Guest Column – Democracy Denied: Northumberland County Council Stifles Public Voice

In Letter to Editor

By David Battersby

As we enter 2024, the advent of digital signatures has revolutionized the way we conduct business and engage in civic processes.

Yet, in a perplexing move, Northumberland County Council has chosen to silence the voices of over 970 concerned residents who signed an online petition regarding the proposed development of 310 Division St. into a massive low-barrier shelter.

In a time where you can buy a home with the click of an electronic signature, the County’s refusal to accept digital signatures on a petition seems outdated and out of touch with modern democratic practices. The petition, which advocates for the preservation of Cobourg’s charm and security, expresses widespread concerns over the Transition House’s proposal to repurpose 310 Division St. into a massive 12,000 sq ft. shelter, drop-in center, and warming room.

The escalating issues of violence, increased crime rates, public drug use, and deteriorating cleanliness in Cobourg’s downtown area are taking a toll on our community. Business owners, homeowners, and residents are feeling the impact, and our community is more divided than ever. The petition, a call for unity and change, was met with a disappointing response from Northumberland County Council.

The council’s letter, dated just days before the January 10th Social Services Standing Committee meeting, redacted any references to the petition, citing procedural by-laws that insist on physical signatures. This delayed response raises concerns about the transparency of the council’s decision-making process.

Transitioning from a 22-bed facility to a massive structure with 35 rooms raises critical questions about the true purpose and scale of the shelter. With consistent vacancy rates at the current shelter, the necessity of such expansion is questionable. Will this move worsen existing problems and attract those unwilling to adhere to shelter rules? What additional budget sources are available to support our first responders, including extra police, paramedics, and firefighters?

The council’s letter suggests that only petitions relevant to County Services will be presented, raising questions about the level of democratic input allowed in the decision-making process. The irony is that the petition explicitly concerns a matter of significant public interest and community welfare.

While we empathize with the unhoused seeking shelter, treatment, and support, it’s essential to consider alternative uses for this premium space. Rather than a low barrier shelter, it could be income-based rentals, units for downtrodden seniors, or affordable housing. This would contribute to a more inclusive and sustainable community. The concept of a low-barrier shelter, as defined by the County, aims to remove systemic barriers for vulnerable community members, including those with disabilities, seniors, pets, and individuals from the 2SLGBTQI+ community facing mental health and addiction challenges. However, the current model, encompassing a wide range of circumstances, poses challenges when the majority of issues stem from individuals experiencing homelessness due to severe mental health issues and addiction to substances like fentanyl, crystal meth, and crack cocaine. It’s time for the county, in collaboration with provincial and federal governments, to revisit and refine the low-barrier approach, recognizing that a one-size-fits-all solution is not effective in addressing the diverse needs of the homeless population. Putting them all in one building isn’t the answer.

Northumberland County Council must recognize that democracy thrives on the voices of its citizens. The petition, now over 970 strong, deserves to be acknowledged and considered. The council’s commitment to transparency and public input will be closely watched as our community seeks a more inclusive and collaborative approach to addressing its challenges. A true democratic process should welcome, not stifle, the voices of the people.

Pete Fisher
Author: Pete Fisher

Has been a photojournalist for over 30-years and have been honoured to win numerous awards for photography and writing over the years. Best selling author for the book Highway of Heroes - True Patriot Love

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