Special Report: Light Rail

Mountain Councillors Hijack LRT Information Meeting

Skelly and Whitehead are politicizing a formal communications process, obstructing a Council-approved project and undermining public confidence in city staff.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published September 22, 2016

According to news reports from CBC Hamilton and the Hamilton Spectator, Ward 7 Councillor Donna Skelly and Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead took over a public meeting organized by City and Metrolinx staff to explain the Hamilton Light Rail Transit (LRT) project and solicit feedback.

The CBC's Adam Carter writes:

City LRT guru Paul Johnson faced an onslaught of questions about the project at Wednesday night's public information session on the Mountain - except this time, many of them were from two city councillors.

For most of the other sessions across the city, councillors took a more hands off approach, leaving staff members to answer questions about the LRT project and gather input from residents one on one.

But at Wednesday night's session at the Sackville Hill Senior's Recreation Centre, Ward 7 Coun. Donna Skelly and Ward 8 Coun. Terry Whitehead were a focal point.

The Spectator's Teviah Moro quotes Councillor Skelly saying, "It smacks to me of a way to quash any dissension and to present a very positive, rosy picture" of the LRT plan.

Politicizing an Information Session

Paul Johnson is too professional to complain about these Councillors politicizing what is supposed to be a staff-led information session, but what they did is completely unacceptable.

Skelly and Whitehead deliberately staged a takeover of a public meeting to push their anti-LRT political agenda.

It's pretty hard for the public to get a straightforward view of the project when their elected councillors pop up trying to play gotcha with staff. In addition, Skelly and Whitehead apparently dominated the conversation instead of letting residents speak directly with staff.

These councillors have ample opportunity to ask staff questions and to communicate with their constituents: they don't need to monopolize a public meeting and attack staff. If they continue like this, the information meetings will turn into circuses, which is likely their real goal.

Attacking Staff

In particular, Skelly's comment is calculated to undermine public confidence in LRT planning staff by suggesting the process has been rigged.

This abusive behaviour violates Council's Code of Conduct, which requires Councillors to "be respectful of the role of City employees to advise based on political neutrality and objectivity and without undue influence from any individual member or faction of Council" and to "show respect for the professional capacities of City employees."

It is a shame that Skelly is following Whitehead's lead in attacking the integrity of staff and disrupting the normal process in order to score political points.

Undermining Council's Will

These councillors are not just undermining city staff and manipulating what is supposed to be a public information session: they are actually going against Council's will, expressed consistently through literally dozens of votes since 2006.

And the current term of Council has continued to vote consistently in support of LRT, including responding to the Provincial approval and funding announcement with motions to establish, staff and fund a City LRT office, establish an LRT Sub-Committee, set up Interim Control By-Laws for development lands along the LRT corridor, and sign a Memorandum of Agreement [PDF] with Metrolinx committing the City to cooperate on implementing the LRT.

When Skelly won the Ward 7 by-election this past March, she vowed to respect decisions Council had already made, like the city's LRT plan, which Council had consistently supported over many years.

Initially, Skelly said she was personally opposed to LRT but would support Council's decision, which is an honourable and normal position. Now she is actively interfering with the efforts of City and Metrolinx staff to implement a project Council has voted to support. So much for her promise.

Imagine if Councillors started doing this for other Council decisions they disagreed with: it would be chaos and the working lives of staff would be hell.

Is Councillor Whitehead going to show up at the Stelco tower and try to stop Hamilton Health Sciences employees from moving their offices?

It is no surprise staff morale is so low at City Hall!

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted September 22, 2016 at 13:12:48

It is no secret that I am a supporter of LRT, a position that accords with the official, stated and voted-upon support of council. Setting that aside, however, the actions of Councillors Skelly and Whitehead at this public information session are unconscionable.

I currently sit on the board of directors of the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Membership on this board carries with it important duties and responsibilities. Among those responsibilities is the duty to uphold decisions of the board, even when I personally disagree with them, and to conduct myself accordingly.

