ATV issue: When servant leadership fails, your voice doesn’t matter
By Bruce Barrett
The old rail trails long been abandoned, crisscross the countryside and are now enjoyed by cyclists, hikers, wildlife and, in some areas, ATV enthusiasts. There is one such trail that travels north from the Ganaraska Forest, and on up to Haliburton. The problem is that the trails are not connected because the town of Lindsay lies smack dab in the middle of the route. A growing town of 25,000 people, families, and retirees, with parks, 12 schools, and all those cars and buses.
Most could imagine how contentious such a proposal would be to connect the route through a busy, heavily populated town. After all, it’s never been done before in the southern portion of this province, so it would create a mouth-watering precedent for ATV associations. An access route directly through a busy town, not a cottage hamlet of a few hundred or a thousand people, and not the four corners of some rural main street — no, this plan would put ATV traffic straight through neighbourhoods.
The timing of all of this was also curious. The whole plan was concocted, devised and orchestrated under the secrecy of the pandemic lockdown when priorities were firmly anchored in the personal, family, and professional stresses associated with the unknowns of COVID.
It wasn’t until eight months ago when word began to filter through the community that councillors were 9-0 in favour of opening up city streets to off-road vehicles that things began to change. People were more than a little surprised, and residents began to ask questions of their elected officials. Questions like, “Where is this coming from?”, “Why haven’t we heard anything?”, “Why are you ramrodding a motion through without public consultation in the middle of a pandemic when people are stressed and preoccupied?”, and “Why have you created a task force loaded with pro-ATVers to give recommendations on routes, rather than have a balanced task force to assess whether such a route should even be considered in the first place?”
Correspondence quickly began to mount in the mayor’s office. Citizens wanted to know where the internal zeal for the idea originated. Similarly, had pressure from the ATV association caused them to lose sight of their need to follow protocol and process? What happened to procedural fairness and due diligence routines that were supposed to be the hallmarks of effective, transparent governance?
That was eight months ago.
What ensued was a reactionary response all brought about by this public outcry. City officials issued not one, but two, online public surveys. They capitulated, and agreed to hear expert advice from health practitioners, partner agencies, and city departments like policing. They had to extend virtual meetings to hear some (but not all) of the countless deputations from concerned citizens.
When the dust settled there was consensus from the health sector, safety professionals, and the ATV manufacturers industry’s own branding. Off-road vehicles, paved surfaces, and busy streets don’t mix.
This theme of “safety over recreation” was supported statistically, and further corroborated by the expert advice from the Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Natalie Bocking, other frontline physicians, ATV manufacturer evidence, accident data, and policing staffing pressures. All of which spoke against the idea. It was further supported by city survey data which showed more than 66 per cent of residents in the town of Lindsay rejected the idea. In addition, there was a door-to-door petition signed by 847 homeowners impacted by the route who said, “No thank you.” to ATVs outside their front door.
In terms of outcome, most would say, “Wow, that’s a clear indication of where the people stand.” Experts and residents are clearly opposed to this idea.
But this wouldn’t be a story if the councillors of Kawartha Lakes shared that view.
Somehow none of the advice, none of the residents’ voices mattered. To one councillor in particular, former OPP officer and chair of the ATV task force, Pat Dunn, there was politicking to be done. Dunn challenged the numbers at every turn.
“The surveys were misleading”, “The 1080 respondents to the city survey were largely from the area impacted”, “We are only hearing from the people who don’t want it.” He has made repeated attempts to make this a story of divisiveness, rather than the real story which is lack of leadership. The reality is Lindsay is surrounded by agricultural land and our farmers rely on these machines for daily tasks, in the same way that cottagers do to haul firewood, or hunters do access remote camps. Similarly, recreational ATV enthusiasts enjoy the many, many trails, and varied terrains, afforded them on designated public lands, and enthusiasts are always free to tear around their own property at their leisure. So, sorry Councillor Dunn, this isn’t a story of divisiveness, it’s just about the unequivocal evidence that these machines were never designed for pavement, and that busy residential areas and ATVs don’t mix. Full stop.
To be fair, Mayor Andy Letham, Deputy Mayor O’Reilly, and Councillors Andrew Veale and Doug Elmslie all acknowledged that the evidence was clear. The people of Lindsay don’t want this.
