By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
After nearly a year, the work of the municipality’s Natural Heritage Committee of the Whole has been put on hold.
On March 28, Chatham-Kent council approved the hiring of a third party facilitator to oversee the development of a municipal woodlot preservation strategy – despite some 31 deputations calling on council to take immediate action.
A last ditch effort to reverse an earlier NHCOTW decision to hire a facilitator came from committee chair Aaron Hall.
The Wallaceburg councillor put forward a motion to cancel the March 21 decision instead of moving forward with a request-for-proposal to hire a facilitator.
The motion failed following a 9-9 tie vote.
Hall told council it’s “redundant” to issue an RFP for facilitator, adding excellent work has already been done by municipal staff and the necessary data is already there.
The defeated motion also included proceeding with a 30-day online public comment period.
“Frankly, seeking a third party mediator to take over is a message from this council to the community that we’re choosing to remain indifferent,” Hall said, meaning council “is not willing to make a tough decision” and is choosing to not fulfill its responsibility to the public.
“This will push the issue to the next term of council,” Hall said.
South Kent Coun. Clare Latimer, who put forward the facilitator concept at the last meeting, said she had to “respectfully agree to disagree” with Hall.
She said she brought the facilitator concept forward because the majority of her constituents, believe facilitation will lead to “constructive conversation” rather than “more deputations and the additional broadcasting of opposing views.”
Latimer said she’s been concerned with the planning strategy on woodlots “since the get-go” believing “construction conversation” wasn’t endeavoured beyond the initial survey round table exercise.”
The majority of council had something to say about their position on the issue.
North Kent Coun. Jamie McGrail said there’s a need for a third party as there hasn’t been a “complete discussion.
“We have to be very careful and do our due diligence and work this process,” McGrail noted.
West Kent Coun. Melissa Harrigan raised the question of how much staff time has been allotted to the woodlot issue in the past year.
Community development general manager Bruce McAllister told Harrigan he didn’t have an exact number but “a lot of work and effort” has gone into the issue by his team,” with monthly reports created since last September.
Harrigan said she wanted to see the original recommendations go forward to give the process “a chance” before spending more money on contractors.
“We have our own staff and we want to avoid this,” Harrigan said.
East Kent Coun. Steve Pinsonneault said it’s his position a third party is needed.
“We need to get this right this time and I believe that by pushing this through right now you’re not serving justice to all the parties involved,” he said.
Councillors supporting the failed motion by Hall to forgo hiring a facilitator included Hall, Carmen McGregor, Joe Faas, Marjorie Crew, Melissa Harrigan, Brock McGregor, Karen Kirkwood-Whyte, Doug Sulman and Mayor Darrin Canniff.
Against were Clare Latimer, Jamie McGrail, Steve Pinsonneault, John Wright, Anthony Ceccacci, Amy Finn, Mark Authier, Michael Bondy and Trevor Thompson.
The motion to proceed with the RFP passed 11 to 7. It also instructs administration to determine if more information needs to be gathered, to see if further stakeholder engagement is needed, and to prepare a woodlot preservation framework with various options to manage woodlots.
The motion also approves the use of strategic reserve funds to pay for the facilitator.
At the NHCOTW February meeting, administration unveiled a decision tree featuring a wide a range of options from education, incentives and regulations.
During that meeting, council opted to move forward utilizing the framework outlined in the document, meaning the latest decision differs from the original path.
However, the protection of Chatham-Kent’s woodlots will continue. A temporary bylaw, set to expire April 30, has now been approved following a motion from Sulman.
The bylaw will exist until council approves a new heritage strategy.
Council also voted to shelve public consultation and stakeholder engagement until the new facilitator has been hired.