I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I would privately, let alone publicly, challenge an employee of the gallery while they were carrying out their duties.

Mr. Johnson is an employee of the city. He is doing his job, as directed by his boss, and as dictated by the decisions of council. To derail a public information session, to take him to task, to publicly question the validity of the project he is there to inform residents about, and to say, as Councillor Skelly did, that his information session "smacks to me of a way to quash any dissension and to present a very positive, rosy picture", is unacceptable.

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By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted September 22, 2016 at 18:42:04 in reply to Comment 120109

So are you saying that a Federal NDP MP should never criticize the decisions of the Governor of the Bank of Canada or a Supreme Court Justice or . . . because it happens all the time. I don't think you can center someone out and say they are not doing their job in public, but you can certainly cross-examine them as to the programs they are implementing. "Hey, your board's decision to maintain interest rates below American rates deflating Canadian dollars is hurting people who purchase American goods ... what do you have to say about that?" is not only fair game it is expected.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 22, 2016 at 19:58:48 in reply to Comment 120113

First, there is a big difference between how parliament operates and how city council operates. There is an opposition and a government federally. There is no 'government' at City Hall that is separate from Council. All Councillors are members of the government.

There is also a difference between the Governor of the Bank of Canada or a Supreme Court Justice (who are by legislation supposed to operate independently from the government and politics) and a municipal staff member whose job it is to carry out Council directives. Those federal officials do not carry out directives of the government, they must act independently!

There is also a big difference in power: a Supreme Court Justice and the Governor of the Bank of Canada are both powerful people who cannot be fired by an NDP MP. Municipal staff know that they could lose their job if they really upset enough of Council.

It would certainly wrong for an NDP MP to turn up at a public meeting organized by a civil servant to implement government policy and start suggesting their meeting was rigged and question their professional integrity, and that is what these two Councillors did and what Councillor Whitehead has done repeatedly, especially in regards to cycle infrastructure and complete streets in other wards. He also said the staff report on the bus lane was not reliable because staff were biased in favour of transit.

It would also be wrong for the Prime Minister, say, to question the professional integrity of a Supreme Court justice, or accuse the governor of the bank of Canada of deliberately endangering Canadians.

I disagree with Skelly and Whitehead's criticisms of LRT, but there is nothing wrong with them stating that they have serious questions about the project and raising these questions at Council.

But when they disrupt public meetings and suggest the results have been rigged or organized against the public interest they have gone too far! Remember that Council has directed staff to implement LRT and, unlike an NDP MP, Skelly and Whitehead are part of the the Muncipal government that directed staff to do this job. In fact, Whitehead even voted in favour of these resolutions!

In any case, it doesn't really matter what the rule are for federal MPs, such behaviour violates the City's Councillor code of conduct:

SECTION 13 - CONDUCT RESPECTING CITY EMPLOYEES 13.1

(a) members of Council shall be respectful of the role of City employees to advise based on political neutrality and objectivity and without undue influence from any individual member or faction of the Council;

(b) no member of Council shall maliciously, falsely, negligently or recklessly injure the professional or ethical reputation, or the prospects or practice of City employees; and

(c) members of Council shall show respect for the professional capacities of City employees.

13.4 No member of Council shall use, or attempt to use, their authority or influence for the purpose of intimidating, threatening, coercing, commanding, or influencing any City employee with the intent of interfering with that employee’s duties, including the duty to disclose improper activity.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2016-09-22 20:13:11

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By Suburbanite (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2016 at 14:14:51

I think the line from the Spec article speaks volumes: "Whitehead and Skelly told the crowd of about 50 that Johnson's job was to follow council's marching orders for the LRT project while their role is political".
They are placing their own political careers ahead of their mandated responsibilities under their Code of Conduct and the Municipal Act.
This has gone way too far!

