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Halton Hills Emergency Continues with No End in Sight

Questions remain about CAO's sudden departure after acquiring sweeping powers

Opinion : By Harry Rudolfs

On March 12, 2020, the World Health Organization announced that the COVID-19 virus had achieved global pandemic proportions. March 17, Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a province-wide emergency. Soon after, a vast majority of Ontario municipal councils jumped at the chance to declare their own states of local emergency. Although municipalities have no independent constitutional status, Ontario's Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA) allows them to bypass their regular decision-making processes in an emergency situation.

Halton Hills Town Council declared an emergency on March 24, 2020, and subsequently held two special council meetings on April 6, 2020 that would significantly alter the way council currently functions. Top of the agenda was an enactment to provide the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) with sweeping powers “to approve all expenditures, the authority to execute any contracts and agreements, including those related to the disposition and acquisition of real property, and the authority to take any other action provided that its delegation is not barred by legislation.”

At a second special council meeting that same day, Mayor Rick Bonnette advised that the provincial government had passed legislation to allow municipalities to hold council and committee meetings electronically during the COVID-19 crisis. Hence, Halton Hills Council amended a procedural by-law so members could meet and operate electronically, as they have been doing for over a year. This is important. Had the Town chosen not to declare an emergency, council could have fairly quickly transitioned to operate virtually, as did a number of municipalities in the province.

But no one knew what to expect as the first wave of COVID-19 made its presence felt. The major fear was that that the health care system would be overwhelmed. Long-term care homes were among the first to be horribly impacted and Ontario's chief medical officer barred all non-essential visitors from these sites. The Ontario government ordered schools, daycares, indoor recreation facilities, theatres and concert halls closed, as well as all restaurant and bars who were not offering take-out or delivery service. Public events of more than 50 people were banned. Grocery stores, deemed essential, were allowed to stay open as were the province's liquor and cannabis stores.

Accordingly, Halton Hills closed the Town Hall to the public along with recreational centres and libraries. Late payments on taxes were deferred and yellow caution tape was draped around playgrounds. A new by-law officer was hired and an indoor mask by-law was quickly passed. Municipal employees, where possible, were pivoted to work from home.

Most councils, no doubt, continue to view a State Of Local Emergency (SOLE) as an important tool to support the Provincial Government and provide a quick response to the pandemic. Declaring a SOLE was thought to provide municipalities more flexibility and responsiveness to coordinate regionally or to act unilaterally if need be.

According to Mayor Rick Bonnette: “The Town of Halton Hills has been working lockstep with the other local municipalities to manage the pandemic as best as possible per the provincial framework. Based on the work that we have done, our COVID numbers have been low compared to many other municipalities and I believe this is attributed (at least in part) to the fact that we have kept our Emergency Control Group operational throughout the last 15 or so months to ensure continuity of operations is maintained.”

At the beginning of the pandemic a commonly-held perception among municipal councils was that the emergency measure was needed so that their constituents would take the situation seriously. On March 24, 2020, Halton Hills Mayor Rick Bonnette stated: “It is important that we send the strongest message possible to our community about the need to adhere to the health and safety precautions as directed by Public Health.”

Emergency, What Emergency?

But not all Ontario municipalities reacted in the same way. The majority of councils in Oxford County did not declare a SOLE, nor did others give exclusive delegated authority to their CAOs. “We got a letter from our Medical Officer of our public health board saying we could declare a state of emergency, but we didn't do that because there was already a state of emergency declared province-wide,” according to Larry Martin, Mayor of Norwich Township.

“It was redundancy,” added Martin. “It wouldn't have accomplished anything. Once the province goes ahead everybody falls into a state of emergency anyway. Some of the municipalities were of the opinion that they wouldn't get funding unless they declared. Some of it, possibly, was political to give the residents peace of mind, by saying, look we've declared an emergency. I know the County [Oxford] didn't even declare a state of emergency at the time.”

St Thomas City Council declared a SOLE soon after the Premier's initial emergency declaration a year ago, in March. “The only use we've made of the emergency powers as a Council is to expedite some decisions that would have required a little more time to do, but it was all COVID-related stuff,” according to councillor Steve Peters. “We used it on things like the lack of notice on the purchasing by-law so we could quickly buy the old Shrine Club and use it as an emergency shelter.”

Peters cites another example where immediate action was required. “Last year our greenhouses were full of flowers. We weren't going to hire anyone to plant flowers so we sold them and gave the money to the food bank. Usually it was operational matters that had to be decided quickly. But other than that, it's been business as usual,” added Peters. “We even had an anti-mask demonstration that was handled exactly as it would have been without the emergency”

Mayor Bonnette of Halton Hills suggests that the fact 100 more building permits have been issued in 2020 than in 2019 (646 and 546 respectively) indicates: “We are getting business done. I think the Town has done an extraordinary job in continuing to deliver services and meeting expectations including Council who moved to a virtual meeting platform and meetings are live streamed and available on our website. I have been impressed with staff’s ability to adapt to working in a changing environment which is what the past year and a half has been.”

