The tone was polite but the undercurrent turned ugly as council seemed to get sidetracked along ideological lines over approval of the terms of reference for the proposed Mayor’s Task Force on Economic Recovery. The Director of Economic Development Norm Schleehahn had taken council through the results of an employment survey that, to no ones, surprise, showed the retail and hospitality sectors hardest hit by the COVID shutdown. Of the more than 1,000 businesses who took part in the survey, the aggregated employment impact from all respondents who participated in the survey reported an employment decrease of almost 13,000 jobs, which represents a city-wide decrease of 35.8%. Additionally, over 90% of respondents reported a decrease in revenue because of COVID-19, with over half saying the decrease in revenue was greater than 50% when compared to the month prior.
Councillor Wilson wanted to know if the survey had taken into account new Canadians for whom language might be a barrier to participation. It didn’t, as it was a non-scientific one-way poll dependant on people voluntarily participating. The public was made aware of the study through social media and various business groups and BIA’s. There was also a question about gender balance in future surveys.
When it came to approving the terms of reference council seemed to divide with Councillors, Wilson, Nann and Danko favouring broader representation on the task force from the 24 recommended — to include Labour and minority groups. Councillors Partridge and Collins opposed the changes, arguing the task force should be focused on getting the economy moving, not satisfying quotas. The divisions came into sharp focus when the time came to vote on which councillors would serve on the task force. The staff recommendation had been for the mayor and two members of council to serve, but when the consensus seemed to be forming around Councillor Ferguson and Partridge; Councillor Nann put her name forward to be on the committee. Councillor Clark suggested the council representation be extended to 3 members but Coun. Collins said he wanted to stick with the original 2 recommended by staff. Clark warned council “we are heading down a dangerous path, if we allow ourselves to get divided like this,” and Naan was added to the committee.
Whether related to ideology or not, later in the meeting a motion by Ward 1 Councillor Maureen Wilson to find out the cost of operating golf courses this summer was defeated on a 10-4 vote.
Mayor Eisenberger says the courses will do what is needed to open, and the costs will be reported as part of the City’s COVID expense reports as early as mid-June. Some councillors objected to golf being singled out for special attention. Coun. Lloyd Ferguson suggested Wilson was setting the stage for possible “re-purposing” of the golf courses, although he did not elaborate on where he got that impression .
The debate illustrated what has become a divide on Hamilton council between what is seen as the progressive wing—Wilson, Nann and Danko, with the old guard who have typically controlled agendas. Between the two poles is a small group of councillors who hold somewhat more moderate views and will move from one side to another depending on the issue, as they did in the case of Nann’s desire to join the task force. More than one councillor has indicated to the Bay Observer that the newcomers on council are bring increasingly isolated by the majority.