LITTLE CURRENT – It was the third time the topic had been on the agenda for discussion and as with the previous council meetings, it led to stark divisions among the councillors and mayor.
Councillor Al MacNevin upheld his promise from the previous council meeting, putting forward a motion to rescind the public meeting.
He also requested that the item entitled “building permit fees for Northland Power/McLean’s Mountain Wind Project” under old business, be split into two topics— building permit fees and Northland Power/McLean’s Mountain Wind Project—as well as requesting that a motion to rescind resolution 304-12-20 “to hold a public meeting to establish a building permit fee structure” be added to the agenda.
Council had a recorded vote on the motion to split building permit fees and Northland Power/McLean’s Mountain Wind Project. The motion was carried with Councillors Marcel Gauthier, Al MacNevin, Dawn Orr, Paul Skippen and Bruce Wood supporting the motion and Councillors Michael Erskine, Christina Jones and Mayor Chapman voting against the change.
The mayor was outraged that Councillor MacNevin put forward a motion to rescind the public meeting.
“This is totally improper!” the mayor declared. “Let’s just see who seconds this motion. The community is watching and they know who you are protecting.”
“I’m going to ask you to follow protocol,” replied Councillor MacNevin. “Now I have a motion on the table and I’m looking for a seconder.”
Councillor Paul Skippen raised his hand and announced that he would second Councillor MacNevin’s motion.
“Now I know who’s afraid to speak to the community,” observed Mayor Chapman.
Mayor Chapman began the discussion on building permit fees by questioning, “Is this council going to look at every other tax and fee, but wind turbines?”
Councillor Skippen asked CAO Dave Williamson if municipal costs were up.
“I have not done the calculations as the issue was not on the agenda, but most certainly they are in terms of labour and hydro,” replied Mr. Williamson.
Councillor Jones suggested that town staff look into the current building permit fee structure generally and in terms of wind turbines, to provide council with an updated building permit fee structure.
Councillor Erskine agreed with Councillor Jones saying, “I don’t think that a change in building permit fees is going to stop wind turbines, but I have a strong problem with one special deal for one special company.”
“Building permit fees affect a whole host of things from contractors to home owners and we need to hold a public meeting to give the community a chance to comment,” stressed the mayor.
“When I left for the holidays, we were having the same discussion as we are now,” stated Councillor Dawn Orr. “I am not known for giving a ‘sweet deal.’ We had public meetings and we listened to people at that time. We have experts and we need to trust the people we hire. They told us what it would cost for a wind turbine and myself and the pervious council established a rate based on staff recommendations.”
Councillor Orr was referring to how, under the direction of the last council, town staff calculated the time it would take to review a wind turbine plan, deal with contractors and provide overall service, and informed council that it would cost “approximately $2,000 in terms of manpower, labour, and support per turbine.”
Councillor Orr raised her voice and banged her hand on the table stating,” I really resent being told that I gave a ‘sweetheart deal.’ I am not afraid to go to the public, I have done it several times.”
“If the shoe fits, wear it,” shot back the mayor.
Councillor MacNevin accused Mayor Chapman of being out of order, to which he responded that Councillor Orr was out of order by banging on the table.
Councillor Jones put forward a motion to direct staff to provide council with an updated building permit fee structure, which was seconded by Councillor Erskine. The majority of council agreed that an updated building permit fee structure was a good idea and the motion was carried.
Councillor Orr questioned if staff would be able to have the update ready for the next council meeting, to which Mr. Williamson replied “we will ensure we utilize our resources to have something ready for council by the next meeting on January 17.”
The next item on the agenda was Northland Power/The MacLean’s Mountain Wind Project.
“The only point I’m going to make,” began the mayor. “I don’t think….actually I will keep my comments to myself for now.”
Finally, council discussed the motion to rescind the public meeting scheduled for January 24. The motion was moved by Councillor MacNevin and seconded by Councillor Gauthier.
“We’ve now asked for a report from town staff,” said Councillor MacNevin, “and I expect it should be fairly lengthy. I think January 24 is too soon for a public meeting. We should have more time than a week to review and discuss staff findings and what if staff comes back to council not recommending any change to the current building permit fee structure? It will be too late to cancel the meeting and there will be no need for a public meeting.”
Councillor MacNevin added that he felt council should reach a firm decision on the issue of building permit fees before holding a public meeting.
Councillor Erskine spoke to Councillor MacNevin’s comments saying that he felt that council was too caught up with the issue of wind turbines and not the issue at hand—building permit rates.
