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THE CONVERSATION: A work in progress

Town of Pelham Mayor Marvin Junkin. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Six months into the job, Marv Junkin says that he and council are steadily meshing better, one meeting at a time

BY DAVE BURKET
The VOICE

 

Pelham residents went to the polls last October and overwhelmingly voted for change—tossing out every incumbent from Town Council, from Regional Council, from the DSBN. It was a particularly stunning turn of events for Pelham councillors, some of whom had served multiple terms, becoming seemingly indelible parts of Pelham’s political landscape. Aside from Mayor Marv Junkin, who previously served on council before resigning in protest in late 2017, all of the newly elected councillors were neophytes, having never held political office.

The new council has inherited a massive municipal debt, a number of contentious issues—cannabis grow-op odours, Airbnb proliferation, traffic congestion among them—as well as a lingering public distrust of, and loss of faith in, Pelham Town Hall. There was early friction between some councillors and Junkin, whose unfiltered sense of humour—often expressed in offhand jokes in email—wasn’t always received in the same spirit. Relations lately seem to be on the mend, though, with council opting to start its regular meetings an hour earlier to tackle the workload. The Voice requested comment from each councillor, in their own words, on their impressions of their first six months in office. We sat down last week with Mayor Junkin to get his.

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

BURKET: So, six months in, how are you feeling in general?

JUNKIN: I’m feeling a satisfied with the job that we as councillors have done in the last six months, the things that we have accomplished. Between stopping a couple of road projects and tweaking the community centre, we’re probably well on the way to saving the Town over $1 million this coming fiscal year. I think we’ve been open and transparent with what we’re doing so far.

Which road projects?

Number one was deferring the roundabout at Station Street and Summersides Boulevard. That roundabout might be needed in five years, might never be needed at all, and it definitely isn’t needed now. So when we found out that work was underway to have this roundabout done immediately we, as a council, we pushed it back to five years, and that had a price tag of $800,000 on it. So that was substantial savings right off the bat.

Speaking of Station Street, there are what look like sewer lines, stand pipes, that are sticking up out of the ground. What’s the story there? Why has that been delayed.

That has been delayed, not by the contractor who has done the job—which was new water lines put into all those houses, a new water main and then lines into the houses where the water main has gotten installed. The contractor has been waiting an unreasonable amount of time for utility locates and, for whatever reason, the Town has not been pressuring the company that does the locates enough. So the contractor has been sitting idly, waiting for these locates and they haven’t been forthcoming. And now that the gas company has started at the other end on Port Robinson Road, the [water] contractor isn’t allowed to do anything until the gas company leaves. So now we’re back into the fall yet. It’s maybe one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing, and thus an unreasonable delay for the residents for sure.

These first six months, you and council working together. I don’t think it’s any great secret that there was a little bit of friction between councillors, and between some councillors and you. How are relations faring now?

I would say that on this council there are very strong personalities involved, which I think is a good thing. Maybe people are used to getting their own way without going through the proper channels, without trying to become cohesive with their other council members. But I see that improving tremendously in the last couple of months. And I think that it was just a case of everybody learning parliamentary procedure at council, and maybe getting to know each other’s personalities. In the last couple of months there has been a great improvement between everyone, whether it be between councillors, or between councillors and myself. We’ve—I think it’s honest to say that we’ve all matured a lot more into the roles we have, and myself included.

I think at some point there was talk of bringing in a sort of counselor for the councillors, to help everyone get along. Is that still going to happen?

Well, I will confirm that we were thinking of doing that, but just because the conditions have improved so much I really would be against that now. I think that we can figure it out going ahead ourselves without bringing in an outside consultant.

Have there been one or two issues in particular that have been causing some of this friction?

Oh, I think right at the beginning when we had the 1120 Haist [old Pelham arena] sale. I, and then a few other councillors were thinking that it was a done deal. And then, the night of the vote, it wasn’t a done deal. And the ones who thought it was a done deal felt kind of, what’s the word, blindsided by the ones who voted to stop the sale.

I’m looking at the Municipal Election Survey we did before the election last October. One of the questions was on the arena. “I support stopping the planned sale of the old Pelham arena in order to assess the public’s genuine preference for the site’s future.” Stewart, Ciolfi, are strong yesses. Ron Kore, Wink, Hildebrandt. Everyone, you too. So given that the Town did its information sessions, and took a poll, and the Voice did a poll, both showing overwhelming support for selling the arena, why was that not enough, do you think?

