Peterborough mayor calls concerns about dissolution of advisory committees under portfolio by-law ‘malarkey’

Five councillors lost bid to defer vote on Leal's by-law after hearing concerns from six public delegations

During a heated enchange with councillor Alex Bierk at the Peterborough city council meeting on February 26, 2024 during which Mayor Jeff Leal's portfolio chair by-law was debated, the mayor held up a list of advisory committees and boards while stating that a perception that existing committees would be dissolved if the by-law was passed was "malarkey" and "misinformation." (kawarthaNOW screenshot of City of Peterborough video)
During a heated enchange with councillor Alex Bierk at the Peterborough city council meeting on February 26, 2024 during which Mayor Jeff Leal's portfolio chair by-law was debated, the mayor held up a list of advisory committees and boards while stating that a perception that existing committees would be dissolved if the by-law was passed was "malarkey" and "misinformation." (kawarthaNOW screenshot of City of Peterborough video)

Peterborough mayor Jeff Leal called concerns about the potential dissolution of advisory committees under his new portfolio chair by-law “malarkey” and “misinformation.”

The mayor made the comments after a lengthy discussion of the by-law at Monday night’s council meeting (February 26).

Despite six public delegations — including the city’s previous mayor — expressing concerns about the by-law and impassioned pleas from some city councillors, city council voted 7-4 to pass the by-law.

Last Tuesday at council’s general committee meeting, Mayor Leal brought forward the proposed by-law that would reduce the number of portfolios from 17 to six and, instead of assigning two councillors as a chair and vice chair for each portfolio as in the past, would assign two councillors as co-chairs for each portfolio.

According to Leal, the intent of the by-law is to modernize the city’s governance structure by aligning councillor portfolios with the city’s departmental structure.

As part of the change, previous portfolios such as diversity, economic development, environment and climate change, seniors, transportation, waste management, and youth would no longer exist as separate portfolios, but would instead be included under the new portfolios of community services (arts and culture, library services and social services including housing); community services (recreation and parks, fire services and arenas); finance and corporate support services; infrastructure, planning and growth management; legislative services; and municipal operations.

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The apparent disappearance of several high-profile portfolios, along with a section of the by-law that would give portfolio chairs the authority to establish or dissolve advisory committees, prompted six public delegations to appear before council to raise objections about the by-law.

The first delegation was former Peterborough mayor Diane Therrien-Hale, who expressed concerns “about the way this process is unfolding.”

“I agree with Mayor Leal’s assessment that the current system is outdated and perhaps needs revising, though I am concerned by the proposed shift to six portfolios aligning with the five city departments,” she said. “While this makes sense in theory, it seems to be more of a corporate approach to streamlining the work of committees which is problematic in a municipal community context.”

Therrien-Hale said that, while some city departments are “well suited to councillor oversight,” others are are best left without “political influence or potential political interference.” She added that some of the proposed portfolio chairs, while having related professional experience, “also appear likely to have potential conflicts of interest based on past declarations,” although she did not name the councillors.

Therrien-Hale also expressed a concern about section 9 of the by-law, which states that a portfolio chair may “establish and dissolve advisory committees comprised of such individuals other than city staff as the portfolio chair considers appropriate to advise the portfolio chair respecting matters related to the portfolio.”

“I was on committees over my eight years on council that dealt with appointments or awards relating to community members, and I saw that there can be personal bias that bleeds into that process. It is not democratic or fair to the community to leave this wording which has the potential to be misused.”

Therrien-Hale said that a decision on “this major restructuring” should be deferred until supplementary reports from city staff can be considered in conjunction with the by-law. She also said there are committees that are “too important to leave in the balance,” specifically mentioning the environment and climate change portfolio.

“I understand the rationale for the by-law and I appreciate the work the mayor and clerk’s office have put into it, but I would urge caution at adopting it before council and the community have seen the supplementary reports and there has been clear communication with city residents and the awesome community members who volunteer their time and knowledge for the advisory (committees) about what such changes would mean for their work.”

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Other public delegations included Bill Templeman, Cheryl Lyon, Cameron Douglas, Mark Bullock, and Rob Hailman.

“I strongly support withdrawing this report tonight, and instructing staff to consult more deeply with councillors and to come back with a more fully fleshed out set of recommendations that have examined three things,” Lyon said, one of which is section 9, which “seems to give portfolio chairs undue control over committees, and does this power include citizen members or portfolio or advisory committees.”

Lyon also said it was “astonishing” that environment and climate change is missing from the new portfolios, and recommended that such a portfolio be included.

Douglas — who is the founder and teacher of the Youth Leadership in Sustainability program for senior high school students — also expressed concern about the “dissolution of the environment committee,” adding that he was “gobsmacked” that the issue of climate change would be “buried within a much larger planning and development and infrastructure process.”

