Questions raised about procedural errors in council’s decision to close Ops arena

By Kirk Winter

Councillors Kathleen Seymour-Fagan, Andrew Veale, Doug Elmslie and Tracy Richardson voted along with Mayor Andy Letham to close Ops permanently.

Council’s sudden vote in November 2020 to close the Ops Community Centre violated council’s own policies, according to Heather Stauble. The former Kawartha Lakes councillor and former chair of the board of directors of the Kawartha Conservation says a two-thirds vote was required to reverse a previous council decision and close the arena. The vote was 5-4 in favour of the closure, with Mayor Andy Letham casting the deciding vote.

“Council should not have made the decision to close the arena permanently (the way it did),” said Stauble, noting that the move reversed a 2016 council decision. “The most recent decision was done without any notice to the public and without consultation with the Ops community.”

“Temporary emergency closures are understandable,” she added. “Permanent closures should wait and be done in a matter that is consistent with council policies and respect for the communities involved.”

The quick vote surprised many, given that council requested city staff review all recreational facilities and report back.

“A current council is within their right to make decisions as they see fit, notwithstanding a decision that was made by a previous council,” Cathie Ritchie, city clerk, said in an email. “Further, the current Council is not bound by a decision provided that the action cannot be reversed due to contractual or legal obligations,” she added. If Council wishes to revisit or rescind a decision, notice of the motion must be made in advance of the meeting.

Community centres and arenas are the heart of the far-flung rural communities that make up Kawartha Lakes said Stauble, who represented the former Manvers Township (Ward 16 in the far south of the municipality) on council from 2010 until 2018. She fought in 2015-16 to ensure the public was able to respond before any decisions on the fates of arenas were made. “In 2015 and again in 2016, Mayor Letham wanted to close arenas. Over 100 deputations were received in favour of keeping the smaller local arenas.”

“To see some members of council sit mutely and vote in support of the arena closure was shocking,” said Stauble, who watched the Nov. 12, 2020 meeting. “Somebody should have stood up and asked for a report on closing the arena and consultation before making a decision. That should have shut things down right then and there,” Stauble said. “They need to respect the public input they received.”

Instead, council voted to close the Ops Community Centre, despite the 2016 direction to maintain and refurbish it. “The mayor referred to council’s direction at the streamed council meeting of November 12, 2020 but then said, ‘Are we ever going to have a better opportunity than right now (to close an arena)?’” Stauble said.

Both Letham and Councillor Kathleen Seymour-Fagan negatively characterized the city-run facility. The mayor spoke in favour of closing the arena. “We know we have too many facilities. We can’t afford to spend millions when we are coming out of a pandemic. We are going to have other priorities. These aren’t easy decisions. We need to cut our losses.”

Seymour-Fagan introduced the motion to close Ops Arena and called for a report as to what the property could be used for in the future. A recorded vote was taken which ended in a four-four deadlock with the mayor providing the deciding vote on closing the facility.

But Stauble says a lack of federal or provincial funding — during a pandemic no less — “is no reason for closure.”

“We got turned down for grants many times when I was on council and eventually we got the funding through grants or fundraising,” she added.  “As for opinions on the structural soundness of Ops, we have lots of old buildings. That is why we refurbish them.”

As the Advocate previously reported, Ron Pearson and Murray Walden were instrumental to the operation and construction of Ops before amalgamation. Pearson told the Advocate in a telephone interview that the Ops community was “surprised” by the decision and “the lack of public consultation” was very disappointing.

“Ops was not just an arena,” Pearson said. “It was a centre for the community. It brought the community together.”

But community members opposing the snap decision face an uphill battle, Stauble noted. “Expecting a community to step up at the moment when we are in the midst of a pandemic is not realistic and not fair. We are under a state of emergency and a stay-at-home order. Municipal buildings are closed. Internet access is stretched to the max. Consultation has to be done and it should be in person.

Stauble said there are ways the closure vote could be reconsidered. The mayor could recognize the need for a two-thirds majority and ask council to put the issue back on the agenda. Anyone who voted in favour of the closure — Letham, councillors Doug Elmslie, Tracy Richardson, Kathleen Seymour Fagan and Andrew Veale — could initiate a process to rescind the vote.  Council could also vote to defer consultations and a decision on the arena until after the staff report has been received and the pandemic eases.

It is expected that those who originally opposed closing — councillors Ron Ashmore, Pat Dunn, Emmett Yeo and deputy mayor Patrick O’Reilly — would again vote in favour of refurbishing rather than closing the Ops arena.

If councillors aren’t prepared to wait for the results of the staff report, Stauble said, the Nov. 12 vote could set a precedent for the future of facilities all over Kawartha Lakes. “The councillors who voted to close need to consider whether they are willing to have the same process applied to arenas in their wards.”

Deputy mayor Patrick O’Reilly, in a phone interview with the Advocate, offered hope regarding the arena and shared a process the city has decided to go through that may answer several concerns expressed by Stauble.

“We are waiting for a report from CAO Ron Taylor on the future uses for Ops,” O’Reilly said. “The report should be available late in the first quarter or early in the second quarter.”

Public speculation on site usage has suggested everything from an indoor sports facility with the ice being replaced by turf to the building being demolished and replaced by either a paramedic’s station or the new Victoria Manor.

O’Reilly called it “quite a stretch” for a facility like Victoria Manor to be built on a site with only a well and septic available.

“We will wait for the report to come forward, but I expect when the time comes, interested residents of Ops will be making deputations and a petition from concerned individuals may be presented,” O’Reilly added.

“I have told the mayor my thoughts,” the deputy mayor added, “and we will see if there is any appetite to rescind the motion for closure.”

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