Well that was the question, the million dollar question, that was asked the next day after that vote of council. That’s why I felt blindsided. I thought that we had done more than due diligence—that obviously 85% of respondents to the poll who wanted us to sell it. So yeah, I just, yeah, there was, I couldn’t understand it at the time. But looking back, maybe they had legitimate reasons, they didn’t have enough information. It just, that particular instance, it would have helped if we had communicated a lot more together to find out that there wasn’t consensus on that going into the vote.

Here we are, with council having voted to sell it after all. Are there any active offers?

The second week of June is when it’s officially back on the market. The realtor that is handling the sale tells us that there is still a lot of interest. I have no doubt that it will be sold relatively quickly.

The one big change is that it’s being sold now without the previous conditions, without the approved designs that the Town came up with.

That’s right. So now whoever buys that comes to council with their own design, hopefully not having the back alleys. The builders didn’t like the last design, so now they can bring forward something that they can live with.

This is still subject to Town approval and public consultation?

Maybe there is a public meeting. Definitely council approval.

[Interim CAO Teresa Quinlin later confirmed that, “public process is a requirement of the subdivision approval,” and that the public would have a say as to the preferred design for council to approve.]

The second biggest issue that you faced probably would be cannabis. Is that fair to say? The interim control bylaw?

Yes, but that was unanimous council feeling. Not giving the [Leviathan] exemption, setting up the cannabis committee, that went as expected. There was a little controversy there, I guess, just because I felt that we should have had growers on that committee. Other council members voted not to have growers. I still think it’s a mistake, but we’ll be fine the way it is. We’ve got a lot of good people on that committee and, yeah, I think everybody’s anxiously awaiting to see what they bring forward to council.

You’re set to have a meeting next Wednesday, a special council meeting, on a personnel issue. I think it’s safe to say this probably relates to the search for a new CAO, maybe coming to an end?

Yes, I think you noted in the paper we had 46 original resumes submitted, and then we quickly took that down—the HR person took that down pretty quickly to 30, I believe. Actually, she took it down a lot more so that the selection committee—I believe we had 12, and the selection committee has now got that down to a lower number and these will be doing presentations to council [on Wednesday]. Then council as a whole will select the new CAO.

So it’s conceivable that by the time this issue comes out next week, by Wednesday evening, we’ll have a new CAO.

Yep. I imagine we will have, yes. It was surprising just how our choices were compatible with each other, on the selection committee. The scoring, everything was pretty well unanimous. There was no knock-him-out arguments about why one person supported another, but pretty unanimous all the way down to where we are.

Remind me who’s also on the committee—it’s Wink, Ciolfi—

Yep. Wink, Ciolfi, and we also have an HR person, from Town staff, guiding us.

I can’t say for sure that this council has more committees than previous councils, but it seems like you’ve got a couple of extra ones. The cannabis committee, the audit committee.

Sustainability committee, MCC user committee.

We’re running a survey now, as you know, asking readers about council’s performance so far, and the issues that people have top-of-mind. We’re talking here on Thursday, so it’s early days yet, but the pattern looks pretty well set that the biggest concern is the size of Pelham’s debt and the Town’s financial stability. How confident are you that the new audit committee will be able to answer the concerns about finances that voters had last October?

So I think that had the audit committee, with the residents also on that committee, I think they’re going to have a better idea as to how Town money has been spent in the past. I think they’re going to be going down that road and asking questions. I surely hope they will, because I know that the huge number of people in the community are still wondering how we got in this mess.

The community centre expense isn’t helping.

As far as the MCC, we have to realize that the figures that the other council put forward for operating expenses were not realistic. And that I would think myself, after seeing the books, that the costs of that building have got to be somewhere between $500,000 and $600,000 a year, above what we get for revenue.

You’re saying the losses will be $500,000 to $600,000 a year?

Definitely. The Town is going to have to subsidize that building—

That’s in perpetuity? That’s never going to change?

If we can get our losses down to $500,000, we would be doing an amazing job. I think more realistically it’s going to be closer to $600,000. I knew after talking to various other municipalities, when I was on council [starting in 2014], and they all told us that it was going to be between $500,000 and $600,000. So it wasn’t a surprise to me. It might be a surprise of members of the community. The figures weren’t right.