“When I tell them the city has an environment committee, their faces light up,” Douglas said, referring to his students. “It’s what gives them hope in this process. Please do not put me in a position to go back into my classroom and somehow have to lead a conversation of why our city leaders decided in 2024, as our planetary stability is unravelling, why they decided it was prudent to dissolve an environment committee … I know there’s nothing in the wording right now that that committee is going to be dissolved, but I have absolutely no confidence that it won’t be either.”

“There’s all kinds of questions that I have when I’m looking at this,” Douglas added. “For example, how are we going to work this when certain issues like environment and disability will cross cut the new structure? How are we going to integrate the work that current advisory committees are doing into the new structure? I don’t think you have the answers either, and that’s okay … I’m not sure staff does … but it seems to be rather a rushed decision for us to decide with so many of these crucial unknowns in this process and trusting somehow that it’s going to work out. I could be wrong, but I don’t know of any pressing reason why council tonight needs to somehow come to some final decision.”

Bullock, who represents the environmental organization For Our Grandchildren, also expressed concern about the removal of environment and climate change from the portfolios and its impact on the future of the environmental advisory committee

“It seems possible the committee could soon be without a council representative,” Bullock said. “In our view this would be most unfortunate. Having a council representative on the committee underlines the importance of the committee’s work and facilitates communication and mutual understanding between the committee and council.”

While Bullock also expressed concern that section 9 of the by-law would allow portfolio chairs to dissolve advisory committees, he said the group’s “biggest immediate concern” is the by-law puts into doubt the future of the environment and climate change portfolio.

“There’s clearly no provision in the by-law as it stands for preserving the climate change and environment portfolio,” he said.

Hailman expressed concern with the governance model of the by-law.

“It’s a fairly wide-ranging and substantial change and as such I think it needs a substantial case to be made for it and I feel like that case has not been made to the public and I don’t think it was made last week in this chamber,” he said.

Describing it as a “ministerial model,” Hailman note the by-law apparently allows the mayor, under the strong mayor powers of the Municipal Act introduced by the provincial government in 2022, to delegate mayoral authority to councillors acting as portfolio chairs.

“This strengthens the portfolio chairs from what they have now while weakening the role and oversight of council as a whole,” he said, pointing out an implication for future councils. “We need to be mindful of who will be those portfolio chairs in the future and the relationship they’ll have with the community and the committees that they’re responsible for, because it will not always look like it does today.”

Regarding the new portfolios themselves, Hailman expressed the same concerns as other delegations about the absence of some portfolios from the new structure, and that some issues such as housing and transportation cross over several of the new portfolios.

“Don’t pass this by-law today, please,” Hailman said. “I think further consultation is required. I think further consultation is required with city staff. I think further consultation is required amongst council. I think further consultation is required with the citizens of Peterborough. And I think there may be opportunities to consult with experts outside of the city or perhaps peer municipalities.”

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After hearing from public delegations, councillor Keith Riel put forward a motion to defer a vote on the portfolio by-law, also making a statement about his motion.

“I must express my reservations about the process that led to this creation of this by-law, particularly the lack of consultation with city council,” Riel said, emphasizing his concern that portfolio chair positions were assigned to councillors “without proper dialogue” and without considering their “unique strength and expertise.”

“The core of my concern lies in the fact that this by-law sets a precedent for future actions without fully understanding the implications. It solidifies a path forward without guaranteeing us the opportunity to deliberate, ask questions, and provide input. I’m being told to trust the process and await the next stage of accompanying reports.”

During debate on Riel’s motion, councillor Dave Haacke asked city CAO Jasbir Raina to clarify that only the mayor has the authority to assign councillors to portfolios.

Raina said the report for the portfolio by-law was initiated by the mayor, who consulted with the CAO, and that the report and by-law only pertains to portfolios. He also said the by-law has “nothing to do” with advisory committees.

“Those advisory committees were made by the council, so they stay there unless council gives the direction to the staff,” Raina said.

“Where would anybody get the idea that we are dissolving committees from?” Haacke asked. “Because that’s all that I’ve heard. It’s obviously not in this motion.”

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The city’s commissioner of legislative services and city solicitor David Potts responded by stating that section 9 of the by-law, which states that a portfolio chair has the authority to strike or dissolve advisory committees, has “nothing to do with advisory committees established by council.”

“The idea behind that, in consultation with the mayor, is that the proposal in this proposed by-law, to delegate authority to portfolio chairs that doesn’t exist now, portfolio chairs may find it helpful from time to time to establish an ad hoc advisory committee for a limited term or maybe for a longer period term,” Potts said.

