By Mike Williscraft
Grimsby council’s Monday session included all of the usual elements of interruption, shouting down, finger pointing and Points of Order.
Councillors Lianne Vardy and Dorothy Bothwell were both cut off during discussion on different topics by Councillors Randy Vaine and Kevin Ritchie.
An intense and prolonged argument broke out during debate on a long-awaited staff report dealing with portable signs. The report was requested after residents were subjected to threats of fines for erecting lawn signs questioning the representation of council.
The report suggested the Town’s current sign bylaw, which does not permit portable signs to be erected on residential or rural properties” was appropriate and the Town’s legal counsel John Mascarin was on hand to offer an opinion that such a limitation did not limit the “right of freedom of expression”.
Bothwell asked for clarification if Coordinator of Municipal Law Enforcement Henry Boese’s recommendation that the lawn sign ban remain in effect was approved, in particular regarding Save WLMH, anti-lockdown, Hate Has No Home Here, and CAA’s “slow down” signs posted on private property would generate a fine.
Despite asking multiple times, a clarification never came but Boese did say some signs get exemptions under the bylaw and noted infractions were established at a bylaw officer’s discretion.
“It reeks of curtailing free speech,” said Vardy.
“Now you are telling me, Mr. Boese, there are exceptions and we’ll decide what they are. It’s not for you to decide. It is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
As Vardy challenged Boese’s opinion, Ritchie jumped in demanding an apology from Vardy. After that dust up and Vardy tried to get confirmation “Save Main Street” signs were permitted, Vaine interjected with “factual information” regarding discretion for peace officers.
Eventually, Vardy continued as she was not questioning if bylaw officers had discretion or not, rather what the result of that discretion would be with respect to the Save Main Street signage.
“Each case we will have to review with the bylaw. So I would recommend that we follow this up with a report…to give you a proper answer,” said Boese.
Vardy asked for a decision by the next council meeting on this “pressing issue”, adding the sign bylaw needs updating.
After being asked by Ritchie about the legal test for the sign bylaw, Mascarin acknowledged the bylaw does create a “minimal restriction” on freedom of expression but called it a “reasonable limit”.
With Councillors Reg Freake and John Dunstall absent, council voted 4-3 to reject the portable sign report. Vardy, Bothwell, Mayor Jeff Jordan and Coun. Dave Kadwell voted against. Ritchie, Vaine and Con. Dave Sharpe voted in favour.
Later in the meeting, when reviewing a clean yards bylaw report, Bothwell suggested referring the document to the Grimsby Green committee for input regarding allowable grass height and other items.
This generated a comment from Vaine that “sometimes these advisory committees think they have more rights to dictate than to give advice”.
This brought an objection from Bothwell, who noted committees are assembled to provide council with opinion on various matters.
Their discussion brought another Point of Order from Ritchie due to the “conversation getting off topic”. Jordan agreed and the debate continued.
“Henry is the bylaw officer. He is the expert,” said Vaine.
The bylaw changes were approved with Bothwell’s suggested corrections.