by Suzanne Gammon
WN council’s decision to enter into a service contract with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), and thus disband the municipal police force, has been met with mixed reactions and incited several residents to demand the issue be decided by the public in a referendum.
The question of policing has been a recurring and divisive issue in West Nipissing since amalgamation in 1999. At that time, all areas of the municipality outside of Sturgeon Falls had been policed by the OPP, while the core had its own municipal service. In a tight council vote that saw then-mayor Gary O’Connor break the tie in favour of having the town police extend its service and replace the OPP, the matter was settled but prompted much criticism in outlying areas. The question came back in 2013 with a cost comparison to see if there might be any benefit to bringing in the OPP, but council at the time felt it would be too costly to disband the local service and voted to keep the WN Police.
Fast forward to late 2016, when council heard that a new costing model adopted by the OPP might lead to significant savings, and decided to embark on another comparison. From the beginning, there was obvious dissent, with mayor Joanne Savage and councillor Jamie Restoule siding against the costing exercise, but being outvoted by the majority. Those battle lines would remain firmly drawn throughout the process, with the same two vehemently opposing and finally voting against the December 5 motion to hire the OPP, while Guy Fortier, Denise Brisson, Guilles Tessier, Leo Malette, Norm Roberge and Rolly Larabie voted in favour. Councillor Yvon Duhaime, whose son is employed by the WN Police Service, abstained from voting.
At every vote, there was backlash and criticism, and even pressure for a referendum in 2013. This time, that pressure is back and stronger than ever, as some say the only way to put the question to rest for good is by letting the public decide. The mayor proposed a referendum at the Dec. 5 meeting, but only Restoule backed her. However, the idea took root in the community and soon a petition cropped up demanding that residents decide for themselves which police force they want.
Lise Sénécal, former councillor for ward 1 in Sturgeon Falls, put out the petition and has been busy getting signatures, with help from other supporters such as local businessmen Yvon Renaud and Pierre Deforge, former police officer Norm Gingras, residents Clothilde Sylvestre and Maxine Savage-Gareau among others. The petition has been available to sign at various local businesses and Sénécal says she is even prepared to go door to door. She adds there are over 600 copies circulating, and anywhere between 1,200 and 1,400 signatures already gathered.
The petition asks that council rescind the by-law to accept the OPP contract proposal, and place the question on the ballot during the 2018 municipal election. Sénécal intends to present it at the January 9, 2018 council meeting, having filled out a request for a delegation.
The former councillor echoed the mayor’s sentiments that the decision was rushed and that people were not sufficiently informed. She repeated Restoule’s concerns that “all information received is based on assumptions and projections,” with little consideration as to the $2.5 million in exit costs and $8 million for a new police facility. “How are we going to pay for this?” she asks. “We have the right as a resident of West Nipissing and as a taxpayer to have answers to those unanswered questions before any decision is made that could drastically affect our taxes and our services.”
Sénécal wonders why the councillors were so rushed in making their decision, saying if they were confident the people really wanted the OPP, they would allow them to vote or at least give them more time to ask questions. When reminded that during the last costing, a decision was made in just 20 days, while there were 21 days in this process, she stresses that this time, the decision is to disband the existing force and that makes it irreversible. “When you’re deciding something like that, that can’t be undone, you have to be sure. What happens if you regret it in two years, if we get a big bill and taxes go up? It will be too late.”
A brief prepared by town clerk Melanie Ducharme showed that the OPP proposal, good for just six months, would be expired by the time a referendum could be held. Sénécal is not swayed, saying that the costing is based on a model that took 15 years to elaborate and is not likely to change, so the OPP could surely extend the deadline.
She also stresses that the petition asks only for a referendum, and makes no mention of which police force is the better choice. “It’s not saying you want OPP or you want WN Police, it’s saying you want everyone to have a voice. I have a lot of respect for both police forces, I’m not saying one is better. I think we need time to look at everything, to ask the questions and make a good decision,” she insists. “Hey, if someone can show me that it makes more sense to go OPP, if they can guarantee that we’ll save money (…) and not lose services, I will be the first to vote that way. But no one can show me that right now; they won’t even answer our questions!”