“I am also troubled by Councillor MacNevin’s comments that we need to reach a decision on the issue before we go to the public,” said Councillor Erskine. “Let me correct that: I have a big problem. I prefer to hear what the community has to say before making up my mind.”
Councillor Orr argued that normally council reaches a decision before going to the public.
Councillor Gauthier agreed with Councillor Orr. “I have a lot of respect for town staff. When we go to the public with a budget, the public criticizes or accepts it, but we go prepared and then take feedback,” said Councillor Gauthier. “This issue should be the same.”
Council went back and forth on the matter with Councillors Wood and Skippen agreeing with Councillor Gauthier and Orr, while Mayor Chapman and Councillor Erskine defended the need for the public to be heard prior to council reaching a decision.
At one point, a comment from the mayor was followed by a groan from a member of the audience, leading the mayor to ask the individual to leave the meeting.
After banter between the mayor and audience member, the mayor retracted his comment asking her to leave.
“One group is getting a sweetheart deal, almost a million-dollar break,” said the mayor.
Councillor Skippen said he agreed that a public meeting should be held after council had sufficient time to review the updated information that staff would be providing council with on January 17.
“Can I put forward a friendly amendment to just defer having a public meeting?” questioned Mr. Skippen.
“No, because it is not a friendly amendment and I would not support it,” replied the mayor.
The motion to rescind the public meeting to establish a building permit fee structure was voted on and passed by Councillors Gauthier, MacNevin, Orr, Skippen and Wood. Councillors Erskine and Jones and Mayor Chapman opposed the motion
By way of background to the January 3 debate, at the December 6 Northeast Town council meeting, an item entitled ‘building permit fees’ had been added to the agenda following a previous public statement from the mayor who had said that he wished to have another look at the fees.
Councillor Al MacNevin had been opposed to the addition to the agenda, stating that he did not feel council should rediscuss the issue of building permit fees for industrial wind turbines and then put forward a motion to remove the item from the agenda.
This began a long debate and grew into an argument between Councillor MacNevin and Mayor Chapman over the previously established building permit fees for industrial wind turbines. (The previous council had agreed upon a flat building fee for each wind turbine nearly two years ago.)
In the end, council voted to remove the item from the agenda, many councillors stating that they were either unprepared to discuss the topic or that the topic of building permit fees for wind turbines had already been exhausted.
Later on, the December 20 council meeting when the mayor revisited building permit fees, there was still a great deal of debate among all of council.
“Are we really going to do this again?” questioned Councillor MacNevin at the beginning of that meeting.
This time, however, council voted to leave the item on the agenda and discuss building permit fees.
The mayor put forward a motion for “Council of the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Island to eliminate the category of wind turbines from the building permit fee schedule and for wind turbines to be assessed fees the same as any other industrial structure.”
Councillor Marcel Gauthier questioned CAO Dave Williamson if it was possible to pass the motion without a public meeting, to which Mr. Williamson responded that this would not be possible.
The motion was deferred and a new motion was brought forward to hold a public meeting motion to establish a building permit fees structure.
The public meeting was moved by Councillor Michael Erskine and seconded by Councillor Christina Jones.
Councillor MacNevin stated it was “unreal” and that it would be unfair to discuss the motion with two councillors not present, Dawn Orr and Paul Skippen, and suggested that they defer the second motion to the next meeting.
“I for one am concerned about there being a building permit fee just for wind turbines,” said Councillor Bill Koehler. “There should be one industrial rate that should apply to everyone. This was a special exception. Even the new hotel paid the full fee.”
The mayor repeated that the previous town council gave the wind industry a “sweetheart deal.”
“This was a special exception,” stated the mayor at the December 20 meeting. “I have a big problem with one industry getting a special deal.
Council voted on the motion, passing it and setting a public meeting date for January 24.
Despite council’s January 3 decision to rescind the proposed January 24 public meeting to discuss the municipal building permit fee structure, council could still decide to hold a public meeting in the future to discuss the issue, depending on the information brought to council on January 17 by town staff.
As of the last meeting, Councillors Jones, Erskine and the mayor were in favour of revisiting the issue. Councillor Koehler was absent, but has in the past expressed that he would like to reevaluate the building permit fee structure and wind turbine fees specifically. If another councillor is swayed by the information presented at the next council meeting, it could flip the majority. Regardless, community members can expect much more debate on the topic.