In the world of municipal politics, a year can make a world of difference.
A year ago, the hot button issue facing the sitting city council was the Oshawa Port Authority’s plans to extend Harbour Road.
That led to several lengthy council meetings in September with council deciding it didn’t like the terms laid out by the port authority.
To this day, the issue remains unresolved – but that could change sooner than later.
The majority of that city council – save for three members, Mayor Dan Carter and councillors Rick Kerr and John Neal, are gone. Ward 3 regional councillor Bob Chapman was no longer a sitting member as he had resigned to run in last June’s provincial election.
The Oshawa Port Authority itself no longer exists as it did on that day, having been amalgamated with the port authority in Hamilton earlier this year.
The current city council took over in December 2018, and will return to chambers for the first time since June with a special meeting on Sept. 12.
The first full-blown meeting of the fall session is on Monday, Sept. 26.
After nearly three months, they will have a lot to catch up on.
But this week’s Fourth Estate will look at the major issues faced by council during its first nine months of the term.
Beginning with the 2018 municipal election, Oshawa’s handling of the city’s homeless population became a trending topic.
Regional Chair candidate John Mutton often challenged eventual winner and former Oshawa Mayor John Henry on how the city’s council had performed.
More than 75 per cent of Durham Region’s homeless population can be found within Oshawa’s borders.
While the term “tent city” is a familiar term in Oshawa, it has become an area of focus, especially over the past few months.
At the last city council meeting in June, Ward 5 regional councillor Brian Nicholson noted some residents in his ward were having items stolen from their property.
These residents all live in an area that borders on the Oshawa Creek.
Nicholson said he believed the culprits were mostly members of a tent city established in the area.
He said extension cords were even being run up to nearby houses to steal power.
The veteran councillor said the thefts were not a representation of the actions of the entire group.
“The vast majority of those who are homeless are respectful of our communities, and do their best to deal with their living situation in a positive way,” Nicholson said.
The tent city was eventually torn down in late-June.
About a month later, another tent city popped up just west of Quebec Street, this time on private property.
The owner asked Durham Regional Police to attend and evict those living on his property.
Despite some belief the situation may get out of hand, most left peacefully and have moved on.
In a letter addressed to Durham Police Chief Paul Martin on Aug. 23, Mayor Carter stressed while the city is taking stakes to connect homeless individuals with housing and services, people living on city land and private property are having increasingly “negative impacts” on neighbours.
There are those in Oshawa who have vocally called on council to do more to address the issue.
Mayor Dan Carter said the city has 15 programs already in place to address homelessness and budgeted $200,000 this year for the Oshawa Unsheltered Residents (O.U.R.) program.
He said any perception the city isn’t addressing homelessness is incorrect.
“It was the City of Oshawa that convinced 28 members [of regional council] to get the Primary Care Outreach Program out there,” Carter said.
Mental health and addictions
The ongoing opioid crisis in Ontario is often lumped in with homelessness.
They go hand-in-hand, but people who get addicted to opioids come from all walks of life, different income levels, and social backgrounds.
Earlier this year, council was faced with the decision on whether to allow a consumption and treatment services (CTS) site in the city.
Last fall, the provincial government announced CTS sites would replace the former model of supervised consumption services and overdose prevention sites.
The sites will receive provincial funding and secure a federal exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
However, applications hinge on the approval of the local municipality.
After a marathon meeting that went to nearly 1 a.m., council voted against allowing a CTS site by a six to five vote.
Carter, Nicholson, Chapman, Kerr and Derek Giberson were in favour, while councillors John Gray, Tito-Dante Marimpietri, Rosemary McConkey, Jane Hurst, Bradley Marks, and Neal were opposed. A great number of residents came forward on the issue as well.
Those in favour said it would offer hope to those facing addiction and mental health issues.
One downtown business owner says she is constantly in fear of showing up to her building and finding someone dead from an overdose on her property.
Others argued against the CTS, believing it would promote drug use and would lead to an array of secondary issues.
Carter admitted the application process for the site hadn’t given council much time to decide, but his support hinged on doing “everything we possibly can to save people’s lives.”
At a later council meeting, several residents came forward with concerns another CTS site application would come forward, but at this point no effort is in place.
Cannabis retail stores
While cannabis is now legal in Canada, municipalities in Ontario were presented with a choice earlier this year: either they were in or they were out.
In January and February, cities, towns, and villages across the province voted whether they would welcome cannabis retail stores within their boundaries.
Outside of that decision, municipalities did not have much say in where and how many stores they would get.
After another marathon meeting, council voted seven to four in favour of opting in for stores.
Those who were in favour argued that marijuana was now legal in this country, and the City of Oshawa could do nothing to change that.
It was also argued it would allow people to purchase the product legally, and not off the streets where it could be laced with other substances such as fentanyl.
Although the matter was now out of council’s hands, Oshawa’s store, eventually franchised as Tokyo Smoke on Laval Drive, faced delays before opening in late-July.
Two more applicants from Oshawa were selected in the latest lottery by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, but they were disqualified.
For now, Oshawa remains as home to only one cannabis retail store.
Relations with a new provincial government
From the moment Premier Doug Ford and his Conservative government took office in June 2018, it was clear its priority would be making a dent in Ontario’s billions of dollars of debt.
When former Premier Mike Harris won a majority in 1995, the province had a historic level of amalgamation and downloading of services to municipalities.
While this has yet to happen to the same degree, it is clear the provincial coffers will not be as open to municipalities.
The province is currently undertaking a review of regional governments, which while not directly involving Oshawa, could have a great impact on the city.
What the result of that review will be is still completely unknown, but city council was clear it is not accepting of an amalgamation of any type.
Ford has directed municipalities to follow his government’s lead, and find as many efficiencies as possible.
The province is even offering funds for municipalities to find efficiencies in their budgets.
But Mayor Carter told The Oshawa Express after the recent Association of Municipalities of Ontario Conference he believes better communication is needed from the province.
“I’m very concerned with some of the proposed changes that the provincial government is going to require municipalities to undertake,” he says.
He is unsure of exactly where all the responsibility will land moving forward.
“What will be downloaded? What will be uploaded, if anything?” he wonders. “What are the roles and responsibilities that we may have, or may not have?”
Transparency and accountability
Transparency and accountability are two words that echo out in the halls of council chambers more often than most.
Several new members of council campaigned on a promise to create a more open atmosphere at city hall.
Carter himself said the city needed to move towards more of a “customer service” driven model.
Earlier this year, the city finally released thousands of documents related to the much-maligned 2013 purchase of 199 Wentworth Street East for a consolidated works depot.
The city had originally been told to release the documents by August 2018, but more than seven months passed until the documents were finally released at the end of March 2019.
During that time, both city clerk Andrew Brouwer and city manager Jag Sharma left the corporation.
Trust in city hall was shaken again when details of a closed report came forward in April about the possible closure of the city’s Animal Services department.
It was revealed the Humane Society of Durham Region had approached the city about taking over services.
Animal lovers and some members of council made a public outcry of backroom politics, a notion dismissed by Carter and Kerr, the chair of the city’s community services committee.
While the Humane Society eventually pulled back its offer, some members of the public accused council of showing anything but transparency and accountability.
With fall just around the corner, it is time for the men and women of Oshawa city council to face a whole new array of issues, and continue to discuss these at length.