The Town’s projected [MCC] operating costs in early 2018 presented a hydro estimate that was significantly lower than many of our readers at the time, and a couple of accountants, thought was realistic, just a prosperously low figure. History has proven that correct, that the actual utility costs are much higher than what were forecast. Is there any way to change this?

The estimate was not based on reality of any of any sort. Right now, Councillor Hildebrandt is in those discussions with hydro. We’re hoping for at least another $50,000 to $70,000 worth of savings on what we have now.

Is there any potential for changing the electricity supplier?

We’ve looked into that. Unfortunately, if we were to go outside our territory now to a different supplier, it would probably go to a lawsuit that would not end up well for us.

Beyond the old arena, the Town is also still trying to sell its East Fonthill lands. One project that was already underway, the 10-story, so-called “seniors” apartment building project, we’ve heard won’t be happening.

It’s definitely been quiet on that front. Yeah. Yes. That’s all I can say, that it’s been quiet on that front. If I was a betting man, I would bet that the original owner is not going to do anything. Now whether he flips the property and someone else takes that on, we’ll have to wait and see.

Can you say what’s changed?

No, I really can’t. I don’t know why this original company has had second thoughts of doing the project. We really don’t know what the hold-up is.

There are other parcels that have already sold, fronting Highway 20 before Rice Road, and there are new requests for two drive-throughs. Are we getting fast food restaurants coming in there?

I don’t know what the plan is, to tell you the honest truth. But I know the dollar value of that land is substantially more than if it wasn’t on Highway 20. And because of that [the developer] likes to put in fast food restaurants or that type of thing, because they get the best return. Those two drive-throughs weren’t on the original plan, so it has to be amended by council, which it will be.

When do you think that’ll happen?

Oh, probably sometime during the summer.

Have any other parcels sold?

Let’s say that there will be some announcements made in the next two or three months, once the deals close.

So, for sure, confirmed sales. Can you say commercial or residential?

They are confirmed sales but, we can’t at this time discuss what’s going on in there.

Another topic from our pre-election candidate survey was Town communications. You, and each candidate elected, strongly supported a comprehensive review and overhaul of the Town’s communication strategy with residents. Has council undertaken any sort of effort in that direction?

We are in the process of completely rebuilding our website, because I think anyone who has tried to use that—we haven’t had very many favorable comments on it in the past. So hopefully with the rebuilding and restructuring it will be a lot more user-friendly in the not-so-distant future. And, of course, this council has tried to reestablish communication with the Voice. We realize that it’s a vital link from council to the community. We’re glad to see that relations have improved immensely between the Voice and the council.

Well, it’s interesting you say that because I would agree that, certainly with [Interim CAO] Theresa Quinlan and [Public Relations and Communications Specialist] Mark MacDonald, the difference has been night and day, so that’s been quite encouraging. I’m a little less encouraged, however, by council as a whole. There have been some occasions over the past couple of months where we’ve reached out for comment on various issues and received either no comment, or comment from just one or two councillors, and that’s a little bit worrying. Do you have any insights, any advice, on that?

No, not really. I know that on this particular article, the story of our first six months, I encouraged the councillors to use this opportunity to reach out and tell the community their thoughts—is it more work, less work, than they expected. Actually, I can honestly say that they all say it’s more work, I’m sure.

What else is on the horizon. Are there any Airbnb bylaws planned?

We’re working towards that. Unfortunately, the planning department is bogged down with the cannabis issue and are working very closely with the cannabis advisory committee to come up with bylaws before the deadline of October 15. Plus there’s the usual work on the new subdivisions that are happening in East Fonthill. So we haven’t had as much movement on the Airbnb problem as we would have liked. It may be a summer of discontent there, but it is on our horizon to deal with it.

Everyone who was elected supported or strongly supported reestablishing a Heritage Committee. Any progress there?

No, that’s another item that has been shuffled to the back burner, but hopefully in the fall it will be moved up to the front. I think there’s lots of council support for that.

The Haist Street chicane, which has earned the ire of so many residents—any plans to change that?

