It's never easy (or common) for politicians to admit when they have messed up, but when they do, you have to respect it.
A little more than a month after having approved a new parks use bylaw, Meaford's council decided to revisit the language used which caused concern and anger among many residents.
Public backlash was almost instantaneous after council's vote to approve the bylaw on September 24. At issue is the word 'closed', and as I have written in a previous editorial, words matter, and residents were sure to let members of council know that the wording used in the bylaw was troublesome.
While the intent of the bylaw was to address potential liabilities as well as to provide some teeth for bylaw enforcement officers when troublemakers cause issues in our parks, many residents were concerned about the bylaw stating that municipal parks were 'closed' from November through April. Perhaps even more concerning was the threat of trespass charges should anyone violate the bylaw.
Many residents envisioned the law showing up at a local park to issue tickets to families making snowmen, or walking their dogs over the winter months. Some of the folks I talked to about the bylaw didn't accept that the intent of the bylaw was to deal with troublemakers, not someone simply walking their dog. Nor did they accept the argument that municipal bylaws are enforced by complaint, so before any trespass charges would even be considered, someone would first need to call in a complaint which would then be investigated by a bylaw enforcement officer.
Why wouldn't otherwise reasonable people accept the reality of the intent of the bylaw? Quite simply because the words are there, and if they are there they can be acted upon. Current members of council could insist all they want that the bylaw would never be used unless absolutely warranted, but then we've heard that over the decades about the Notwithstanding Clause and our constitution, yet we all saw what happened just a few months ago. Why did it happen? Because the words allowed it, and Meaford residents aren't stupid – they know that if the words in our Parks Use Bylaw aren't wisely chosen, they could be abused years down the road.
That council has heard residents and has set in motion the procedure to revisit the language used in the bylaw is admirable, and deserving of credit. Too often people these days feel that governments don't really hear them, and don't really care, but this council has acted quickly to correct a blunder that could easily have been avoided if only different words had been chosen.
So council has asked staff to bring a report and revised bylaw to council later this month for their consideration, and I suspect we will see a revised bylaw approved that indicates that Meaford's parks aren't maintained during the winter months as opposed to stating that they are closed, and I suspect we will see revised language with some added clarity regarding the ability to charge individuals with trespassing should they be causing trouble during the months that our parks hibernate under a thick layer of snow.
While there might be some comic relief to be found in watching seven members of council scramble to revisit the wording of a bylaw that they had approved mere weeks ago, but in reality this group of councillors has done exactly what we expect them to do when we elected them – they listened to residents, and they are representing ratepayers' concerns by going back to the drawing board. You can't really ask much more of elected representatives than that.
I hope that council and staff get it right in this second try, and I suspect they will. I have written many times that I don't envy municipal councillors; they have a job that can be thankless much of the time. But when it's done well, even when there are bumps in the road such as this, the challenges can be overcome and corrected.
Democracy at work – it's a beautiful thing to witness, particularly at this time of year, when we remember the sacrifices that have helped to allow us to live in an open democracy where we the people can hold our elected representatives to account over issues big and small.