By Doug Hallett
Despite claims that a proposed public nuisance bylaw infringes on civil rights, a city council committee has unanimously endorsed it and sent it on to council for approval next Monday.
“We believe this bylaw is overly broad and interferes with our rights as Canadian citizens,” said Keith Bellairs, representing the Guelph chapter of the Council of Canadians.
Assurances that city bylaw enforcement officials and Guelph Police will use discretion in enforcing the bylaw don’t mean much, Bellairs told the city’s operations, transit and emergency services committee. “We need to get this right,” and sometimes that’s not known until after a bylaw has been put into effect, Furfaro said. His amendment calls for the bylaw’s effectiveness to be reviewed in April 2014, and this would include public feedback at that time.
However, the Guelph Civic League called for the bylaw to be subject to more public scrutiny before it goes to council for approval. “There really is no reason to rush this bylaw,” said civic league president David Sills. He said the new version of the bylaw still has restrictions on tents, temporary structures, and blockage of sidewalks and pathways. These are all things, he said, that could be associated with the Occupy Guelph encampment in the fall of 2011, and with the occupation of a construction site in the new Hanlon Creek Business Park by protesters in the summer of 2009.
Another delegation, Devin Foley, said the proposed bylaw “effectively makes everything illegal if it annoys” people. “It is turning us into a police state,” she charged.
The committee also heard from someone who strongly supports the bylaw because of the new powers it gives police and city bylaw enforcement officers to control university student parties.
Barry Milner said he lives on a street in a subdivision that was “marketed to families,” but that now has 20 of its 53 houses rented out, many of them owned by absentee landlords living in other cities.
People in neighbourhoods like his should be able to live “without constant disruption at all hours of the day by inconsiderate people who have no respect,” he said.
“The city currently does not have the tools to deal with the issues we are facing, or you would have dealt with them,” Milner told the committee.
Asked by Van Hellemond if there is “too much under one roof” in the proposed bylaw, city official Doug Godfrey said staff had considered a split into separate bylaws for nuisance parties and for nuisance behaviour on public land.
While there could be separate bylaws, it’s “easier” for the community and for bylaw enforcement officers and police “to have the nuisances listed in one bylaw,” said Godfrey, the city’s manager of bylaw compliance and security.
There wasn’t much debate among committee members about the proposed bylaw, and only Findlay clearly stated his position on it.
Findlay, the committee chair, lauded city staff for the “exemplary community engagement” that was done late last year to get public feedback to the original version of the bylaw.
“I am very supportive of this nuisance bylaw,” Findlay said, noting his long involvement with the city’s Downtown Nightlife Task Force.
Currently, he said, the tools that police and bylaw enforcement officers can use “are either the hammer or nothing at all.”
City hall says that for minor nuisance infractions, the public nuisance bylaw could bridge the gap between laying Criminal Code charges and simple warnings. Its list of 35 different violations and proposed set fines includes, for example, a $500 fine for participating in a fight on city land.
Findlay also said the bylaw will give police and bylaw enforcement officials the power to shut down bothersome parties, not just to ask for the parties to be stopped.
When the bylaw is reviewed after a year, he said, “we may find we need to beef it up, or we might find we have to soften it a bit.”
Committee member Bob Bell wasn’t at the meeting, but Ward 5 councillor Leanne Piper was there to observe and to comment. She said she supported Furfaro’s amendment to have the bylaw reviewed after a year.
Given all the publicity the bylaw has received and the level of public awareness about it, Piper said, “I think there will be a lot of scrutiny over its application” once it is in force.
“The law is the law . . . that’s what judges will look at,” he said.
Mayor Karen Farbridge and councillors Ian Findlay, Jim Furfaro and Andy Van Hellemond all voted in favour of the bylaw. They also supported an amendment to have the bylaw reviewed by council a year after it is passed.