Council will not act unless we have a petition signed by a lot of the residents of that area. We have more-or-less been waiting for a resident group to make a presentation to council, and then we would definitely discuss the options. Do we remove it, do we put a three-way stop at Brewerton, or just what would replace it. I think a lot of people thought we should have put stop signs at Brewerton to begin with.

Related to traffic, the pre-election survey also asked candidates whether they supported calling on Niagara Regional Police to dedicate a full-time traffic enforcement constable to Pelham, even if this meant a cost to the Town. Looking at the answers, all the candidates supported or strongly supported this—except Mike Ciolfi, who was on the fence. Do you see anything happening with that?

When I first got elected to council, in 2014, we did have some NRP representative up here before council, and took questions from councillors. I’m kind of sad that we’re so far into our mandate and we haven’t had them come before us. We’ve been so busy with other pressing issues, cannabis and what have you. Now that I’m reminded of it, I’m going to be asking them to make a presentation so that council can get a better handle on what their problems are, and hopefully they can appreciate what our problems are— when we have citizens phone up on a pretty steady rate, complaining about speeding issues.

And the congestion, of course, is a symptom of all the new housing.

I believe that once the Region punches a hole through from the 406 along Merritt to Rice Road, I think that will take a lot of traffic off of Highway 20.

Is there an actual timetable for that happening? That’s been discussed for many years.

The environmental assessment will be done this year. So I’m thinking that next year, or for sure within two years, it will be done. I think that’ll be a big improvement on the traffic pattern of Pelham.

Will there be a Pelham—or a municipality called Pelham—in two years? From the meetings you’ve attended, what’s the likelihood of amalgamation happening? And what do you think it would look like?

Oh, I think that definitely this October, maybe November, we will hear what the province has in mind for Niagara. The two main positions put forward are either one Niagara, with possibly 16 wards, and the other is four cities that follow federal and provincial ridings, which would put Pelham with Wainfleet, West Lincoln, Lincoln, and Grimsby. Mostly a rural riding in the south, but in the north with Grimsby, that would be our urban center more than Pelham and Lincoln, just by the numbers.

Potentially we could become the city of Grimsby.

Yeah, it would be a big change, that’s for sure. Either way. Then of course you can almost foretell that Grimsby will have the mayor, because they have the most voters. Pelham will have one or two council members sitting on the new city council. If we go the other way, if you can envision Niagara being one city, then I’m thinking at the most, we would have two councillors on a regional board. Either way, we run the risk of getting lost the shuffle, no doubt about it.

Do you prefer either option?

Not really, but maybe the one city, because if we do go to four cities, we’re still going to have to have some kind of a commission that would look after police services, social services, trash and water services that spanned the cities. So then you still would have two tiers if we went to four cities. Whereas if you just want one regional city, then those items would already be taken care of within the region.

This isn’t a huge issue, but there’s been some talk about whether the Region will take over the airports in Niagara-on-the-Lake and here in Pelham. Do you have any insight, as a Regional councillor, as to whether that may happen?

Well, the Region is right now doing a business plan for both airports. The Regional councillors, they don’t want to take over something that’s losing money and I don’t, and unless the Regional staff can come up with a business plan that—if not immediately, but in the future—shows that these two airports can be viable businesses, then I don’t think the will is going to be on Regional Council to take them over. And if we don’t, then Niagara-on-the-Lake has said that they will sell to private businesses who are more than willing to operate that airport. Now, I don’t think anyone has made an offer on Pelham’s airport. So that airport would continue to be run by the four municipalities.

As mayor, you do double-duty as a Regional councillor. How’s that going?

The workload at the Region for the first six months was very heavy, a lot heavier than at the Town really, because you’ve got to get up to speed on social issues, housing, wastewater, the police—all those big-ticket items. It’s a lot of reading, so at least you’re a somewhat aware of what’s going on throughout the peninsula. It took a lot more than I thought to get up to speed at the Regional level, whereas the Town, I don’t think there were any surprises for me there. I knew that we had a great staff, and I think we do even more so now.

Do you think council handled the arches issue well, the offer to replace them?

In the back of my mind, I always thought that the arches would win out, if that’s the right phrase, but at the same time as a council we had to allow the rest of the community to have a say, in case there was another idea, a better idea, other than the arches, but absolutely nothing came forward. I think it was just automatic that council approved the Rotary Club offer. As far as I’m concerned it was a very generous offer. But it would have been remiss of this council to just take it without giving people an opportunity to come forward with any other ideas.

