Sundridge considers lobbying bylaw
The debate over a proposal by Bell Canada to erect a 100-foot tower to improve cellphone communication in Sundridge has triggered a push for a lobbying bylaw. Bell’s original proposal called for a 10-storey, $700,000 tower to be placed in the middle of the downtown on John Street, which is close to businesses and homes. That was met with strong opposition by residents and members of town council during a public consultation meeting in late January. The meeting ended with Bell’s senior adviser in the real state division, Matthew Milligan, saying the utility could look at other sites. Milligan told the public Sundridge needs the new tower because the existing infrastructure no longer has the capacity to meet wireless cellphone needs in the community. Milligan said at the January session that not only was the present cellphone coverage poor, it was only going to get worse with time as more people abandon landlines and switch to wireless phone service. Since that meeting, Milligan has contacted members of council on an individual basis to discuss alternative sites. This approach has set off alarm bells for Coun. Steve Hicks. “This gentleman is actively calling each member of council and not speaking to us as a group,” Hicks said. “The more I think about it, the more I don’t feel good about it. I feel he should be presenting to all of us as a group and not speaking to us individually and basically lobbying.” Hicks said lobbying is currently allowed in the municipality because council doesn’t have a bylaw to control how the practice is carried out. However, he added council can put measures in place by introducing a lobbying registry and said later in the meeting the Town of Collingwood has such a registry. Collingwood introduced its lobbying registry in January 2020 as a means to enhance accountability and transparency to the local public. The registry keeps a record of individuals who communicate with the Collingwood members of council or municipal staff either through emails, phone calls or meetings. This way the public knows what’s gone on rather than learning that some discussions have taken place behind closed doors. In the case of Sundridge council, it was Hicks’ contention that council should not be having one-on-one conversations with Milligan. “It puts all of us at risk and puts the municipality at risk,” Hicks said. Mayor Lyle Hall pointed out that the act of lobbying is not illegal and is an activity that is allowed. While Hicks agreed with the mayor that there’s nothing illegal about the activity, he added “it’s an opportunity to put each and everyone of us in a bad position.” During the debate, Hall and Coun. Barbara Belrose said Milligan had contacted them individually and discussed an alternative site for the tower. Both said they liked the revised proposal and told Milligan he should bring it back to town council. Coun. Stephen Rawn also acknowledged Milligan had called him and it was through Rawn that the public learned Bell is looking at the Sundridge-Strong Volunteer Fire Department property as a site for its telecommunications equipment. “He (Milligan) said there would be compensation for the tower,” Rawn told his council colleagues. “I asked him what the compensation was and he said it would be around $10,000 a year.” Rawn later told The Nugget that any money would be shared between Sundridge and the Township of Strong since the fire department is a shared service between the two communities. After Rawn made details of his conversation with Milligan public, Hicks said Milligan had also reached out to him to discuss the same proposal. Hicks said it’s an interesting offer but wants to see something official from Bell. As for the one-on-one approach, Hall believes Milligan’s rationale is to get a feel for what council would be interested in beforehand and bring that to council, rather than get involved in a back and forth situation where he brings one proposal to council for its feedback only to see it rejected and then it’s back to the drawing board to come up with another suggestion. Belrose agreed with Hall’s perception of the matter, saying she thinks Milligan “was looking to see what was acceptable before he did anything concrete,” and later added she personally had no problem with Milligan’s approach. At this time no new meeting is scheduled between Bell and council to discuss where the telecommunications equipment can be placed. But in the meantime, Hall acknowledged Hicks’ concerns regarding lobbying efforts. “You’re right Steve, we need to have some sort of restrictions around lobbying if people feel uncomfortable discussing with him,” Hall said. Hall suggested Sundridge look into how other municipalities deal with lobbying efforts before it introduces its own lobbying bylaw in a future resolution.