Councillors explain their decision
Indeed, the lack of response from the councillors who voted for the OPP has left many people frustrated and confused, with mayor Savage even questioning their motives and suggesting there was “a vendetta against the chief.” While the mayor and Restoule repeatedly tried to extend debate on the issue Dec. 5, the six would not engage and simply insisted on a vote, clearly knowing they had a comfortable majority.
The Tribune reached out to councillors Fortier, Brisson, Tessier, Malette, Roberge and Larabie to explain their position and their refusal to answer Savage and Restoule during the meeting. Those who answered said they were convinced they were making the best decision for taxpayers and they felt the mayor and Restoule were simply trying to stall the process by bringing up “false red flags” to enrage the public and bring debate that would go nowhere.
“If I honestly believed that more time would have allowed those who requested it a chance to understand the issue, I would have been more than happy to allow them the time. But you had two individuals as deeply entrenched in their point of view as I was in mine. No amount of time was going to (…) change their mind. It was political grandstanding pandering to their base,” stated Guy Fortier.
“I suspect the mayor was trying to time us out, so that’s why I didn’t want to engage,” added Guilles Tessier, noting that council’s 10 pm meeting curfew can only be extended to 10:30, and what he called a “delay tactic” might have made it impossible to vote that evening.
Rolly Larabie said Restoule “procrastinated,” spending his time trying to thwart the process rather than gathering answers to his questions as the other councillors were doing during the 21-day process. “His number one goal was to delay the process,” he charged.
Denise Brisson said she “could have stood up and spoken out at the meeting, but people would just have screamed louder. It would have fallen on deaf ears anyways; they weren’t in a mindset to listen.”
Despite their quiet resolve that night, the councillors insisted they had done their homework and were very sure of their decision.
“I’ve been following this for a while now, at AMO and AFMO conferences we’ve had presentations explaining the new [OPP costing] formula in detail,” noted Larabie. As for acting on projections, he said that’s how all businesses operate, relying on current figures and formulas to budget future expenses. “Alisa [Craddock, municipal treasurer] is more than qualified to make such projections. Those who say they know better should bring us their papers and show us their qualifications!” He added that in the run-up to the last municipal election, he had knocked on every door in ward 6 and “99% wanted OPP.”
Fortier agreed, saying “we had more than enough time to study the OPP proposal and Alisa’s financial analysis, all very straightforward and easy to digest.” He added that people in his ward were “overwhelmingly positive” in favour of OPP.
Tessier also felt the time was adequate. “The process was ongoing since October 2016, and anyone who was concerned (…) had many opportunities to ask questions in various formats,” he said. “Six council members went into the process with open minds, while three did not want to even know where we were financially, let alone the possibility of allowing the OPP to take over the local empire.”
Brisson also started her homework early. “In October 2016, as soon as we decided on a costing, I started to do research,” she said. “I called Alisa several times and sent questions to the OPP, and read all the questions and answers on their website.” She also called several municipalities served by OPP. “One was even against the costing and he’s now 100% satisfied. Another mayor said they are saving so much, they can now build a new fire hall.” Brisson added that she spoke with local police officers as well, and “80% are for OPP” while others have a “fear of change,” in her estimation.
Leo Malette stated he “did talk to people in my ward and other wards (…) the majority were for OPP.”
Asked for their top three reasons for choosing OPP, Fortier said #1 service, #2 service, #3 cost. “The reality for those of us living in the outlying parts of the municipality is that the OPP are the ones with presence in our communities. The WNPS with its current minimum staffing model of 3 officers patrolling guarantees that there is very rarely an officer on patrol in Lavigne, never mind North Monetville.”