“It has nothing to do with what council has decided with respect to its advisory committees. Council may choose, in response to the next report, to do nothing with the existing advisory committees. They may choose to do something. But this (section 9) does not usurp, nor could it usurp, council’s authority with respect to establishing or dissolving the committees that council has established. I just want to be crystal clear on that.”

There were no questions to Potts on why that wording — that section 9 does not include advisory committees established by council — was not included in the by-law.

In response to another question from councillor Haacke as to whether the by-law is giving councillors more power, Potts confirmed that the by-law “is delegating authority that individual members of council presently do not have.”

Councillors Alex Bierk, Joy Lachica, Matt Crowley, and Lesley Parnell — who all originally supported the portfolio by-law the previous week at the general committee meeting — supported Riel’s motion to defer the by-law.

“The by-law is setting a precedent for our future without offering a clear path and vision of what the future is,” Bierk said. “We find ourselves navigating in the dark, especially concerning critical areas such as transit, heritage, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), accessibility, economic development, and the urgent matters of the environment and climate change. The feedback from our constituents through emails, calls, and direct interactions resonates with these apprehensions.”

Bierk also echoed Riel’s concern about the lack of consultation with councillors about the assignment of portfolios.

“This change is being presented as a procedural formality, but it’s more than that,” Bierk added. “We must be allowed to see the full picture before making a decision. There are many questions that remain unanswered, and passing this by-law tonight is irresponsible.”

“My biggest concern, and part of the reason assumptions have been made about the loss of committees, is because there’s an absence of language in the motion about particular portfolios that have existed,” Lachica said. “A case was not fully made for rescinding the existing portfolio and to not explicitly outline those portfolios within the new structure of umbrella commissions.”

“A lot of work has been done by many of us in these portfolios to keep them alive and advancing, and working with the community on them,” Parnell said. “They’re very important to be in the language (of the by-law) and acknowledged as a chair and not just assumed to fall under one department head or another,” giving the example of diversity which crosses all city departments.

Crowley supported the deferral motion, stating that he did not want to “be in the dark” and would first “really like to see the road map and see the end game and see what the advisory committees are going to look like.”

Councillor Kevin Duguay said he would not support the deferral motion.

“I respect the concerns of the public and I appreciate their passion, but I view that it’s perhaps a misunderstanding of intent,” he said. “The committees as we know them would stay in place — that’s my understanding — and they could only be changed, if ever, as a result of a resolution (and) discussion in these chambers.”

Bierk, speaking on the deferral motion for a second time, addressed several questions to Mayor Leal.

“What is the urgency to do this, and are you taking to heart some of the things we’ve talked about, and would you support a deferral?”

Leal replied by saying the City of Peterborough “has one of the weakest governance structures in Ontario today” and said he believed in delegated authority, “because delegated authority is more democracy,” before saying he was turning over power to councillors, “to you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you” pointing to each of them in turn.

“Anybody who tells me that this list is going to be (illegible) tonight is malarkey,” Leal said, holding up a piece of paper with what appeared to be list of committees and boards. “It’s the biggest piece of misinformation I ever heard in the longest time.”

“There will be a climate change group,” Leal said. “There will be other groups — seniors, youth. Give us a opportunity to approve our governance and this corporation I believe will provide more effective government on behalf of the citizens of Peterborough.”

“You’re asking us to jump in and trust the process when in fact this by-law is setting a lane for us whether we like it or not,” Bierk said, as Leal attempted to interrupt him to ask whether he was at the session with senior city staff where governance was discussed. “I would like to see what those steps two and three are going to be before I commit to the first step. That’s it, that’s all.”

“Are you telling me I don’t take this seriously?” Leal replied, pointing at Bierk. “Is that what you’re saying?”

Bierk asked for a point of order indicating he did not say that.

“Why did we go to a session about two weeks ago where all the commissioners went through this on a step-by-step basis?” Leal said. “You were there, were you not? Yes or no.”

Bierk literally threw up his hands and did not continue.

Councillors Andrew Beamer, Gary Baldwin, and Don Vassiliadis indicated they would not support the deferral motion, all stating the need to move forward.

After further discussion, a vote to defer the portfolio chairs report and by-law lost 5-6, with councillors Lachica, Bierk, Riel, Crowley, and Parnell voting in favour and Mayor Leal and councillors Baldwin, Haacke, Beamer, Vassiliadis, and Duguay voting against.

A subsequent vote to pass the by-law succeeded 7-4, with Mayor Leal and councillors Baldwin, Haacke, Beamer, Crowley, Vassiliadis, and Duguay voting in favour and councillors Lachica, Bierk, Riel, and Parnell voting against.