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted September 22, 2016 at 14:23:11

It is time for Fred to move a motion at council to censure Terry Whitehead for continually violating the Code of Conduct. We risk losing good staff because of these foolish political games. And let's not fool ourselves, all of Terry's targets are staff doing work that they are mandated to do by council directive.

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted September 22, 2016 at 16:53:48

As your councilors continue to interfere... Today in Ottawa the first section of OCS (Overhead Catenary System), the electric wires that power the LRV's for the Confederation LRT Line, got turned on today at 10:30 AM to begin the testing of LRV's. Belfast Yard maintenance and Storage facility OCS wires were fully energized and tested today. Then over the next few weeks OCS sections going up the access track to the mainline and then west to the edge of Trembley Road Station. By late October all the OCS sections heading east all the way to Blair Station will be fully energized. All the LRT stations from Trembley Road east to Blair themselves won't be fully complete until February 2017. A few of them however, are ahead of schedule!

http://www.octranspo.com/about-octranspo...

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted September 22, 2016 at 19:00:19

I was really torn about going to the meeting last night. I ultimately ended up not going.

I wish I had, because...

  • I would not have tolerated 2 people paid by my taxes to interrupt the council meeting downtown to come and harass staff at a community event on the Mountain.

  • I would have asked Terry why he feels he needs to speak out "for his constituents" when I, too, am one of those constituents and am now fully in favour of LRT and the benefits it brings.

  • It's not appropriate for people who are there to learn more about LRT to be subjected to that, and they may not know either who the 2 people who walk in and start asking these "questions" and pushing their agenda are and/or think that this is acceptable from anyone

I'm glad I didn't, because...

  • I probably would've been escorted out

  • It could have undone a lot of progress made so far.

Was also really tempted to drive out of my way to the Dundas meeting tonight (I think my parents went to it...) and get an unbiased look at everything.

This has to stop. I have had it with the continual inappropriateness of the dynamic duo of Skelly and Whitehead.

CENSURE WHITEHEAD NOW

Comment edited by DowntownInHamilton on 2016-09-22 19:00:41

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 23, 2016 at 07:14:46 in reply to Comment 120114

I would have asked Terry why he feels he needs to speak out "for his constituents" when I, too, am one of those constituents and am now fully in favour of LRT and the benefits it brings.

Can I just take a moment to thank you for carefully considering this with an open mind? I know you have had serious concerns about the project in the past and I applaud you for your willingness to change your mind in light of the evidence. Seriously, thank you.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted September 23, 2016 at 08:58:56 in reply to Comment 120117

No problem. I had a serious change of heart when I stopped listening to the babble and looked at this like you would look at any business decision: The pros outweigh the cons here. And on top of that, "no risk, no reward".

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted September 23, 2016 at 10:59:56 in reply to Comment 120118

very well said. Are you still involved with Rolston?

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted September 23, 2016 at 15:54:57 in reply to Comment 120120

Sure am. Sometime I'll have to talk about "the letter".

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted September 23, 2016 at 17:58:11 in reply to Comment 120121

PLEASE DO. Would be insightful. Certainly not appropriate. I'm very impressed with the Rolston group, and with their leadership. Glad to hear you've connected there. I get Laura's email updates and they are fantastic and the progress being made by the group looks wonderful.

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By Suburbanite (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2016 at 06:04:49

For anyone that doesn't know, the $100 fee to file a complaint is refundable as long as the complaint isn't frivolous or vexatious.
Is anyone aware of any complaints being filed this week with the Integrity Commissioner? I'm not asking for anyone to identify themselves as a complainant, just if anyone is aware of any?

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted September 24, 2016 at 14:51:15 in reply to Comment 120116

For thos of us that might be interested, can you point in the direction of how to start this process. I went to the city website and ombuds which seem to direct me to Integrity.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 24, 2016 at 14:57:14 in reply to Comment 120124

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By stone (registered) | Posted September 23, 2016 at 09:36:29

How did the Dundas meeting go last night? Wighead and Skelletor seem to know better than to go to a meeting where there is another councillor present.

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