Larabie also touched on service. “We’re always running after the OPP for services we don’t have here,” he said. “They will have better equipment, and as far as leadership, they wrote the book, you can’t find better. Our officers will have the chance to move up in the ranks; right now someone has to retire or die for an officer to move up.” Larabie added that the new facility will be a benefit, as the current police station does not meet OPP standards. “If it’s not good enough for OPP, it shouldn’t be good enough for West Nipissing. We shouldn’t expect our officers to do with less.”
However, to Larabie and others, the number one factor was cost savings. “In the long run, we’ll save between $500,000 and $1 million in taxes every year. (…) The OPP provincial average is $352 per household (…) and we’re now over $600 [per household] with WNPS,” he said. He added that the OPP proposal includes policing waterways, while the WNPS budget does not include this service.
Tessier also attributed his decision to “dollars and cents”, as did Brisson, highlighting Craddock’s projected savings of over $1.3 million yearly by 2022. “How can we justify not going for these savings? We have a fiduciary responsibility,” she said, adding that the more they wait, the longer it will take to realize the savings.
Brisson also gave “transparency” as a reason for her decision, and noted the OPP has a proven management model. Tessier also touched on the controversies affecting the Police Services Board over the past two years, saying “policing should never have mixed with politics.”
As for the suggestion that council has no idea how they will cover the $2.5 million in exit costs and the $8 million facility, all pointed to the figures provided by Craddock, showing considerable operational savings with the OPP, which would be used to pay off the start-up costs in the first few years. “We will finance this just like all the other big projects the municipality has taken on. (…) What we save will cover the cost, so there won’t be a big impact on taxes,” insisted Larabie.
Brisson, who was criticized for telling Restoule the cost would be dealt with at budget time, clarified that budget time is “when it will be decided how to structure the financing,” either as a 4 or 5 year loan, for example. She added that there was never any suggestion that the money would come out of reserves, despite the mayor “spreading fear” by stating the reserve could not cover the start-up costs.
The councillors also threw back the argument that Craddock’s figures were just projections, saying that WN Police figures have proven unreliable in the past. “What about when the chief admitted that he had “omitted” 5,000 overtime hours? What about that 2013 drop in the budget, that went back up in 2014 and 2015, and he couldn’t explain it? I can explain it. In 2013, there was the costing so they played with the numbers,” charged Larabie. “Now their graph is showing 2.5% [increase] each year. They are laughing at us. It’s not true. The numbers are not reliable, much less than the OPP because we know the chief has already given us incorrect numbers in the past.”
Brisson had more moderate words about the WNPS projected increases. “It could be more. Barry Bertrand [chair of the WNPS Board] mentioned how they [the province] can download things, like waterways or specialty services by the OPP. One incident [where OPP were called to assist] could have cost us $122,000.” She also mentioned that training, contract negotiations, arbitration, grievances, civil litigation and other costly HR expenses “would no longer be our problem.”
Leo Malette also stressed the cost savings. “I think we made a wise decision to save taxpayers’ money in the long run,” he summed up.
Petition won’t sway councillors
The councillors rejected the idea of a referendum and said they won’t be convinced by Sénécal’s petition.
Fortier cited the $50K projected cost of a referendum and said it would amount to “a question on a proposal that had expired months before.” This would also delay the transition to the OPP, should the public vote that way, “exposing the taxpayers to spiralling policing costs from the WNPS for an additional 2-3 years,” he said.
Tessier noted that the mayor was against a referendum during the last costing, but “because she was about to lose a vote, now the answer was a referendum? I also believe some people used this question as an opportunity to declare their candidacy to the next elections early” he stated, calling this “free campaigning.”
Brisson stressed that a referendum, to be valid, would need a 50% voter turnout while the 2014 election saw a 45.5% turnout and the 2010 election, a 21.6% turnout. She also said “no one called for a referendum about Minnehaha Bay, which cost $8.9 million and I believe we’ll be paying for that until 2027.”
Larabie said nothing would make him back down “after seeing the numbers. My decision is made and I have no regrets.” He sees the petition as “a political game. There are people creating false hope to advance their own agenda. Some people are very good at things like that. Me, I don’t play games.”
