'Super-political' free seniors parking plan gets rough ride at final council meeting

If all roads leading for seniors to park for free at Midland harbour are paved with good intentions, then the final stretch was definitely a rough ride.

Midland council approved of two motions at the final regular meeting of its term, both involving seniors and transportation.

As of January 1, 2023, a free parking pass will be available for seniors at the Midland harbour parking lot; also, staff have been directed to create a system allowing free conventional transit for seniors within Midland. The first was a recorded vote with unanimous approval; the second was also approved and carried.

However, it wasn’t as easy a vote as it might have seemed.

To begin, council had just passed a motion involving the renaming of the sidewalk on Howard Street between Woodland Drive and Penetanguishene Road in honour of the late mayor George MacDonald, a close friend of Deputy Mayor Mike Ross who was chairing the formal session. Ross admitted he would try to get through without breaking down; he had also announced that this would be his penultimate meeting before retirement.

Into the next motion regarding immediate implementation of free parking for seniors at Midland harbour, Mayor Stewart Strathearn and Coun. Jim Downer declared a conflict of interest as both qualified since they're over 65.

Strathearn had brought forward the ‘motion for which notice was given’ – a spur-of-the-moment motion which usually is not accompanied by staff reports and most often referred back to staff for digestion and presentation for an upcoming meeting of council – and as such, the mayor sat in the chamber audience as Coun. Carole McGinn moved the motion in his stead; Coun. Beth Prost seconded it.

The first comments were from executive director of environment and infrastructure Andy Campbell interjecting that due to little staff preparation before the meeting, the motion needed to be split due to the lame duck cost of over $50,000 it could incur upon council. McGinn and Cher Cunningham followed in support, both noting its age-friendly initiative and thanking Strathearn for bringing it forward.

Coun. Bill Gordon felt otherwise.

“The timing of this is super-political, and this is an emotional ask,” challenged Gordon. “I find it a little rich, quite frankly, that it was brought up in the first place on our last meeting.”

Gordon pointed out his attempts to gain free parking for all residents in the recent past, only to be rebuked by council and staff that it would be ill-advised due to parking being the cash-strapped town’s greatest source of revenue.

In July, free parking was made available for all downtown lots except Midland harbour, which staff reported as having the most traffic and considered the greatest revenue generator.

“And now,” Gordon continued, “last meeting before election and we’re giving away some parking to the seniors! Woo hoo! Feels real good. And I am not anti-senior, and I am not anti-parking as anyone who reads the news knows.

“But. How many times have I listened to the cautionary finger wag from our mayor and our CAO about the dire consequences of free parking in the town of Midland on our budget? And here we are, going to give away some free parking at the most expensive lot, the one we made $1.50 per hour, for our seniors which make up 50 per cent of the community,” stated Gordon.

His request was to go one of two ways: to either amend the motion so that free parking would be available for seniors in all areas of the downtown, or to have it not pass but return to staff for a thorough investigation and report to the new council next term. Either way, Gordon wished to hear from CAO David Denault on the matter.

The amended motion – to hold off for staff investigation – seemingly rattled Ross, who fumbled the wording of Gordon’s amendment, the movers and seconders, and relied heavily on the clerk to supply the correct overall wording of the motion.

During a brief pause, Gordon leaned to Ross and reminded him of the request to hear from the CAO while they waited.

“I’m going to wait to hear from the clerk first, so please don’t tell me how to run a meeting,” snapped Ross in a low, terse tone.

Following the exchange, the usual discussions were had.

McGinn attempted to comment on the amended motion but it was deemed by the clerk and deputy mayor that she was speaking of the original motion and it was not valid. Denault had his opportunity to speak, reminding council that the big decision from council was for backlot parking with fine tuning of secondary lots to follow; the seniors free parking motion was an enhancement, he stated.

Council’s vote on Gordon’s amendment to hold off was defeated, and a recorded vote was requested on the original motion for a free parking pass for seniors; Gordon asked for discussion.

Ross cut him off by saying, “I feel we’ve had adequate discussion and I’m going to call the vote, thank you.”

It passed unanimously, 7-0.

The second discussed motion involved staff exploring conventional transit for seniors in town, and Gordon used then to speak an addendum.

“That’s great that we can pass this, but let’s not fool ourselves for a minute. New council is going to set the budget. And we can do this now and pat ourselves on the back and seniors will all vote for us, but this could all die with the reality pill that’s going to be the budget for 2023,” Gordon warned.

After further discussion, the motion carried. Reins were handed back to Mayor Strathearn who passed a bylaw regarding Block 27 which gained noted applause from the audience, and at the adjournment of the final council meeting, he wished all candidates good luck in the election.

Gordon had been in conflict with Strathearn and Ross throughout the entire term of council regarding costly litigation and several code of conduct accusations against Gordon permeated in private and onto the council chamber. Both Strathearn and Gordon are vying with three others for the seat of Midland mayor in the upcoming municipal election on Oct 24.

Council meetings are held every third Wednesday, and can be attended in person or virtually through Zoom by contacting the clerk’s department of Midland town hall for a link to the meeting.

Council meetings can also be viewed on Rogers TV cable channel 53, or through the livestream on the Rogers TV website. Archives of council meetings are available through Rogers TV and on the Town of Midland’s YouTube channel.

Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, MidlandToday.ca