Although the Ford government has declared no less than three provincial emergencies and multiple extensions in the past year, and is currently seeking to extend the Provincial Emergency to December 1, 2021, Halton Hills continues with its self-declared SOLE with no sign of it ending any time soon.

Not surprisingly, council did not seek a time limit on the emergency declaration or the CAO's unilateral powers, suggesting only “that the Town of Halton Hills review this by-law no later than at such time as the World Health Organization (WHO) declares an end to the global pandemic associated with COVID-19.”

But that may be a long time coming. WHO officials may be reluctant to call an end to the pandemic as long as the virus and its variants remain active somewhere. However, the Town itself could decide to end the SOLE, as the EMPCA states: “The head of council (Mayor) or the council of a municipality may at any time declare that an emergency has terminated.” This did in fact occur in Cobourg, Ontario, where the SOLE was withdrawn last July. At the time Cobourg Mayor John Henderson clarified the Town's position: “I want to state that even though we are lifting the local state of emergency it does not mean the pandemic is over.”

Centre Wellington Township councillor Bob Foster can understand the reason for declaring a SOLE at the onset of the Pandemic, 14 months ago, but says these measures are no longer required. “The general principle is that Council meetings shall occur in the public realm. But shortly after the pandemic, the province suddenly changed legislation to allow Ontario councils to hold electronic meetings, and that is a game changer for municipal councils across the province” he said.

According to Foster, provisions in the EMPCA harken back to a different era. “Years ago, when an emergency occurred, emergency decisions had to be made but there were no ways for councils to meet during emergencies, so the easiest thing was to delegate Council power to the CAO. We didn't have ZOOM, we didn't even have cell phones or emails. Communication was much more difficult back then," he said.

“Fast-forward 30 years. We've got Zoom meetings, we've got great IT, we've got rapid communications via text and email. The reason for Council's delegation their authority has now disappeared in the information age. Years ago, there were no electronic meeting platforms, and with councils unable to meet there was no way to make emergency decisions. Then and only then, should a council delegate its authority. That was the spirit and intent of the original act.....and today's Technology has made this old process archaic. The Province gave us the Power to meet electronically for a reason. And we ought to be meeting, not delegating our authority to an unelected person."

Foster thinks that giving wide powers to the CAO, “is like giving a blank cheque". He says "The province requires us to be open and transparent and hold our meetings in public. But after 12 months with the Pandemic, we have had very little reporting on what the CAO is doing. This is neither transparent nor accountable government, and you have to wonder what is going on behind the scenes. Council meetings are working very well on ZOOM. But we've never rescinded the CAO emergency powers despite meeting normally on ZOOM, and you've got to ask the question, why? Why is there such reluctance to rescind the CAO emergency powers, when we have business-as-usual with Council zoom meetings? "

But there are at least two reasons why councils may be reluctant to retract the emergency; because they don't have to and the public doesn't seem to notice. As councillor Peters of St. Thomas alluded, it's easier to get things done without the public consultative process during a SOLE.

Questions remain about CAO's departure

The situation in Halton Hills is further complicated by the fact that the CAO went on personal leave a few months after receiving these extraordinary powers. The Town is reluctant to talk about former CAO Brent Marshall's status and whether he is still getting paid, citing personal matters. But we know that Marshall was on leave as of September 2020 and Chris Mills was named Acting CAO with the same delegated authority.

We also know that the former CAO was still getting his paycheque in 2020, despite being on leave for four months, according to the 2021 Sunshine List. In 2020, the Town of Halton Hills paid CAO Brent Marshall $267,597.25 and $1,347 in taxable benefits, up a couple of thousand dollars from his salary the previous year. To be clear, this rate of remuneration is not out of line with what other top-ranked CAOs make in Ontario, depending on the size of the municipality. Moreover, the Town is paying attention to transparency. Every month, the Town publishes a spread-sheet of all the expenditures authorized by the former CAO and Acting CAO since May 2020.

But nagging questions remain about the former CAO's departure: this isn't chump change we're talking about—it's more than a quarter of a million dollars. Is he still getting paid in 2021 or do we have to wait for next year's Sunshine List to find out? The former CAO may be entirely entitled to his compensation and the Town may be contractually obligated to pay him. But somewhere, sometime, someone will have to account for this situation.

More broadly speaking, questions need to be asked about the fragile state of our municipal democracy. 14 months into the pandemic do we still need the equivalent of the War Measures Act in effect at Halton Hills Town Council? Do we really need to have the purse-strings in the hands of one person? Most important, when can we expect Council to return to function the way it was intended?

Mayor Bonnette responded via email but declined to comment about when the local emergency might end. “Decisions continue to be made in a timely manner and we have, as an organization, continued to serve our community. Business is continuing as usual, it is just being managed differently. Going forward, the Town will continue to adhere to Public Health regulations and Provincial direction as we prioritize the health of our staff and the community. Based on the Provincial lens, business as usual is dependent on the vaccination rate.”


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