(with apologies to Charles Dickens)
Walking through the front door of Gananoque, Ontario’s 187-year-old town hall last week, we unknowingly entered a parallel universe where it’s illegal for a town council to reach a decision behind closed doors.
A universe where every file is simultaneously available to the public and council members.
A universe where, if four council members happen to show up anywhere, even to the local Tim Horton’s, one has to leave to avoid an unauthorized quorum.
A universe where anyone, even a visiting Quebec councillor, can get detailed financial information simply by asking.
A universe where half of all advisory committee members are unelected citizens with unobstructed access to any data they require to assist council in reaching informed decisions.
Welcoming us to the land of the Ontario Municipal Act was Melanie Kirkby, Gananoque’s treasurer. We had no appointment and she had things to do, but she took the time to answer our questions:
Gananoque’s OPEX? $8.5 million (Hudson’s is $12M.)
Revenues? $15M, including $1.4M from the OLG casino (Hudson hopes to take in $13.46M in 2018.)
Budgeted surplus? $500,000 (Hudson has no defined budget surplus.)
Accumulated surplus? $8M, half of which will be spent on a Town Hall annex to make the entire structure accessible. (Hudson has no accumulated surplus.)
Long-term debt? Zero! (Hudson’s long-term debt as of 2016 was $24.4M.)
Off the main hall was a council chamber that looked as if Sir John A. Macdonald had banged the gavel on the rickety desk. I asked Kirkby if caucus meetings were still held there.
She recoiled in horror. “Caucus meetings? They’re illegal in Ontario!” By law, all meetings are open to the public. In order to close a meeting to the public, council must pass a resolution that a closed meeting will be held, stating the nature of the topic under consideration. Only meetings dealing with public security, human resources, the purchase or sale of municipal land, litigation, training and matters covered by the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act can be closed to the public.
The Municipal Act goes further, imposing certain restrictions on any other meeting held without the public present by requiring that no vote be taken unless for a procedural matter or the giving of instructions or directions to municipal employees.
Kirkby explained the Ontario system in terms of Gananoque’s schedule. Regular council meetings take place on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of each month. The June 19 council meeting began at 5:05 p.m. with a closed session that ended at 5:55. One item dealing with an HR issue was discussed.
At 6 sharp, the regular council meeting began voting on resolutions stemming from the previous meeting of the Committee of the Whole (COW), a public working table which includes members of council and town staff. It was over by 6:10, including question period.
At 6:11, that week’s COW got underway with Kirkby, fire chief Steve Tiernan and supervisors or and managers from public works, community development, public utilities and parks and recreation in attendance. The town’s external auditors presented the 2107 audited financial statements, thereby releasing them to the public for discussion to a final vote to table them at the next regular council meeting. COW discussed half a dozen other ongoing files before adjourning for the night at 6:55. Those files will be turned into motions for presentation at the next council meeting after having spent two weeks in public circulation.
Kirkby explained how they used to leave the closed sessions to the end of the meetings but moved them to the front of the line so meetings wouldn’t drag on. And to think we’re happy with 10 p.m.
According to the 2016 census, Hudson and Gananoque are remarkably similar in some ways, polar opposites in others. Population-wise, Gan has six more residents than Hudson — 5,194 to 5,188. Hudson’s residents average four months older — 47.7 years versus 47.2.
Both towns are having to deal with aging infrastructure and whether growth and densification guarantee sustainability. Both wrestle with zoning issues.
Hudson faces a chronic water shortage, a $6 million roads infrastructure deficit and an uncertain future as an off-island bedroom community. The weekend-home, pied-a-terre market appears to be Hudson’s best bet — if it can find a sustainable infrastructure solution and redevelop itself as a destination by freeing its commercial core from zoning constraints.
Once Canada’s rivet capital, Gananoque’s industrial base has collapsed; tourism and condominium development to capture the wave of geriatric boomers fleeing the cities are its main hopes. With the pristine headwaters of the St. Lawrence at its feet, Gan’s problem isn’t water, but sewage treatment capacity. A proposed hotel next to the Shorelines Casino has been told it has to build its own sewage treatment plant.
According to the 2016 census data, Hudson is by far the wealthier community. Hudson has fewer private dwellings (2,386 to Gan’s 2,516) but 650 more detached single-family dwellings (1,975 vs. 1,315.) Average total household income: Hudson $121,000 to Gan’s $70,300. Hudson also collects roughly $500,000 in transfer tax.