Picton Town Hall debate shows need for innovative governance

Over the days leading up to Tuesday’s six-hour marathon meeting, council was maligned for its decision to prolong a decision on what to do with the Picton Town Hall and its choice not to initially accept either expression of interest submitted for its consideration. In a way, that’s unfair because the process was not of their making. The previous council, which set the parameters of this exercise, had ample opportunity to make a decision on its own or to leave the process in its entirety to the newly elected group.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable that some more time could have been taken — and given the public outcry over councillors completing a budget that tried to address infrastructure funding gaps, but not making tough decisions elsewhere — it would be hard to blame them if they wanted to find ways to save every dollar on the bottom line.

All that said, council’s choice to support the Save Picton Town Hall Working Group proposal seems like a reasonable step forward. The staff recommendation backing the plan has rigorous timelines and expectations that will ensure a board of management with a vested interest finds its way to eliminating costs of operating the hall or it will lose it down the road. The passion supporters of public access to the heritage building have displayed to date is inspiring and it is entirely possible their collaboration could offer social benefits that impact the bottom line in other ways. There’s very little to be lost in at least offering a chance to make it work.

In the odd chance the pact doesn’t work, the County will have an upgraded facility that will likely still hold great value, especially given the rejuvenation of its neighbourhood the Royal Hotel will bring.

That said, the sentiments raised by Michael Hymus and others who championed a sale of the building can’t be completely overlooked. There would be a one-time cash influx from the sale, an ongoing tax contribution, and, likely, some spin-off benefits from business created.

This council has to be able to look its financial situation and find new approaches to improve the bottom line. It should be reviewing all of its halls, branch libraries, and other public spaces to ensure they’re offering the best bang for the taxpayers’ dollars and making sure the services they provide aren’t redundant or better addressed elsewhere. Maybe dedicate boards of management will drive usage better than the status quo. Perhaps, hard decisions about sales will come into play, but council has to recognize the social needs of its communities in that equation and make sure public spaces remain accessible and available for all citizens. If staff can find ways to better utilize the large community centres, that’s a win too. Wherever one sits in the debate, it is clear that innovation is necessary to promote sustainable living and both councillors and the public should be prepared to put every idea on the table in order to find the right answers.

The debate over the Picton Town Hall, the two divergent visions tabled, and the possibilities yet to be unveiled reiterates again that people do care about how their community will be governed. Those in leadership posts could choose to rest on their laurels, knowing a decision was reached or they could try to channel that energy to keep a healthy discussion going. Let’s hope the opportunity is not missed to challenge the status quo and develop a vision for Prince Edward County that all can accept.

– Adam Bramburger