At the final two full meetings of Kawartha Lakes City Council on March 17 and 19, 2020, council approved a by-law that will give the chief administrative officer, Ron Taylor, sweeping powers to manage the city during the COVID-19 crisis.
The document, entitled “A By-law to Delegate Authority for Decisions to the Chief Administrative Officer in the City of Kawartha Lakes,” was first introduced and debated on March 17. It was then approved on March 19 at the last regular council meeting until May 1, 2020.
The new by-law lays out the following rationale for the delegation of authority from council to the CAO.
- Section 229 of the Municipal Act of 2001, as amended, states that a municipality may appoint a chief administrative officer who shall be responsible for exercising general control and management of the affairs of the municipality for the purpose of ensuring the efficient and effective operation of the municipality and will perform other such duties as are assigned by the municipality.
- Various federal, provincial and local health regulations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have restricted the ability for council to meet regularly.
- This by-law provides certain delegation of authority to the chief administrative officer during that time.
When the floor was opened for discussion on March 17, Councillor Pat Dunn expressed his concern about the delegation of council power to the CAO and wondered how it was going to work. Taylor responded, describing how he felt the new powers would look, and then Mayor Andy Letham suggested that more discussion would occur on March 19 before the by-law would be ratified, and debate was curtailed.
Councillor Emmett Yeo wasn’t prepared to let the issue go, and wanted to know if council meetings could be done via teleconferencing. Letham said the city had asked for direction from the province, and the clerk was investigating the rules and parameters for council teleconferencing.
On March 19, the emergency delegation by-law was extracted for further debate that began with Yeo stating, “I have no problem with the by-law, but I want to see some kind of regular reporting mechanism to council.”
Taylor responded that under the provisions of the by-law, “I will report back to council at the first scheduled meeting in May… I would not be seeking approval for my actions rather I will be telling you what has transpired.”
Letham seemed to sense that response was not fully satisfactory for those gathered and added, “The CAO and I will be working closely together and when decisions are made council will be informed by me.”
Councillor Ron Ashmore did not seem convinced and spoke, “of too much authority being vested in the CAO,” particularly in the area of the dispersal of real estate assets.
Taylor and Letham tried to assure Ashmore that their priorities would be making sure that essential services were kept operating during this emergency, and that the “only real estate transactions that would occur were ones already in the queue and previously approved by council.”
Curiously, Dunn, who had misgivings about how the by-law was going to operate at the previous meeting, remained silent.
With no further discussion in the offing, council voted unanimously to support the by-law, granting Taylor the following emergency powers until the health emergency is lifted:
- The appointment or removal from office of any officer of the municipality including an integrity commissioner.
- The hiring or dismissal of any employee of the municipality.
- The disposition of any real or personal property of the municipality which has a value exceeding $50,000 at the time of disposal.
- Making any expenditure or incurring any other liability which exceeds $50,000
- Any other requirement of council as set forth in the purchasing policy of the City of Kawartha Lakes.
- Under section d) and e) above the director of corporate services shall be the alternate in absence of the CAO.
When contacted for comment on March 22 regarding the possibility of teleconferencing, Cheri Davidson, manager communications, advertising and marketing for the city, shared the following:
“The Municipal Emergency Act (passed by the provincial government also on March 19) gives municipalities the ability to conduct full council, local board and committee meetings electronically when faced with local and provincial wide emergencies.”
Even with that stated, Davidson added, “We haven’t scheduled any other meetings until the end of April and our clerk will look at the new options moving forward.”
One former councillor, on the condition of anonymity, shared the following with the Advocate in an email about the decisions made and the powers granted to the CAO:
“I get that we haven’t dealt with this kind of health pandemic in almost 100 years. Democracy should not become an unintended victim of COVID-19. We have technology to allow meetings almost at the drop of a hat, and we decide not to use it. The CAO is a good man, but his name will not be on the ballot in 2022. I find it reprehensible that council appears to be hiding behind the CAO when they should be at the forefront of this health emergency. If council fumbles the ball they should be held accountable at the ballot box. If Ron (Taylor) botches it up we can’t vote him out. Sault Ste. Marie, Windsor, Ottawa and London are going to full teleconferencing with much larger councils. Why aren’t we? This delegation of power seems totally unnecessary in an era when people are sleeping with their damn phones.”
It will be intriguing to see as the health crisis likely expands and worsens just how much of Taylor’s new found authority he will be forced to use — and whether the people of Kawartha Lakes were well served by this emergency contingency.