revised motion.

Pointing to the severe impacts of the pandemic on the local arts community, Ditta says the sector “has been perpetually underfunded. Some people think we give too much money to the arts, but the contribution that the arts makes to the economy in Peterborough is well documented. We’ve presented statistics to council many times.”

Despite the finger wagging and personal comments that Monday night’s meeting spawned, Mayor Therrien says the task force will remain active and relevant moving forward.

“The people that are on the task force will continue to do the work because that’s the kind of people they are. People who work in the environmental and non-profit and community-based sectors are used to overcoming obstacles. Still, I’m going to have to give a pep talk at the next meeting.”

Looking ahead to the June 28 council meeting when the matter will again be up for discussion and a vote, Mayor Therrien is hopeful that a central message will emerge.

“The community experts and volunteers that helped with this should be listened to. There is an urgency to this. There’s an opportunity for people to come and speak about the importance of supporting the arts and the environment and the other sectors as opposed to paying lip service to those things.”


PDF: Community Recovery and Resilience Task Force Recommendations
eport COU21-002 - The Community Recovery and Resilience Task Force Recommendations