Residents who have expressed concern about language in the new parks use bylaw that closes Meaford's public parks through the winter months are right to be concerned, because words matter, and the way the bylaw reads, Meaford, the town that has been striving to be a year-round tourist destination, is closed for business during the winter where parks are concerned.
The bylaw also includes language that closes the parks overnight in the warmer months, which would mean that early morning park walkers, or those wishing to fish from the shore of a public park early in the morning hours, would technically be committing an act of trespass.
While I agree with Councillor Bartley that nobody is going to be issued a ticket for sitting on a park bench an hour before the official opening time, unless of course they are causing problems, in which case this new bylaw has some 'teeth' to quote Councillor Bartley, but words are important, and when they are printed in a bylaw they do indeed have teeth that could be used on anyone regardless of their activities in a public park simply because the words are there.
I fully understand that insurance and liability mitigation are the culprits at work behind the wording included in the bylaw. I understand that we live in a litigious society, and businesses and governments need to limit their potential liability as much as possible in as many areas as possible. So I understand the intent of the bylaw; what I don't understand are the words used.
Rather than stating that Meaford's parks are 'closed' for the winter, why couldn't it simply state that the municipality doesn't staff or maintain parks in the winter months? Why couldn't the bylaw simply say that in the winter there are no washrooms, no trash cans, and no staff in the parks? Or if the word 'closed' must be used, why not say that municipal park maintenance services are 'closed' through the winter?
I truly don't think that a family building snowmen in McCarroll Park in January need to fear the law showing up to issue a trespassing ticket, but the wording of the bylaw would allow that to happen, so it isn't enough to say that it wouldn't happen, because it could.
In spite of having issues with the wording themselves, Meaford councillors voted in favour of the bylaw, and while I assume they voted in favour of the bylaw because wording aside it is an important document and one that we should have had on the books many years ago, I am surprised that they let the wording issue go so quickly. I would have liked to see a couple of them stick to their guns and insist on revamping the wording contained in the document.
The vote in favour in spite of their own reservations highlights a criticism that I have frequently heard of this and previous councils – that they allow the tail to wag the dog – and there's no doubt that from time to time most municipal councils find themselves blindly following the advice from staff. But that doesn't make it right – it might be a common practice, but it isn't a best practice, and on this issue, I think that council didn't push back hard enough. And, I suspect that many of them have paid the price with angry email and phone messages over the past week.
Do I think we will see people charged with the act of trespassing for being in our parks this winter? No I don't, but the fact that the wording of the bylaw says that they could should be a concern to the community, and to those we elected to represent us.
I believe the 'it will never happen' sentiment about as much as I believe the 'I will lower taxes' claim by politicians. It is very possible that nobody will ever be kicked out of one of our parks for walking their dog at five in the morning, and it is quite unlikely that a family will be issued a ticket on Boxing Day for testing out their new snowshoes in one of our parks, but given the wording of the bylaw, it not only could but should.
For candidates in the upcoming municipal election, this bylaw has provided much fodder for criticizing our current council, and I suspect the issue will be revisited once the new council takes over in December – simply because words are important.