He added that people in his ward were very upset when they lost OPP services in 1999, but no one called for a referendum. “We accepted the decision. (…) Now we are asking for the same courtesy from others. (…) The vote was 6-2, a clear majority, that’s how democracy works.”
The councillors also denounced what they call “fear mongering” and misinformation being spread by proponents of the petition. One example given was a 2012 article, being widely shared on social media, quoting Northern mayors outraged by spiralling OPP costs. The article predates the costing model implemented in 2015, Brisson noted, and she contacted Cochrane mayor Peter Politis who was leading the charge in 2012.
Politis’ written response made it clear his stance has changed. “The new formula has saved Cochrane almost $600,000 per year off of a total policing cost of $1.9 million. The OPP are able to provide economies of scale that local forces in communities our size cannot provide. (…) We were obviously very dissatisfied with the cost of OPP back in 2012. However, with the changes, and with what looks like a whole new political approach and accountability (…), we are now very pleased. We would not be able to compete with the costing with a local force,” Politis wrote December 14.
Petition has no legal force
WN CAO Jay Barbeau says the petition, no matter how many signatures it includes, cannot force a referendum. “Petitions have no legal standing and cannot force Council to take action. Council would have to be influenced by the petition to act. There would need to be a Motion to Reconsider which would need to be passed by a 2/3rds majority. If this is achieved, then the original motion would be re-tabled.”
Asked if there was a possibility of extending the deadline on the OPP proposal to allow for a referendum, Barbeau stated that “this has not been pursued as Council’s wish was voted upon by a 6/2 margin. We have no need to enquire as that is not on the table.”
With rumours swirling that other measures are being explored to quash the Dec. 5 council motion, Barbeau said “I am not aware of any legal avenues to quash or reverse a duly voted upon Council resolution other than a motion to reconsider (…) Council voted to accept the OPP proposal. Staff is operating under that direction.”
The process is therefore moving forward, and while nothing has been signed or firmed up yet, Barbeau expects this will take place early in the new year. “I have met with officials of the OPP and we are working together to formulate an action plan to move forward. More specifics of the plan will be brought to Council as details are firmed up by both the OPP and the Municipality. This will likely be presented in late January and early February.”
Officers weigh in
WNPS officers are the ones most affected by this decision, but one who came forward to the Tribune said “we were advised not to say anything, not to cause trouble, division.” Speaking anonymously, he estimated that most of the officers would prefer to stay with a municipal force, though some do favour the OPP.
“There’s a lot of us that feel wronged,” he sated, adding it was “the way they made the decision” that irked him.
When asked why he would prefer working for a municipal force, he cited “long term relationships and connection to the community,” saying that it was often reassuring for residents to deal with officers they know. There is also insecurity in “not knowing what’s coming around the corner,” he noted, saying that the OPP could someday transfer them out of the community.
The officer said he did not fear for his job or his pension, saying “I won’t lose anything personally, I’ll probably gain,” but his biggest worry was the level of service. He noted that local officers often arrive at accident scenes well before the OPP, and they’ve sometimes had to wait up to 1.5 hour for an OPP officer to arrive. He added that OPP does not always replace an officer who is off sick, meaning they can be short on patrols. He believes “response time and service to the community will be diminished” under OPP, and “you can’t put a dollar figure on that.”
The Tribune asked about the comments of other, pro-OPP officers who had serious misgivings about the WNPS leadership, lack of training and advancement opportunities and other complaints. The officer agreed these issues were legitimate and serious and he shared several of their concerns. In the end, he said the service was a cohesive unit of good officers, sadly tainted by the leadership.
All of the councillors questioned said they feel for the officers affected, but were reassured to know the OPP will be hiring them on and patching their pensions. “All our officers are staying here (…) I honestly don’t think, with what their (OPP) reports show, that service will go down,” insisted Brisson. “I understand the uncertainty and the fear. I do care about our officers and I want them to be well supported.” She believes they will be, under the OPP.
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