Peterborough city councillors spar over future of portfolios system

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Peterborough city councillors spar over future of portfolios, approve home energy efficiency program
Peterborough city council on Monday gave the stamp of approval to several staff recommendations. While a new home energy efficiency program received quick approval, there were some heated moments over a new portfolio structure for councillors – Feb 27, 2024

A heated debate erupted Monday as Peterborough city council discussed proposed changes to the portfolios structure for councillors.

A proposed bylaw sought to reduce the 27 chairperson and vice-chairperson positions of several portfolios to 12 co-chairpersons, with two assigned to each of six portfolios aligning with the city’s five departments: community services; finance and corporate support services; infrastructure, planning and growth management; legislative services and municipal operations.

Ahead of the debate, six delegations raised concerns about certain files such as the environment and climate change. Teacher Cam Douglas urged council to reconsider its proposed bylaw.

“Please do not put me in a position to go back into my classroom and somehow have to lead a conversation of why our city leaders decided in 2024 as our planetary stability is unravelling, why they decided it was prudent to dissolve an environment committee,” he said.

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Former city mayor Dianne Therrien-Hale questioned the decisions behind some councillors’ portfolios.

“There are some proposed chairs who, while having related professional experience, also appear likely to have potential conflicts of interest based on past declarations of conflicts of interest,” she said.

Coun. Keith Riel made a motion to defer the proposed bylaw, citing a “lack of consultation” by city staff with council. He said the failed consultation “undermines the democratic process” of city governance and neglects the “unique strengths and expertise” of individual councillors.

Riel said his main concern was the precedent the bylaw would set for future discussions.

“It’s sending a concerning message about our decision-making process being conducted behind closed doors,” he said.

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Riel further prefaced his prepared statement by noting he has 14 years of experience holding portfolios and sitting on council committees but claims he was “never consulted” for input on the proposed portfolio structure changes.

“I’m being told by staff what I should be doing as a councillor,” he said. “Again, I answer to the citizens of Peterborough. Not city staff. City staff’s job is to give me the best information for me to make informed decisions on behalf of the citizens of Peterborough.

“Let’s stop this nonsense. I look at you around this horseshoe — if you don’t see this as affront on democracy, there’s something absolutely wrong with you. Absolutely wrong with you.”

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Coun. Gary Baldwin noted the structure has been in place since 1985 and urged the need for changes.

“Don’t delay — let’s make the change tonight,” he said.

However, Coun. Alex Bierk felt the wording of the motion left too many questions. He said the bylaw reduced attention on issues such as diversity and inclusion, accessibility, transit, heritage, economic development and the “urgent matters” of the environment and climate change.

He said passing the bylaw on Monday night would be “irresponsible,” echoing Riel’s statement about city staff not including council’s input on developing the bylaw.

“Staff is responsible to the public through us — we’re put in this position trying to read the tea leaves here and that shouldn’t be our job,” he said. “We shouldn’t be looking at the sky trying to tell you what the weather is going to be. It should be laid out — just like the bylaw was in 2022 when it was passed.”

However, Mayor Jeff Leal remained firm on the urgent need to change the portfolio structure, citing its 39-year-old age, calling it “one of the weakest governance structures in Ontario.”

“It has got to change,” Leal said.

He said further changes can be made, if required, and noted the bylaw would delegate power rather than keeping it in his office.

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“Give us an opportunity to approve this governance and this corporation, I believe, will provide more effective government on behalf of the citizens of Peterborough.”

The mayor also said it was “malarkey” to suggest the new system would allow a portfolio co-chairperson to dissolve a citizen advisory committee such as a “climate change group.”

“It’s the biggest piece of misinformation I’ve heard in the longest time,” he said.

In the end, Riel’s motion of a deferral was defeated with councillors Riel, Bierk, Matthew Crowley, Lesley Parnell and Joy Lachica the only ones voting in favour.

City council then voted 7-4 to pass the bylaw, with Leal, Baldwin, Dave Haacke, Andrew Beamer, Crowley, Don Vassiliadis and Kevin Duguay voting in favour.

The new portfolios and associated portfolio chairpersons are:

  • Finance and corporate support services portfolio: councillors Andrew Beamer and Dave Haacke.
  • Legislative services portfolio: councillors Matt Crowley and Joy Lachica.
  • Municipal operations portfolio: councillors Gary Baldwin and Don Vassiliadis.
  • Infrastructure, planning and growth management portfolio: councillors Kevin Duguay and Lachica.
  • Community services (recreation and parks, fire services and arenas) portfolio: councillors Lesley Parnell and Baldwin.
  • Community services (arts and culture, social services [housing and homelessness], library services) portfolio: councillors Keith Riel and Alex Bierk.

The city notes the authority to strike advisory committees is delayed to permit staff an opportunity to report back respecting the status and roles of the city’s current advisory committees.


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