Unfortunately, five councillors (Dunn, Kathleen Seymour-Fagan, Ron Ashmore, Tracy Richardson, and Emmett Yeo) decided that the voice of those most impacted didn’t matter. They were indifferent to the 66 per cent “No” vote. They were indifferent to the 847 signed names of the ratepayers from the area that signed the petition. Instead of realizing they had underestimated public opposition, they became defensive, and obstinate. “What about those who didn’t vote?”, “What about those who get joy from riding ATV’s?”, “Surely they’d have changed the vote. Surely we should factor that into the equation.”
Let’s just get this straight.
As a councillor(s) you didn’t like the results of the very survey your own staff created, and so the next best strategy you have is to discredit the survey itself (and those who took the time to complete it), rather than listen to the voice of your constituents and accept the data the survey generated?
Here’s an interesting fact for Councillors Dunn, Seymour-Fagan, Ashmore, Richardson, and Yeo. When you look at the historical averages for voter turnout rates for provincial elections in Ontario, they’ve hovered just over 40 percent since 1988. Ballot completion rates for municipal elections are even lower over the same period of time. For the most recent municipal election in 2018 the voter turnout rate was less than 34 per cent.
It’s even more interesting when you consider how hard the province works to get people to vote. All citizens of voting age get voting cards mailed directly to home address. They can vote in advanced polls, or polling stations close to home. They can vote by mail, by phone, by home visit, or even from a hospital bed. There are also driver-assisted ways of getting those in need to polling stations. And yet, with all these accommodations turnout rates consistently sit in the 30-40 per cent range. Some might say that’s a reflection of voter apathy, but the reality is that everyone who is eligible can vote, and in a democracy the majority rules, no matter the turnout rate, or closeness of the win.
It’s not a perfect process, but it works because the people use their voice in the form of a vote, and the candidates duly accept the vote counts to determine the winner.
There are no, “yah but” or “what ifs” involved. There is no debate about who did, or didn’t, cast a vote. None if it has any bearing on the outcome. The outcome is the outcome.
In fact, this is the very same electoral process that worked for our current city councillors.
So now you know the proper context for 1,080 citizens of Lindsay who voted in the online survey established by the city. Remember, that’s the city’s own survey where 66 per cent of respondents said, “No” to an ATV route through the town. And make no mistake, there were no accommodations offered for those folks, like those described above to assist people in participating. On the contrary. residents actually had to go through a lengthy registration process on a partner webpage (separate from the city’s website) before they could even access the survey. Many older residents, as well as those wary of technology and online personal data collection, balked at these hurdles, and yet 1,080 persevered – and more than 66 per cent said, “No.”
Readers can begin to appreciate the audacity of Councillors Dunn, Seymour-Fagan, Ashmore, Richardson, and Yeo to challenge the very process that put them in office.
In fact, closer scrutiny of their own individual election day results makes the claim that, “1,080 votes with a 66 per cent “No” rate isn’t representative” even more deplorable.
Specifically, results from the 2018 municipal election show the following: Ron Ashmore got just 666 votes to win ward 6, and he only captured 20 per cent of the vote. Kathleen Seymour-Fagan only got 1,112 votes to win ward 2. Tracy Richardson got only 815 votes to win ward 8, and there was only a 31 per cent turnout rate. Emmet Yeo got only 1,213 votes to win ward 1, and there was only a 26 per cent turnout rate in that ward. Lastly, Pat Dunn, the councillor who has been most vocal in his opposition to survey results, claiming they don’t reflect the true nature of public opinion. Mr. Dunn got just 1,403 votes of the 4,102 of the votes cast in ward 5, a mere 34 per cent.
Not a single one of these election day winners said, “Gee, not many people voted, maybe we should do this again,” or “This vote isn’t truly reflective of the majority of constituents in my ward because it was a really close vote against my competitors and lots of people didn’t vote.”
Nope, they accepted the numbers at face value, celebrated their win, and took public office.
That’s a damning indictment they should all be ashamed of, and a wonderful illustration of the, “What works for me, doesn’t apply to you.” philosophy of politicians who forget they are not in private practice.
Your responsibility is to model servant leadership. To be in-service to those you represent.
What began as a cautionary tale of flawed process has now become an ugly reminder that power and privilege are alive and well in the Kawartha Lakes. That the wants of special interest groups trump the voice of those most affected, and words like transparency and good governance are for glossy strategic plans rather than actions to live by.
The government of Ontario uses guiding principles in their published handbook to outline the three roles of councillors. 1. Represent your constituents, 2. Make policies based on need, and lastly 3. Apply stewardship as the umbrella under which all decisions are made so that a municipality’s resources are used in a prudent and efficient manner.
Thank you to Mayor Letham, Deputy Mayor O’Reilly, and councillors Veale and Elmslie for following these guiding principles.