Northumberland County Session Faces Accusations of “Fear-Mongering”

In City Hall, Local

By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
In spite of Warden Brian Ostrander’s appeal for civility and good faith in discussing a contentious matter, Cobourg Mayor Lucas Cleveland levelled accusations of fear-mongering and inaccuracy at a special county council session called to consider the town’s new Emergency Care Establishment licensing-and-operation bylaw set to take effect in Cobourg at the end of the month.

Worst-case scenarios of the rules in this new bylaw were examined – and dismissed by Cleveland as fear mongering.

Associate Director of Housing and Homelessness Rebecca Carman opened the meeting with a look at how the county – designated by the province to deliver housing and homelessness services – had dealt with an average of 76 homeless cases a month since January 2022.

While the best outcome is transitioning these people into permanent housing, the capacity to do so is not always there. This is why there is a network in place of emergency shelters (like Transition House and the one operated for women and children by Cornerstone Family Violence Prevention Centre), warming hubs and a certain amount of motel-bed capacity.

Though a full report is expected at county council’s March 20 meeting, Carman reviewed some of the feedback they have received since announcing the county’s purchase of the former Cobourg Retirement Residence at 310 Division St. to become the new 35-bed Transition House base of operations.

There is strong support for a best-practices mode of operation that includes such things as an appropriate staff-to-client ratio, services being made available on-site, an understanding of clients’ rights and responsibilities, and standardized training in mental health and de-escalation techniques.

There is also much concern over downtown crime, loitering and security measures to protect the surrounding community. They would also like to see a community liaison committee established.

Leading up to the doors opening at 310 Division St., these are the concerns that need to be part of an operating agreement the Town of Cobourg had wanted to establish with the county and Transition House to govern these operations.

Then, this new bylaw went before Cobourg council’s Feb. 28 meeting, to take effect at the end of March. At the time, Cleveland described it as “an olive branch, and one that is necessary at this time regarding this project.

“I think it would be in the best interests of residents to know we are moving forward with the bylaw, should that agreement not be reached. It gives clear direction to our staff to begin the work required for something like that,” he said at the time.

Carman spotlighted some problems the new bylaw might present for the new project, starting with requirements for cleaning up waste and debris within 500 metres of a facility. For 310 Division St., she pointed out, that territory would stretch from Lake Ontario north to Spencer Street. The cost would be prohibitive.

It also gives directors and officers personal liability for adherence to the bylaw, including the behaviour of shelter occupants when off-site. And fines for bylaw contraventions range from $500 to $100,000 per day.

This is for all shelters, she continued. It is not inconceivable that some existing shelters (she mentioned the Cornerstone shelter as an example) cannot continue to operate under these rules and may be forced to close, greatly exacerbating the homeless problem in the community.

Even if they remained open, she added, could they attract and keep board members who could live with that liability risk.

Cleveland questioned Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer Moore’s listing of meetings that had taken place with town staff, and seemed quite upset at any inkling that the Cornerstone shelter might close.

“It is clearly stated in Section 20 that we as as town can issue exemptions. You always allow for exemptions,” he said, dismissing this kind of speculation as fear-mongering.

Councillor Bob Crate pointed out, however, that the bylaw does not grant an exemption for Cornerstone, it allows Cornerstone to apply for one – which is quite a different thing, because there is always the chance Cornerstone’s application may not be successful.

“We were very much caught off-guard when the town decided to move forward and advance the bylaw,” Moore said, adding that there could be implications for the county as it plans emergency resources in case of a big influx of people on April 8 to observe the solar eclipse.

Transition House Executive Director Ike Nwibe described the work being done at this time, shared some success stories, and described the plans for more such outcomes after the move to the new larger premises.

Along with the increased capacity, they envision resources to connect individuals to personal, educational and professional development. They envision transitional housing to bridge the gap for individuals who are housing-ready but still looking for something affordable.

“It speaks volumes to our approach of meeting individuals where they are – it’s not just a shelter,” Nwibe said.

The uncertainties of the new bylaw jeopardize not only the work they do now, but also their plans, “depriving individuals of a safe environment where they can access support services and resources.”

If the new bylaw passes as is, he predicted, “the consequences will be dire.

“Without shelter, more of the individuals who are using our services have nowhere else to go and it will lead to an increase in homelessness, exacerbate street homelessness, pan handling, rough sleeping.”

The makeshift measures that will result may well increase crime, violence and dangerous conditions that will stretch both emergency-response and health-care resources.

“The proposed regulation demands careful consideration of its wide-ranging implications,” Nwibe warned.

Cleveland retorted that the new regulations will not prevent Transition House from operating. Nwibe said, if nothing else, the increased liability for officers and board members would have a devastating impact.

That kind of responsibility is universal for boards, Cleveland pointed out. He has taken it on as a councillor, his Police Services Board members take it on as part of their duties.

Moore disagreed, saying it imposes responsibility on a board for individuals beyond their control.

“I have responsibility for county staff, not for all 90,000 residents of the county and their behaviour. I don’t have responsibility for employees when they are not at work,” she said.

“If we look at boards of nonprofits, somebody sitting in that position, they are only held accountable for where they have direct control and not for other people and other individuals where they do not have direct responsibility.”

As council voted to receive these presentations for information purposes, Cleveland refused.

“I would like to have certain aspects of that presentation removed, because I don’t believe them to be factually correct and misleading in nature,” he said.

“I wouldn’t accept unless we are going to go line-by-line and spike out what parts are fear-mongering.”

The meeting then adjourned to closed session for further discussion under the Municipal Act “to address matters pertaining to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose and confidential negotiations.” Cleveland balked at that as well.

“The reason we are in this current situation is because of the closed nature of communications at this level of government. This is continuing that process,” he said.

“An issue this necessary and this important to both residents and the City of Cobourg should be dealt with in a more transparent and accountable way.”

The remainder of county council, however, voted to pursue the matter further in closed session.

Cecilia Nasmith
Author: Cecilia Nasmith

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