Speaking of the arches, one of the rationales or benefits is that they provide some measure of shade for Summerfest beer drinking. One of the questions on the election survey last year related to whether the municipality should be in the business of selling alcohol—mostly on Thursday nights during the summer, with the Supper Market and bandshell performances. Your answer was that you did not think that the municipality should be involved with that.

So after talking to our Director of Recreation, Culture, and Wellness, Vickie vanRavenswaay, I asked how much we make on alcohol sales and where does the money go. Basically the alcohol sales that happen on Thursday night look after security—if we didn’t have alcohol sales, the Town or someone would have to find $30,000 to pay for security.

$30,000 over the course of the season.

That’s the course of the season. We’re not making huge money. It is more-or-less sustaining the Thursday night experience, which the community seems to really enjoy. And the service clubs are also selling or partaking of selling or the serving of the alcohol, and they get a pretty good reward for their evening’s work also.

Another question asked last fall was on increasing public input at council, allowing members of the public to come before council at meetings without requiring them to provide prior notice of their questions. You and candidates Wink and Hildebrandt were on the fence on that one, everyone else was in favour.

Oh, is that right? Well, I would like to see that happen yet. I think that it would be nice if we could have, at the very end of the council meeting, if someone wanted to make a presentation that wasn’t on the agenda. But with the current procedural bylaw, I really don’t know if we can do that. I’d have to talk to the Clerk, but I like the idea of someone coming to council at the end of the meetings, saying listen, I would like to address council on such-and-such an issue, and give that person three or four minutes and state the case.

So there are three and a half years to go—assuming you’re not amalgamated out of existence before then. Council’s working more smoothly. Does the future seem promising?

I’m optimistic. It’s been a good six months. I think we’ve accomplished a lot, and we have a long way to go, but I think we’re good. Yeah. No regrets, let’s put it that way. I would like to say that the greatest thing about this job is the people that I meet, especially the volunteers. It just blows me away how they must get up in the morning and say, “What can I do to make this town better?” And that kind of attitude, it just, that blows me away. But then the flip side is other people, the two or three percent, that get up in the morning and say, “I wonder who I can complain to today, and what can the Town do for me today?” Those people are rather disappointing to deal with. There you go.

Small minorities can make disproportionately great amounts of noise.

When we passed the budget, we had one guy come back and say, “I see you gave the fire department $300,000 for new radios. What a crock of crap.” I actually wrote back to the guy and I said, look, I’m sorry you feel that way. If someone got killed on the job, I wouldn’t want to be the one responsible because we didn’t give them the right equipment. And then he came back, “Oh, that’s a crock of shit. How often do these people go into a burning building,” blah, blah, blah. I mean, yeah, $330,000 bucks. A lot of money. But that was another thing that went unanimous on council. The amount of money we save by having volunteers— if you have to spend that money to keep them safe, what are you going to do? It was a no-brainer.

It wasn’t a major issue, but it did come up during the election, when a couple in Fenwick erected a billboard at the edge of Canboro Road, criticizing the previous mayor for inaction on a claim that they had against the Town. Has the property owner’s claim been resolved?

So that claim was resolved probably in the first two or three months of council. I believe everyone—the council and the plaintiff—ended up reasonably happy with the settlement. And, again, it was just from my point—my personal point of view—it was just very sad, very disappointing that that lawsuit dragged on for 18 years. It should have been solved a lot sooner. I think it’s a feather in this council’s cap that we put that situation to bed relatively soon after taking office.

My wife and I moved here ten years ago, and we’ve seen a lot of change. For people who’ve lived here for 30 or 40 years—or grew up here—it must really be mind-boggling. Maybe that’s why there’s another pretty clear pattern shaping up in our survey this week, to the question about whether Pelham is improving or declining as a place to live. As of now, a large number are saying that Pelham is declining.

No, I don’t know. I think I have to disagree with that statement. The MCC is going to improve everyone’s quality of life as far as recreation goes. So I think that’s a big positive. I think that the soul of the town is still the same as it has always been—people looking after each other, people concerned about the neighborhoods. Like I say, I’m optimistic. This town is still a great place to live.

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