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Letter to the Editor: Thoughts on recent city council actions

We, as residents of Thunder Bay, have inherited a distinguished legacy.
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To the editor:

We, as residents of Thunder Bay, have inherited a distinguished legacy. As the former twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur, and townships of Neebing and McIntyre, we have weathered two world wars, prevailed through the great economic depression, and survived waves of deadly epidemics – cholera, diphtheria and polio. Through fire and flood, boom and bust, we triumphed together – competitive, dynamic, and flush with community pride.

But for all their arbitrariness, all their pompous declarations of highest and best planning principles (which seem to flourish more for their lack of proven efficacy) nothing has prepared Thunder Bay residents for the capriciousness of our city hall – politicians and bureaucrats alike.

Imagine a child, sweeping a shelf of heirloom china to the floor, smashing it to pieces to make room for her latest toy, and you begin to understand the principle that has driven the planning process in the city of Thunder Bay.

Council recently turned its attention to the south, beyond Westfort and across the Kam. Welcome to Thunder Bay’s latest fiasco, this time at Chippewa Park. While the city preened as it built its reserve fund, sacrifices had to be made. For a treasured landmark since 1921, this council says the bloom is off the rose. Chippewa is not loved enough. The wildlife exhibit had to go.

No argument need be made respecting the value of wildlife exhibits. People have their own views about that. This is about public policy and procedure. And because we are in Thunder Bay, we are talking about a privileged, closed-door, decree-driven process.

Shuttering an important wildlife exhibit in one of Thunder Bay’s most treasured landmarks (by the city’s own account) is not a decision that should have been made against the background of annual budget deliberations. There will always be a flood here or a tax reclassification there -what is important is that citizens be assured they won’t lose important or historic pieces of their community in reflex response. But there is much more going on here than this.

Bureaucrats and councillors portray themselves in a frantic search for savings and new revenue to compensate for what council calls “absolutely devastating” assessment revisions recently reported in the media that reduces the city tax haul. Our MPP has made it clear though, that at the very least, MPAC’s new industrial classification system was well known to the city’s financial experts before the last election with enough time to budget accordingly. If financial experts knew, so did council - unless administration unlawfully withheld that information – an impossible scenario. Not so impossible a scenario is that council withheld that information from us in an election year, potentially distorting, in the minds of voters, the city’s true financial capacity to support an event centre - the keystone of council’s bid for re-election. Not a word of MPAC devastation in context of the event centre. It is front-page news, however, before council’s edict to shut down the wildlife exhibit. If council is being stampeded, it is being stampeded by information it received in 2013. And where is our mayor on all of this? He sits on the MPAC board, and his lips are sealed.

This is political stage management, amateur at best. Any consideration of the future of the wildlife exhibit, and for that matter the event centre, should have been done in the context of a full evaluation of the services and facilities our community most want to build or preserve, informed by an honest assessment of the city’s financial position, present and future. Were we not denied that in the last election?

Upon enquiry as to the disposition of the animals should the wildlife exhibit close, my ward councillor and others forwarded a report from administration. It covered the financial implications of the closure, with an observation respecting the welfare of the wildlife: “Other zoos that the city regularly trades animals with have already been contacted and they have indicated they would be happy to take the animals and birds.” No mention was made of red tape, or difficulties associated with transport. Compare that to media accounts subsequent to council’s vote to support administration’s recommendation to close the facility. It was reported that only now has a search been initiated by city officials for new homes for the animals. Later, reports that city administration continues the search against more red tape than they anticipated emerged. The unforeseen requirement for risky TB tests was reported, then the death of a deer after the test was administered (an operational decision). A still later observation that it is the contracted transporter that is responsible for finding homes for the animals was published.

Was there any truth at all in administration’s declarations respecting the fate awaiting the animals in our wildlife exhibit, or the ordeal that awaited them during the rehoming process?

As indications are that council fully supports administration in this debacle, the accountability gap comes full circle. And a fundamental question has to be answered: is anything administration or council says to be believed? Anything at all?

And so we have a wildlife exhibit fiasco. It will go well with council’s other fiascos almost too many to enumerate. Each has ended in bitterness – the bitterness of a powerless people whose only role is to watch as multi-million dollar projects devoid of resonance or even common sense are preferred, as ever increasing sources of community history and pride are closed for business.

What happens when there is no china left in the cabinet to smash?

William A. Olesky,
Thunder Bay